What Gen Y & Gen Z can do for peace

Students in Israel on a recent Birthright trip. Israeli supporters should also visit the PA, the writer challenges, to get a different viewpoint.

In watching the conversations unfold on Facebook recently I feel greater despair than ever regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Beyond the overabundance of falsehoods and biased reporting from both sides, I have watched my newsfeed explode with vitriolic rants, overstatements, and reductionist arguments.

I’m disappointed in my generation for taking social media tools like Facebook and Twitter – gifts that have helped us make friends in foreign countries, learn about things we’d never heard of, and connect with partners whose paths we might never have crossed otherwise –  and turning them into a battleground for polarizing throw-downs and extreme ideology. 

While I haven’t hesitated in the past to publish my sentiments on Facebook  – be they about political events, travels, or even a great meal –  have remained silent in recent weeks. I’m blessed with a diverse group of friends and I’ve begun to feel that anything I might say will be misappropriated and attacked, engendering unproductive arguments between friends who don’t even know each other. I’m saddened that I am deterred from joining the conversation for  fear that my own voice will instigate discourse that could undermine my intentions.

I unequivocally support Israel’s right to defend herself.  I lived in Israel through the second intifadah and was present at two suicide attacks.  I experienced what it is like to live in terror and I believe no country should or would put up with the existential peril Israel endures. I believe Israel’s enemies are very real – and that their threat should not be minimized or underestimated.  I believe the Jewish people deserve and need a homeland, that this homeland was rightfully established in the land of Israel, and that parties who refuse to acknowledge this right and this history pose a barrier to peace.

I have also, over the years that I have spent time in Israel, gotten to know several Palestinians and visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I have listened to a narrative that is divergent from the one I grew up hearing, and I have acknowledged the troubling truths contained therein. I am deeply devastated and angered by the plight of the vast number of innocent Palestinians whose lives have been destroyed by this ugly conflict, and I believe Israel and her supporters should do everything in their power – in times of both military rest and unrest – to empower moderate Palestinians, ensure a better future for their children, and aid them on the path to statehood. I am also frustrated by the lack of mobilized leadership working toward this end on the Palestinian side.

I have seen Israel make some major sacrifices for peace – I lived in Israel through the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and witnessed the pain, optimism and good intentions of the Israeli people.  I know that most Israelis want peace, and support a two-state solution in theory.  And yet, the plight of the Palestinians continues to worsen. I believe Israel could and should do more to advance the priority of a negotiated settlement and thereby to halt the cycle of violence. At the same time, I am disheartened by the serious barriers posed by the intermingling of Palestinian leaders committed in earnest to resolving the conflict with a recognized terrorist organization committed in ideology and action to Israel’s destruction.

I am certain one can believe everything I just stated without contradiction. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex issue – perhaps one of the most complex in history – and if it were indeed as black and white as so many people portray it to be, then someone as smart as all of us would have solved the crisis, one way or another.

How or when the current operation will end is uncertain but we know a few things for sure. It will end, and our generation will be left at an even greater political and ideological impasse than before. We will have even more grievances to add to our narratives, more facts to argue about, more protagonists on whom to lay blame.  There will be more people who have grown up with reason to hate, avenge, and murder.  The cycle will continue.

We are the first generation to be able to discuss politics in large online forums across the world.  We have grown up watching globalization open doors and make connections previous generations never dreamed possible. In some parts of the world, we claim our generation sees beyond skin colour, gender and sexual orientation. We have experienced unprecedented global innovation and we leave secure jobs to pursue dreams against all odds.  And yet, when it comes to this age-old conflict, we recycle age-old arguments.  We revert to the ideological and political battles our parents fought, we invoke antiquated polemics and vindicate biased historical analyses and predictions. Our generation can and must do better.  Let’s challenge ourselves to create a new conversation.

Let’s be the generation that moves the Israel-Palestine conversation from noisy and cyclical arguments to “debates for the sake of heaven.” Let’s use social media and all of the opportunities available to us to connect across ethnic and religious and, yes, even intellectual and political divides. Let’s challenge each other – and ourselves – in ways that are scary, and constructive, and open us up to new possibilities for understanding and collaboration. Let’s be radically empathic, curious, and creative. 

So many of my peers – on both ends of the political spectrum – are well intentioned activists who want to do something to help, whether it’s sending care packages to IDF soldiers, promoting BDS campaigns, or engaging in social media wars.  I know that many of these people, on the right and the left, want to contribute to a more peaceful future, whether I agree with their approach of not. Many of these efforts make a difference on some level within the cycle; but they do not change the conversation.  They perpetuate the cycle, not disrupt it.

Let’s disrupt this vicious cycle.

If you asked me what’s one thing I can do to advance peace in Israel/Palestine, here’s what I would offer.

If you’ve spent your life visiting Israel and advocating for her, commit to visiting the Palestinian Authority on your next trip, meeting with people who feel differently than you, and hearing an alternative narrative with an open heart, and without the reflexive impulse to refute and fire back. 

Read about the Palestinian narrative.  As challenging as this may sound, read about the nakba and naksa –  hear it in their words, their language and their terms, even if your account is very different.  Learn about the daily struggles of people being raised in the Palestinian territories.  Be genuinely curious about the challenges they face in daily life, and sit with that empathy before refuting and excusing it.  Know that you can defend Israel while still being troubled by these circumstances.

If you are a critic of Israel, commit to visiting the country. Visit regions that live under constant attack. Read the Hamas charter, meet with terror victims, and ask yourself what you would do in their shoes. Commit to learning about the diversity of opinions among Israelis, and meeting with Israelis who have made efforts to advance peace in earnest.  Putting aside cynicism and preconceived notions, learn about the grave challenges they face along the way, and the threats and obstacles posed by Israel’s adversaries. Try and think of constructive and realistic alternatives that respect existentially threatening parameters.   

If you have no direct connection to the conflict but have been engaging in social media wars, commit to reading material from opposing angles, and talk to smart people who have experience on different sides of the fence. Most importantly, commit to refraining from adding to the noise and promoting online material without considering its source and asking critical questions.  Join the conversation because you care and want to advance peace; avoid simply escalating a cyclical, futile debate by recycling overly simplified arguments.

Let’s put our heads together.  Let’s ask each other the questions we’ve been afraid to ask, and dream up ideas others have not yet tried.  How, for example, can we ensure that the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians speak each others’ languages?  How can we help empower the Palestinian people? Does BDS productively advance the cause, or are there constructive ways for us to promote policies that ensure Israeli businesses and multinationals are doing their part to advance peace in a proactive manner?

The next time you engage in an argument, before attacking your interlocutor with canned counterarguments, ask yourself who your opponent is, and where they are coming from.  If they are working toward the same thing as you are – a more peaceful future – then remind yourself that you share a common goal.  Ask yourself what you can learn from them, and what innovations might ensue by engaging them in a respectful and curious dialogue.

Let’s all contract to create safe spaces for constructive dialogue.  Let’s decide on red lines that should not be tolerated by any one, regardless of political orientation.  Let’s agree that anti-semitism and islamophobia have no place in this conversation.

I know many people out there believe there is no hope or optimism to hold on to.  I subscribe to the Jewish saying – “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avoth 2:21)  I think every generation is obligated to leave the subsequent generation a better future than the one they themselves inherit.  Our generation bears both the responsibility – and the resources – to take this conversation to a new place, to change the discourse, and to move the needle, even if slightly, in one direction toward a resolution of this heartbreaking conflict.  If we collectively commit to being more open minded, more creative, more respectful, and more earnest than generations past, we can break the cycle of generations before, and hand our children a more evolved conversation, and a more peaceful future.

Adena Philips is a management consultant and executive coach based in New York.  She currently co-chairs ACCESS, the American Jewish Committee’s New Generation Program, and is on the board of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents.