OneVoice Town Hall meeting today

OneVoice http://www.onevoicemovement.org is a consensus-building (they say ‘consensus revealing‘) organisation working to empower moderates on both sides of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Work centres on building consensus on ten core points incuding two-state resolution, the issue of Jerusalem, refugees, and responses to terror.

I hate the term ‘town hall meeting’. Anyway, one happened this afternoon in the student union, and there will be more elsewhere until Saturday. Local UCU have posted the notice (though not in time for this local meeting).

The spiel for their London Town Hall meetings:

At a time when every British newspaper is filled with stories of divisions and extremism within and between communities and campuses, OneVoice is launching an enormous program to build coalitions behind its work to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Muslim, Palestinian, Jewish, Israeli and Christian groups are coming together in support of OneVoice’s work. Events are scheduled from LSE to SOAS, City Circle to St. John’s Wood Synagogue, UCL, City, UEL, [my institution], Friends of the Arab World and more…

For a full schedule of events between November 19th and 26th, please see the following flyer:

Download flyer – pdf

At 2 I turned up to find an Israeli Anthropology student (call her Ifat) in heated conversation with the chaplain. He brought me up to speed – she objected to the sex-segregated seating. I turned round and sure enough there were white sheets at head height separating two blocks of seating. The chaplain told her that it was usual for women and men to pray apart, which we both found rather ominous since the publicity we’d seen for OneVoice was entirely secular. I suggested we get chairs and sit at the back straddling the barrier, and we did. Then two very youthful Muslim clerics got onto the stage and introduced themselves with a prayer. We both stiffened and I was astounded that OneVoice had failed to mention this on their flyer. A sermon on racism began, with close and simplistic reference to the Koran. Ifat started muttering indignantly about the way the clerics were handling the issue. After a few minutes, I crept into the men’s section to ask the chaplain whether or not we were listening to OneVoice. No, to our enormous relief and enlightenment it had been postponed. Ifat and I crept out and came back at 3.

There were 4 20-something panellists whose names I mostly missed – an Israeli woman from Tel Aviv Office, Political Science grad, I think she might be called Oriella, a man originally from Jerusalem now living in Birzeit called (possibly) Osman, another bloke called Jake who spoke with an English accent, and Saida who runs the London. About 20 came to listen, including Ben F, the chaplain and me.

Each panellist made a presentation. Saida talked about OneVoice consensus work and the high degree of agreement between moderate Israelis and Palestinians. Osman talked about coming home from a football game and being held up at gunpoint by a flying checkpoint. He said he was there not for love of Israel but because he loves Palestine and he wants his children to grow up in their own safe country. He talked about Hamas as a legitimate political party which had been elected as the only viable alternative to Fatah corruption. Oriella talked about her proximity to Rabin when he was shot, her disillusionment and year away from Israel, the failure of the leaders to resist right-wing Israeli and – less explicitly, Arab – extremism, the need to find a way to change internal dialogues, and the need for moderates to find their voice. Jake developed that and big-pictured things up in general, with inspirational reference to the mass movements for peace led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and with a sense of urgency about finding a way round the impasse.

The questions were penetrating and as far as I could gather mostly came from Jews and Israelis. Ben F commented the mass peace movements mentioned were unity movements, and was there a particular approach for something like a binary movement. The answer to that basically was finding common ground, and looking at the “full half of the cup”. Ifat asked how OneVoice is different from the rest of the peace industry – Jake replied that they have a Ramallah office and can work directly in Palestine. Osman said that most peace orgs take away a tiny number of worthies to a spa, ply them with food and drink, and then put them back with nothing achieved. Then a bloke in a kippa asked how Osman could argue that Hamas, insofaras they represent a people under occupation, had a right to resistance, which he understood to mean violence, and at the same time work for a pacifist movement. He also questioned Osman’s view of Hamas. Ifat also separately probed at the contradiction of a peace-worker who claims the right to violence. Osman had heard it all before and his response didn’t come across as conciliatory, which may have been his way. His evident sincerity aside, he became the only Hamas apologist in the room (Jake disagreed with him on many points and brought up the Hamas charter which he said made him “physically sick”). On the first point he rehabilitated Hamas as peacemakers who had offered a 30 year ceasefire and an Israeli state within the ’67 borders, but found themselves without an Israeli negotiating partner. (So his answer gave the impression that essentially that Hamas violence is Israel’s fault? Or Israel’s problem, he’d probably say.) On the second he referred Ira to the Haganah in the ’40s. Ifat stuck to her point, which was about contradictions. Another student possibly with an Israeli accent reinforced it. The debate by this time seemed to be mostly going on between Osman and the audience. Jake reminded us to look at the big picture, Oriella also cautioned against getting bogged down in details before the big questions had been settled. Then a student who mentioned that she was native american and had understanding of how it feels to be settled upon, tried to blur the boundaries between military (or “legitimate”) violence and “illegitimate” paramilitary Palestinian resistance. The other 3 bristled. Maybe because it was near the end, nobody wanted to get into that. On that note, OneVoice packed up to go to the next college, with Oriella coming to reassure Ifat that the reason she felt so troubled is that the situation is difficult, and that you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with people you hate the guts of.

How did they leave us? Cautiously optimistic, for my part. Their charisma, understanding and perspective were impressive. The most obviously problematic aspect of OneVoice which revealed itself at this particular event – and I’m not sure if this depends on the questions – was satirical Osman, sprawled nonchalantly in his chair, ever so slightly impatient about having to deal with the same stale old questions, batting away comments which delegitimised Hamas. None of the panellists spoke for the IDF when a comparison was drawn between it and Hamas. I wondered at that stage whether OneVoice avoids arguments about the finer points of the conflict, or whether it even welcomes simplistic comparisons like this because they allow people to ignore the boggy details. Based on a single meeting it’s hard to judge. The manoeuvres of the panellists to widen a space for negotiation between two adamant points of view sometimes seemed contorted – is the peace-loving and violence-excusing consensus builder actually a schizophrenic? I’d question whether the peace-loving fighter is a contradiction because pacifism is not something I subscribe to. When they lie down to die because they don’t want to live in a world where they have to kill, pacifists don’t only surrender their own lives, they quit on people who would fight for their lives or their ways of life. Maybe it is enough to like and trust Osman, himself, a role model. If he says he rejects violence while upholding his right to violence, and people trust him, and he is trustworthy, then that’s different from somebody known for lying through their teeth saying it. But OneVoice is a movement where the individual is supposed to disappear so that the average can emerge – interesting in itself it contrasts with today’s highly individualistic society, but also because it seems to reject leadership and so rule out Osman as a role model, or the emergence of a new Gandhi, or MLK. Another contradiction, maybe. But they’re a baby organisation, and they’re still finding their identity.

Perhaps their strategy is very modest – to exploit the paradoxes and wrong-foot people into a position where they have to question their internal narratives.

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