Building Bridges

Hi, my name is Jonny, and I’m currently interning at Solutions Not Sides and studying English at Cambridge. During the past year, I have been the co-president of the University of Cambridge Israel Society.

Over the year we hosted many high-profile speakers such as Yoram Dinstein, Golan Shachar, Hen Mazzig, Gershon Baskin and Ari Shavit, but one goal we had at the beginning of the year was to emulate the success and innovation of student activism in Bristol University.

My friends at the Jewish Society at Bristol University have demonstrated that a collaborative approach is far more effective. Relations between Jewish Society and Palestinian Society reached an apex following an invitation to Palestinian Society to hear Hen Mazzig. Consequently, the joint Israel-Palestine book club called ‘Hasbara’ was launched by the Palestinian Society which aimed to understand the Israeli side of the conflict through reading and analysis, and instead of an Israel Apartheid Week, Palestinian Society hosted a Palestinian Awareness Week which was widely attended by Jewish students. Both people traditionally compartmentalised as ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’ had a far greater understanding and exposure the other narrative and led to a discussion of critical issues. 

Our alternative to this was Cambridge Middle East Peace Week, a new initiative organised by Kurdish Society, Israel Society, Persian Society, OneVoice Cambridge, and Calais Refugee Action Group, and set up to engage students in a wide variety of topics on the Middle East, with each society offering their own speakers for shared panel discussions, looking to the past, present, and future.  In doing so, we wanted to bring to the forefront just some of the region's innovations and challenges, which are too frequently overshadowed by a heavy focus on conflict. Secondly, in working together and engaging in dialogue, we hoped to set a precedent for communication and understanding, both towards and within the region.

While Middle East Peace Week was a step in the right direction, it was, unfortunately, boycotted by the Cambridge Palestinian Society. It was an example of the same anti-normalisation which led to the society to boycott and protest Daniel Taub and Yiftah Curiel, ambassadors of Israel. Rather than engagement and productive dialogue, anti-normalisation campaigns seek a win-lose outcome for the conflict, and polarises the debate through a lack of exposure to the counter narrative. 

Middle East Peace Week however, had many successes, one of which was my introduction to Hina Khalid, who had done the Solutions Not Sides Leadership Programme last year. Working with her and members of other societies helped us productively approach many issues in the Middle East today, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I witnessed how a reorientation of approach, as advocated by Solutions Not Sides, to focus on solutions worked on a practical level as speakers representing various different national interests debated the future of the Middle East. 

The frustration on both sides is tangible, but an alternative needs to be presented to violence, hostility, and also boycotts, which in my eyes, consolidates the siege culture in Israel, empowering the right and weakening the progressive elements of Israeli society, and further, also hurts the Palestinians, who are dependent on Israel. The best channel for these frustrations is Solutions Not Sides. Only through understanding both narratives and adopting an approach which helps both peoples can the conflict ever be put to rest with no chance of a brutal resurrection; an imperfect solution, as we can see in the Arab Spring, can lead to an exacerbation.

This was demonstrated at an event hosted by Yachad in Cambridge, which we encouraged our members to attend.  The event saw peace activist Aziz Abu Sarah relate experiences as a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, and his transition from planning attacks on Israelis, to co-founding MEJDI Tours, a cultural exploration vehicle for an ever-changing travel market and becoming a TED speaker. This transition was precipitated by his need to learn Hebrew as a Jerusalemite, and how the vilified ‘other’ was dismantled in the classroom through nothing more than conversation and regular exposure. This is the kind of work that Solutions Not Sides does in schools across the country, which crucially highlights the nuance of the conflict, and its relationship to growing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, at a formative stage in a person’s life.

Working with Solutions Not Sides has helped me understand the need for a radical transformation in the way we talk about and act upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and witness first-hand the amazing work they do in order to bring this vision to life. This does not simply apply to schools or student activism, but to the politicians too. Hopefully, with enough reinforcement, this message will spread from the bottom-up.