(Text: Tessa Pariyar) In the summer of 2019, together with the coordinators of the Palestinian-Israeli Women’s* seminar, we came up with the idea of a Speakerstour through Germany, where project staff from Israel and Palestine would present their work and share about their experiences and challenges. Originally, we had planned the six-day series of events in various cities in Germany during the last week of November 2020, but because of the pandemic situation, we were forced to move the events to the digital space. The three webinars entitled „Feminist Perspectives on Cross-Border Dialogue at the Grassroots Level – Women* from Israel and Palestine Share Their Experiences“ were dedicated, among others, to the following questions: How does getting to know the perspective of the „others“ change one’s own view of the conflict, of the political situation on the ground, or even of personal and collective narratives? Why do we offer a seminar only for women* and why do we find it important to look at cross-border dialogues and conflict transformation also from a feminist perspective?
All three speakers began by telling how they themselves became part of the project, what process the seminar triggered in them, and what changes it ultimately brought about. The two Israeli team members, Shir B. and Alex G.* were participants in a dialogue seminar themselves before they became part of the team. Rana K.*, who coordinates the seminar on the Palestinian side, initially worked as a translator in the dialogue seminars.
Alex said that the dialogue process changed her perspective on the conflict and the occupation on several levels. In the seminar, she realized how much knowledge about the real political situation she lacked: both in her apolitical home and in school, she was denied access to this knowledge – and thus the possibility to analyze (political) reality. This realization led her to a desire to learn more herself and ultimately to enable others to have this experience: „I realized that this knowledge about the perspectives of the other side is simply not accessible without dialogue, and that when more women* are confronted with this knowledge, they and possibly those around them will draw similar conclusions to the ones I drew myself. It’s only through personal encounter that a real connection with a personal experience is made – one that can’t be made by reading an article.“
For Shir, too, the seminar completely changed her perspective on the political situation: Instead of joining the army as originally planned, she decided to do a substitute service in the Jewish Arab city of Jaffa. She explained that, even now as a facilitator, she is amazed at how much she feels also like a participant every time, going through the process together with the group. Working with the team is not only challenging but also enriching, she said. Inspiring and a motivation for her to keep working with the project is that the participants, who work in very different fields, continue to stay in contact afterwards and become active together. Throughout Corona, participants* stayed in touch and supported each other, meeting for demonstrations and organizing joint online meetings.
Rana, as a Palestinian cross-border dialogue activist, is even more exposed to hostility and defamation from the government than her Israeli colleagues, but also from Palestinian society. For security reasons, she decided not only to participate in the online events under a pseudonym, but also to leave her camera turned off. She grew up in what is now the territory of Israel, but lives in the West Bank today, where she works as a social worker, translator and facilitator in various dialogue contexts.
When asked why it makes sense to offer a women*s-only seminar, Rana responds as follows: „Usually in such seminars, when Palestinian women are with men, they don’t claim their right to speak, and there is no space or time for them to speak. In my experience, and here I do not want to generalize, I am just talking form my experience, they are usually silent, as if their voice was not important and their tone was not patriotic and militant enough. Most of the time it is men who decide what tone and basic attitude is ‚appropriate‘ at these seminars. (…) Many of the women in mixed-gender seminars come with their brother, husband, nephew. Often this accompaniment functions as a ‚permission‘ from the family, allowing them to participate and be far from home, making sure that no one can harm their ‘reputation’. The fact that family members are in the seminar room makes it difficult for the women to be fully present. (…)
Alex also confirms the male-dominated discussion of conflict in the seminar context with women* and men: „In the political discourse, it is usually Israeli men and Palestinian men who determine the boundaries of the discourse about the occupation and about the political reality. There is talk about the occupation, but there is no place to talk about gender. (…) In the seminar, for the first time, we as women are asked what we have to say about political reality. We ask ourSELVES, because usually we don’t even allow ourselves to say anything about politics in general, because we always hear that we are not informed enough, that we are not the ones on the front lines. And then there are these voices in our heads that silence us, that keep saying, you don’t know enough, so you better don’t say what’s on your mind.“
The Women’s* seminar not only allows participants to engage in intense discussions about the conflict and the occupation, but also provides space for debates about other aspects of the political discourse, such as gender. Aspects which are part of the problem and thus must also be part of the solution. „For me, the Women’s* seminar is a safe space where I know that none of these questions and complexities interrupt us in our political discussions, but on the contrary: they enrich and allow us to think about the situation from diverse angles“, Alex clarifies. “As women* from diverse backgrounds, Alex says, we have an obligation to look at reality in all its complexity in order to find a just solution. For this reason, feminist perspectives are essential for conflict transformation.”
At the same time, it is important to empower women* and enable them to be part of this search for solutions. To this end, the seminar makes an important contribution. „I believe that women* can address and express very conflictual issues in a sincere way. Together they try to engage with the other side. If women* had the chance to participate in finding solutions to the conflict, there would be more just and sustainable solutions. That’s what I experienced in the seminar, especially during the discussion on the topic of Transitional Justice“, Rana states affirming the need to hear women’s voices and make them audible, especially in relation to the topic of conflict resolution.
The three staff members agree that the dialogue seminar has had an immediate impact. „The feedback I get from the participants after the seminar is overwhelming. I see completely different women*: Women* who are not afraid to speak, who demand their space and their rights. And some choose to fight as activists against the occupation or for women’s rights,“ Rana shares. Alex confirms, „What motivates me to keep going is the fact that young women* change their minds about the conflict just after these two short weeks of meeting.“