In a recent post, I discussed the role of Israelis’ and Palestinians’ conflicting narratives and the value of people-to-people work. I argued that bringing more Israelis and Palestinians together for dialogue sessions may help them overcome their competition over victimhood through empathy and understanding.
In my most recent trip to Israel-Palestine, I received a deeper understanding of people-to-people work and was able to put the theory to the test for myself. I spoke with several leaders of people-to-people grassroots organizations who told me about the work they do. I also participated in a tour program where I – an American Jewish Zionist – had dialogue with Palestinians living under occupation.
To put it short, my experiences did validate my theory that people-to-people initiatives can help promote peace and reconciliation, but not necessarily in the way I originally thought.
The first lesson I took away came from a discussion with Doubi Schwartz – Regional Program Officer of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP). He said that, based on his experience, Israelis and Palestinians do not necessarily need to embrace every part of the other side’s narrative, but rather need to at least acknowledge that the other side has a different story and that it is valid. Indeed, Israelis’ and Palestinians’ narratives are at the core of their identities and it is therefore unlikely that they will adopt every single part of the other side’s story overnight. That said, however, simply acknowledging that the other narrative exists may allow Israelis and Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s sense of peoplehood and right to self-determination.
Furthermore, people-to-people work may also increase people’s willingness to reconcile with the other side by helping them focus more on how they can work together for a better future. Schwartz emphasized how many of the programs in ALLMEP are not just about dialogue, but also about helping Israelis and Palestinians develop skills and knowledge they can bring back to their communities to improve the quality of their lives. Indeed, when Israelis and Palestinians participate together in skill development programs, it may create a paradigm shift where they focus less on competing over victimhood and more on how they can work together to make change and create a better future.
Of course, empathy can still play a powerful role in compelling people to work together in this endeavor.
When I went on Extend (a program that brings American Jewish youth to the West Bank to hear perspectives from Palestinians), I had a discussion with a Bedouin man in his village in Area C, which is under threat of demolition. When he was given the opportunity to speak, he described the Palestinian narrative of how his family, and hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948. This is a narrative I still do not fully agree with. As a proud Zionist, I do believe Israel should own up to its share of responsibility of the Palestinian refugee crisis, but I would argue that the Palestinians and the Arab states deserve some of the blame too. They chose to reject the partition plan and chose to go to war. They need to accept some responsibility as well.
Nevertheless, even though I disagreed with some of the historical background he went over, I acknowledged and empathized with the personal hardships he goes through on a daily basis while living under occupation. For instance, he also talked about how he lost most of his herd due to the restriction of movement they face when surrounded by Israeli settlements and military zones, and how he now has no other choice but to work in one of the nearby settlements. Indeed, even though I disagreed with some parts of his broader narrative, I empathized with his personal experiences and that has further motivated me to find a solution to the conflict that will help Palestinians like him live a normal life.
When Israelis and Palestinians come together to have dialogue, they may disagree on much of the history of the conflict, but one of the few things they may agree on is that they are both tired of the conflict and want it to end. By empathizing with their personal experiences and acknowledging that each side has a valid narrative, more Israelis and Palestinians may begin to focus less on establishing who is the moral victim of the conflict and more on striving together for a better future.