American-Israeli leverages power of TEDx for coexistence conference in Jaffa
A hundred Jews, Arabs and internationals from around the country congregated at Jaffa's East-West House last Wednesday for a day of lectures by local academics and activists.
The internationally-renowned series of symposia called TEDx returned to Israel last week, where a local American-born conference organizer crafted an itinerary that focused on the topic of peace with the Palestinians. After last year's TEDxTelAviv coalesced under the banner "Thriving on turmoil," TEDxJaffa director Alli Magidsohn took a different tack, assembling a speaker list around the theme "Desire to know the other."
A hundred Jews, Arabs and internationals from around the country congregated at Jaffa's East-West House last Wednesday for a day of lectures by local academics and activists, half of them Jewish, and half of them Arab.
The TED and TEDx conferences bring together individuals who are considered to be leaders in their respective fields, to share kernels of the knowledge they have distilled over the course of their lifetimes, in 18-minute stage presentations. In the past, speakers have lectured on topics as diverse as scientific breakthroughs, design aesthetics, economic theories and philosophical musings.
The first TED conference was held in 1984, but the talks rocketed in popularity in 2007 when the organization took advantage of streaming video technology to provide free movies of the TED talks online. TEDxJaffa speaker highlights included Dalia Landau, co-founder of Open House, a co-existence center in Ramle, and Osama Elewat, co-founder of Visit Palestine, an organization that brings Israeli tourists to the West Bank.
Magidsohn, 32, volunteered to organize the TEDxJaffa conference out of a strong desire to provide a place where other Israelis and Palestinians could experience the same cross-cultural connections that she has in recent months.
Living in Israel for the last five years, Magidsohn says she was born into a typical Conservative Jewish family in Los Angeles. But she says that in the last 18 months, she has challenged herself to face her fears, specifically her fear of the other. "I have the opportunity to encounter the other: that specific other - but also the other in me that I don't want to be - the fearful me, the threatened me."
The 9/11 attacks a decade ago prompted Magidsohn's first personal journey as an adult to embrace her Jewish identity. She had just graduated college and had moved to New York for her dream job as an artist, when she witnessed the horrifying fallout of the terror attacks from the roof of her building. She says that for the first time in her comfortable, middle-class existence, she realized that "the world is not safe", and "it rattled my soul." Promptly returning to L.A., she began working for the Jewish Federation, organizing cultural programming and fostering local connections with Israel.
After a couple of trips with Birthright and the Federation, Magidsohn moved to Israel on her own. "I decided, the committees, the donations, it's not enough. I want to be part of whatever the Jewish saga is doing here, now," she says. She relocated to Tel Aviv and parlayed her English writing skills into a high-tech job in marketing and communications.
At first, she says, she was content to live the apolitical life almost as she had back in the U.S., but her first visit to Sinai a year and a half ago triggered a transformation in her. Magidsohn says that the trip gave her the first opportunity in her life to get to know Arab people on neutral ground.
"In the context of friendship, I felt I could ask anything," she says. When she returned to Israel, she continued to delve deeper and explore ways that Jews and Arabs might meet in peace and greater understanding. Inspired, she proposed a coexistence-themed conference to TED headquarters, and they approved her proposal.
Without a history of organizing in the community, some local Arabs and leftist Jews questioned the event's utility. Joseph Dana, an American-Israeli new media journalist for 972 magazine, wondered if the speakers list reflected a drive for "normalization" - meant to describe meetings between Jews and Arabs that leave the Jewish participants feeling better about making personal connections with Arabs, but do not guarantee that they will then go on to use their privileged positions in Israeli society to lobby for increased equality for Arabs.
Magidsohn insists that the conference and other events like it - which she jokingly refers to as "hummus and hugs" - have merit. "I don't discredit hummus and hugs at all, because when we sit across the table and we share hummus, and I tell you about whatever that's important to me, and you tell me about whatever's important to you, and we make a human connection, then next time they're bombing you, or whatever - I care that they're bombing you, because I know you," she says. "All I have is my intention and my goodwill, that, I truly feel comfortable with, because I know it's real."
At least some of the Arab people in attendance at TEDxJaffa confirmed that the conference created a safe space to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "For me, to experience the Middle East conflict, it's very important for me to know what the other side thinks," said Saeed Saleh Darawshe, 20, from Arabeh, in the Galilee. His words were echoed by his friend Ahmad Yassin, 18, also from Arabeh.
But as avid followers of TED, Darawshe and Yassin were already converts to the cause of knowledge and conversation with the other. "I've always wanted to encounter new ideas, to broaden my horizons, to simply get to know more interesting people and the way they view the world and their ideas," says Darawshe.
Magidsohn says the full effects of the conference will be only felt in a few weeks' time, when videos of the event - stories of people seeking peace against the odds - will be posted online for all to watch. "I believe that's where the impact will happen. And I will never know about those impacts, but I totally believe they'll exist."