By Lorin BELL-CROSS, History and Politics graduate, University of York.
Having moved to Israel from the UK at the age of eight, the everyday reality of conflict came as a shock to me. One morning I was woken by the sound of police vehicles screeching up to the medical centre next to my flat.
The police evacuated the centre and ordered us to stay indoors. The next thing I heard was a large explosion. I can still remember being terrified.
It turned out that the explosion was a police robot neutralising an unattended item, not a terrorist attack, but the incident was typical of the climate of fear that Israelis became acclimatised to during the Second Intifada, when suicide bombings targeted civilians on what seemed like a regular basis.
Growing up in this climate did not stop me from identifying with the many considerable grievances faced by Palestinians. Like many Israelis, I strongly support the two-state solution and when I was older I regularly attended rallies in support of the peace process.
I realised that criticism of Israel is often justified, but it can stray into demonisation and distortion, which creates a climate which is destructive for peace.
I soon found a group which would help shape my political views on the issue. I first came across Sadaka-Reut after they gave a talk at my high school.
Their emphasis was on creating a climate of understanding amongst Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel (rather than aiming to ‘solve’ the conflict singlehandedly, which admittedly would have been a bit of an ‘ask’). I was enthralled. Here was an organisation with genuine purpose and realistic altruism for me to be involved with.
The most important aspect of Sadaka-Reut’s work was organising seminars, attended by Jews and Arabs in my age group, from Sadaka-Reut chapters around Israel.
These seminars gave me the opportunity for many frank exchanges with Arabs and I gained a real insight into their grievances as we discussed Israel’s definition as a ‘Jewish state’, Palestinian incitement against Jews and the threat of extremism from both sides.
Whilst there were considerable disagreements, these exchanges were unhampered by spin or political rhetoric. We had turned up because we wanted to get along. It wasn’t always easy; there is no simple solution to the longstanding Israeli Palestinian conflict.
As writer and ‘Peace Now’ founder Amos Oz puts it, the conflict is not a case of right versus wrong, but right versus right.
I have fond memories of my time with Sadaka-Reut and of my time campaigning against injustice alongside other politically minded, pro-coexistence teenagers from both ‘sides’.
And yet, when I returned to the UK in 2007, I found myself being more and more defensive of Israel; sometimes even feeling as though I had been appointed Israeli government spokesperson.
My political opinions had not changed dramatically; I still disagreed with many Israeli government policies, but was taken aback by the naïve simplicities of many individuals who described themselves as left-wing.
I was repulsed by the accusation that Israel was a ‘Nazi’ or ‘apartheid state’, and amazed by the breezy rejection of all Israeli opinions and all legitimate Israeli security concerns. The degree of apology for terrorist activities against Israel and Israeli civilians angered me, ignoring the complexity of the conflict and laying the blame solely on Israel.
It was all a world away from Sadaka-Reut and the urgent but friendly discussions we had about how to promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs while frequently (and loudly) opposing particular Israeli government policies.
I realised that ‘BDS’ and other ‘Palestinian Solidarity’ groups only alienate pro-peace individuals like myself by their demonisation of Israel as a pariah state comparable to South Africa or Nazi Germany.
Jewish students, particularly those on the centre-left, ought to take an interest in organisations like Sadaka-Reut, the Peres Centre for Peace or other organisations which promote the idea of the need for dialogue and peace.
They may be idealistic, but their call for dialogue is an important counterbalance needed against BDS groups who are not interested in reconciliation, dialogue or understanding, but only in putting across a simplistic narrative that says only Israel is to blame.
The more we can get western activists to take an interest in the complexities of the conflict and take seriously the need for dialogue and compromise, the better.