Inter-ethnic encounters bring hope for peace

Mira Sucharov

When focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations, as I do for a living, it’s nice to have a good news story to relay. On June 22, the annual Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East (run by the New-York based Institute of International Education) was awarded to Yehuda Stolov and Salah Aladdin, two leaders of the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). To many outsiders, inter-ethnic encounter experiences seem a no-brainer when it comes to grassroots, peace building efforts. But not everyone is so convinced, particularly the “anti-normalization” faction of the Palestine solidarity movement.

The $10,000 (US) prize recognizes “outstanding work being conducted jointly by two individuals, one Arab and one Israeli, working together to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East… [by] bringing people together and breaking down the barriers of hatred toward ‘the other.’”

IEA brings together Israelis and West Bank Palestinians to engage with one another in an “interactive, interfaith encounter” context. The organization has run 1,900 programs over 13 years, with 4,000 individuals participating last year. Stolov is executive director of IEA, and Aladdin has taken on various leadership roles in the organization, most recently as assistant director. 

Yet, the so-called “anti-normalization” movement is amplified by elements of the Palestine solidarity movement who associate with BDS. For example, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) guidelines urge that Israeli-Palestinian encounter-type initiatives be boycotted under the rubric of “anti-normalization.” 

The guidelines go on to suggest that “events, projects, publications, films or exhibitions that are designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narrativews or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, ‘overcoming barriers,’ etc., without addressing the root causes of injustice and the requirements of justice,” be boycotted.

The anti-normalization tendency may be understandable as a philosophical commitment, particularly if one believes – as those BDS activists do – that justice points to the amelioration of only one side’s lot. But even if one believes that the only justice to be served is that of the Palestinians, the anti-normalization tendency is a misguided way to hope to achieve it.

Psychologists have long shown the importance of the “contact hypothesis” for reducing intergroup prejudice. Recent studies have shown that even “imagining a positive interaction” with an outgroup member can be just as powerful in reducing prejudice as face-to-face encounters can be. And the first step in getting Israelis to realize the power their country wields over Palestinian life and dignity is to render the Palestinian experience visible.

Yehuda Stolov agrees. The only way to end the occupation, Stolov explained to me, is to increase the sense of human connection between Israelis and Palestinians.

Stolov is aware of the anti-normalization pressures some participants may feel. To minimize this, participation is kept “under the radar,” press access is restricted, and meeting spots are chosen so that the events can appear as inconspicuous as possible. 

As the lead Palestinian drafter of the 2003 Geneva Initiative that sought to lay out a two-state plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Ghaith al-Omari has every reason to be jaded. And having advised the Palestinian negotiating team from 1999 to 2001, al-Omari knows first-hand how little has emerged from the halting peace process. Still, he has recently declared his opposition to the anti-normalization movement in a moving essay in Fikra Forum, reprinted on the Third Narrative website, where I serve as co-director of its Scholars for Israel and Palestine affiliate group. 

People like al-Omari and the founders of IEA, and even the Goldberg peace prize visionaries, realize the possibilities inherent in hope rather than cynicism. And if you have to choose among them – as it seems you do these days, I’d rather be on the side of hope.