Is it possible that, whereas the conventional wisdom says the 2011 social protest movement was a resounding failure, it actually succeeded all too well?
During that tempestuous summer, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators tried to put social issues on the national agenda, following years in which defense matters had ruled the roost. Indeed, in the ensuing seven years public and political discourse in Israel has revolved mainly around social issues, sidelining defense and political problems.
Like many Israelis, members of the Social Congress — a group of young social activists who came together to discuss and promote social concerns — have internalized the sense of despair that holds that there will never be reconciliation between the country’s diverse population groups.
However, during one of the meetings devoted to finding solutions to the housing crisis, these activists decided to change direction. The result is a new initiative, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? It embraces some creative and optimistic ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will be sounded across the country over ten days of cultural events, including lectures and debates.
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“The political system has been geared to social issues since 2011,” says Shir Nosatzki, a social activist and one of the leaders of that year’s protest movement. “We’re happy about this, but Israel doesn’t have the privilege of ignoring its conflict with the Palestinians. It took us several years to ask ourselves how is it that we deal with every possible social issue but leave the conflict untouched. We don’t meet Palestinians, we don’t go beyond the 1967 borders; we don’t know the details of the Saudi peace initiative. We’ve adopted some despairing phrases, such as ‘there is no partner,’ that have become axiomatic in Israeli society.”
The planned peace-culture-entertainment events have been in the works for three years, during which activists met 300 people, trying to gain some new creative and inspiring perspectives regarding the resolution of conflicts. The festive opening event was held at Hangar 11 in the Tel Aviv port Tuesday night, with more than 1,000 people in attendance. For two hours they listened to six TED-style lectures.
The evening was opened by the popular behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who talked about the irrational motives underlying conflicts. He was followed by Riman Barakat, a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, who claims that peace will arise from out of her divided city, of all places. Other speakers included Roie Ravitsky, director of the Religious Peace Initiative, who believes peace can be brought about by religious figures.
Other events are being held in eight other cities, taking on a more in-depth approach that includes two or three lectures per evening, followed by a discussion. Among the speakers are journalist and documentary filmmaker Itai Anghel, psychiatrist Yoram Yovell and attorney Gilead Sher, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. Regev Kontas, a documentary film editor who also was involved in the leadership of the 2011 protest, says that the choice of speakers was based on two criteria: “that they had something interesting, hopeful and credible to say about the conflict and that they had never talked about it before.”
Yamit Eriksson, a co-founder of the Israeli Regional Initiative, was the first director of the Social Congress. The organization believes in a regional-based approach to the conflict. She recalls how she and her colleagues met leaders of Israel’s so-called peace camp in, but that the experience was very frustrating. “Who would follow a group of despairing people devoid of hope? The left has many achievements, but it doesn’t talk about them. The story of Amona [the settlement outpost that was peacefully evacuated by court order in 2017] was abandoned by the peace camp, unjustifiably so. What happened there was phenomenal as far as the left is concerned. Obviously no one is happy that people were removed from their homes, but it proved that it’s possible and that the public can swallow it.”
In the course of the group self-analysis the Social Congress conducted with regard to the conflict, its members were exposed to the studies of Eran Halperin, a former dean of the school of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Halperin and his colleagues at Stanford University published a series of articles in Science magazine in which they described social experiments in which they reduced the level of hatred between groups by demonstrating to them that their enemies were not bad by nature and were capable of changing.
Halperin met the group and gave scientific validation to their feelings. Since then he’s been counselling them on what they wish to accomplish —changing the current discourse, which seems to have reached a dead end, turning it into a discourse with an open horizon.
Managing the different events’ content is the responsibility of Dafi Shoshana Alpern, the founder of People Who Don’t Usually Lecture,” a lecture series that featured speakers with interesting jobs or life stories. Other partners to the initiative are Faza Productions and members of both Think and Drink Different, and Wize, organizations that organize lectures at bars.
One more problem among many others
They can be deceptive. A cursory look at them may give one the mistaken impression that they are a typical bunch of young Tel Avivians — hip, happy and disconnected. A deeper look shows that they can’t be easily pigeonholed. They are familiar with the derogatory remarks about Tel Aviv residents and their unpatriotic attitudes.
“During the social protests we were accused of recreating Woodstock,” says Nosatzki. “We realize there are people who can’t relate well to the hopeful narrative we’re trying to generate and that’s okay. But we do believe that hope is the basis for social change.”
Kontas says he sees no problem “with something joyful, full of energy, sweeping and inspiring. To sweep people along you have to offer them something that is not just preachy but an invitation. There are studies that show that the least effective way of capturing attention is to use moral arguments.”
Israelis assimilated the consciousness of the occupier; it will be hard for them to relinquish the sense of power it gives them, the sense of superiority.
Kontas: “Anyone who’s ever had a political discussion with his family knows that it quickly turns into a fight. Why? Because a political opinion becomes part of your identity, like being a soccer fan. There is no rationale, only a sense of belonging. People rooted for Elor Azaria because he played on their team. Ultimately, the Israeli Palestinian conflict is just a problem. True, it’s a grave one, complex, but just one problem among many others. In Israel, what can’t be solved by brain power can be solved with more brain power. So we brought together the best minds we managed to lay our hands on in order to bypass all the clichés and barriers.”
Assuming you convince everyone who had been convinced and gave up over the last decade, how will that help change the situation?
Kontas: “In my seven years as a social activist I realized that nothing new comes from the world of politics. Any significant change that’s happened here came from the grassroots. Leaders her are led, they look at the populist demands made by the public in order to decide what to do. That’s why we have to foster a civil society discourse — the politicians will join later.”
“One of the lecturers in this round is author Maya Savir, who closely studied reconciliation processes in Rwanda and South Africa. She says the reconciliation there is not some fantasy but is almost a technical matter, at least for the first generation. First they agree to reconcile under certain conditions for the sake of their children and only later does it become something you could call peace.”
Nosatzki says it’s to early to say what the next step will be. “If we use the social protest as a cautious reference regarding one principle, one could say that it opened people up and inspired them,” Nosatzki says. “When you inspire a large public it’s out of your hands and different people take it where they want to. As activists, we believe that change begins by creating public inspiration. We imagine people coming to our events with their ‘buttons’ switched to the off position but leaving with it switched on. Our efforts are modest but they are the most difficult thing in the world.”