This has been on my mind for a long time, and it is time that I say something.
For the last three years I have been extremely active in a coexistence program that brings Israeli teens (Jewish and Arab) to the U.S. for a two week intensive immersion in shared society, living together, working together, doing service projects, public speaking. I have found it to be a very valuable experience, for them and for those they interact with, and I think it is a key element to an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It isn’t the only part of the solution, it is one important part.
This year’s delegation has been in the U.S. (in Bloomington-Normal) the past ten days, and those who follow me on social media will notice that I have not made a single post about it. Why? Well, because I am no longer part of the local advisory board. Why would I leave the board of a group that I think is so important? Well, it wasn’t exactly by choice.
In January I learned that the parent organization had created a series of new rules, one of which was particularly unacceptable. All local volunteers could neither speak, write, nor take any positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Complete neutrality was required. Hmmm… I understand that for an employee of the organization, it is important for there to be no pre-conceived biases, but for volunteers? This struck me as authoritarian and over-the-top. As most people who know me know, I do a lot of advocacy work on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. I am a vocal supporter of a two state solution — two states, two peoples, one peace. I do this through my work with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. I have spent fifty days in Israel and Palestine meeting organizations and people, doing fact-finding, and studying the issues at play. I also do similar work promoting a two state solution with various Jewish Federations. At ISU, I advise Hillel, the Jewish Student Union, and have worked hard not just to better understand Jewish culture and religious beliefs, but have done my best to expose the students to the same work I do on two states for two peoples. And, I write on the topic – here in my personal blog, and in my occasional column in the Times of Israel, a Jerusalem-based online newspaper.
So when told I could either stop writing and speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or continuing to work in the co-existence project, my choice was simple. I am not going to remain silent,or neutral. I have many Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian friends. I advocate for ALL of them. Everything I write, even with criticizing the Boycott Divest Sanctions Movement, focuses on self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Everything I write is intended to promote that one goal: two states, two peoples, and one peace. The idea that volunteers need to be completely neutral on the peacemaking issues that so much time, energy, and talent is invested is nonsensical. While it makes sense that paid staff need to remain neutral and not speak out on issues, to impose that on volunteers — volunteers whose professional work is focused on justice and conflict resolution is incredibly short-sighted. There is a hypocrisy in thinking that one can advocate for peace while remaining completely neutral. Yes, an organization can create whatever rules it wants. I accept that. I can also decide how to focus my energies.
I am not going to suggest that I don’t have biases. If there is one thing you learn in studying narratives, it is that we all have our own narrative. So, yes, I work with Jewish organizations; yes, I write a column for an Israeli newspaper. And yes, I work to promote the two state solution while opposing efforts to delegitimize Israel. I am also a public intellectual. I do research on the shared society efforts and the efficacy of “co-existence” programs, while also engaging in public advocacy. Will some view me as being a “Zionist” or pro-Israel because of my work, and the time I have spent in Israel? Sure. I am Pro-Israel. I am also Pro-Palestine, and Pro-Peace.
It makes me sad that I can not interact with the current group, or be a part of the program anymore, but I remain committed to the participants and teachers I have worked with in the past three years. My friends in Haifa, Nazareth, Rama, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Eilat are why this work is so important. It is more important than any one program’s short-sighted policy edicts.