When I grew up in America, you were either a Democrat or a Republican. Over the course of my life that has come to include more pinpointed terms like the Left, the Right, the Far Left, the Far Right, the Religious Right, the Neoconservatives, the Paleo-conservatives, the Regressive Left (okay that one is just an insult but go with me) the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Intelligentsia (paranoid, veiled insult) the New Libertarianism, Centrism, the New Centrism and who knows what else. I can't keep up with it.
Right now, you are already thinking that because I said that the Regressive Left is an insulting term, that must mean I share either the beliefs of the "Far Left" or that I support the idea behind the "regressive" bit. But you don't really know, do you?
I live in the Middle East, where these labels, specifically vis a vis the discussion of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian are especially loaded. There is a Willy Wonka "bad egg" chute under every single conversation we have about this conflict. WHOOPS - wrong answer!
If political polarization and labels are a problem worldwide, then the conflict between Israel and Palestine is under God's magnifying glass. And how we sizzle under the gaze.
In this conflict, we have to choose our words very, very carefully. There is much political code switching. Is it "Palestine" or "The West Bank"? Or maybe you mean "Samaria and Judea"? Is it an "occupation" or a "security measure"? Shalom or Salaam? Yaffo or Jaffa? Am I a Jew? A Muslim? A humanist, an agitator or a normalizer? What about "civil society"? Does that mean I am an Orientalist?
If I agree with some of the observations of Edward Said, does that make me your enemy? If I don't agree with all his observations, does that make me your enemy? Just mentioning Said is, in this conversation, a marker of something that I must then believe. Right? What if I also find the lectures of Richard Landes compelling? Whoops that makes me "Right Wing". It must. I have to pick a side and by side I mean one of 100 sides each with their own detailed meanings and codes. Want to see me really light up a firecracker? What if I said that it is entirely possible to speak of Menachem Begin and Marwan Barghouti in one sentence?
Fractured reality, fractured political labels - one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
So many narratives, labels and beliefs. So many wrongs and fears and so much rage. So much to be done. As part of founding a new media literacy initiative, I have been getting to know the NGO and social impact entrepreneurs in the region. I am a babe in the NGO woods.
The Alliance for Middle East Peace recently held an alumni fair at the YMCA in Jerusalem. ALLMEP is an umbrella organization that boasts over 90 peacemaking partners in the region and growing.
There, in the beautiful Y building, were workshops and panels, and a place where organisations could set up with their materials and discuss their objectives. And there were a very wide variety of initiatives. Everything from sports related NGOs to handmade items from the Shorouq Society to Kids 4 Peace to Sarah Arndt Linder's Political is Personal, to Paths for Humanity, which helps NGO organisations work together more effectively. The Forbes 30-under-30 had an envoy there and led a workshop about social entrepreneurship, which, I learned, is a model that NGOs in the "peace building sector" are increasingly turning to as a more sustainable means of funding. Donors, I learned at a workshop, are "drying up". Something about efficacy and empathy fatigue.
Organizations, I learned, must "develop realistic milestones", "set a horizon" and "record impact and reach both qualitatively and quantitatively. I learned that the reason for this gathering was that ALLMEP would like to create more of a shared economy within peace building initiatives - in terms of knowledge, resources, etc., rather than the old model of NGOs competing with each other for funds. We are better together.
I met with Yael Treidel, of Women Wage Peace, one of my favorite initiatives. I will be joining them in their March of Peace, 2016. I met Sulaiman Khatib, co-founder of Combatants for Peace, now in their tenth year of peace building. I was bowled over by the vision of Heartbeat Jerusalem, and of Eco Peace and MEET. You simply cannot wrap your mind around the variety of initiatives. If you can think of it - it is probably happening.
I sat with Hila Aloni, a communications and PR specialist now working with Combatants for Peace but who has been working in this ecosystem for several years. A native Israeli, Hila has much to share about the peace building efforts - and realities - in the region. We discussed an article in a recent edition of the Times of Israel, about how Israeli kids seem to more right wing than previous generations. As Hila shared her experiences with me, and much good advice about my own nascent initiative for media literacy, we came back to the same confounding question these conversations always come back to: Is peace even possible?
Hila thinks it is and she is not alone. "But," she said, "we must stop the cycle of violence and in order to do that, we need to strengthen human rights initiatives and we need more education initiatives." This of course encouraged me, being that my initiative is educational - but still. Can we really stop the cycle of violence? There is a lot of momentum in the wrong direction.
I am, for many people, the only point of contact they have for day-to-day life in Israel outside of news events and violence - only a fraction of which makes the news in the US. I know it is a big disappointment that I defy a neat label and therefore do not have any one opinion of the conflict here, aside from that it is tragic. Rather, I have about a thousand opinions and they keep shifting with my own experience and learning and study. Corey Gil-Shuster's brilliant ASK project adds perspectives you may never have considered.
Here are two things you probably don't know about this conflict:
This conflict absolutely defies any one narrative of it. If you are on a "side", you're wrong. This conflict is a maddening kaleidoscope of clashing, changing, perspectives and beliefs.
There are more people in Israel and in Palestine working together for peace than you know. Many, many more. This is only the ALLMEP list. There are hundreds of other individuals and organisations trying to make a difference, to "move the needle" in the face of a total lack of leadership on either "side".
This work matters. Not because it will necessarily bring peace, however we define that, but because in the face of - in the vortex of what seems like the world's most convoluted, confusing conflict, there are people marching and teaching and playing sports together and all manner of hopeful, optimistic activities and initiatives. Some initiatives are counter to one another; the "normalisation versus anti-normalisation split, as one example. Both philosophies have valid points to make. Both make inroads in their reach and impact. In Israel/Palestine, narratives may differ and at times be fractured but our hope is unified.
This is not a "peace industry" - nobody is making money, I can tell you that as a fact. This is a peace ecosystem that defies tough financial and political realities. But we are here. We are everywhere. All over the world, peace builders, humanitarians and a new generation of social entrepreneurs are fighting the good fight in thousands of different programs.
Margaret Mead once said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does."
My initiative aims to teach young people the hypnotic power of story, narratives and beliefs and how we can both better evaluate the stories we hold dear and create new narratives. I'm still working out the "measurable outcomes" and "qualitative impact" and whether or not this falls under the category of edtech - but I do know that there is a place for this initiative in the ecosystem because I believe that there is a place for bringing back tolerance and civil, reasonable, differing opinions and points of view in the discourse worldwide.
What can you do, dear reader? I'm not asking you to send a donation although every single organization listed here and more are deserving of it - no - I am asking you to, from right where you are, both know that we are here and acknowledge and share in your community that this particular conflict defies labels and simple truths. If you can do that, if you can ladle much less vitriol into this soup, but rather some sweetening of hope and nuance, you will be helping in ways that you cannot imagine.