I spent 5 days having my Israel-Palestine bubble burst and it was eye-opening.
For Jews and Muslims alike, neighbours of all faiths and none, activists on the political left, right, far-left and far-right, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict is often a point of intense, raw emotion, discord and ongoing hostility.
Now 70 years on since the founding of the modern State of Israel, Israelis and Palestinians alike have witnessed loss, grief and political instability. Yet, despite the hostility there are some amazing organisations shining a candle of hope for the next generation – one in which we may hopefully know peace.
One of these peace-building organisations is Solutions Not Sides (SNS) – a UK-based educational body currently registered under OneVoice Europe, but with its own, unique mission and soon to receive independent status as a UK registered charity. Since 2011, SNS has been working with young people aged 15-18 and 18-25 years old here in the UK to help develop respectful communication and dialogue and to enable young people to understand difference around the conflict. Given that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a source of great emotional tension and subject of political manipulation – not just those directly affected in the Middle East but also communities here in the UK – the work of organisations such as SNS is becoming increasingly important in today’s climate.
Using speakers from partnerships with many different organisations based in the Middle East, SNS brings a diverse range of Palestinian and Israeli speakers to talk about their experience and realities. Their workshops and educational programmes work on 15 week-long tours a year across the UK, visiting schools and universities in order to engage with young people, build a more nuanced narrative to the conflict and to help young people engage with and listen to diverse perspectives. Since piloting their first session in 2010 in Birmingham after extensive dialogue with schools, community and faith leaders, SNS has worked with over 30,000 students since 2011.
With pre-and post-evaluation during the programme, I was amazed to discover that around 20% of these children have shifted from a “win-lose” perspective (originally “taking a side” and being either anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim for example) to now recognising diverse perspectives. Having openly stated a shift in their attitudes, children are now able to understand and appreciate complex, different viewpoints about what is an incredibly complex and difficult conflict!
I spoke to Founder and Director of SNS, Sharon Booth to see what we could learn from their long-standing experience and expertise around building constructive dialogue and addressing this tension-fuelled subject.
Here’s what I learnt!
1. Stand in their shoes
Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim – we’re all human. We’re not simply “a side”, a religious group, a nationality or an ethnic group. In fact, when we meet someone and initially learn of their “position”, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. We’re not seeing their needs, wounds and the perceptions which lie underneath – the reasons why they think, feel and act the way they do. That’s why we need to move beyond “positions”.
Look beyond the names, the labels, the boundaries and humanise the situation. Go beyond borders, walls, land borders, dates, numbers and political rhetoric and stand in someone else’s shoes. Meet people on a human level. Think about their experiences, their feelings and listen to their personal story. By starting with their personal story – whether they’re Israeli, Palestinian, British or wherever they may come from – we can all start to move forward. Remember: we all have a story and theirs is just as important as yours. You may not agree but you should still listen and try to understand why they think the way they do.
2. Value diverse perspectives
As humans, our brains are always trying to organise the world into a form in which we can understand it simply and neatly. For most people, simple concepts, simple labels, boxes and points of reference offer a relief – a sort of safety net so to speak – to figure out what’s “right or wrong”, what we “should or shouldn’t do” and so on. This tribalistic “in group vs. out group” syndrome however breeds over-simplistic conceptualisations of the world around us. It’s the ultimate looking glass perspective of the divisive “us vs. them” narrative.
Here’s the thing: life isn’t always that simple! Diversity isn’t bad. It can be – and is in fact – incredibly beautiful. Yes, diversity of narratives and viewpoints is actually a good thing! As humans we therefore need embrace and learn to be comfortable with diversity not feel threatened by it. Not only will this help us to grow (and grow together) but it will also make us less vulnerable to simplistic, socio-political (and manipulative!) messaging when we’re juggling raw emotions such as anger and fear, which are often used for divisive, destructive purposes.
3. Listen to those most affected
To really understand how to move forward in this conflict, we need to listen to those most affected and understand their needs, wants, feelings and experiences. Yes, it may sound obvious but we should really be listening to Israelis and Palestinians! This sadly, isn’t always the case though.
With politicians, clerics and communities across the globe emotionally, politically, socially, financially and spiritually implicated, it can – and often does – get very messy. What we need to do is therefore primarily listen to what Israelis and Palestinians want – inclusive of the wider Jewish community and Palestinian diaspora – and leave all other (religious and political) ideologies aside. We must hear directly from those affected about what they need and work to support them.
4. Look towards the future
The only way to move forward is to lead with the future – not the past. Whatever’s happened, whoever did X, Y or Z etc. – it’s done. Lots of things have happened. No one is here to deny that but you can’t build a future by living in the past. Rehashing over the past isn’t getting anyone anywhere.
Now, this doesn’t mean negate the lived experiences of people, dismissing their feelings, their concerns, their heartache – no, it’s quite the opposite in fact. It means listening and understanding about the past and how to now build the future. The future starts on the now, on the present – on understanding the past but building a tomorrow not a repetition of yesterday. What we need to do is to listen, learn and understand from the past to move towards the future together free from hate, blame, fear and suspicion.
5. Remember we have more in common
Many of us will be familiar with the late Jo Cox’s powerful message: “We are far more untied and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” What a simple yet powerful message which really hits the nail on the head!
Firstly, Jews and Muslims have an insane amount in common! Israelis and Palestinians share so much in common in so many ways. What’s more, beyond the faith and cultural-based similarities, whatever our differences as humans – whether they be in faith, dietary practices, clothing etc. – at the end of the day we all have the same needs, same desires and the same rights. We are all human! If we remember this, we really can go far!
6. Lead with your social side
In today’s globalised word, we’re increasingly connected. As we now travel, work and study more freely across borders, we’ve become less tribal and have merged into one bigger society in which we’re more and more connected socially.
So, we’re all human and as humans, we’re all social beings – but what does this mean for us in terms of peace-building? Well, add to the mix how we’re increasingly connected socially and we’ve got a leading means to build change. Bring people together and lead with your social foot! Go out and meet, talk and engage with people seemingly different to yourself. We lead with social habits so break the barriers down with food, family, discussion, music, talk – simple socialising – to help people bond and work on building common ground together.
7. Be respectful
Discussion can never become fruitful without mutual respect. Respect, respect, respect is the key. Now, no one’s saying that you have to change your opinion or even agree with the other person but you have to be willing to give other people the time of day, to listen to their stories and to give the same respect that you rightfully expect too.
If we’re to move forward together as fellow human beings as part of one human family, this is the only way to build a future together. Listen, talk, meet and engage in a calm, respectful manner at all times. Treat others the way you would wish to be treated – it’s the Golden Rule and it’s a keeper!
8. Create safe spaces
Building happy, social spaces is great but if you’re at a point of respect, trust and engagement, you can also now start to move further forward. Don’t neglect the difficult topics or avoid the tough discussions, otherwise you’ll end up at a standstill. Be brave, discuss these issues (the pain, loss, fear and anger) and have these vital discussions.
However, whilst there needs an output (an end goal to coming together), this dialogue needs to be done in a safe space and here’s where the role of experienced moderators and mediators is so important. Trained facilitator will help provide an authoritative safe space, so rely on them to focus on understanding other people and vice versa.
9. Think beyond binaries
Things really aren’t black and white. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is often framed in binary dichotomies such as: good vs. evil, left vs. right, human rights vs. terrorism etc. yet it’s so much more complicated than this! This is a complex conflict with real-life consequences for those affected. For those outside the conflict, we may be stuck in the “binary bubble” based on our faith or place on the political spectrum, whilst for those in Israel-Palestine itself, you may not have met any fellow Israelis/Palestinians.
Just as we need to see the human side of each person, we also need to recognise the conflict is not a simple single-narrative story. Once we recognise that, we can start to (better) understand those involved and what’s needed to build sustainable peace.
10. Dump the conspiracy theories
Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic – they’re all out there and they’re fake, hate-fuelled, prejudiced and completely unhelpful!
From anti-Palestinian (religion-focussed) narratives of the desire for a dominating Muslim Caliphate towards Western Europe from the frontier of Israel (present in far-right and some Jewish communities) and the concept of Muslims already having their own land and holy sites in the Middle East (therefore the need to eradicate any Palestinian territory), to the anti-Israeli conspiracies of Israeli-Western US-led capitalist oil goals clinging onto old anti-Semitic stereotypes of “rich Jews” dominating the banking and media spheres and Zionism equating colonialism (common on the political left and within Muslim circles), these one-dimensional conspiracy theories and narratives are exactly that: biased, prejudiced and lacking in a nuanced perception of the socio-political historical reality on the ground.
Problematic narratives in far-left-right and both Jewish and Muslim circles are counterproductive and build suspicion and intolerance, fuelling anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. It also leads to unhelpful comparisons, with other groups “latching on” to diverse conflicts in a seemingly “one size fits all narrative“. Take the Northern Ireland issue where “oppressed natives” and “foreign colonial occupiers” becomes Catholics meet Palestinians and Protestants meet Israelis. Absurd! We must move beyond these simplistic, incomparable scenarios. Otherwise, it’s not about the people – it’s about simple messages, narratives, goals and simple point scoring. Of course, this isn’t getting us anywhere – and never will.
11. Make young people the future
Practice has found that younger people often find it easier to engage and open dialogue in this area. In SNS’ work, this has certainly proven to be true. Now, not all students may have come with a very clear bias/prejudice in terms of “which side” they support but around 80% have since come out saying that they now understand other narratives and as a result now hold more diverse perspectives.
With around 60% of children and young people involved with SNS saying that they’re now “solutions oriented/focussed”, we can see that this is some pretty powerful stuff! SNS really is showing the success for building nuanced understanding and the important of dialogue amongst our youth.
12. Be an informed activist
Building a more nuanced perspective about the conflict isn’t about “not having a view” or de-politicising the situation. We need somewhere to move to (a solution) and being political, socially-engaged and involved is fine – but only if you’re taking a stance based on a real understanding of people as human beings. Activism is important but it is absolutely vitally crucial that it’s done from an informed and educated position without demonising other people – and it goes without saying – without entering into anti-Semitic or Islamophobic territory.
The best way to navigate the complexity of the situation is to develop crucial critical thinking skills. Read diverse perspectives, broaden your horizons and work towards making educated and informed decisions in areas of politics and religion – free from the manipulation of one-sided sources and stereotypes. Widen your sources of information you look at (especially online!). Look at a variety of sources, take part in tours, workshops and meet people. This means for example, visiting both sides of the region (not one), listening to various perspectives (not one) and meeting lots of different people. This could be within interfaith or non-religious circles – perhaps a left-wing and right-wing meet up. The point is: simply spend time with people, inform yourself and don’t get trapped into (oh so easy) “Twitter bubble” in a space with those who simply agree with you. It may “feel good” but it only re-emphasises your concerns/what you already may believe. Get into an uncomfortable space – get out of your comfort zone and force yourself to look beyond what you’re familiar with, to know what’s out there and widen your scope.
13. Don’t discourage self-interest
Whilst selfless learning and peace-building is obviously great, you can also persuade people with a self-interested perspective to come into discussions and get them on board. After all, we’re not (all here) to change people’s minds and opinions but to put other sides across and enable dialogue.
Remember: not everyone wants to change their view – some people are merely looking to reinforce their own. However, this can still be used to your advantage! By persuading people to come into the circle for their own interests (rather than to change or agree), they’ll perhaps take part yet by the end find that they may have learnt a thing or two!
At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that most of us want a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. Wherever we’re coming from, most decent people are concerned about the people involved and want peace for these two communities. This is where Solutions Not Side’s “win-win” approach is so powerful. There’s no pressure to agree but an emphasis on listening and understanding to move forward towards a brighter future for everyone.
If we can all take this as our common standing point and put disagreements aside, we can start to understand other people (who we may not necessarily agree with!) and overcome challenges. Then insha’Allah, we can move towards a solution that is devoid of “one winner”, and “two sides” but one sustainable, peaceful solution for everyone.
Salam, shalom, peace ♡