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From Encountering the “Other Side” to Social Change Activism

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Peace Science Digest.

Citation: Ross, K. (2019). Becoming activists: Jewish-Palestinian encounters and the mechanisms of social change engagement. Peace & Change, 44(1), 33-67.

Keywords: encounter organizations, Israel/Palestine, peacebuilding, activism, peace education

In the midst of violent conflict, “encounter” organizations and initiatives bring together individuals from the different “sides” with the hope that they can humanize one another and build relationships, thereby defusing tensions and negative perceptions that can fuel violence. While most previous research focuses on whether such initiatives work, not as much is known about how encounter initiatives have the impact that they do on participants, including how they may encourage participants to engage in longer-term social change activism. Focusing on Sadaka Reut, an organization in Israel that implements encounter programs between Jewish- and Palestinian-Israelis, the author asks, how are participants in its programs empowered to continue social change activism, particularly in relation to the conflict?

Encounter organizations: a peacebuilding organization that brings together individuals from the different “sides” of a conflict so they can get to know one another and, in doing so, start to break down negative attitudes they may have towards the other side and broaden their perspective on the conflict.

To address this question, the author focuses on the pedagogical approach taken by Sadaka Reut in its encounter programs. Begun in 1982 with an after-school program, the organization has grown to include programs of varying levels of intensity for children and young adults, including a year- long program where participants volunteer and engage in social justice work together. Over that time, the emphasis has shifted from building interpersonal relationships to the critical importance of social change. Due to its focus on Israeli citizens, the status of Palestinian citizens in a state (Israel) that defines itself in religious terms and privileges Jewish citizens is the main conflict its encounter work addresses. In this context, its activities aim to challenge dominant narratives in society that justify various formsof inequality, as well as segregation between Jewish-Israelis and Palestin-ian-Israelis, so that participants can gain a “critical awareness of systemic injustices—of all kinds—in Israeli society.”

Drawing on interviews with Sadaka Reut participants and staff members, along with organizational documents and meetings, the author concludes that two elements of Sadak Reut’s approach were especially important in encouraging continued activism by participants. First, participants noted the significance of learning about issues closely related to their identities and/or personal experience but also of engaging in concrete learning experiences. By visiting sites around Israel and Palestine to learn about the problems facing various communities, participants gained a much more grounded understanding of injustice, as well as of their own privilege, creating personal connections in the process that motivated them to care.

It was precisely the difficulty and closeness of these experiences — witnessing the raw pain of a family whose son had just been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or the sweet-natured demeanor of a little girl who lived on an IDF firing range — that made them so transformative.

Second, it was not only learning about injustices in concrete and personal ways but also learning about them within a binational framework — with Palestinian-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis learning together — that proved significant in shaping participants as future activists. On the most fundamental level, developing binational relationships through Sadaka Reut’s programs helped participants understand key issues related to the conflict with greater depth and complexity. Doing so also meant, according to one Palestinian-Israeli participant, that from then on if she heard about a pro- posed policy she would consider its implications not only for the Palestinian community but also for the Jewish-Israelis she met in the program, as well as for their families, friends, and broader networks. In addition, greater awareness of the experiences of the “other side” and of the broad-er inequalities at the heart of the conflict helped participants think more carefully about how best to engage in joint activism — in particular, when to lead a struggle and when to stand back and simply be supportive. At the same time, by undertaking activism together as part of Sadaka Reut, participants from both communities demonstrated that joint activism is possible in the first place.

Contemporary Relevance:

This past year, the Israeli government passed the so-called “nationality law,” reaffirming the Jewish character of the Israeli state — further drawing out the contradiction between Israel’s democratic and religious dimensions and the fundamental inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis. If anything, this development only exacerbates the precarious situation of Palestinian-Israelis and underscores the need for encounter initiatives that focus not only on relationship-building — as important as that is — but also on critical education around inequalities in Israeli society and binational activism to remedy these. As we know from research on nonviolent/civil resistance struggles, the more broad-based a movement is, the more likely it is to succeed. In other words, activism across societal divides — joint Palestinian-Israeli/Jewish-Israeli activism in the case of Israel — is key to building the power and effectiveness of a movement, and encounter initiatives like Sadaka Reut’s are an important way to develop joint activism that is deliberate and thoughtful in its approach.

Talking Points:

• Organizations that bring together people from multiple sides of a conflict can play an important role in motivating participants to become activists for social change.
• Organizations bringing together people from multiple sides of a conflict can motivate participants to continue their social justice activism by “making learning experiences personal and concrete” and by providing participants with the chance to engage in learning experiences with those from the “other side” of the conflict.
• Organizations at the intersection of peacebuilding and social justice must contend with a few key challenges, including how to 1) help participants develop a critical awareness of power inequalities while also validating all perspectives, 2) expose participants to difficult realities while also providing adequate emotional support, and 3) reveal complexity while also enabling participants to take a stand.
• By learning and engaging in activism together as part of Sadaka Reut’s programs, Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli participants demonstrate the kind of partnership and joint activism that is possible.

Practical Implications:

This research draws out the potential of encounter initiatives becoming a springboard for further social justice activism, especially in the context of an asymmetrical conflict — but also the related challenges. On the one hand, the process of learning about the realities of conflict and injustice along with members of the “other side”can open participants’ eyes to the personal impact and urgency of these issues, prodding them to stay engagedand act for change. On the other hand, the complexity and sheer enormity of a conflict and its human toll can be overwhelming, creating a sense of hopelessness and paralyzing individuals instead of galvanizing theminto action. To effectively motivate and energize participants for long-term social justice activism, encounter organizations need to recognize and navigate these tensions. In addition to adopting the pedagogical approachesthat this research indicates are key to encouraging activism in participants, organizations should provide space for participants to consider the involved tensions directly: to discuss how to take a stand when one is aware of complexity or how to work through the discomfort some might feel when their more dominant perspectivesare not validated as much as those of their more marginalized counterparts. On a related note, encounter organizations should not underestimate the psychological toll experienced by participants as they broaden their understanding of the conflict and its related injustices. They should proactively integrate support mechanisms into their programming to ensure that participants don’t become burnt out before they are able to act on their newfound convictions.

Continued reading:

Gawerc, M. (2016). Constructing a collective identity across conflict lines: Joint Israeli-Palestinian peace movement organizationsMobilization: An International Quarterly, 21(2), 193-212. 

Marlowe, J. (2014, July 29). Rays of hope
in Gaza: 13 Israeli and Palestinian groups building peace
YES! Magazine.

Goldenblatt, D. (2012, February 16). On anti-normalization: Joint Israeli-Palestinian activism must continue+972 Magazine.

Organizations/Initiatives:

Sadaka Reut: http://www.reutsadaka.org

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