Confronting Extremism with One Voice

The Institute of International Education (IIE) has awarded the 2014 IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East to me and to my Palestinian counterpart, Samer Makhlouf for our work on the Youth Leadership Program, which mobilizes young Israelis and Palestinians to promote lasting peace. Following is the speech I gave upon receiving the award:

Death to the Arabs.
I heard those words when I was ten years old, and they still echo in my mind.

I am shocked and disgusted hearing them now, and letting them roll on my tongue, but I’m going to say it again: Death to the Arabs. I’m not saying that to shake you up, but because I feel I need to understand what triggered these words: “death to the Arabs”. I need to understand, because when I heard them as a kid they were actually coming from my own mouth. And I was not ashamed of it until several years later.

I was born in Israel. My mother is a school teacher, my dad a social worker. Both are quite liberal. I grew up in a small suburban town, not too far from the golden beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. All in all rather far from the immediate line of conflict with our Arab neighbors – the Palestinians. Actually, I didn’t meet any Arabs at the time I wished for the death of all of them. So how does a ten years old from such a mainstream background end up saying something so extreme?

There are about 12 million people in Israel and the territories called the West Bank and Gaza, or “Palestine”. The size of the area altogether is about that of New Jersey. There’s been conflict over them for years – I was born into that conflict, and that goes for everyone I know too. Most people know the other side to the conflict through the acts of terror and violence carried by a few.

I remember not wanting to go on a bus, because one of the passengers might be a suicide bomber. I remember hesitating before entering a stair room because some teenager in a nearby city was stabbed there by a Palestinian on her way home. Even though I wasn’t directly hurt by such attacks, I heard about them all the time. I was terrorized, and people who are terrorized, begin speaking the language of terror, fear, mistrust, and the desire for violent retribution. It happens on both sides. Although I was saying death to the Arabs at ten, I was far from being political. I grew up loving philosophy and music, and just accepted the background noises of conflict as a given.

I met Palestinians for the first time in my life when I was 17 and invited to play in a Jewish-Arab orchestra. As we exchanged musical notes, we gradually began exchanging smiles, and we finally moved on to words. I started thinking that if we can harmonize our melodies together, we may also be able to harmonize the bigger issues over which our peoples were killing each other for so many years. Following my time in high school I had to complete three years in the army, which is mandatory in Israel. After that time I was excited for the opportunity as a student activist to join the OneVoice movement.

OneVoice has Israelis and Palestinians working in parallel to amplify the voices of moderates on both sides towards peace, and to drown out the extreme minorities that exist in both societies. We operate in campuses, in schools, on social media, and also in the Knesset to pressure the leaders on both sides to work towards a solution. We remind them how a peace would help save lives, improve the economy, and our foreign relations. One of the things that still personally motivate me the most is to save more people from being caught up in terror. Physical terror but also terror as a state of mind.

Tal Harris awarded the IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East.  Credit: Morgan Clark, IIE
Tal Harris awarded the IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East.
Credit: Morgan Clark, IIE

We can only do so by raising one voice of Israelis, Palestinians and international partners, in order to demonstrate that the conflict is not between Muslims and Jews, not between social classes, left and right, and not even between Israelis and Palestinians as such. It is between violent absolutists on both sides, while the moderate majority’s silence enables the conflict and occupation to persist. I do not wish to devote my time to describing the unwritten pact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jewish Brotherhood of extremists. These people get enough attention.

Instead I wish to share some lessons on how to effectively raise the moderates’ voice, lessons which I’ve gathered in the past seven years from from fellow youth leaders, team and board members, and supporters of OneVoice.

The first one is creativity. Extremists can occupy the front page of the morning paper by shooting rockets from Gaza or burning down mosques in the West Bank. In OneVoice we conducted a freeze flash mob in Jerusalem’s Zion Square or put up a huge wall of ice in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to encourage public debate on the socio-economic implications derived from occupation and the settlement expansion.

Second, inclusiveness and cooperation. President Truman once said “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”. The best turn out for OneVoice events – such as the 2,000 people who attended our roundtables events in a dozen locations across the country -happened when we worked with humility and partnership with numerous other organizations and communities.

Third, integrity. Quality is surely better than quantity. Over the years, we took on some controversial positions, such as support of the Palestinian bid at the UN or for a full settlement freeze. We lost some good conservative supporters, but we got much more commitment from those who remained with us. Taking bold positions also helped embolden the partnership between OneVoice Israel and Onevoice Palestine.

There are obviously many more lessons I would share, and many I will surely learn in the years to come in our long campaign for peace. My final point is to really acknowledge and thank OneVoice’s international supporters. This includes our staff in London and NY, our partners, and today you too – Mr. Vic Goldberg. While the negative facts on the ground are often funded and supported by certain agencies of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, and it is crucial that the Two State Solution gets the public and financial support of foundations, communities and individuals in Israel, Palestine and internationally.

The Institute of International Education, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1919 and headquartered in New York City, created the Goldberg IIE Prize with an endowment from IIE’s Executive Committee member and former Vice Chairman, Victor J. Goldberg. The Selection Committee for the Prize includes leading experts from academia, the non-profit sector, and government. The award was presented by the Chairman of IIE’s Board of Trustees, Thomas S. Johnson, on June 9 at the U.S. Consulate General’s cultural center in East Jerusalem. Read here more about the award.

About the Author
Tal Harris is the spokesperson of MK Amir Peretz (the Zionist Union) and a PhD candidate in sociology on urban migration discourse, policy, and practice at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Tal is also the former Executive Director of OneVoice Israel. As executive director, Tal expanded OneVoice's Youth Leadership Program in partnership with the National Union of Israeli Students. He has led several nation-wide media campaigns, and co-launched of the first-ever Caucus for the Two-State Solution in the Knesset (now the Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict), which engages more than 40 Members of Knesset across several factions. In 2012 Tal was elected as a member of the Steering Committee for the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum. Currently studying for his PhD in sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Tal holds a Master's in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor's in Philosophy and Politics from the Open University. He regularly participates in international conferences, panel debates and assemblies including the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Qatar and Brazil; the House of Commons in the UK; and the Israeli Knesset. Tal regularly publishes articles about Israel, Palestine and the two-state solution in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, Times of Israel, Huffington Post, Israel-Palestine Journal and more. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the Israeli Labor Party and MK Peretz.