If you watch the news with any regularity, it’s easy to believe that the Middle East is a terribly violent, war-torn region with no real hope for peace. It seems that explosions are destroying the region’s greatest cities almost daily. It’s all we hear.
That’s why I wanted to take a moment to share with you some of the tremendous initiatives occurring online. For every deadly suicide bombing in a crowded market, there is a quieter revolution afoot. Many Middle-Easterners have put on their rally caps, and have begun the pushback for peace.
I recently read a story in The New York Times about a movement on Facebook. It’s called YalaYL, and its primary goal is to introduce Israelis to Palestinians on a personal level—it’s a cleverly-designed method of undermining (or deescalating) the conflict between the two cultures by accentuating their shared interests and passions. And it’s working.
YaLaYL was founded by a former Israeli diplomat named Uri Savir, who also serves as president of the Peres Center For Peace, a non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to creating peaceful dialogue between Israelis and the Arab world. (The “YL” in the site’s name stands for “Young Leaders.” “YaLa” is the Arabic word for “Let’s go.”)
The Facebook page has become enormously successful in the past month. 7,500 people officially “like” it, but Savir says there are almost 23,000 “active users.” While the page does nothing to conceal its Israeli ties, about 60 percent of the visitors are Arabic—mostly Palestinian, but also Egyptian, Tunisian, Lebanese and Saudi.
Savir’s diplomatic ties have given the page an air of legitimacy. Visitors are greeted by a message from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who says, “The Arab Spring can become a Middle-East spring if the young will also lead the way to peaceful coexistence.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also offered a greeting, saying in part: “Watching the force of reason, dignity, and courage takes us through leaps of hope into a brighter future.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now serves as an international envoy to the Palestinians, has offered his support for the project, as have American actresses Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone.
If you’re unfamiliar with day-to-day life near the Gaza Strip, there’s one important thing you should understand. These days, there is almost no interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. The two cultures are entirely segregated by a militarized “security barrier.” (Culturally, there may be some pressure from the older generations to adhere to the segregation, but curiosity is driving the younger generation to traverse those borders the only way they can—on the internet.)
“Believe me, they don’t know each other at all,” Savir told the New York Times. “Our goal is to start by talking about art and sports. Since Israelis and Palestinians don’t meet face to face anymore, this is a virtual place to meet.”
The imposed segregation has been a well-intentioned concept that has backfired for younger generations. It exists in order to prevent conflict between the long-warring cultures—and in that regard it’s been moderately successful. But in forcing each group into a self-contained, homogenous bubble, it has also driven a deeper wedge between the two factions—essentially hindering any future efforts toward a peaceful resolution.
To believe that YaLaYL will bring an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict might be foolishly naïve, but we mustn’t underestimate the lessons learned in Tahrir Square and Tunisia. Revolutions can indeed begin in cyberspace, and no one understands this better than Uri Savir. “Today we have no brave leaders on either side, so I am turning to a new generation, the Tahrir Square and Facebook generation,” Savir told the Times.
This is how conflict is resolved: by focusing on common ground and getting to know one another as people, by ignoring labels and fostering empathy. If YalaYL can help these two cultures understand each other better, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 07/21/11.
© Damien Willis, 2011. All rights reserved.