One year on – reflections on the Student Leadership Programme and furthering the cause for peaceful dialogue

Hi, my name is Hina, and I’m currently studying Theology at Cambridge. I took part in the Student Leadership Programme last year, which aims to bring together students from a range of diverse backgrounds to think critically, discuss openly and debate meaningfully about the issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Having always been interested in this particular region, both in terms of its history and significance in the wider context of Middle Eastern politics, this one-week programme provided me with a fantastic means of understanding the geopolitical, religious and historical elements of the current situation in Israel and Palestine. If you are reading this and you are considering applying for this programme, I’d say go for it – you will definitely not regret it!

Prior to taking part in this programme, I can honestly say I knew very little about the conflict. I knew something was going on, that it’d been going on for quite some time, but above all I’d witnessed the polarisation in school, community centres and mosques that I attended as a young teenager – and it was these notions I was brought up with that I really wanted to challenge. By taking part in a vast range of discussions, lectures, debates and activities (we even had the chance to speak and ask questions to an Israeli and Palestinian peace activist, as well as take part in an MUN simulation where we all represented a different country!), I became aware that actually, while we so often in the UK, make the conflict about ‘ourselves’ in the sense that we become ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’ (often translating to quite serious Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment), there are millions of Israelis and Palestinians who just want to live in peace. I grew up thinking that simply by virtue of being born into a Muslim background, I had to be ‘pro-Palestine’, which automatically entailed a negative view of ‘the other side’. This programme, however, made me aware that such labels are often more damaging than helpful. By engaging instead in dialogue that is honest, open and aware of the alternative narratives involved, we move closer to an understanding of the complexities of the current situation and the necessity of securing peace for both sides. 

 

I was then motivated to start a society at Cambridge, with the aim of furthering this mission. Together with other students at Cambridge who also took part in the residential programme, we created a society by the name of ‘One Voice Cambridge’. I can say proudly that we held a number of different events, all with the aim of bringing together students within the university to discuss, listen to and debate a range of issues related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the first term, we held an introductory event, where we invited Jess from the Solutions Not Sides team, as well as an Israeli and Palestinian activist to discuss their work with students as well as provide them with some first-hand knowledge and experience of peaceful activism in the region. Many students after came to tell us how much they’d enjoyed the event, and above all how insightful it was to hear from those who were committed to a vision of peace and actively seeking to bring it about! We then liaised with a number of different societies in Cambridge to run ‘Middle East Peace Week’, a week-long series of panel discussions on different issues including religion in the Middle East, women’s rights and what the prospect of future peace might look like. It was great to bring students and experts together to actively and peacefully discuss issues that so often create tension on university campuses, and we hope to make our events even bigger and better next year!

Recently, I also co-organised an event back at my high school, along with Jess and another student from the residential programme – seeking to bring the cause for peaceful dialogue a bit closer to home! It was an informal session for sixth form students, simply designed to see how students felt about discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict with their peers and whether it was something they felt passionate about or not. Over the course of the session, we discussed a wide range of perspectives, touching on problems of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the UK and broader concerns about terrorism in the Middle East. Simply by raising this topic with young people, we immediately invite them to think critically about their own prejudices. For me, being involved with Solutions Not Sides has taught me the importance of truly listening to the other’s narrative with empathy and understanding. It has made me aware of some of the biases I once held, and above all has made me committed to continue the great work that is already being done! And hopefully travel to the region next year!