A new conversation for Palestinians, ‘settlers’ and the world

by Avi Zimmerman

It is not easy to break through the oppressive glass ceiling that grows thicker with every passing year, every UN resolution and every uninformed microphone-equipped broadcaster or spokesman.

There are two ways to silence the people you claim to care about. Arabs living in Judea-Samaria/West Bank are painfully familiar with the first. Israelis living in the area are subject to the second.

The first, more aggressive, approach is to drown out the millions of voices you claim to represent by speaking louder, more frequently and with authoritative bravado. Whatever the politically expedient rationale, the world continues to view the Palestinian Authority as the mouthpiece of the Palestinian people, notwithstanding the undemocratic composition of their government. True, the PA is not a totalitarian regime, as it has limited powers. But when was the last time the international community asked Palestinians what they think their lives might be like if the PA were in full control?

Of course, it’s not only the PA that claims to speak for the Palestinians; the global movement to delegitimize the Jewish state sees Palestinians as readily available pawns in the service of its agenda. How do Palestinians feel about boycotts that seek to shame the businesses that provide them with monthly paychecks? How do they feel about others pushing a would-be solution that they themselves never had an opportunity to deliberate, let alone approve?

The second method of silencing is not by speaking on behalf of others but by ignoring them altogether. In the case of the Israelis living in Judea-Samaria/West Bank, the Israel advocacy community prefers to abandon the conversation rather than address the relevant issues head on. This aloof posture runs far deeper than conceding use of the terminology of “settlers” instead of residents, and “West Bank” instead of Judea-Samaria. All too often, when “settlement” related issues surface, hasbara spokespeople quickly reach for their cellphones to talk about the latest Israeli app, display pictures of Israeli beaches and to share an op-ed about IsraAID in Haiti. When overseas campus activists respond to Apartheid Week with Hummus Week you’re not only throwing in the towel regarding the 450,000 Israelis living in Judea-Samaria/ West Bank, you’re hopelessly losing the war for Israel’s legitimacy.

It is difficult to measure which silencing approach is more damaging, and impossible to judge these tendencies to disenfranchise entire populations on an equal moral plane. Nonetheless, in an effort to move beyond this ethical impasse, it is instructive to note that these long-term methodologies share the same historic root.

Since before the establishment of the modern-day State of Israel, the global push for a “two-state-solution” has controlled the conversation. Despite the failure of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, not to mention every two-state attempt before and thereafter, self-righteous interlocutors continue to believe that they can solve our problems for us. As a result, paternalistic measures to coerce an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain tragically obtuse to the people who would be required to live in accordance with the resulting dictates. Sadly, those who claim to speak for the subjects of this tired conversation have adopted the same pervasive modes of dehumanizing the issues in the desperate hope of advancing their objectives.

Fortunately, Israelis and Palestinians are growing increasingly aware of their shared grievances. And they’re stepping forward to reconfigure the playing field.

The timing of this initiative is opportune. This year we recognize 50 years since the Six Day War and Israel’s subsequent renewed presence in Judea-Samaria/West Bank. It is also 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, when the West first announced its intentions of playing a role in what would become the Jewish state. In 2017, we take stock of where we’ve been, while thoughtfully considering what the next 50 years will look like. While the international community perseveres with impotent statements, gestures and policies, the people of Judea-Samaria/West Bank are embarking on a new form of dialogue.

We’ve called the project TALK17, looking to this year as a fitting context for a new conversation about Israel. This new conversation is not limited to what has developed between and among the different populations of Judea-Samaria/West Bank; that is a dialogue that has been unfolding for generations. TALK17 is about the conversation between “settlers” and “Palestinians” on the one hand, and the international community on the other hand.

It is not easy to break through the oppressive glass ceiling that grows thicker with every passing year, every UN resolution and every uninformed microphone-equipped broadcaster or spokesman. That said, we believe that we’ve found the ideal setting for TALK17. The Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts represents the nexus between consensus and controversy. Boycotted six years ago by 36 performing artists and playwrights who would not have their work displayed in what they called “occupied territory,” the center continues to host 185 performances a year, with more than 550 on the waiting list. Whereas international media outlets used the boycott as a means of advancing a controversy narrative, the Israeli public consistently maintains Ariel’s consensus status as a full-fledged Israeli city.

We’ve faced many challenges getting TALK17 off the ground. The online video format has been somewhat intimidating for Palestinians, whose fear of PA retribution is well founded. On the flip side of the coin, many Israel advocates are reticent to attend the live events, further entrenching the disconnect between reality and their monotone mantras. But neither the hasbara advocates nor the PA are our target audiences. We are making our voices audible for the intellectually honest and sincerely engaged. And we remain optimistic that, for the sake of our respective futures, the world will care enough to listen.

Avi Zimmerman is the executive director of American Friends of Ariel and the founder of TALK17.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.