Youth volunteers sought for campaign against bigotry

March 30, 2011

PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/Two U.S. State Department employees — one who speaks out against anti-Semitism, the other against Islamaphobia — have teamed up to promote a global campaign to get young people to combat racial, ethnic and religious bigotry by volunteering their time for people unlike them.

“For instance, a young Jewish person could volunteer five hours at a clinic that services a Muslim community. Or a Muslim could volunteer several hours to read books to a Christian pre-school. The list goes on and on,” said Hanna Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy focused on anti-Semitism.

The campaign, “2011 Hours Against Hate,” grew out of Rosenthal’s friendship with Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim Communities. Attending a conference two years ago in Kazakhstan, the two arranged to swap speeches decrying hatred against Jews and Muslims, catching the the ear of conferees.

They were accompanied by young people from six non-governmental organizations who asked them to promote deeds, not just statements. They said they were inspired by U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for more volunteerism and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appeals for “citizen diplomacy.” The concept also paralleled Europe’s declaration of 2011 as the year of volunteerism.

So, on February 17 at another conference in Vienna, the two introduced their idea.

“Over a dozen ambassadors came up to us and said, ‘This is great. We want something for our governments to do to reach out to our younger generation.’ We’re seeing young people embrace this wholeheartedly,” Rosenthal said in a conference call with reporters.

“One can look at this and think this is a gimmick … and it’s not. It’s beyond religion. It’s about gender, it’s about race, it’s about ethnicity,” Pandith said.

“It clearly is a campaign of deeds,” Rosenthal said of the campaign aimed at the under-30 crowd. “It is a campaign that asks young people to volunteer their time … to do something for someone who doesn’t look like them, who doesn’t live like them, who doesn’t pray like them.”

The pair said they were received enthusiastically by audiences in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Spain. They traveled to places such as Cordoba, Spain, where, historically, people of different faiths have lived peacefully side by side.

The campaign is drawing adherents online via the campaign’s Facebook page.

Photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner (Palestinian girls walk past an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in Jerusalem’s Old City)

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