Samantha Viterbi

Samantha Viterbi – United States (California)

Zionism means shalom, peace

When does hummus stand for an international policy? Part of the answer is: when young people’s passionate and aggressive defense of their beliefs clash with each other. Samantha Viterbi found herself in an ardent conflict over hummus, something she never could have imagined.

She’d begun her sophomore year at a university in Connecticut, already frustrated with the hostility and institutional criticism her academic and extracurricular interests had previously generated, specifically her support for a strong US-Israel relationship. Originally attracted to the university’s claim of being a non-sectarian liberal arts college, she found it to be far from open to rational debate. In her freshman year, she’d spoken at a forum opposing the college’s proposed divestiture from businesses that also dealt with Israel, only to be shouted down. Samantha says, “This antagonistic environment, though personally frustrating, ignited a passion and fervor to educate myself and others about the complexity of the region and, later, global politics at large.”

However, when the anti-Israel activists persuaded campus food services to boycott Sabra Hummus, Samantha took on a leadership role in opposition. She organized a letter-writing campaign to the administration and gave interviews to publications read by higher education administrators. Not only did Sabra Hummus reappear in food centers, the university president acknowledged the activists’ failure to maintain a respectful environment and “even held an eat-in consisting of only Israeli food products.” Despite her success, she nevertheless transferred to USC the following semester, where she found a supportive, open-minded home.

At USC, she majored in international relations with an emphasis on security studies and foreign policy. Samantha noticed that there were many clubs and individuals on campus who shared a passion for Israeli-Palestinian activism, but no dialogue existed between these clubs. Through USC’s chapter of Hillel, Samantha became president of the Israel Leadership Council for over a year, an umbrella organization that fosters innovative collaboration between the Israel-related groups on campus. Additionally, Samantha co-founded another campus group, isReal Talk, to promote campus discussions, open to all, on a variety of sociopolitical issues regarding Israel and the greater Middle East, mainly addressing peace-building. Also as the leader of Trojans for Israel, she has organized bi-partisan leadership dinners, including bringing both Democratic and Republican elected officials to speak on the US-Israel relationship and Middle East Politics.

After having led reactive and proactive campaigns on two very different campuses, Samantha has learned she possesses the passion and ability to mobilize great numbers of individuals to care about peace. Peers have told her that she inspired them to remain active and fight for what they believe in, even when they reach exasperation. “USC is an especially apathetic campus,” Samantha says, “and I take pride in knowing that I have rallied future leaders to continue the cause.”

Samantha’s activism is far from limited to campus activities. After her first year in Connecticut, she returned to San Diego for a summer internship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is a non-profit lobby favoring the US-Israel relationship, described by The New York Times as “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel.” She researched Middle East news, educated political interns in San Diego about the US-Israel relationship, and organized meetings with members of Congress throughout Southern California.

The summer of 2015, after her first semester at USC, she flew to Jerusalem to work as an iEngage Fellow through the Shalom Hartman Institute, assisting Harvard and McGill University Professor, Gil Troy, researching texts for inclusion in an anthology of political philosophy.

Samantha added work as a public diplomacy intern in January of 2016 at the Israeli Consulate General in Los Angeles, writing speeches and letters and researching political figures, countries, and organizations to inform the Consul-General.

The following summer, she took a class on weapons of mass destruction through USC in Washington, DC and then spent the second half of the summer working on Capitol Hill. “This is when I fell in love with the city,” she says. “I realized how excited I was that my career would be beginning in DC.” She served as a legislative intern at the US House of Representatives for Congressman Juan Vargas, conducting policy research and preparing briefs.

Over her next winter break, Samantha participated in a trip to Israel and the West Bank, meeting Palestinian thinkers, pollsters, and governmental representatives. Her group surveyed Israeli settlements and talked to “right wing religious activists and average Israeli citizens living in the West Bank for its cheap property prices,” engaging across the political spectrum. “I left this trip more convinced than ever of the possibility of an end to this conflict in the next twenty years, yet simultaneously, less confident in any end to the conflict in my lifetime.” She comprehended all narratives, yet both sides yelled at each other, rejecting any new perspectives. She believes that only through trust-building exercises and joint projects can there be any movement toward peaceful resolution.

Upon her return from the Middle East, Samantha added the job of congressional intern to her campus activities, providing support for the office and projects to assist Congresswoman Karen Bass in her LA office.

The untimely death of a beloved uncle, an adventurous soul, inspired Samantha to choose something unusual to celebrate her graduation from USC—an adventure in Mongolia, crossing the country on horseback and camping. Her appreciation for the world increased as she meditated and enjoyed life outside the stressful demands of her chosen career path.

In September, 2017, she became a paid legislative intern, again for Congressman Juan Vargas in Washington DC. She’s also working as an Innovation and Strategic Investments intern through Vital Voices Global Partnership in Washington, identifying, investing in, and bringing visibility to extraordinary women around the world, targeting human trafficking and violence against females, and working to “unleash their leadership potential to transform lives and accelerate peace and prosperity in their communities.”

As a committed Zionist, Samantha feels she has an obligation to criticize the Israeli Government’s actions that seem unjust, just as she would for unjust US policies. “We want and need shalom. Peace. This is what Zionism means to me.”

Samantha aspires to be a representative of the Jewish and pro-Israel community to the government since her education enables objectivity in balancing the means to ending the conflict with Israel’s desire for security. “My ultimate goal is to unite peace advocates around the world, creating a global network that would allow citizens in isolated conflicts to work together.”