UJS’ first ever Bridges Not Boycotts Conference took place on Sunday 29 October 2017, with around 60 students of various faiths, backgrounds and beliefs coming together in Leeds city centre. In a series of panels and keynote addresses, speakers explored the need to foster cooperation and understanding rather than ‘othering’ between the communities involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
As UJS Campaigns Manager Liron Velleman said, ‘it is only by hearing, embracing and hopefully visiting multiple narratives that anyone can even begin to understand the immense complexity of this situation. […] Only when the voices of peace and cooperation are amplified around the world can we compete with the noise of extremists on both sides.’
‘Today’s conference is another step in fostering respectful discussion of Israel and Palestine and moving us closer towards more cohesive campus communities.’
The conference opened with a panel on ‘Building Bridges: Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians’, featuring Leyla Brinner Sulema of Women Wage Peace, Mahmood Al Ramahi of the Arava Institute and Graham Carpenter of the New Israel Fund (UK). Chaired by Sally Patterson, Women’s Officer of Bristol Students’ Union, the panellists described their efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together and the challenges they face in doing so. Mr Al Ramahi told the audience: ‘growing up, I only met Israelis as soldiers and settlers. As an activist you start to form friendships and see things differently… The moment we look at each other as humans is the moment we start to work towards peace.’ Ms Sulema and Mr Carpenter shared similar messages, and all three panellists emphasised the roles women especially can play in advancing this.
The audience then heard from Joel Braunold, a former student at the University of Bristol who holds Honorary Life Membership to both NUS and UJS. Joel is now the Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace and addressed the conference via Skype from Chicago. He spoke about the varying responsibilities of different diaspora communities, the influence of settler communities in the peace process and the influence of President Trump. He also underlined the importance of campus activism, telling the room: ‘students of all backgrounds who want change must push for viable outcomes.’
Di Nir Arielli, Associate Professor of International History and Director of International History and Politics at the University of Leeds, addressed the question: ‘What can history teach us about the future?’ He spoke about tangible and metaphorical borders of geography, history and politics, reminding the audience that ‘extremists on both sides hold the veto to halt advances towards peace’, drawing on examples as far back as 1929 and as recently as the mid-1990s. Dr Arielli’s message was that whilst some parts of history might invoke pessimism, grassroots movements give rise to optimism; he pointed to some of the organisations represented in the morning panel as examples of how ‘grassroots movements can effect change when there is a clear, achievable goal.’
The final panel was chaired by Izzy Lenga and featured Melanie Ward, Sana Knaneh (Mitvim Insitute), Luke Akehurst (BICOM) and John Lyndon (OneVoice). Everyone highlighted the need to create change peacefully; Ms Knaneh pointed particularly to the underrepresentation of Palestinians in Israel’s ministries. Mr Lyndon also drew attention to the need for influential Israeli and Palestinian diaspora communities to ‘step up and help to lead’, reiterating the message Mr Braunold shared earlier.
In closing the conference, UJS co-Campaigns Officer Rebecca Filer said: ‘Today we have not only heard from incredible activists and thinkers from the UK, the US, Israel and Palestine but we have also been inspired.’ Taking that inspiration away from the conference, students completed pledge cards committing to continuing their activism and bringing the Bridges Not Boycotts campaign to their campuses. We look forward to supporting these students and many more over the coming year to continue engaging thoughtfully, critically and actively with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and bringing an alternative approach to the often simplistic, narrow and echo-chamber manner of how some parts of the student movement handle Israel-Palestine.
If you were unable to attend Bridges Not Boycotts conference but would like to be involved in the campaign, please email Rebecca.
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