An Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab Promote Peace in New and Creative Ways

Is there organizational life after death?

I discovered that the answer can be “yes” when I interviewed the two young new directors of IPCRI recently — Liel Maghen and Nivine Sandouka — who exuded optimism and enthusiasm for their work for peace. We had a fascinating conversation in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel, one of the thriving Palestinian hotels in the prestigious Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, in East Jerusalem.

Upon the retirement of Gershon Baskin — the inveterate peace activist and longtime founder and co-director of IPCRI — the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information — the organization was running out of funding and almost ceased functioning entirely. But then a minor miracle took place. Using the same initials, it changed its name to Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, and they succeeded in attracting funding from the European Union for a major new program entitled “Unity in Diversity”, and from  Irish Aid for their “Jerusalem-Belfast” project (see their website http://www.ipcri.org/ for information about these two bold new initiatives).

I asked both of these young peace builders what motivated them to be involved in peacebuilding work, especially in recent years when so many people and organizations have given up. Their replies were immediate and inspiring:

Nivine: I grew up during the first intifada (uprising) in the late 1980s and I remember all the violence, including Israeli soldiers entering my school and young men being killed near my house,… and then I remember the Oslo moment when I as a Palestinian thought that there could actually be peace and that we as Palestinians could actually have an independent state… and then I watched all this deteriorate… when I was a student at Bethlehem University, I was going to study medicine but I realized that this was not my passion… instead I realized that after growing up in this difficult political situation that I wanted to do something to bring about some change. I joined IPCRI two years ago after working for international organizations here because I want to connect peacebuilding work to the development work that I did earlier, and that is what I am doing.

Nivine was identified by the US State Department as a young leader and participated in an international Visitor Leadership Program in the USA on the theme of conflict resolution. Throughout her young career, she has developed many creative projects that deal with women’s empowerment and community development. She holds an MA in Democracy and Human Rights from Bir Zeit University and has attended several courses on peacebuilding, gender, program management, accountability and advocacy.

Liel: I grew up in a right-wing family, attended the Bnei Akiva religious national youth movement and grew up in a nationalist home. I remained with my right-wing views until my service in the army. Many of my friends suffered greatly in the army. One committed suicide. Several suffer from PTSD. At this time, I began having lots of questions. I only found some answers to these questions when I joined some organizations which brought people from the other side together to dialogue, such as Combatants for Peace, the Arava Institute, and Sulha. They really changed my perception…When I was offered by Gershon Baskin to re-establish IPCRI, after it had closed down, my whole approach was to create a community and expand our ecosystem and network, to continually connect people from these programs together, to have them meet on a regular basis, to establish partnerships that are ongoing, and to focus on policymakers who have an agenda and a mission. And that is what I am doing now.

Liel holds an MA in International Development and a BA in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Working both in top-down and bottom-up initiatives, his experience includes interning for the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) and for the US Congress.

I wanted to explore with Liel and Nivine the “why” question. Why do they do peace work? Why do they engage with the other and try to improve the situation at this particularly difficult time?

Nivine: For me the answer is clear: I am a mother. I don’t want my son to grow up under violence and knowing only occupation. I don’t want him and his friends to live in that environment, since I know what it can do to you psychologically. The first motivation, therefore, is a better future for my son.

In addition, Nivine told me that one of her passions in life is about politics and changing people’s lives. This is why she joined a civil society organization like IPCRI.

Liel: In my society—the Jewish side, which is the privileged side—there are many people who simply ignore the situation. For me, however, I would be ignoring many of my friends, who are Palestinian. For me this is something very basic—I care about my friends, where they live and what they are going through.  My motivation for engaging to this day in peace work came out of personal connections, the Palestinian friends whom I have known for the past decade or so.

I asked both Nivine and Liel to share any personal stories or encounters that have been particularly important or impactful in their work for peace

Liel: I can share one story from when I was a participant in a dialogue program. When I was a student at the Hebrew University, I skipped class one day, and while I was sleeping I heard a bomb go off at a bus station that I used regularly in order to go to the university. For a few hours I felt uncomfortable because I could have been there, and I even felt a bit of despair. And then I started to get phone calls from many of my Palestinian friends to ask me if I am ok, saying that they were sorry and that they were very happy to hear that nothing happened to me.  These Palestinian friends gave me some comfort. They also changed my frame of perception. They showed me that there are different people on the other side.

Nivine: I think that one of the most impactful moments for me was when we were offered the opportunity to speak at the J Street conference in Washington DC this year (and last year as well). I felt that we have a voice and a cause and we are actually influencing people… Another positive experience for me has been when I see our groups coming back from specific projects like our Belfast-Jerusalem project and they are actually working together to improve the situation which they believe is important for both sides in the conflict.

I asked both of them about the relationship of peacebuilding to peacemaking. How is their work related to the political realm? Many people claim that peacebuilding is not effective in the long run if it doesn’t influence politics. I wondered what their views were on this important issue in our field.

Liel: We connect between the two all the time. Dialogue is sufficient for creating an individual change but not enough for the political level and for long term impact. Thus, we are adding a component to it. We design specific policies within groups that they can change on the ground and then the group becomes a social change agent.  This includes developing ongoing partnerships between people and organizations, and often heads of organizations.

Nivine: I believe that we can learn a lot from the way International Development organizations work. I came from this world so I understand it.  I saw that when international development organizations came together and did advocacy work, they were actually successful. I don’t like the disconnect between the peacebuilding organizations and the actual work on the ground and impacting policies,  and we are trying to change this.

My last question to these two energetic and enthusiastic young leaders was about optimism vs. despair. I meet many people who have fallen prey to despair. I find that in recent years—so many years since the hopeful moment of the Oslo agreement in 1993—many people are very pessimistic. I was curious to learn how they deal with this problem. How do they maintain the optimism, and if so, how do they do it?

Nivine: We are dreamers. We like to dream of a better future. But then we are faced with the reality. Yet, there are other experiences which give us hope: the Irish experience, the Indian revolution, South Africa, the movement of the women in Liberia. In addition, since we work with lots of peacebuilders, it is good to be surrounded by people who have the same dream as you do.

Liel: Being hopeful is a kind of political activism—you need to choose it, invest in it, and make it happen.  It is not illusionary because we have facts on the ground to support our optimism. We see positive changes once people decide to tackle certain policies. We currently have eight groups who are doing action projects in Jerusalem.  People are doing specific projects, getting funding for them, experiencing empowerment and now trying hard to change policies.

It is not every day that you hear about people who are still optimistic for peace and are engaged in concrete programs and projects to make this happen. I found my conversation with these two young peacebuilders to be both informative and inspiring, as I hope you do as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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