When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no shortage of content on YouTube and social media platforms. Most of it, however, is heavily one-sided, blatant propaganda, lacks nuanced views and perspectives on what reality actually is for Israelis and Palestinians.
Corey Gil-Shuster, an administrator for Tel Aviv University’s Conflict Resolution and Mediation program, is trying to present a fresh, unadulterated view of the conflict through his channel, the Ask Project, by cutting to the heart of the matter: the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
The Ask Project is a YouTube channel providing a unique lens into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by asking questions to random Israelis and Palestinians. The questions, for both Israelis and Palestinians, are submitted to Gil-Shuster by viewers. Occasionally certain questions are for a specific subgroup within either society – haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews or Christian Palestinians for example.
Few if any people go into the heart of this conflict like the Canadian-born Gil-Shuster, who launched the project eight years ago as a way to make sense of and better understand the conflict. “I just wanted to understand what motivated people,” he explained.
He typically spends his weekends and his own money traveling all over Israel and the Palestinian territories – often with public transportation – to present his questions to as wide a demographic as possible to give the audience the best possible samples. “I really try to get a cross section of the societies,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Rather than focusing on politicians and people of influence, Gil-Shuster goes to the street to meet normal people. Gil-Shuster explained that “I don’t really care about leaders... I want the guy selling bread, I want the regular guy who sells oranges... they are part of society, too.” While most content and media attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focus on the larger political developments from the perspectives of local leaders and the international community, this has naturally sidelined the voices of “regular folk,” whose opinions and beliefs are generally ignored unless it can serve a specific political purpose or agenda.
Just watching any couple of videos from the Ask Project, one can easily see and feel the realness. The authenticity of Gil-Shuster’s videos is seen through the environment in which he films them. The settings, whether in Israel or the Palestinian territories, are the streets, the markets, the cafés, the parks, the offices, the malls, the small shops and even people’s homes. This enhances the viewers’ senses and understanding while also enhancing the credibility of the project’s neutrality.
On the Ask Project’s "About" section on YouTube, it very clearly states the project’s objective. “Want to know what Israelis and Palestinians really think? Ask. Questions come from you, the viewers. Respondents are random people on the street. All responses are included and unedited for content. I reserve the right to give sarcastic comments,” it says.
The questions are mostly related to politics, social issues and the conflict, while occasionally touching on religious or cultural topics, and are usually provocative. Take for instance these two questions: “Palestinians, why do you stab Israelis?” or “Israelis, why do you treat Palestinians like the Nazis treated Jews?” “GOTCHA” QUESTIONS like these may be hard to ask, but Gil-Shuster believes it is important to frame the questions the way they are submitted, regardless of his personal beliefs or a question’s inaccurate assumptions or misrepresentations.
“I will take on your worldview, and I will go in and ask it that way,” he said regarding asking these types of provocative queries. Despite a question’s false pretext, it is important not to edit it because that false pretext could be a commonly-held belief in many people’s minds, he said. Additionally, it’s all about capturing the reactions and allowing the viewers to interpret the individual’s answers and opinions. Corey will often press the interviewee to clarify his answer or provide follow-up questions and sometimes add some witty or snarky commentary – after all, he does state that he reserves the right to make sarcastic comments.
If someone says something that is blatantly false, Gil-Shuster won’t hesitate to correct them or challenge their comments. He said he feels the need to push back sometimes because “our ideas aren’t challenged enough.” It’s about “what they will say if I push back... and how committed are they to those opinions.” The beauty of this project is in the back-and-forth dialogue that takes place between Gil-Shuster and the interviewees. This allows the viewers to really get a better understanding of the variety of perspectives that may exist. Noting that not everyone will understand the conflict the same way he does, Gil-Shuster’s goal is to “get people to understand this conflict from all these different perspectives.” A few of the most popular videos are: “Israelis: Who is Jesus to you?;” “Palestinians: What do you think of atheists?;” “Palestinians: What will happen to Israelis when you take back Palestine of 1948 (Israel)?” and “Israelis: Who is Mohammad for you?”
With more than 900 videos, and more than 69 million views, Gil-Shuster has certainly established a strong niche following for his project, but he admits that not all the feedback he receives is positive.
He often receives criticism from people on both sides accusing him of “having an agenda.” It only takes a couple of videos to see that Gil-Shuster really does approach this project from a genuinely neutral place. Speaking about the feedback he receives, he said, “Some people get it... and some people want to be told A is good, B is bad... When they hear subtlety, they don’t know how to relate to it. They really think I have an agenda to make one side look good, and the other look bad.” Gil-Shuster added that the overall majority of the positive feedback comes from younger people. “Academics don’t relate to what I do, and I understand what I do is sloppier, it’s not as rigorous, not as methodological as what they would want.” Gil-Shuster said this originally bothered him, however, a lecturer at the university once told him “you are encouraging a whole group of [younger] Israelis and Palestinians to ask questions,” which is undoubtedly a positive outcome.
GIL-SHUSTER ALSO noted that occasionally Palestinians who’ve seen his videos tell him that they love what he does and that he can ask questions that they can’t. “I hope that people will always ask questions about their society and the other society.”
The origins of Gil-Shuster’s project were born out of the chaos of the Second Intifada, which led him to return to his native Canada to study conflict resolution to better understand the conflict and people’s behavior and attitudes from a psychological standpoint.
He launched the Ask Project soon after his return to Israel, where he has lived on and off since 1989.
Gil-Shuster noted similarities between Israelis and Palestinians when asking them questions, but also noted several key differences between the two peoples. When interviewing Palestinians, “I don’t always know if they are telling the truth because they are very aware of what their society and family may say. So there’s sort of a party line.... I don’t think they drastically disagree with it, they just might have slightly different ideas,” he stated. With Israeli Jews, “I don’t think they are changing their answers to look good. They don’t care what anybody thinks. Nobody ever said anything different when I put down the camera.” Gil-Shuster said he originally hoped to create a dialogue between the two sides, but he quickly figured out that most are not interested – more from the Palestinian side, but also from the Israeli side. His goals have become more modest.
“It’s about understanding the situation because you can’t solve a conflict if you don’t understand what the conflict is about. This is my contribution to creating better understanding and hoping it would lead to peace somehow, but I am not naive – a few videos aren’t going to create peace.” While peace remains elusive, Gil-Shuster has managed to carve out a little space where we get to hear actual people on both sides answering and talking about questions and issues from perspectives rarely heard. People from outside get to learn and through many different voices talking about many different topics, Gil-Shuster allows his viewers to interpret the conflict on their own.