Why we need a different approach to Israel-Palestine on campus
It was about this time last year that I was sitting in my living room with my housemate, when the topic of Israel-Palestine came up in our lunch-time discussion. This was also about the time that a wave of activism and campaigns for Palestinian human rights had emerged all around campus. The need for student campaigning and humanitarian action, we agreed, was self-evident; the growth of international recognition of the Palestinian civilian crisis being partly due to such student initiatives. But we also felt that responses to the conflict on campus were so polarised that they couldn’t realistically accommodate the many people, like myself and my housemate, who felt there might be a grey area to this conflict, that wanted to understand more about both sides, and were frustrated by the lack of reliable information and dogma on both ends.
In other words, there was no place for people that wanted dialogue and debate, and a focus on real solutions as well as real problems. We felt that there were other productive ways that we as students could approach the conflict, which allow for precisely the dialogue and debate about this multi-faceted and complex conflict, and which the message on campus at the time was so blatantly lacking. It was from this living-room discussion that we came up with the idea for The Israel-Palestine Awareness Project, IPAP, to fill, what we felt at the time, was a gaping vacuum in student activity surrounding the conflict
From the word go IPAP has functioned as an independent student-run project, rather than a YUSU-ratified society, mainly because we envisaged IPAP as a long-term, expansive project with a reach and life-span beyond university. The lack of society bureaucracy means that the direction of the project is even more driven by the people that are involved. The very basic premise of IPAP is to facilitate an arena for dialogue and exchange: we hold thematic discussions on a fortnightly basis, where people come and exchange opinions on specific themes and ideas relating to the conflict, bringing their different views and levels of knowledge of the situation. We’re also in the process of setting up a cultural exchange programme, which so far involves holding regular film and documentary screenings. This stems from the idea that understanding more about the cultures and everyday life of the people involved in the conflict is essential to understanding the conflict as whole. The outcome of all this? A more subtle, nuanced and hopefully better informed opinion on the conflict than when we came through the door.
Why such an emphasis on dialogue?
To put it simply, because the blindness to alternative points of view causes dogma and helps to perpetuate conflict. It’s the same reason why so many children in Israel and Palestine grow up to hate one another – largely I think, because they have never exchanged a conversation or even met an Israeli or a Palestinian in their lives. Human rights campaigns are crucial but don’t always touch the root of the problem. If real change is going to happen, people’s attitudes on both sides need to be open to change – in Israel and Palestine, but also (more surprisingly) at our university, as what we say and do also perpetuates ignorance or promotes positive change. Mutual understanding and dialogue are key to this.
“So you sort of encourage people to sit on the fence then?“
I get asked this often and I feel I need to clear this up for the record. No, we don’t spend our time doing peace re-enactments and shaking each others’ hands. Part of the point is to develop an opinion if you don’t already have one, but that you keep testing those opinions and assumptions by discussing and debating with other people who have a different outlook and experience on the conflict. It’s not about preaching to the converted, it’s about challenging yourself to be open to different interpretations and to scratch beyond the surface of the issues of the conflict. It’s worth pointing out that there’s no need to be in any way an expert on Israel-Palestine to be involved. Plenty of the people that come to the sessions are ‘newbies’ to the subject, but their experience in other areas is relevant and helpful to the discussions. We’re all here to learn.
What ever happened to student activism?
Here’s another one for the record. As an independent project, there’s loads of potential for activism and campaigning, and this is something our members are trying to push this year. One initiative we’re developing is contacting grassroots dialogue groups in Israel and Palestine, supporting their activities as well as learning from them about how to expand our own project. Take for example The Project for Arab-Jewish Dialogue at Bar-Islan University, which brings together Israeli and Jewish students from Bar-Ilan University in Jerusalem and Palestinian students mainly from the University of Hebron, and uses discussion to promote and research the question of interfaith and intercultural dialogue with the hope of improving Arab-Jewish relations. Or Radio ColHaShalom, which broadcasts in Hebrew and Arabic the issues affecting both Palestinians’ and Israelis’ daily lives, and “provides a stage for alternative voices not often heard in the established media” to promote “peace, dignity for all peoples, co-existence, pluralism, and social solidarity”. We’ve been thinking of setting up our own version at York Uni. Watch this space. But we’re also keen on the idea that promoting dialogue and mutual understanding is applicable to many conflicts worldwide, beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’re interested in expanding our activism to encompass other global issues, partly through collaborating with other societies, on-campus and off, with similar aims and running some joint awareness events.
Because there’s a diverse range of people that turn up, with mixed levels of knowledge of the conflict, we’re going to start running ‘Crash Courses to the Conflict’ for people that want to get to grips with the basics. Basically though, the future direction of the project is dependent on the people that make it up. If you have an idea, we want to hear about it.
How to get involved
Anyone interested is welcome to come along to our next event on Thursday 6th November (see facebook page for more details soon), where we will be hosting our first ‘Crash Course’ on the origins, main issues and debates surrounding the conflict. It will be a good opportunity to meet people and find out more about what we do.