What happens before the dialogue seminars for Israelis and Palestinians in Germany? Of course, the participants prepare for the seminar and are selected by the local coordinators according to certain criteria. The Palestinian coordinator of the women’s*seminar shared with us about the selection and preparation process and the challenges she faced in this process together with the participants.
We usually do not advertise the seminar publicly, for example we do not post any event announcements on Facebook and there is no public call for applications. I ask people or organizations that I trust, or people who are active in civil society organizations. Through this I get suggestions and recommendations for potential participants; sometimes people give my phone number to people who are interested. As a next step, I ask those interested to write a little text about themselves, what stage of their life they are in at this moment, where they live, how old they are, just some basic information. Then I have a conversation with them, if possible I meet them personally and get an idea of whether they fit into our seminar and whether the seminar suits them. This year I worked with a short application form for the first time, in which interested people were asked to also describe their motivation for wanting to take part in the dialogue seminar.
In the first preparatory meeting there are usually a few more participants than there are spots in the seminar; then we fill out the visa applications together and start preparing, but in the end not everyone comes to the seminar.
For one thing, it is quite difficult, very sensitive, especially for the Palestinians who live in the Westbank, to meet Israelis. As in previous years, some of them only really realized during the first preparatory meeting that there would be Israelis physically present at the seminar. So in the first meeting, I explain the project to them and that the point of the seminar is talking about the conflict, talking about our stories and that it is not normalization for me. We don’t go there to make friends and have fun without talking about our frustration and the oppression caused by the occupation. This year there were many who were very interested at first and then became afraid after a while: They told me directly that they were very afraid that their family, friends and employers might have a problem with their participation in such a seminar and that they therefore opted out of the process. That’s why I had a waiting list.
In this uni-national preparation, the participants should get to know each other, I want to get to know them and it is important to also observe the group dynamics and make sure that the group has a certain diversity. I also pay attention to whether the participants are interested and actively participate. Because we know that their initial motivation often is the opportunity to travel to Europe. I recognize that due to the financial and political situation and the bureaucratic hurdles of the visa process, Palestinians often have little opportunity to travel outside of Palestine. But of course I also want to have active and interested participants.
Secondly, there was a special problem this year because there were threats against us in the preparatory phase. A colleague of four women – they work together in the same company and all wanted to come to the seminar – somehow overheard what they were up to. He didn’t like it and threatened them by saying that if they attended the seminar he would „make life really difficult“ for them. At the first preparatory meeting, we had to change the location of the meeting and I only released the details of the address early in the morning of the meeting day, because this colleague claimed that he knew where the group would meet and that he would come there, make a scene and expose everyone as traitors and collaborators. I was also scared myself and consulted with friends about what I could do in such a case. They all told me that I could just call the police because in reality, we are just a group of Palestinian women* who meet and there are no Israelis present at all. It was difficult because everyone was nervously looking out the window all the time because of his threat. Then a car drove past and one of the people who worked with him in the same company recognized it as his car. But he wasn’t at the wheel. Still, it was scary and everyone was tense.
I always try to find out right from the start who is really interested in the seminar and who may just come to make a scene or pass on the information on to certain people or entities and harm the project.
Even now, towards the end of the seminar, I’m still following the situation with this colleague. Fortunately, his employer warned him because it violates his employment contract by discriminating against colleagues based on religion or political attitudes. That helped us a little and he stopped bothering the participants. In the end, three out of four came along, but they were all afraid. The whole time during the seminar I was also afraid that someone from my group would pass on information to the outside, which was, sadly, true in the end: One of the participants I mentioned before stayed in contact with him. She wanted to convince him that the seminar is not normalization. But I said to her, „Can’t you see that this person isn’t listening to you at all? He has no interest in what you say, he doesn’t care if you have arguments”. He was really aggressive and tried to find others in the company to help him expose the participants. He even posted on Facebook, it was terrible.
In spite of everything, I think the preparation process this year was more productive overall than last year. In particular, my facilitation team supported me very strongly and we also did the selection process together. I am particularly happy about the fact that a participant from last year became a facilitator this year. I worked with her and prepared her for facilitation, she is very committed. The diversity of the group was also unique this year: in addition to Palestinians from the Westbank, there were also Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and even one participant from the Gaza Strip