By Lilly GC
[Lilly was part of the 2017 Student Leadership Programme - a week-long series of workshops, talks and panels that aims to help young British people get under the skin of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, learn about the history, narratives, politics and contemporary situation and equip them with skills to be mindful, effective activists. The deadline for applying for this year’s programme has now passed but you can apply for next year’s programme (2020) at https://www.solutionsnotsides.co.uk/student-leadership-programme]
This conflict is complex.
We all consume information selectively, whether we realise it or not. I grew up in a North London, predominantly Jewish bubble, and when I was young it was easy to become complacent in simply accepting one particular narrative about what was happening in Israel-Palestine. It was only stories of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, only stories about the radicalisation of Gaza by Hamas, only stories about the stone-throwing violence done by Palestinians towards young Israeli soldiers, and only stories about the anti-semitism that apparently underlay all anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
I don’t know why or how I got outside my bubble - maybe my own search for identity, my left-wing politics, my interest in Amnesty International at school and university, or a new and wider social circle, but something about what I was hearing started to sound odd. I could no longer hear or identify logic in the arguments of my Jewish friends. Instead, what I heard was the language of fear. Maybe as the political climate changed, with UKIP, Trump, Brexit, I began to become hyper-sensitive to the language of ‘us vs them’, ‘the victim vs the enemy’, creeping into dialogue about Israel-Palestine, all seeming to me to be simplistically zero-sum.
I began to recognise just how many voices were going unheard, and how little I knew of the Palestinian narrative. And, without Solutions Not Sides behind me, it was difficult to find a middle ground. With a conflict as emotionally driven on both sides as this one, I found engaging with both sides very difficult; the ‘extremes’ tend to shout the loudest - certainty is seductive - they know exactly where and with whom they stand, and the middle often becomes a murky terrain devalued as those who ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’.
Vocalising my sympathy for the situation of the Palestinians was all it took for my friends to call me a ‘self-hating jew’. I was very hurt, and the closed-mindedness of my community drove me further away. Their definition of being Jewish did not include me. Why wasn’t I allowed to identify with Palestinian suffering? I was studying at Cambridge at the time and both within my degree and my work with Amnesty International, I invested more time in learning about the conflict, and dealing with subsequent backlash from those around me. The ‘Israel’ they defended, right or wrong, became nothing but a bad word to me, the oppressor, the occupier. I volunteered in refugee camps in Palestine and attended pro-Palestine demonstrations. I didn’t see how I could feel any understanding or empathy towards something which had brought me such tension in my own life. In hindsight, all I did was replace one bubble with another.
Within this conflict, any movement towards acknowledging the experience of the other is seen as a betrayal rather than a pursuit of reconciliation. It seems that any progress is now seen by many as at best an unwelcome compromise or, at worst, a surrender. The power of acknowledging our shared humanity has been lost in institutionalised demonisation, dehumanisation and distrust on both sides and the arguments are tired and defensive.
And this is where I really do feel that Solutions Not Sides’ work is unique. I signed up to their Student Leadership Programme, if I’m really honest, only because I wanted to put forward the so often underrepresented Palestinian narrative. It was set to take place in September, and I was going to the West Bank for most of August, so I felt that I’d be well armed to handle any objector.
But the SLP wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Having often felt so forced to ‘pick sides’, the SNS Student Leadership Programme offered me great exposure to different voices and opinions, pushing me out of my echo-chamber by providing a platform for engagement with participants from different backgrounds. The SNS SLP was a safe place for sensitive conversations, where I could let go of fears of backlash or being considered a ‘betrayer’ or ‘outsider’ simply because my opinions differ from those of my peers. Instead of getting caught up in the war of ‘us against them’, their grassroots, solutions-based approach allowed me to listen and speak without filtering what I was saying or hearing.
When you are in a room of young people, with whom you can catch misconceptions even before they concretise, and you spend a week living together, it’s hard to keep those walls up. I shared a room with a girl from a similar North London Jewish background to my own, although as you can imagine we didn’t hold very similar views on Israel-Palestine, and yet by the end of the week we’d both heard each other out, found our common ground, and built a sense of mutual understanding, even between people ostensibly on the same side, that I hadn’t foreseen at the start.
And SNS doesn’t just create a space for thinking about Israel-Palestine. We had conversations, talks and panels about religion, identity, racism, terrorism, stereotyping of different cultures - we were all pretty drained by the Friday! But at the end of every day, we sat together to do something they called ‘The Fishbowl’, where people can choose to go sit in an inner circle of four chairs, and voice their feelings about the day, follow up on disagreements, or get things off their chest, while the rest of the group sits in the outer circle watching until a point comes up that someone else might want to add something to. One Muslim opened up about his week following on from the Manchester bombings, sharing stories that left most of us in tears. One Israeli boy broke down in apology towards Dawoud, a Palestinian brought to the UK for the week’s conference, for what his country had done to him. Through meeting Michal, an Israeli against the occupation, views on Israeli society at large had to be readdressed.
The truth is that, for some, the SNS SLP gave them access to a world they knew little about before. One student, who became a good friend of mine over the course of the week, came to the conference genuinely thinking that the West Bank was a place in London like the South Bank. He left feeling passionate, engaged, and determined to visit Israel-Palestine and see things for himself. Others came thinking they knew everything there was to know about the subject, and left feeling suddenly more confused than ever, as misconceptions were critiqued and assumptions challenged. For me, it gave me a space that allowed me to engage critically with Israel and my relationship to it, rather than just disregard it or reject it altogether. My plans for 2018 were to spend 6-8 months learning Arabic in Lebanon and Palestine, and Hebrew in Jerusalem - which I did! I also worked with the UN in Lebanon before coming back to the UK.
We need to find a new language that is fresh to the ear and recognises the genuine trauma and terror of loss that people are struggling with on both sides. How to do this, integrating and making room for both narratives, is a core issue to the conflict, and something that SNS is unique in attempting. It has opened up a fresh space for a ‘middle ground’ to actually mean something significant and newly purposeful, a solutions-focused approach that doesn’t look to elevate one opinion over another. All the students left the program feeling engaged and passionate, but not because their views or opinions were made stronger, but because they were asking questions, thinking both emotionally and rationally, and well-aware of the multiplicity of sensitivity needed in approaching this particular conflict. Solutions Not Sides sets students up to think critically, engage with the other side, promote peace and open-mindedness, and dilute extreme views in exchange for tolerance - all things that, in a world as scary as ours, are as precious as ever.
Lilly was part of the 2017 Student Leadership Programme - a week-long series of workshops, talks and panels that aims to help young British people get under the skin of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, learn about the history, narratives, politics and contemporary situation and equip them with skills to be mindful, effective activists. The deadline for applying for this year’s programme has now passed but you can apply for next year’s programme (2020) at https://www.solutionsnotsides.co.uk/student-leadership-programme