The following was written by Oriel Eisner, a participant in Achvat Amim from September 2015 - February 2016.
When I arrived in the Israel/Palestine 9 months ago I was filled with questions and doubts. What is my relationship to this place, individually and emotionally? What is my relationship to this place politically? How am I/should I be related to what's happening here? What do I even think about what's happening here? I had some semblances of answers and thoughts which guided my responses to these questions, but I was fairly open and excited to wrestle with these things. I also had a strong feeling that I wanted to be actively and positively involved in fighting for social change here. During my first few months I spent time with family and allowed myself to settle into life here. I then began searching for ways to become involved and to engage with these questions.
I eventually came across Achvat Amim, emailed Daniel to get more information, and then we met in a coffee shop and spoke for an hour and a half. Pretty much immediately after leaving the meeting I decided that this program was exactly what I was looking for. It gave me a chance to be directly involved in activism and grassroots work, and the questions I was struggling with were the same ones that guided the learning process which is central to Achvat Amim. What follows is a reflection on theories of solutions and theories of social change, core issues which Achvat Amim—through the learning process and my volunteer placement—allowed and prompted me to think through.
There is a significant lack of political vision and creativity here (particularly on the left). People are frustrated and desperately want a change in circumstances, but very few provide any prospects of what that means and most are nearly entirely hopeless. Those who do have a political vision of peace are stagnated in the framework of a process which began almost 25 years ago. The single political vision which has dominated discourse amongst both Palestinians and Israelis (even amongst those who have had complaints about it) since 1993 is that which was put forward by the Oslo accords, but recently even those who were/are in favor of it are doubting its relevance and hinting that something new may be necessary (for details and examples supporting this claim see my blog from which this post was excerpted).
The slow failure of Oslo has left both sides feeling hopeless that peace is possible. This hopelessness, coupled with the unjust reality of the occupation, has led Palestinians to the types of actions seen over the past several months (including massive protests and the spate of attacks). It has led Israelis to have little-to-no faith in their political leaders and establishment and to re-elect Bibi as prime minister even after his governments folded, twice. In both cases there is a rejection of the dominant two-state Oslo model of political possibilities; for the Palestinians that rejection has been active (though it should be noted this is not the first time there has been active Palestinian resistance to what the Oslo peace process has delivered), and for the Israelis that rejection has been more passive (although the far-right and recent governments have been very active in creating realities which implicitly reject the two-state solution even if they don't say so).
I find myself tempted by this hopelessness. Trying to think through a solution which accommodates all of the moving pieces of the conflict (if we are talking two-states: where are the borders drawn? What happens to the separation barrier? Would Gaza and the West Bank be one state, if so how would they be connected, physically, economically, etc.? What happens to Palestinian refugees? What happens to the 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, the 21,000 in the Golan Heights, and the 300-350,000 in East Jerusalem; do we call those in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem settlers? What happens to/with Jerusalem and its municipal boundaries which extend well over the Green Line? If we are talking one-state: What happens to the Jewish character of the state, how much is protecting this character a concern? What happens to the Palestinian refugees, how/where would they be settled? The question of what happens to Jerusalem still stands. How are religious/secular relations handled once more religions are mixed? How are rights extended and groups protected? How will the current systems of governance on both sides be changed? How do the conflicting national histories coexist or reconcile in terms of national holidays, school curricula, etc.? If we are talking some other version of statehood: binational, confederation, post-state, etc. then most of these questions are still relevant) is a bit overwhelming to say the least. Even amongst those I have met and spoken to in recent weeks, those who are actively working to better the reality here, the solution is hazy. Those on the activist Israeli left and every Palestinian I have spoken with agree that the occupation needs to end, but the exact terms of this ending, or even what the occupation entails (Is it military, civilian, both? Does it include East Jerusalem, Golan Heights? What happens to Areas A, B, C? etc.) are up for debate.
But this feeling of being overwhelmed feels very different than the hopelessness of those who were/are dependent on Oslo and its frameworks and have been left distraught by its failure. One is filled with potential and possibility, and the other can only lament that its possibility seems to be dwindling. I can sense this difference amongst the Israeli and Palestinian activists I have met, even if it's not always explicitly voiced. The solution is hazy and there are questions left unanswered, but there is a push and a momentum. For some the exact terms of a solution aren't central, for others there are current demands (such as ending the occupation) which require action and that which follows will be dealt with after. In both cases there is a shift in how people are motivated, away from being motivated by a singular perfect or complete solution which is sought after, and toward being motivated by a more nebulous and general desire for change. This shift demands very different standards, processes, and expectations in terms of planning and evaluating projects and activities. The organization I have spent most of my time volunteering with, Roots/Shorashim/Judur, is particularly (and intentionally) entangled and invested in this shift and the complications that come with it.
Roots is an organization located in the West Bank just south of Bethlehem which seeks “to foster a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians”. The organization's work focuses mostly on dialogue and mutual recognition, although they seem to be at a turning point in light of the climate of the last several months (the rising tensions and frustrations, particularly amongst Palestinians, is pushing the Palestinian members of Roots to demand more action and projects).
Another major part of their work is outreach to local and international groups and individuals. One of the questions brought up in every single session I have sat in on is something along the lines of: what is your political solution? The response obviously varies each time but generally hovers around the following statement (in my own words): Roots does not endorse or hold a specific political plan or solution because our work precedes the details of a political solution, and we instead are working to shift consciousness and build a grassroots movement which creates the conditions to receive and create a political solution. It should be noted that this statement is not simple and straightforward and there is much internal tension around what exactly it entails. It should also be noted that there is a significant imbalance between the Israeli-settlers and the Palestinians in terms of how each relates to this statement.
The Israeli-settlers are in a position of privilege and relative comfort which means that there is less urgency for a change in circumstances (although this is one of the things that has been changing in light of the recent climate). The Palestinians, on the other hand, are living under a system of occupation which makes their lives incredibly difficult and makes them much more urgently pressed for a change in material circumstances. While these statements hold generally true, they also reflect one of the main tensions Roots actively seeks to work through. In that regard, Roots may not have a tangible political solution which it espouses, but its members (and its work) very actively struggle with questions of privilege and oppression, political change as being conscious or material, and what mutual livelihood and activity entails. As the Roots leaders say (and I think they are spot on), previous political solutions haven't, and future political solutions may not, really wrestle with these fundamental questions and therefore whatever frameworks they provide are/will be inadequate in providing durable solutions.
The response given to the question, “what is your political solution?”, reframes the focus of the political process from being one which holds a prospective solution as being the standard which determines future activity (to the point where it becomes ideology), to a process whereby the standard (if it can be called that) is rooted in the creation of conditions which can both foster and accommodate the development of a political solution; the focus is turned away from a solution to the possibility of a solution. This focus upholds a dynamism and flexibility that a singular focus on a singular solution shuns. The process which emerges from this focus is therefore much more responsive to changing circumstances and realities and thus much more readily prepared for a potential future where a solution could arise. That said a process which is without a distinct focus is also much more insecure, vulnerable, and exposed. It is therefore much harder to promote and rally behind. Singular solutions fit easily into slogans, posters, bumper-stickers, speeches, political platforms, etc; nebulous and indistinct processes do not.
That's where the peace process (particularly for Israelis) has become completely stuck. Peace as a concept and 'the peace process' have become (or may have always been) singular ideologies to stand by, almost blindly, even in their failure. For that reason close to 100k Israelis were gathered for the 20th anniversary memorial of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, and the central image of Haaretz's “Israel Conference on Peace” in November was a dove frozen in an ice cube. To be fair, Rabin was an important Israeli leader for peace and his assassination was a traumatic and terrible event that should be commemorated, and the Haaretz conference had many interesting moments and sought to reimagine the framework of peace, but both events represent a significant lack of creativity and inspiration amongst the Israeli population regarding the peace process. The population is in mourning of what was and has yet to think beyond the framework that was created 22 years ago. Even at the Haaretz conference which sought to 'melt the ice holding the dove' most of the speakers (Palestinian and Israeli) were wrapped in Oslo and its frameworks. In fact, this may even be unjust to the Oslo Accords themselves because the accords were framed as a multi-step process that could respond to shifting circumstances, not the singular dominating concept that it became. In any case the after-effects of the Oslo process and its failure (perceived or real) have led to a total stasis in political thinking which urgently needs to be shaken, and I think (or at least hope) that the work being done by Roots is an example of that shaking. This work is grassroots, based in people and their ability to come together, and committed to envisioning a shared future; the same values which I was able to live during my time spent on Achvat Amim.
That said, I still sit with an unresolved tension; the same tension felt between the members of Roots. The nebulous and indistinct processes I have advocated for and which have a nice theoretical ring to them don't necessarily do enough to deal with the urgent material changes that the situation here demands. The Occupation has been ongoing for nearly 49 years, close to 1.5 million Palestinian refugees have been living in refugee camps for nearly 68 years. These individuals need answers and they need significant political and material changes which will better their circumstances. On the one hand, the difficult dialogue and community building undertaken by Roots prepares people to envision and understand these changes, perhaps even to fight for them, but without that fight the need to alleviate the ongoing suffering seems to outweigh the long-term value of consciousness building. On the other hand, current attitudes and frameworks give me the impression that without the conversations directed toward changing hearts and minds any possibility of a just and shared solution is nearly impossible. To me this seems like an unresolvable tension; both processes are necessary yet they are also somewhat in conflict with each other, too much attention given to one can take away from the other.
The members of Roots sit with this tension and try to work through it in nearly all of their conversations, and perhaps that's best, to sit with this tension, to constantly reflect upon the questions it raises, and to chart one's path in a way which is responsible to both of these pulls. To me that seems like the only way forward. It is challenging and demands a high degree of self-reflection and self-criticism, but it responds best to the short-term and long-term needs of this place. Without struggling with both both any change brought about will be partial.
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