WAC initiates A New Platform for Dialogue on Social Change

In the past year WAC's youth section (Youth for Social Change) has been holding encounters between Jewish and Arab youth. These meetings aim to seek the social common ground rather than points of conflict. Following please find a paper with the raison d'etre of the new initiative.

In the past year WAC’s youth section (Youth for Social Change) has been holding encounters between Jewish and Arab youth. These meetings aim to seek the social common ground rather than points of conflict. Following please find a paper with the raison d’etre of the new initiative.

Despite all the resources invested in coexistence projects, in schools, youth movements and other voluntary frameworks, the gap continues to grow and the alienation between Jews and Arabs – especially among young people – just gets deeper.

Arab and Jewish youth live under the same political, economic and social regime embodied by the state. The concept “coexistence” as understood till now promoted tolerance between two societies while accepting the existing unequal situation. But the difference between the societies is not just cultural, religious and national. What exacerbates the difference is the enormous social/class gap between the societies on all levels. The Arab population suffers from institutionalized discrimination, thus any attempt to nurture coexistence and tolerance while accepting the status quo is bound to fail.

The second intifada of October 2000 and the enormous rift that was highlighted between the two societies created the impression that Israel was comprised of two monolithic societies each of which had its own “national” consensus. However, the changes that Israel has undergone since neo-liberal economic policies took over, along with privatization and the dismantling of the welfare state structure, all deepened the social rifts even within the Jewish society itself. Today we see similar problems shared by both Arabs and Jews: low levels of education, limited employment opportunities, violence and cultural neglect.

In fact, Israel’s periphery is in a similar situation to that of most of Israel’s Arab society. Discrimination against Arabs has not reduced the gaps or led to equality within the Jewish society. On the contrary: the worse the discrimination gets, the greater the gaps grow within Jewish society. In the field of employment relations, we see that the more the Arab worker is weakened, the Jewish worker is weakened also. Meanwhile employers, business tycoons and the social strata that enjoy the fruits of the current economic regime get stronger.

During the last decade, the social gaps in the Israeli society have created a “social” discourse and awareness. Thus, across the national divide, Jews and Arabs share interests in common, even if they are not always aware of it. Social change that aims at closing the gaps within Israeli society and creating a value system based on equality cannot pass over Arab society, for the same reason – weakening Arab workers also weakens Jewish workers.

In spite of past failures, we believe there can be fertile ground for cooperation between Arab and Jewish youth: encounters between the two societies should be based on a program aimed at highlighting the common problems while promoting productive dialogue leading to cooperation for social change. Of course, this is dependent on the premise that young people from the two societies are willing to take a critical view of their respective societies and seek for change.

Jewish youth will have to contend with issues like the occupation, discrimination, exploitation, hedonism and cultural superficiality. Arab youth will have to contend with issues such as nationalistic trends which highlight difference at the expense of common ground, patriarchic values which oppress women, separatist Islamic fundamentalism which traps society in the past and leads to scientific and social backwardness, as well as social apathy which can be seen in the lack of solidarity.

Social change must be mutual. No real change is possible without self criticism and cooperation between the two societies. On the other hand, any progress in Israeli society regarding the resolving of the occupation, will lead to enormous change in Arab society.

This proposal does not intend to ignore core issues separating Jews and Arabs, but to see them in a different perspective and seek common ground. For example, a tough issue like “national identity and Israeli patriotism” has a different meaning today than in the past. Myths about national interests have cracked. What does a young Israeli person on minimum wage have in common with an Israeli tycoon who lives in London and invests overseas? What’s the significance of “Hebrew work” (the call to hire Jews only) when Israel imports so many migrant laborers? What’s the meaning of “redeeming the land” when land becomes expensive real estate in the hands of the top docile? The same for Arab youth in the modern world – should they emphasize their “Arabness” and Islam as a way of protecting themselves from western values? Are values such as democracy, equality, the status of women, and independence from family coercion “illegitimate” western values, or a necessary and positive condition for modern society and a way out of social and economic backwardness?

We aim to create fertile dialogue between youth, to understand reality in order to change it. Jewish youth will be able to clarify their position regarding all aspects of Israeli society, thus enabling their counterparts to see it in all its complexity. Arab youth will have to open a window to their society and its problems, to allow Jewish youth to contend with these issues and not close itself off behind a wall. During this process of getting to know each other, common ground will also be revealed. The discussion framework will encourage a high level of self-criticism and real interest in social change and thus will not become a framework for futile bashing as meetings tend to be characterized today.

We want to offer a different path which places society above nation, not in order to annul nationalism, but to cast it in a new mold. Nationalism of one side must not negate nationalism of the other, but nurture it. From our own experience we know this is a complex task, but also a possible one.

Therefore our task is to find partners in existing frameworks, such as schools, communes, youth movements or individuals who wish to take part in a project of this kind. Its success will depend on careful preparation of the youth, coordinating expectations and creating a suitable educational program, using a range of means for activities and raising awareness. We have the knowledge and resources, and in particular the willingness, and we call on all those for whom social change and equality are paramount to take part in this initiative.

We aim to create a framework in which participants will be Arab and Jewish youth willing to work for social change, keen to promote progressive social and educational projects in their communities. Thus our aim is not just to create a platform for meetings and understanding but to create a framework that enables working for change.

Our intention is therefore not to raise for discussion the conflictual issues on the Israeli Palestinian conflict but rather topics where common ground can be found on how each group can unite in the overall struggle for social change, fair employment and fair trade.

אודות Dani Ben-Simhon