A not-so vicious circle

In times of conflict, coexistence groups tend to disband or delay meeting until tempers cool. The recent war in Gaza was no exception.

vicious circle 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
vicious circle 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is 11 o'clock on a Wednesday night, and time is running out for the assembled members of Israel's coexistence movement. "I am done with sitting, talking, eating humous and having fun… Tell me what we can do to have peace within 10 years and I will go to the depths of hell with you," says one member of the circle, Khaled Abu Awad, a peace activist from Beit Omar, just outside Hebron. He rises to his feet and continues his call for action. But after hours of conversation in a stuffy conference room at the YMCA in Jerusalem, only a dedicated few remain to hear. "How have we let the circle become so small?" asks another participant, Aaron Shneyer, a recent graduate of Georgetown University. Others chime in, agreeing that the group's sense of urgency has dwindled since a cease-fire was declared a few days earlier. Yet even as the passionate discussion continues, the circle keeps thinning out. At the beginning of the evening, the room was bustling, if not full, with about 30 Israelis and a handful of Palestinians. It is the fourth gathering of a loosely organized coalition of members of different coexistence groups. The group first met for an informal gathering in one member's house shortly after the Gaza conflict began. Since then, they have met once a week for the last month, the gatherings ranging in numbers from 15 to 40. Many come from the Sulha Peace Project, a Jaffa-based organization that holds mediation sessions, musical events and communal meals. Others are from Jerusalem Peacemakers, one of the rare faith-based coexistence organizations. A few say they have not been involved in coexistence work before, but they are in the minority in a room that is mostly full of committed peace activists. They are brought together by Elad Vazana, who coordinates Sulhita, the youth wing of Sulha. He is a tall, grave-looking man who, on Wednesday night, uses his commanding presence to bring order to the chaos. At the end of the meeting he chastises the group for their inaction since the last meeting. "Last week we had such good energy, and then no one answered my e-mails… People need to look around and ask if we are the group that can do this," he says. Yet in private conversation Vazana reveals a gentle, self-effacing demeanor. Normally he adopts a more low-key style of organization, bringing people together over food and music and letting them set the agenda. "I never raise my voice," he says, but since the war began he has been gripped by a sense of urgency. All his life he has watched the violence in Israel and felt powerless. "This time I looked at the children being hurt and killed in Gaza, which many people did not want to look at, and I felt I could not be silent any longer." This inspires him to keep calling the group together to push them "to create a platform for people who have not always been committed to action…but now see we have to effect real change." This small but lively Arab-Jewish discussion group is an anomaly in the climate of the past three weeks. Since the beginning of the Gaza conflict, most of Jerusalem's coexistence groups have canceled their meetings. In some cases it has been the decision of the participants; in others, it is because the facilitators feel too emotional to lead a fair discussion. "WE ARE in a mourning period," says Shahar Yini, the Jewish co-director of Face-to-Face, a dialogue program for Jewish and Arab Israeli 16-year-olds run through Giva Haviva, one of the country's largest coexistence organizations. Face-to-Face, which has more than 1,000 participants in schools across the country, has stopped going to visit classrooms since the conflict began on December 27. "It would be futile. The students don't want to talk about alternatives right now. For dialogue there must be a willingness to listen to the other side and to change your perspective. Those are huge question marks right now," Yini says. This sentiment is echoed by Sylvie Berkowitsch-Gassenbauer, who directs coexistence programs for Jewish and Israeli Arab youth at the Jerusalem International YMCA. The YMCA normally has six groups running - five for youth and one for women - but only one group has been meeting over the last three weeks. The YMCA does not directly shut down coexistence programs, but it has postponed starting new groups. In addition, the participants in one group decided among themselves not to meet. Another group has continued meeting, achieving difficult but productive discussions. According to Berkowitsch-Gassenbauer, the problem is not only heightened emotions but also the wider social and political breakdown of dialogue during the recent conflict. "Even if someone does not agree with his government, he is still Palestinian or Israeli. When things get more extreme, people tend to ally together more to justify their own group. We don't even see the same television coverage. We see exactly the opposite…so it makes dialogue very difficult." It may look as if coexistence groups are shutting down when they are needed the most. However, Yini and Berkowitsch-Gassenbauer reject this characterization. "The conflicts we try to solve are not violent. It doesn't make sense to do that while violence is ongoing. Our goal is to create long-term social change," says Yini. Berkowitsch-Gassenbauer also disputes the implication that the dialogue has stopped. It continues, she says, through phone calls, e-mails and especially Facebook. One group of three Palestinian teenagers recently came to her to explain why they were not attending meetings, which she sees as a first step. "That is still dialogue," she says. Prof. Ifat Maoz, an associate professor of communications at Hebrew University, agrees that suspending discussion is a normal response for dialogue groups during heightened conflict. It is not only difficult but also potentially destructive to try to establish dialogue when emotions are running too high, she says. DIALOGUE GROUPS aimed at Jewish and Arab Israelis, such as Face-to-Face and the youth program at the YMCA, make up the bulk of the coexistence groups currently running. There are about 150 to 200 groups every year, most of which are based in Jerusalem or the North. They have constituted a small but robust movement since they began in the 1980s. Participation has remained constant, at about 16 percent of the Jewish population. Although groups have temporarily shut down before - as long as six months in 2000 following the failure of the Camp David Accords - participation has always returned to the same level once emotions have calmed down. Maoz says she has heard about the problems experienced by coexistence groups since this war began, including intensely emotional meetings in which Arab participants have called their Jewish counterparts Nazis. But she is confident this will improve in time, at least for groups that bring together Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Israeli Arabs and Jews "are living here together in a democratic state. That makes dialogue much more important" and ultimately impossible to avoid, she says. Palestinian-Israeli dialogue groups, like the one that met at the YMCA on Wednesday evening, tend to be more fragile, Maoz says. They are generally less formal and draw on a more limited, committed pool. Their numbers have dwindled since the Second Intifada to less than 3% of the Jewish population, most of whom already tend to be highly committed to peace movements. Yet other, especially Arab, organizers take a bleaker view of the long-term situation, even for Arab-Israeli groups. Farhat Agbaria, the Arab co-director of Face-to-Face, says this most recent conflict is different from Lebanon 2006 or the Second Intifada. He worries that it will take much longer for the level of dialogue to return to what it was before the war - if it ever will. "This is not Lebanon 2006 … This is not an intifada. We are talking about a war. Our people were being killed by the Israeli army. We saw the pictures," he says. His voice is shaking. Then he takes a deep breath. "This war made the Palestinians in Israel more Palestinian. People are crying. They are going out to demonstrate. They are shouting for our people. Emotions have been pushed very high." Face-to-Face has been operating for 25 years, since the early days of the coexistence movement. Agbaria, who has been involved for 10 years, is skeptical that there is an easy way to restore dialogue this time. "Maybe if Obama was our leader," he proposes with a laugh. But after a moment he adds seriously, "In reality, I don't know really." As for when they plan to reconvene, the various coexistence groups provide a broad range of answers. A few, such as Hand-in-Hand, a Jewish-Arab school in southeastern Jerusalem, have been holding discussion groups all along. Others, such as Seeds of Peace, which organizes camps and discussion groups for more than 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians aged 15 to 30, say they plan to begin meeting again as soon as possible. "Nothing is more urgently needed now than programs that allow young people to see and communicate with 'the other side' of the conflict. In times of crisis, we are reminded of how much work there is left to be done and how difficult it can be, but also of how important it is for the possibility of lasting peace," says Tammy Sun, Seeds of Peace's communications director. However, most groups, including Face-to-Face and the Jerusalem International YMCA, say it is too soon to say when they may be able to resume meeting. Many need this time not only to allow emotions to subside and wounds to heal but also to consider a new direction for the future. EVEN BEFORE the war in Gaza, some were beginning to question the "tea and humous" model of discussion employed by most coexistence groups, according to Maoz. This kind of dialogue may help change the attitude of group members by allowing Arabs and Jews to meet in a positive and supportive space, but many question whether it has any wider social effect. She gives the example of the Nakba, which became part of the vocabulary of Jewish participants in coexistence groups, after which an awareness of the pain Arabs feel around the founding of the state of Israel slowly seeped into the social consciousness over a period of five years or so. With the eruption of another war, patience seems to be running out for this kind of gradual and indirect progress. At Wednesday night's meeting, one 18-year-old girl complains about these "same group therapy sessions." Another, older woman calls talking circles a vestige of the 1960s. "Has nothing changed?" she asks. At a previous meeting, four of the eight Palestinian participants had walked out in frustration that nothing was being accomplished. Ihab Balha, a stately Palestinian from Sulha, speaks more quietly, but his message is the same. "I feel that as a leader of people I have failed. My consciousness of the situation is not the reality here. I walk alone, or among the very few. This is my failure." Only if members force the wider Israeli population to grapple with the anger and pain the war has caused among Palestinians will they next time choose "humanity over power," he argues. But Abu Awad, who is also the general manager of Parents' Circle, which brings together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents, believes this anger can also be productive by encouraging groups to finally take political action. The Palestinians who walked out missed the final segment of the meeting, where the group discussed gathering support for the Saudi peace plan. For Abu Awad this is a useful message for the Palestinian people, who risk letting anger get in the way of working constructively for peace. "People are angry, but they won't let their anger lead them… We don't want to lose our last chance for a peaceful solution," he says. They need to force Jewish members of coexistence groups to take political action, he asserts; but he also acknowledges that this may not happen as soon as many Palestinians want. Since the war began, many coexistence groups have begun embracing the more practical, collective action he advocates. Several groups have collected food, blankets and money to help families in Sderot and Gaza, including a project organized among the members of the YMCA group by Lee Ziz and Hada Balaf. At the YMCA on Wednesday, members also suggested taking a trip to Sderot; going to the Gaza border to light candles and send balloons; and gathering signatures for the peace plan to be presented to the government. When their circle disbands for another week, the members disperse with new ideas and projects in hand. Yet as the chairs are being cleared away and the doors locked, a few linger still to discuss Shneyer's question, "How did we let the circle become so small?" Shneyer, who came to Jerusalem a year ago to start a Jewish-Arab music program called Heartbeat Jerusalem, says he started coming to the YMCA meetings because he feels the group has great energy and a desire for change. He worries, however, not only that the group itself is losing energy but also that the people they reach are ones who already agree. "We are good at creating a space for people who are already seeking peace. The hard part is to reach out to the people who have lost hope. That is how we make the circle larger."