Is the echo-chamber hollow?

by Avi Zimmerman

Two weeks from today, we’ll step out of our comfort zone and into a new international conversation. Though the decibel level here in the Judea-Samaria echo chamber is intensifying to an unprecedented high, the city of Ariel is adopting a more sobering approach to what 2017 has in store.

It would be convenient for us to be emboldened by the recent developments with the incoming US administration and the associated optimism in the pro-Judea-Samaria community about a supportive US Ambassador, the anticipated relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the general impression that the Israeli residents of the region will not be forsaken by Israel’s closest ally. Indeed, the change of climate over the past weeks has drawn all sorts of enthusiasm among those who are driven to apply Israeli sovereignty over the disputed region. But are these unfolding events all that simple?
While a collective sense of relief turns to premature celebrations in one camp, there’s a parallel yet separate echo chamber at play. In advance of 2017, the anti-Judea-Samaria community has long been planning a series of campaigns to further delegitimize and undermine the Israeli communities of Judea-Samaria/West-Bank. The 50-year anniversary of the Six Day War, what they term “the occupation,” is their anchor. They’ll be making a push for 2017 to be the final year of an Israeli presence in the region. Even if the odds are stacked up against them, they plan to do their utmost to persevere.

Here in Ariel we see the disconnect — not only between the two echo chambers, but in the gaping distance between each of the camps and a little thing we call reality. If the last 50 years have proven anything, it’s that the West’s diplomatically-engineered “solutions” — whether from friend or foe — will not directly influence the day-to-day lives of the residents of the region. However you slice it, Jews and Arabs will continue living side by side in Judea-Samaria/West-Bank. Indeed, the city of Ariel continues to embrace and improve that reality.

On January 3 we’ll be launching TALK17, a new platform for conversation about the issues at hand from the people who live in and experience the region. The year-long series, to be filmed at the once-boycotted Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts, will host Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, social activists, business-people, educators and regular folks whose names are not preceded by prestigious titles. Though we’ve managed to get one of the echo chambers out of its shell, the other has yet to rise to the occasion.

It hasn’t been easy raining on the parade, suggesting to the pro-Judea-Samaria community to exchange ceremonious chest beating for thoughtful conversation. Yet difficult as that may be, it’s been nearly impossible to penetrate the soundproof echo chamber of Judea-Samaria’s detractors. Sometimes we get a runaround; often we don’t get a response at all. Though no one has vocally rejected our invitations, representatives of unambiguous anti-Judea-Samaria positions have yet to confirm participation.

Our experience has been that boycotters only boycott themselves. The 36 authors and artists who refused to appear at the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts back in 2010 have been replaced by 185 annual performances and over 550 events on the wait-list. The show does go on. But the voices of the boycotters have been voluntarily disqualified from the discussion.

It may be that the Judea-Samaria detractors are still in boycott mode. It may be that they’re shifting gears in response to sustained processes of both Israel and the United States moving towards more conservative policies, which may prove disorienting for them. It’s even possible that they truly have abandoned their echo chamber, changing not their perspectives but rather their tactics. Whatever the reasoning, their silence merely distances them from the discussion.

The city of Ariel will proceed according to plan. We will add depth and breadth to the dated, antiquated and largely irrelevant rhetoric of the past 50 years. A wide variety of speakers from different ethnic backgrounds, faith communities, political outlooks and life experiences will be given the stage, a microphone and direct access to online viewers across the globe.

With an eye to Israel’s next 50 years, and despite the counsel of some of our closest friends, we continue to reach across the aisle and invite our dedicated detractors to join the conversation. If you or someone you know can add productive value to the discussion, you’re welcome to approach us. It’s not too late for more voices to be heard.

Originally published in The Times of Israel.