Israeli Activist Discusses Grassroots Approach to Peace in Region

In a lecture to College students and faculty on Tuesday, Israeli social activist Maya Karni discussed her approach to success in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, one involving not military tactics but a bottom-up approach from the views and opinions of the common people.

“[Maya Karni] is not a political activist, but an Israeli social activist,” said Professor of Religious Studies Brian Ogren during his introduction to Karni’s lecture. “She’s dealt with questions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at the grassroots level.”

Karni, part of the Israeli Ministration of Education, has independently worked on the peace conflict from a bottom-up approach and talked to her audience about projects involved in that approach. “[They] offer us a different perspective…a grassroots perspective,” said Karni, “and perhaps a more hopeful perspective.”

An Israeli Jew, Karni was born to an Iraqi family that moved to Israel in the 1930s, before Israel was declared an independent state in 1948. “When growing up, I was exposed to my parent’s experiences [as Arabs],” said Karni. “I wanted to look ‘new Israeli,’ and tried to avoid my Arabic identity.”

However, Karni’s views of her family background changed after war broke out in Israel, while she was in New York watching footage of the violence from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. “[The Palestinians] weren’t the enemy, not a monster…[but] human beings just like you.”

From there, Karni continued on a path to building relationships between the countries, following an educational approach at the level of civilians to mediate tension between the two countries. Said Karni, “the people of both sides are already ready.”

After going over some demographic statistics of Israel and Palestine, Karni began telling the audience about what she learned from the Israeli and Palestinian sides regarding their opinions on the conflict. “There is another story to our story”, she said.

According to Karni, the Palestinians assert that they have lived in the disputed territory, now divided into Israel and Palestine rather than just Palestine, for 400 years, and that while the World War II Holocaust against the Jews was a tragedy, they should not have to pay amends.

Their violent reaction towards the Israeli people is, therefore, “out of hopelessness.”

The Israelis assert, according to Karni, that the disputed territory has been theirs for over 5,000 years. Now surrounded by violent Palestinians and with nowhere else to go, they are being forced to act out of fear and self-defense. “We can never give up our homeland again after the Holocaust,” said Karni from the Israeli perspective. “[We] need a solution.”

In short, as summarized by American Studies Institute professor Mohammed Dojani, an Israeli dream of the Palestinians leaving the land and a Palestinian dream of the Israelis leaving the land leave small hope for peace.

Karni discussed four levels of peace, including cease-fire, where there is neither fighting nor relations between countries; collaboration, in which countries support each other when needed; cooperation, in which countries work on mutual projects; and unification, in which both states becoming one country.

She also talked about the different styles to approaching the conflict, including avoidance, competition, compromise, accommodation, and collaboration.

Karni described the three projects she was working on between Palestinian and Israeli schools. The first, the Ecological Project, focused on bringing together 60 students, 30 from a school in each country, with six teachers from each school to work on an herb garden or another environmental project at each country’s school.

According to Karni, this would allow for cooperation between the students from different countries without conflict. Students from each country also had to learn basic words in the language of the other, as well as songs from both cultures.

The second project Karni mentioned was the Project for Teachers, where 30 teachers from schools in Israel and Palestine (no more than two from each school involved, and 15 from each country) would discuss the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and hear both sides of the debate with hopes of bringing the perspectives back to the classroom.

While even initiating conversation from the teachers for this activity was difficult, emotional discussion began after one of the participants brought up the bombing of a bus of students in Lebanon by Israeli terrorists, which led both sides into conversations about conflict solutions and future goals of each country that could be brought back to their students.

The third project, the Bi-national State, involved almost 50 teachers from the two countries and hundreds of students and their families.

Students would work together at schools in both Israel and Palestine, learning about peace studies (working together to solve conflicts between countries) and each country’s language, while also emphasizing customs, traditions, and humanistic values of each side.

While these projects have shown progress over the years, Karni feels that Israel and Palestine are not ready to become a single, bi-national state. “It may be in the future, but not now,” she said. “But, people are ready for change.”

“It’s really encouraging to hear someone who lives in Israel say that they want peace,” said Library and Media Center director Celia Rabinowitz at the conclusion of the lecture, “which we don’t see in our own media.”

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