The weeks following the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip may seem like a particularly inauspicious time to start up an organization devoted to advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East.
However, a group of University of Pennsylvania students — both Jewish and Arab — feel that there may be no better time to give it a chance.
Last week, Penn's Wharton School hosted a launch program for Lend for Peace — the name plays on the formula "land for peace" — which rests on the idea that supporting economic growth in the West Bank can advance the cause of a two-state solution.
Backed with a grants from the Clinton Global Initiative and the University of Pennsylvania, the organization is modeled after the principles of microfinance articulated by Mohammed Yunas, the Bangladeshi economist awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
Traditionally, potential entrepreneurs throughout the developing world, especially poor women, have had little access to credit-lending institutions like banks. Microfinancers offer small-scale loans to start small-scale businesses.
"People in societies where there is increasing economic development are more likely to contribute positively to that society," said Sam Adelsberg, a Lend for Peace co-founder and Penn junior studying politics, philosophy and economics.
Adelsberg, a 22-year-old Orthodox Jew originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., is no stranger to interfaith initiatives.
Last year, he helped organize a spring break trip for Jewish and Muslim students to volunteer in a New Orleans neighborhood still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. He has also spent several months in Egypt studying Arabic.
Adelsberg's co-founders are David Fraga, who comes from a Cuban-Jewish background and is a recent Penn graduate working as an analyst at a venture-capitalist firm; Andrew Dudam, a Christian Arab undergraduate who is studying real estate and finance; and Allam Taj, a Muslim born in Dubai who's studying at Penn's law school.
"The four of us have very different reasons for starting this organization. We are not trying to be so naive as to say that all of us are on the same page," said Taj, a 26-year-old whose parents come from the West Bank
"We felt that due to the Gaza war, we should accelerate. Now, all eyes are on this conflict, and this highlights the need for this type of venture," added Taj.
A Positive Contribution
While economic development in the West Bank may not bring about peace, it's a necessary prerequisite, affirmed Taj.
Adelsberg said that many in Penn's Jewish community have questioned why he's so interesting in helping Palestinians; he replies that he want to make a positive contribution to a seemingly hopeless situation.
And for his part, Taj acknowledged that many Palestinians are reluctant to support a group that is a joint venture with Jews.
Both Adelsberg and Taj have faced questions about the wisdom of investing in a society that's received billions in global aid, yet has been known for lining the pockets of the powerful, rather than helping those most in need. And, of course, comes the question of whether money could wind up in the hands of potential terrorists.
Adelsberg said measures are in place to ensure that none of those things happen; loans are made through local Palestinian microfinance institutions that cooperate with the U.S. Agency for International Development and are in compliance with the U.S. State Department's anti-terrorism laws.
The organization's Web site (www.LendforPeace.org) enables individuals to provide interest-free loans that range from $25 to $1,500 to Palestinian entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs who are on the site right now happen to be women looking to start a range of businesses, including hair salons, flower shops, fruit stands and livestock-raising ventures. Men are certainly eligible to request support as well.
So far, the group has acquired loans totaling $15,000.
Adelsberg said that over the past 18 months, he has made at least six visits to Israel and to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he met with partner organizations, as well as potential borrowers.
He noted that he felt reasonably safe traveling to the town that hosts the Palestinian Authority, although he did admit to tucking his kipah in his pocket when there and not calling attention to his religious identity.
But Adelsberg felt that the process was well worth it, and that helping people is his M.O.
Said the student: "When you meet people and see who you are doing this for, it really brings it close to home."