At the age of 28, Stav Shaffir has already helped to organise a major series of protests that brought together Israeli Jews and Arabs on issues of social justice, and she is now the youngest, and the youngest-ever female, member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
An important influence, she said in a recent interview, was the chance to study journalism and sociology at City University, to live in London - and to take part in City’s Olive Tree Programme, which offered “a special space that neither Israeli nor Palestinian could experience in the region”.
The scholarship programme started in 2004 and is now run by Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies. A cohort of about 10 students goes through the programme at any one time, half of them Jewish Israelis and half Palestinians (although the latter group is made up of Gazans, West Bankers and Arab citizens of Israel who would have few, if any, opportunities to meet each other at home).
While studying for a variety of different degrees, they come together for a few hours each week and a few evenings during term time, as well as two weekend retreats with Irish facilitators and a five-day retreat in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
The programme starts with some basic factual material, but by the second term the participants are asked to examine the songs, symbols and fairy tales they grew up with. They later move on to what Hollis describes as “milestones in their joint history” - the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the 1967 Six-Day War, the first Palestinian intifada of 1987 - and research the different national narratives about them through looking at school syllabuses, talking to their families and so on.
In the early years, participants in the Olive Tree Programme were expected to go back to their own countries and make a direct contribution to the peace process, but a worsening political climate on the ground has often made this dangerous and unrealistic.
Hollis, who took over running the programme in 2008, now sees it more as “a leadership education programme”, designed to “help and enable those who have grown up in a conflict zone reach their full potential”.
Take the case of Adwan Adwan, part of the first cohort of students, who studied journalism and psychology at City and now reports on Premier League football for Abu Dhabi Sports.
The programme, Adwan reflects, proved to be “the door that opened all the opportunities for me. If I hadn’t come to London, I would have finished my education in Gaza and joined a long waiting list of unemployed Gazans, [trying to find work] in the media or teaching English. I would also have several kids by now!”
Hollis has been researching the Middle East, and particularly the impact of Britain and other foreign powers on the region, for many years. She has long been involved in conflict mediation and what is known as “Track II diplomacy”, between people at one remove from government (and often not officially speaking to each other), as a tool for “testing the waters and feeding back the results”. And she has run a Jordanian-Palestinian dialogue group designed to come up with different scenarios about the development of a Palestinian state and explore how they would impact on relations with Israel.
Such a background has proved invaluable for running a programme that often proves extremely disturbing for the young Palestinians and Israelis involved.
“They are hugely curious about each other and want to convince each other,” she reports, “and, since they are all based in the same residence hall in their first year, they can go on talking all night. Although both sides enjoy getting lost in multi-cultural London, they also keep coming back to each other when they find that no one else is so obsessed with talking about the conflict.”
She says that the Jewish Israelis on the programme have all done their obligatory military service and “mainly feel guilty about it, but they hope they can explain the security agenda to the Palestinians. They are looking for understanding, if not forgiveness - which they don’t get.”
On the other hand, the Palestinians “come wanting to explain what the occupation is like to the Israelis. They believe the conflict is essentially a problem of communication, which the rest of the world would come in and sort out if only they knew about it.”
This is also a dream doomed to be frustrated, so both sides end up experiencing “anger and disappointment when they can’t change the world”.
Furthermore, since “hot conflict” inevitably breaks out in the region during the three years students are on the course, Hollis acknowledges that participants can find it “very tough” and often start asking themselves: “Should I be dropping out of the programme in solidarity with my own people?”
Yet there are also at least two reasons why coming together in a neutral space in London can prove transformative.
What the students discover, explains Hollis, is not only that there are two different positions on many of the central questions but “how pervasive [such perspectives] are in their own group. That makes them realise that there is a parallel situation on the other side, which helps them grasp why the conflict isn’t getting solved.”
Equally important is the chance to “experience equality with each other”, which is empowering for the Palestinians and salutary for the Israelis, since “they don’t realise they feel superior”.
Seeing across the great divide
So what do alumni take away from the programme - and can it contribute, in however small a way, to resolving the endless bloody conflict in the Middle East? Two 2011 graduates offer rather different perspectives.
Noam Rabinovich studied international politics at City and now works on international relations for B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
She spent time with Palestinians for the first time as a 16-year-old at an international school in Hong Kong, and then again in London, and regrets that “you have to travel so far to meet people who live minutes away from you”.
Although the programme had not changed her basic political convictions, she admitted that “before I looked at politics from an Israeli point of view and didn’t really factor in the impact on millions of people who are influenced by your vote but unable to vote themselves. By the end, I knew I wanted to try and do something about the conflict.”
EA, who asked not to be named, said she “couldn’t have dreamed of coming to London without a full scholarship”.
She had been studying business administration in Gaza, so at City she took up a degree in business management.
Although she had first-hand experience of non-governmental organisations while growing up, EA said she knew little about “the business world in the West” and gradually became more interested in corporate life. She is now training to be an auditor with Ernst & Young, after deferring the offer to complete her Gazan degree and work for seven months with the United Nations Development Programme on local women’s projects.
At the start of the course, at the time of the Gaza War in late 2008, EA “regretted participating. My family were getting bombed and I was sitting there with Israelis - who didn’t say anything. They told me later they didn’t know what to say.”
But although she still sees “the Israeli occupation as the worst thing ever” and believes in “the right of resistance”, EA says that she can now “see the human side of it too. I was concerned about the rocket attacks on the area where (an Israeli) fellow student and his wife now live. I certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to him.”
Although she is generally sceptical about “naive peace programmes”, since she believes that “good Israelis don’t get to the top”, EA does see a role for Olive Tree alumni, if and when peace does come, in “maintaining the peace, improving relations and lessening hatred”.