If we who consider ourselves to be ‘peacemakers’ cannot identify the power dynamics within our own programs and events, then what we are doing at the end of the day does more harm than good for peace, justice, and those most marginalized in this relationship: Palestinians.
By B.G. Silver*
In our ever-growing jungle of protracted conflict and systemic injustice, there is an unquestionable need for inter-group reconciliation encounters between Israelis, Palestinians, and Palestinian-Israelis constructed with peacebuilding and human rights education. What is often missed is that peacebuilding and reconciliation are not simply the answer. They must and can only be a solution when applied through a critical praxis that addresses systemic injustice and inter-group power dynamics even within peacebuilding and reconciliation endeavors.
As a musician-activist educator, and member of this extended peacebuilding and reconciliation community, it is my responsibility and the responsibility of my colleagues to speak out when this crucial aspect of our work has been violated. I experienced that violation a number of weeks ago when attending one of the only openly public “peace” events that seem to exist in Jerusalem. To my shock and dismay, we just don’t get it.
As widespread violence continued to blanket this divided city, there was a pocket of hope: this year’s first in a series of open and free-to-the-public musical “peace” events. Several years ago, this idea was birthed with the purpose of uniting Israelis and Palestinians through song and dialogue. Israeli and Palestinian communities would come together for a night of bilingual singing and teaching of each others’ narrative songs, break bread together, and engage in dialogue. I had attended one of these events in Jerusalem in 2011. To my understanding at that time, it upheld many of the values it committed to as an equalizing, joint Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding and reconciliation encounter.
Over the years, dozens of peacebuilding and reconciliation organizations have sprouted, focusing on many mediums such as sports, dialogue, and the expressive arts as a means and end to transforming conflict. While the aspirations of these organizations are noble and well-meaning, they often cloud overall peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. More often than not, they do not address, whether through unwillingness or ignorance, the direct power dynamics and inequality that continue the patterns of systemic injustice and conflict, rather than producing new patterns based upon building equal social relationships that can challenge inequality, lack of freedoms, separation, segregation, and mistrust. These patterns of systemic injustice and conflict, which are intertwined into the socialization of society through educational, ideological, and political systems, will continue unless critically challenged.
Now several years later in 2014, with two more “casual” wars behind us, apartheid-like, silencing legislation in our midst, and greater lack of trust and understanding, I still wasn’t expecting this musical “peace” event to be particularly critical of the occupation. I wasn’t expecting something revolutionary that pushed the boundaries of society here that feel, often on both sides, entrenched in decades of scars, fear, and pain. Yet, what I saw and heard was nothing like what the event had been in 2011, and was hardly an acceptable event to unite Israelis and Palestinians. It achieved “whitewashing” at best.
How could it be at a musical “peace” event between Israelis and Palestinians that there was practically no music played or sung in Arabic, unless sung by Israelis? The event’s MCs, who happened to be one Israeli and one Palestinian from Shuafat, said that this event was not about “Kumbaya.” We were told that attending was a hard thing to do, and that we would undergo a challenging experience. There was also some mention that it was difficult, if not practically impossible, for anybody to attend from Shuafat Refugee Camp that night because the Israeli authorities had closed off the camp in the wake of more cyclical violence in the streets of Jerusalem. Mostly people continued to smoke and drink their beer. The Israeli announcer controlled the conversation. The Palestinian announcer seemed to be looking for space — any space.
After the announcers and two singers, both surprisingly Israeli who were supposed to teach the audience songs in Hebrew and Arabic, finished their bit, the main act began. I expected from this famous globetrotting Israeli artist something strong and meaningful as part of the main act, shared with a Palestinian-Israeli singer. I thought he could be a voice speaking out against the sickening violence, and inequality enveloping us. I thought he could be the amplification for activism and solidarity at this musical “peace” event. I wanted him to recognize, to be of witness of what is happening here that affects both Israelis and Palestinians, even if in disproportionate ways. Nothing. All the while, the crowd continued to drink and smoke, while a few individuals slipped through the crowd passing around little stickers promoting an upcoming event against racism in Jerusalem.
As I stood with a Palestinian member of the Israeli-Palestinian youth organization I work for — from Shuafat Refugee Camp — who had suggested attending this event in the first place, I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt and what he thought. I personally felt embarrassed. What kind of event was this anyway? A party to celebrate Mizrahi-ness as a translation for Palestinian-ness? To find the “Arab” in each and every one of us? To party like it’s “haflah-time”? I tried to read his face. I tried to see how comfortable or uncomfortable he felt with each passing faux pas. All I could think of, from my “critical pedagogy in education” lens, was how this event, meant to be liberating in the wake of violence, separation, racism, only continued to subjugate him. We hadn’t entered a public space of freedom; it was the same space as practically everywhere else here for Palestinians, just masked and packaged differently.
I am not lambasting this particular event to condemn it from happening again, or to say that those who organized it don’t mean well. I also recognize that the growing strength of the BDS hinders Palestinian participation even in the most critical programs that address the inequality, violence, segregation, racism and occupation. This is also why these types of events are so crucial to tackle the multiple forces on both sides that divest from building a safe, equitable future for all. In all seriousness though, if we who consider ourselves to be “peacemakers” or who work for or with peacebuilding and reconciliation organizations cannot uncover the continuation of power dynamics within our own programs and events, if we cannot think critically of our words and actions, then what we are doing at the end of the day does more harm than good for peace, justice, and those most marginalized in this relationship: Palestinians.
If this is what exists, then it’s not enough. If we in this field do not engage in praxis nor familiarize ourselves with the teachings of Paulo Freire, Johan Galtung, Ann Berlak, Zvi Bekerman, Monisha Bajaja, and Amin Maalouf among others, our programs will further the patterns of systemic injustice and conflict rather than liberate. We ask ourselves why there isn’t peace? Well certainly peace and justice won’t come if we continue to work this way. If even we can’t name the inequality, then who will?
This goes to say: we, in the field of peacebuilding and reconciliation, must look at our programs and events that bring together Israelis and Palestinians through a much more critical lens. Essentially, we must re-educate society to witness the power dynamics that exist here and learn to challenge them, in addition to building trust and mutual understanding. We must be open to being the stranger, thoughtfully and critically addressing the systemic injustice even we may contribute to, despite our best intentions and hopeful hearts.
*B.G. Silver is the pseudonym of a musician-activist educator living in Jerusalem. Her current jam includes Janelle Monae, Brahms, Bustan Abraham, Alicia Keys, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, John Legend, Amy Winehouse, Dvorak, Umm Kalthoum, and Beyonce. The author asked not to use her real name in order to protect the organizations she works for and the increasingly sensitive work they do.
 “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (Freire, 1970, p.34)