Learning to stand in another's shoes.
Sharon Booth - Founder & Director of Solutions Not Sides
It is nearly a quarter of a century since I read To Kill A Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee. As a teenager, it had a profound effect on me. The book contains many themes about power, corruption, injustice and racism. Atticus Finch, the character of exemplary bravery and quiet determination to seek justice, says to his daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” At the end of the novel, Scout walks home with Boo Radley, the neighbour she has ostracised, vilified and ridiculed, and yet never actually known. It is this encounter that transforms her as she stands on his porch: “Atticus was right… you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes…”
Since that time of my life, I have tried to stand in others’ shoes – find out about people who live in different places, speak different languages and believe different things to myself. After studying theology and learning about various beliefs and faiths at university, I lived in Tunisia for three years, then in Jordan. In Tunisia, I learned French and Arabic and shared a home with local people. I stood with them on their porch and ate with them at their table. I experienced the truth of humanity that was expressed recently by the late Jo Cox: “we have more in common than that which divides us.”
During my time in Jordan, I took part-time employment to fund my Arabic studies as a locally engaged employee at the British Embassy. It was then that I started to learn about the power play and the tensions of conflict that are also a part of our human story and was dismayed at witnessing the extent to which ‘acting in the national interest’ took such a priority. In geo-politics, we form our social groups and bond around expressions of identity in order to protect ourselves and ensure our needs interests are fulfilled. Other groups can either be perceived as allies or threats to those aims and we behave towards them according to that perception.
This is why expressions of identity are so important. Without them, we have no way to identify the group, and without the group (the argument goes), we may not survive. The most effective expressions of identity are ones that plug most powerfully into our emotions, and it became clear to me that one of the most emotive issues of our times is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why it is used as a rallying cry for so many political groups – left-wing, right-wing, so-called ‘Islamist’, Northern Irish sectarian or anything else. If there is one thing that these groups have in common, it is that they are all simplifying and using Israel-Palestine as a symbol for posturing about other issues.
I saw it in the Middle East, and when I returned home to the UK, I found it here and it saddened me. Being part of partisan and solidarity groups is natural human behaviour and, to a certain extent, does no harm. For example, the groups that we have at our universities that are pro-Israel and pro-Palestine do some important work in raising awareness about the situation in the region and explore, in their own ways, how a better future might be achieved. Most of the members of those groups genuinely care about the actual situation in Israel-Palestine and are not using it to promote other causes.
However, it is when I saw some of those groups – whether pro-Israel or pro-Palestine - carry out acts of aggression, hostility and intimidation towards one another and/or towards other students, and start to promote anti-Israel and anti-Palestine messaging based on conspiracy theories or fear-mongering, that I decided to do something. Because as soon as we view others as simply part of a collective - a group with a label and a symbol - then hatred sets in and we are in danger of no longer being able to see their humanity. Young people are particularly vulnerable in such situations as they form their beliefs and identities. Bullying, intimidation and hostility as they come into adulthood can be particularly damaging.
That is why I started Solutions Not Sides. With a small grant from a British Foundation and under the umbrella registration of another organisation until we found our feet, I built an education programme for British young people that enables them to encounter and hear from their peers in Israel-Palestine – to stand in their shoes and remember that this is about people, not just politics or principles. I also built in critical-thinking tools that enable them to think for themselves, rather than preaching at them about the political position they should take. In Solutions Not Sides’ Israeli and Palestinian speakers that come from 18 different civil society organisations in the region, British students witness an example of how to have respectful disagreement and acknowledgement of the humanity of someone from ‘the other side’, whilst also uncompromisingly asserting one’s own perspective and right to have a just, free, peaceful and prosperous life.
Solutions Not Sides is a small project led by, and for young people. Our mission is to provide humanising encounters, diverse narratives and critical-thinking tools related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to empower young people with the knowledge, empathy and skills to promote dialogue and conflict resolution, and to challenge prejudice around this issue in the UK. In June 2018, Solutions Not Sides started the process to get our own charitable registration, as our remit and activities have always been independent of the organisation that has kindly allowed the project to set up and grow under its umbrella.
I am excited about this new step. I want other young people to experience what I did and be able to embrace diversity and become informed and educated about complex beliefs and geo-political situations. I want them to combine empathy for their fellow human beings with critical thinking about how the needs of others can be fulfilled when those needs conflict with each other. As Scout steps off Boo Radley’s porch and walks home, she remarks that she “feels very old”. Stepping from youth to maturity is not learning to win – any child will naturally try to do that. It is facing a complicated world full of conflict between groups of human beings, and being able to play a constructive part in reaching solutions that secure the human rights, security and dignity of all.