February 2012 Archives

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Father Roy writes: You will recall that in a recent post I referred to Uri Avnery as a “contemporary” Prophet.  Apparently I’m not the only person who regards Uri as a Prophet.  See the essay pasted below.  There are others, of course.  The names of Jeff Halpler, Ilan Pappe and Miko Peled spring to mind.  A contemporary Jewish Prophet in the USA is Mark Braverman (06:57).  Implicit in Mark’s teachings is a call for the International Jewish Community to take the responsibility for preventing an Israeli strike on Iran which would certainly cause another world war.

Uri Avnery

February 1, 2012

On Monday, I was honored to receive the Leibowitz Prize forlifes work, the prize established by the Yesh Gvul soldiers’ peace organization. I was unable to prepare a speech, so I spoke off the cuff and have to reconstruct my remarks from memory. (The laudation speech by the Nobel Prize laureate, Prof Ada Yonat, was far too laudatory for me to distribute.)

Reluctant Prophet

First, I wish to thank Yesh Gvul for establishing this prize. Then I would like to thank the distinguished jury, who were so gracious as to award the prize to me and to Hagit Ofran, the granddaughter of Prof. Leibowitz, whose work in monitoring the settlements I have admired for years. And then I want to thank all of you for coming to this ceremony.

Yet at this moment I think of the one who is not here, and whose absence is so unjust: my wife, Rachel. She was a full partner in all I did during the last 58 years, and should have been awarded half the prize – at the very least. She would have been delighted to be here.

When I entered this building, I was greeted by a stormy right-wing demonstration. I was grievously offended to be told that it was not directed against me, but against my friend Muhammad Bakri, the Arab actor who so angered the fascists with his film “Jenin, Jenin”. At this moment he is playing in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” next door. Probably he deserves this demonstration, but nevertheless I still feel deeply insulted.

I ADMIRED and loved Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

I admired him for his penetrating logic. Whenever he applied it to any problem, it was a beauty to behold. Nothing could withstand it. Often, listening to his words, I asked myself enviously: “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

I loved him, because of his unshakably moral attitude. For him, the moral obligation of the individual human being was above everything else.

Immediately after the 1967 war and the beginning of the occupation, he prophesied that we would become a nation of work gang supervisors and secret service agents.

Indeed, I always thought of him as Yeshayahu II, the heir of the Biblical Yeshayahu. (Yeshayahu is the Hebrew form of Isaiah.) When I told him this, he got angry. “People don’t understand the meaning of the word,” he complained, “In European languages, a prophet is a person who can foretell the future. But the Hebrew prophets were people who transmitted the Word of God!” Leibowitz, though orthodox and a kippah wearer, did not think of himself in that way.

Like all great men and women, he was a person with deep contradictions. I struggled to understand how a thinker of total rationality could be religious. He explained to me that a person who strictly fulfils all the 613 commandments of the Jewish religion can be completely rational – because religion exists on an altogether different level. As a professor of several wildly divergent disciplines (philosophy, chemistry, biochemistry, medicine), he did not let science and religion encroach on one another.

Once, when somebody told him that the Holocaust had stopped him believing in God, he replied: “then you did not believe in God in the first place.”

STANDING HERE in this hall, I feel some remorse for my part in the utterly absurd fact that he failed to receive the Israel Prize, the highest distinction the establishment can award. It happened in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. Fresh winds were blowing (or so it seemed) and the official Jury decided – at long last – to award Leibowitz the respected prize.

As it so happened, I was organizing at the time a public meeting of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I called Leibowitz and asked him if he would come and speak.

I must add here that I was always keen to have him at our meetings, for two reasons. First, he was a captivating speaker. Second, when Leibowitz was due to appear, the hall – however big it might be – was always filled to the last seat, the stairs and the windowsills. (However, I always arranged things in such a way that I would speak after him. For good reason: when he rose, he would cut all the speeches of his predecessors to pieces. Using his formidable powers of analysis, he proved that everything they had said was absolute nonsense.)

When I asked him this time, he readily agreed to speak, under one condition: he would speak only about one subject, the duty of soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories.

“Please speak about anything you want,” I replied, “After all, this is a free country – up to a point.”

So he came and delivered a speech in which he compared our soldiers to Hamas, who were then (as today) considered the most atrocious terrorists. This led to a terrific public outcry, Rabin threatened to boycott the ceremony, the jury considered whether it was possible to revoke the award, and Leibowitz announced that he would not accept it. So he never was awarded the Israel Prize, in common with some other people I know.

I ALWAYS enjoyed talking with him. He lived in a modest apartment, crammed with books, entered from a courtyard behind a house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia quarter. Greta, his wife and the mother of his six children, whom he had met at one of the German universities he had attended, kept order. Rachel and I liked her unassuming ways very much.

Whenever he talked, about any subjects, the little wheels in my brain sprang to life. He would drop little morsels of insight all along the way. (Just as an example: “The Germans and the Jews created all their cultural assets when they did not have a state.”)

The relationship between us rested on the fact that we were opposites in many ways. I am as convinced an atheist as he was orthodox – a fact that never disturbed him in the least. I am an optimist by nature (as was my father and my grandfather), he was more of a pessimist. He was 20 years my elder and a multiple doctor and professor, while I never finished elementary school. He came to Germany from his native Riga in his teens, while I was born there.

When, on the morrow of the Six-day War, we both spoke in favor of giving up the occupied territories, we had different reasons. He predicted that the occupation would turn Israel into a fascist state, I was convince that turning the territories over to the Palestinian people and enabling them to set up their own state would put an end to the historic conflict.

COMING FROM opposite directions, we both shared the uncompromising demand for the separation between religion and state. This led me to a parliamentary prank. When the Ministry for Religious Affairs was on the agenda, I asked Leibowitz for some comments on the subject. He dictated a statement to my assistant, and when my turn came to speak, I announced that instead of voicing my own views, which were well known, I would read out the opinion of an orthodox thinker, Prof. Leibowitz.

I then read his words: “Under this clerical-atheist government, Israel is a secular state publicly known as religious (in Israel, “publicly known” is a term denoting living together without marriage.) …The Chief Rabbinate is a secular institution appointed by the secular authorities according to secular laws. Therefore it has no religious legitimacy. ..The Ministry of Religious Affairs is an abomination…It turns religion into the kept concubine of the secular authority. It is the prostitution of religion…”

Here the Knesset exploded. The chairwoman of the session was so agitated that she announced that she was striking the words from the protocol. I later appealed, and the words were restored to the record – enabling me to read them just now from the official protocol.

As a speaker, Leibowitz was deliberately provocative. It was he who coined the term Judeonazi, at a time when comparing anything to the Nazis was strictly taboo. He likened certain units of the Israeli army to the Nazi SS, and youth in the settlements reminded him of the Hitler Youth. He called the holiest of holies, the Western Wall, “a religious discotheque”, or, in short, “discotel” (“kotel” means wall in Hebrew.) He used such provocative language to help him break through the crust of established myths.

THE LAST years before his death in 1994 he devoted all his efforts to encouraging soldiers to refuse to serve. We had several debates about this, since I was not quite convinced.

During my army service, I was witness to situations where one upright soldier at the right moment and the right place could prevent atrocities. One shining example: when Nazareth was occupied in 1948, the commanding officer was a Canadian Jew named Ben Dunkelman. He received an oral order from David Ben-Gurion to drive out all the inhabitants. Dunkelman refused to do so without a written order. As an officer and a gentleman, he had promised the mayor at the capitulation meeting that no inhabitant would come to harm. He was immediately relieved of his command, but by the time his successor took over, it was too late to present things as occurring in the heat of battle. No written order was ever  issued, of course.

Years later, I obtained a description of the episode from Dunkelman, who had returned to Canada, and Haolam Hazeh published it.

Against this argument, Leibowitz maintained that the most important thing was for individual soldiers to stand up and refuse to take any part in the occupation, whatever the consequences for them personally – imprisonment, ostracism, and worse. When enough soldiers did so, he believed, the occupation would collapse. (Yesh Gvul was founded with this aim.)

A FEW years before his death I had the honor of appearing side by side with him in a book of interviews by the German writer-photographer Herlinde Koelbl. There he defined his political outlook in the shortest and simplest way. I translate from German:

“There exist only two possibilities. The one is war for life and death, in the full sense of the term, in the course of which Israel will become a fascist state. The other possibility, the one that can help to prevent this war, is the partition of the country. Both peoples would have their independence and their states, but not in the entire country.

“I believe that partition will come, if not by an agreement between the state of Israel and the PLO, then through an imposed order. Imposed by the Americans and the Soviets.

“If neither of these happens, then we are heading toward a catastrophe.

“I repeat: there is no third possibility.

“Since the Six-day War, Israel has become a power apparatus, a Jewish power apparatus for ruling over another people.

“That’s why I say in the clearest terms: this glorious victory was the historic misfortune of the State of Israel. In the year of the “Spring of the Peoples”, 1848, [the Austrian dramatist] Franz Grillparzer  warned of the path that leads from humanity, through nationality to bestiality. In the 20th century, the German people indeed followed this path to the end. We entered upon this path after the Six-day War. Our essential task is to put an end to this.”

I AM happy to receive this prize together with his granddaughter. It reminds me of another passage in the same interview. “For the short time left to me, I shall stay here. Here in Jerusalem are my children and my grandchildren, and all of them will also remain here.”

That is real patriotism. Dr. Johnson famously labeled patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel. We see the patriotic scoundrels all around us. But we are the real patriots – patriots like Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

There will not be a second Yeshayahu Leibowitz. “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Read more from Uri at www.gush-shalom.org…

the future. But the Hebrew prophets were people who transmitted the Word of God!” Leibowitz, though orthodox and a kippah wearer, did not think of himself in that way.

Like all great men and women, he was a person with deep contradictions. I struggled to understand how a thinker of total rationality could be religious. He explained to me that a person who strictly fulfils all the 613 commandments of the Jewish religion can be completely rational – because religion exists on an altogether different level. As a professor of several wildly divergent disciplines (philosophy, chemistry, biochemistry, medicine), he did not let science and religion encroach on one another.

Once, when somebody told him that the Holocaust had stopped him believing in God, he replied: “then you did not believe in God in the first place.”

STANDING HERE in this hall, I feel some remorse for my part in the utterly absurd fact that he failed to receive the Israel Prize, the highest distinction the establishment can award. It happened in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. Fresh winds were blowing (or so it seemed) and the official Jury decided – at long last – to award Leibowitz the respected prize.

As it so happened, I was organizing at the time a public meeting of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I called Leibowitz and asked him if he would come and speak.

I must add here that I was always keen to have him at our meetings, for two reasons. First, he was a captivating speaker. Second, when Leibowitz was due to appear, the hall – however big it might be – was always filled to the last seat, the stairs and the windowsills. (However, I always arranged things in such a way that I would speak after him. For good reason: when he rose, he would cut all the speeches of his predecessors to pieces. Using his formidable powers of analysis, he proved that everything they had said was absolute nonsense.)

When I asked him this time, he readily agreed to speak, under one condition: he would speak only about one subject, the duty of soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories.

“Please speak about anything you want,” I replied, “After all, this is a free country – up to a point.”

So he came and delivered a speech in which he compared our soldiers to Hamas, who were then (as today) considered the most atrocious terrorists. This led to a terrific public outcry, Rabin threatened to boycott the ceremony, the jury considered whether it was possible to revoke the award, and Leibowitz announced that he would not accept it. So he never was awarded the Israel Prize, in common with some other people I know.

I ALWAYS enjoyed talking with him. He lived in a modest apartment, crammed with books, entered from a courtyard behind a house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia quarter. Greta, his wife and the mother of his six children, whom he had met at one of the German universities he had attended, kept order. Rachel and I liked her unassuming ways very much.

Whenever he talked, about any subjects, the little wheels in my brain sprang to life. He would drop little morsels of insight all along the way. (Just as an example: “The Germans and the Jews created all their cultural assets when they did not have a state.”)

The relationship between us rested on the fact that we were opposites in many ways. I am as convinced an atheist as he was orthodox – a fact that never disturbed him in the least. I am an optimist by nature (as was my father and my grandfather), he was more of a pessimist. He was 20 years my elder and a multiple doctor and professor, while I never finished elementary school. He came to Germany from his native Riga in his teens, while I was born there.

When, on the morrow of the Six-day War, we both spoke in favor of giving up the occupied territories, we had different reasons. He predicted that the occupation would turn Israel into a fascist state, I was convince that turning the territories over to the Palestinian people and enabling them to set up their own state would put an end to the historic conflict.

COMING FROM opposite directions, we both shared the uncompromising demand for the separation between religion and state. This led me to a parliamentary prank. When the Ministry for Religious Affairs was on the agenda, I asked Leibowitz for some comments on the subject. He dictated a statement to my assistant, and when my turn came to speak, I announced that instead of voicing my own views, which were well known, I would read out the opinion of an orthodox thinker, Prof. Leibowitz.

I then read his words: “Under this clerical-atheist government, Israel is a secular state publicly known as religious (in Israel, “publicly known” is a term denoting living together without marriage.) …The Chief Rabbinate is a secular institution appointed by the secular authorities according to secular laws. Therefore it has no religious legitimacy. ..The Ministry of Religious Affairs is an abomination…It turns religion into the kept concubine of the secular authority. It is the prostitution of religion…”

Here the Knesset exploded. The chairwoman of the session was so agitated that she announced that she was striking the words from the protocol. I later appealed, and the words were restored to the record – enabling me to read them just now from the official protocol.

As a speaker, Leibowitz was deliberately provocative. It was he who coined the term Judeonazi, at a time when comparing anything to the Nazis was strictly taboo. He likened certain units of the Israeli army to the Nazi SS, and youth in the settlements reminded him of the Hitler Youth. He called the holiest of holies, the Western Wall, “a religious discotheque”, or, in short, “discotel” (“kotel” means wall in Hebrew.) He used such provocative language to help him break through the crust of established myths.

THE LAST years before his death in 1994 he devoted all his efforts to encouraging soldiers to refuse to serve. We had several debates about this, since I was not quite convinced.

During my army service, I was witness to situations where one upright soldier at the right moment and the right place could prevent atrocities. One shining example: when Nazareth was occupied in 1948, the commanding officer was a Canadian Jew named Ben Dunkelman. He received an oral order from David Ben-Gurion to drive out all the inhabitants. Dunkelman refused to do so without a written order. As an officer and a gentleman, he had promised the mayor at the capitulation meeting that no inhabitant would come to harm. He was immediately relieved of his command, but by the time his successor took over, it was too late to present things as occurring in the heat of battle. No written order was ever  issued, of course.

Years later, I obtained a description of the episode from Dunkelman, who had returned to Canada, and Haolam Hazeh published it.

Against this argument, Leibowitz maintained that the most important thing was for individual soldiers to stand up and refuse to take any part in the occupation, whatever the consequences for them personally – imprisonment, ostracism, and worse. When enough soldiers did so, he believed, the occupation would collapse. (Yesh Gvul was founded with this aim.)

A FEW years before his death I had the honor of appearing side by side with him in a book of interviews by the German writer-photographer Herlinde Koelbl. There he defined his political outlook in the shortest and simplest way. I translate from German:

“There exist only two possibilities. The one is war for life and death, in the full sense of the term, in the course of which Israel will become a fascist state. The other possibility, the one that can help to prevent this war, is the partition of the country. Both peoples would have their independence and their states, but not in the entire country.

“I believe that partition will come, if not by an agreement between the state of Israel and the PLO, then through an imposed order. Imposed by the Americans and the Soviets.

“If neither of these happens, then we are heading toward a catastrophe.

“I repeat: there is no third possibility.

“Since the Six-day War, Israel has become a power apparatus, a Jewish power apparatus for ruling over another people.

“That’s why I say in the clearest terms: this glorious victory was the historic misfortune of the State of Israel. In the year of the “Spring of the Peoples”, 1848, [the Austrian dramatist] Franz Grillparzer  warned of the path that leads from humanity, through nationality to bestiality. In the 20th century, the German people indeed followed this path to the end. We entered upon this path after the Six-day War. Our essential task is to put an end to this.”

I AM happy to receive this prize together with his granddaughter. It reminds me of another passage in the same interview. “For the short time left to me, I shall stay here. Here in Jerusalem are my children and my grandchildren, and all of them will also remain here.”

That is real patriotism. Dr. Johnson famously labeled patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel. We see the patriotic scoundrels all around us. But we are the real patriots – patriots like Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

There will not be a second Yeshayahu Leibowitz. “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Read more about Uri Avnery’s work at www.gush-shalom.org…

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Global_march_to_jerusalem

Father Roy writes:  

Don’t be alarmed, but we can expect a bit of international excitement to erupt in the near future.  It’s possible that the Global March to Jerusalem … which is scheduled for March 30th … will develop amidst worldwide controversy.  

Let’s us civilized folks make preparations (within ourselves) to prevent the controversy from growing to the point that it does damage.  Let’s say our prayers and embark on a spiritual journey (or an educational experiment) with a specific purpose in mind.  Let’s try to figure out why Jerusalem is regarded as a "holy" city in Islam.  It’s key to the peace process that a critical mass of Christians and Jews understand at least that much between now and March 30th.  

GM2J’s website provides a few hints:  The Official Site for The Global March to Jerusalem.  We Westerners will need background information as we prepare.  Not to worry.  There’s a documentary on YouTube that will teach the average person … even the average college professor … even the average American teenager … all he or she needs to know and understand about Islam:  Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet – Part 1/12.  But don’t take my word for it, Peers.  See for yourself.

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This sad and touching story is written by 13-year-old Mays Abu Rass – the daughter of Walid Abu Rass, who was taken from his home in Ramallah on November 22nd 2011 by the Israeli occupation forces.  Walid has been held since then in ‘Administrative Detention’, which means that he is detained without charge, and that neither he nor his family nor his lawyer can find out why.

Read Walid’s full story here on his friend, Sam Bahour’s blog, and write a letter of support.

Walid Abu Rass and his daughters

Happier days: Walid Abu Rass with his daughters (Malak, 4 years old, and Mays, 13).

“No permission for the blanket!” This sentence is the only sentence I heard from them.

Sunday is my day. My mom told us that we had permission to visit my dad. That night I did not sleep at all from my excitement. It has been one and a half months without seeing my dad. He was taken by the Israeli occupation with no reason! My dream is to know why he was taken.

I wake up really early that day and wear my best clothes. My sister was really exited and kept asking me how we are going to visit our dad.  I was debating my answer because explaining the way is too complicated to tell such a young girl. We took some clothes and a blanket for my dad because it’s so cold over there. We also took some sandwiches for us in order to eat them while we wait.

We are now standing in front of the big door of the prison. We are WAITING, WAITING and WAITING. Nothing new is happening; every time we saw a couple of soldiers coming we jump up like crazy people thinking they are coming to open the door. Then we go back to the same position, WAITING, WAITING and WAITING. My sister is asking me “do we need more time? I am really bored.” I don’t have any answer for her.

Two hours pass, finally the huge door opens; at that moment, I thought all the hard part is gone and now the easy thing is coming: joy for just seeing my dad. We hold all the clothes and the blanket that we brought to give to my dad. But it is not the end yet; we got to the window where we can give the soldiers what we brought for the prisoners. I hold the clothes and stand in the row for hours. When the solider called me I ran to the window and put every single thing I have including the blanket. He told me, “NO PERMISSION FOR THE BLANKET.” I was shocked. I started asking WHY? He told me with anger, “NO PERMISSION FOR THE BLANKET!” I told him please, just this blanket. It’s cold inside. He said with blunt words: “NO PERMISSION FOR THE BLANKET!” I took everything and put them back inside my bag with a sad face. There is only one thing turning in my mind, I think how really precious this blanket is right now. It is the most precious thing for my dad.

Another huge door is opened and we enter to be checked now. They took our phones, wristwatches, and keys—everything that is related to the free life outside.

It is not the end yet. We go trough another small door in order to take off our shoes and jackets. Now we are told to pass through some big machine. My mom tries to tell the solider that children are not supposed to be exposed to this radiation machine. He says enter or leave. So we enter, all of us, including my baby sister.

After getting checked, they put us in a small room. We are around 50 people, children, women, and men. They closed the door and we are left together with just one small disgusting bathroom. Time is not moving. We are waiting in a room without a clock, no talking is allowed. A group of silent faces are just waiting and any sound of keys make us all stand up, thinking that it is the end of our wait. Hours are gone and we do not know the exact time. Finally, a solider came, but it was another one of their games to let us jump up again to think that it is time to enter. After few minutes, he went away. And here we are still WAITING, WAITING, WAITING.

Then, the door is open. Now every single person, young and old, are laughing running inside in order to use every single minute of the visit. The room is too small. I start looking around trying to find my dad, finally I saw him. He was smiling right at my face. My sister was dazzled, she starts kissing the glass between us and my dad. Between me and my dad are only a few centimeters. I can’t touch him or hug him. We pick up the phones that allow us to talk to him. There is no voice. The phones are still turned off. The stopwatch on the wall is at 00:00:00. Then the timer starts, we can start talking for 45 minutes, exactly, but this passes like seconds. I could not tell him everything I feel because every single thing we say is listened to by the soldiers. After 45 minutes, exactly, the phone goes silent again. Visiting time is over. The soldiers start pushing us outside of the room. Their words were, “go out, out!”

I still keep thinking about the blanket that I couldn’t give to my dad. I left, holding the blanket and looking back at the door of the prison. I was crying. My dad is going to sleep in the winter cold forever. All of you are sitting in your warm houses and my dad is locked up without a blanket.

Your daughter,

Mays Abu Rass

February 5, 2012

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Sa_pledges_suppot_for_palestin

The African National Congress – South Africa’s ruling party – has been a long-time partner of the Palestinian people. It seems that they may now be ready to formally join the ‘Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions’ campaign (BDS) against Israel – a campaign that yielded such excellent results in their own country.

 

SA Pledges Support for Palestinians

Mel Frykberg | The New Age Newspaper

02 February 2012

The South African government might consider supporting sanctions against Israel as it explores a variety of peaceful methods to step up support for the Palestinians’ fight for freedom and independence.

"We want to step up our support of the Palestinians and are investigating a number of peaceful ways to upgrade this support. We have no problem with supporting the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel," Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile told The New Age.

Mashatile was addressing a press conference in Pretoria yesterday at the Department of Arts and Culture, during the signing of a cultural agreement between South Africa and Palestine.
During the signing Palestinian Arts and Culture Minister Siham Barghouti and Palestinian Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture Musa Abu Ghreibeh, exchanged gifts with their South African counterparts, Minister Mashatile and deputy minister Joe Pehle. 
Later on in the year the Palestinians will host South Africa’s Arts and Culture Week, where South African artists and cultural entrepreneurs will present cultural exhibitions from their country.
Mashatile’s statement presents a considerable upping of the ante in South Africa’s long-standing support for the Palestinians and the cementing of a relationship that goes back decades, to when the ANC was struggling against the former apartheid government.
"Your Excellency, we count the people of Palestine among those patriots who stood by us in our struggle for national liberation," Mashatile told the Palestinian delegation as he recalled former President Nelson Mandela’s 1997 speech to honor the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
"Having achieved our freedom we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less human if we do so," said Mandela in 1997.
BDS supporters argue that Israel’s continued illegal occupation of the Palestinians territories and expropriation of Palestinians land, water and other resources can only be stopped when sanctions against Israel begin to bite economically.
"We are grateful for South Africa’s support for our efforts to become members of the international community and look towards you for guidance in our continued struggle," said Barghouti.
The two delegations agreed that future cooperation would include language development, heritage preservation, literature exchanges and exhibitions.

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Facebook peace button
Facebook launches a peace conference button for a live virtual Israeli / Palestinian youth conference on peace. Image: Facebook

Israeli and Palestinian youth use Facebook to help find ‘virtual’ peace

Ruth Eglash – WNN Opinion

(WNN/CGN) JERUSALEM: Just days after long-time Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiators Yitzhak Molcho and Saeb Erekat clashed yet again at a meeting in Jordan, thousands of young people from across the Middle East gathered together online for an event which set a new standard for mutual understanding and partnership.

Conferences bringing together Jews and Arabs might be nothing new. But what set this particular event apart is that it happened in the virtual world of Shaker, a Facebook application that allows for instantaneous interaction between users utilising cartoon-like personas that have conversations or attend events.

The brainchild of YaLa Young Leaders – an online movement formed by Israelis and Palestinians last May and already “liked” by more than 50,000 people on Facebook – the conference garnered vast media attention and even attracted some high-profile dignitaries, including Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, blind opera superstar Andrea Bocelli and Barcelona football coach Josep “Pep” Guardiola, among others.

More than 12,000 people “attended” the two-day online event, indicating that there is a solid base of people still committed to finding a way to resolve the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

YaLa is a play on the Arabic word for “get a move on!” and is a phrase also incorporated into everyday Hebrew. The YaLa movement includes volunteers from numerous countries around the Middle East and is now in the process of determining what steps to take next in order to keep this momentum going.

“The idea is to give young people, who are as capable as some of the main leaders, the chance to participate”, says Nimrod BenZev of the Peres Center for Peace, the Israeli organisation that helped establish YaLa together with Ramallah-based Yala Palestine.

BenZev refrains from saying that the online event was conducted in order to create “peace”; rather, he says it was to “improve regional cooperation and to find a way to end the conflict and the violence”.

“We are trying to create empathy and a sense of a joint future”, he says, adding, “peace is just not a fashionable word anymore and people in this region are sick of hearing it”.

Indeed, the focus of the virtual conference was to find fresh voices and allow them to create resolutions in a more “democratic” way.

Those who logged onto Shaker for the virtual conference found themselves in a green and colourful world, where their cartoon-like personas could engage in discussion or attend one of the events taking place.

Attendees could visit the music room, contribute to a “book project”, or view the games portal and help develop an online gaming initiative. But perhaps most importantly, those who joined the conference could have their say about the movement’s “Declaration of Principles” and help set its agenda for the future.

Among the conclusions reached by the thousands of young people who interacted online was the need for a virtual academy that will promote new ideas and provide webinars – or web-based seminars – to help train a new set of young leaders.

“We want to create a strong lobby in the Middle East to affect policy, build a better future for everyone and use our influence to stop future wars”, states Hamze Awawde, one of YaLa’s young Palestinian leaders.

“We see this movement as the basis of change and we need strong young people who are well educated and intellectual. Then we will be able to change our future”, he says.

Despite some of the social pressures in the region that discourage relations between Israelis and Arabs, Awawde points out that YaLa, thanks especially to the virtual conference, has been successful in attracting newcomers who share the vision.

Khaled Al-Jacer, a YaLa leader from Kuwait, says that the movement has finally given him a chance to interact – albeit virtually – with Israelis.

“I had never communicated with or met any Israelis in my life before I joined YaLa”, says Al-Jacer, explaining that until now he was not able to build a mental image of Israelis as human beings.

“I [have] now found that I have a lot in common with Israelis”, he says, adding that from what he has learnt about Israel’s progress in technology, the Jewish state might even be a “catalyst for regional development and success”.

“As for peace”, continues Al-Jacer, “I think it is the only option – it is a must! There will never be a military solution to this century old conflict. Each side must compromise and the sooner they realise this fact, the sooner we will have peace.”

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Ruth Eglash is a senior reporter at The Jerusalem Post. Last year she became the first recipient of the United Nations X-Cultural Reporting award for a story she wrote with a Jordanian journalist.

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