My journey from BDS activist to Israel educator

If someone had come to me over six years ago and told me that in my final year of university, I would be graduating from a fellowship programme run by StandWithUs UK, I would have probably called them deluded, maybe even insane.

Yet here I am, over a year later, reflecting on every aspect of what I encountered and experienced as a StandWithUs Emerson fellow.

Overall, this has been a year that shattered many of my preconceptions and expectations. It has been an experience from which I have learned a lot, that has not always been easy, that has placed me in environments often surrounded by people very different to me in both their backgrounds and their opinions.

However, to quote none other than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “It’s the people not like us that make us grow”.

You may question the reasoning as to how and why a British Muslim ended up so invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and subsequently involved in Israel education.

Growing up, I would regularly hear about the Palestinians and the necessity to support their struggle, whether that was through my local mosque or even through casual conversation with friends or family.

As I grew to become more politically aware, the issue captivated me, and I became attached to the simplified notion of Israel being all-bad.

I became heavily involved in campaigning in favour of BDS (Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions of Israel), particularly during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, where I regularly took part in demonstrations in Manchester. At this point in time, I openly branded myself an “Anti-Zionist” and proudly asserted that it was a credible political belief to hold.

A year later I had the opportunity to visit Israel and Palestine – having won a school travel award. I embarked on a trip visiting major Israeli and Palestinian cities such as Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and had the chance to meet a variety of different people.

What I fundamentally learned, having had the opportunities to gain a true, in-depth experience of both sides, is that those who seek to promote a dogmatic and black-and-white narration of the conflict overlook the several layers of complexity that beset these two peoples.

This conflict cannot simply be demarcated by “good vs. evil”, or “right side vs. wrong side”.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening experiences for me was travelling to Sderot, where I met a group of Israelis protesting near the Gaza border.

The reasons for the protest? Their desire to see an end to violence and the Israeli blockade.

The fundamental change that I had within my belief system, was that both Palestinians and Israelis had absolute rights to statehood, liberty and justice.

For the first time, I was able to reconcile that Israel was not a single-minded state where everyone undyingly supported every action the government took.

There were many Israelis who disagreed with what was going on, who wanted a change from the status-quo of the occupation or other issues facing both societies. It became clear to me that being “pro-Palestine” did not have to be synonymous with being “Anti-Israel”.

Back home, when I would get into discussions on the issue, I would get incredibly frustrated at the total ignorance and misunderstandings some people displayed. Ignorance that at times would amount to casual Anti-Semitism, simply because people were fed with dogmatic and emotively charged narratives about Israel and the issues surrounding it. This proved to be incredibly frustrating.

What was particularly saddening was being labelled as a “traitor” or a “sell out” whenever I attempted to offer an account of the experience of the Jewish people and the Israeli narrative.

Despite being someone that opposed many aspects of the contemporary Israeli governments, I was still berated for attempting to humanise another side to this issue, a side which entailed another people’s suffering, displacement and persecution.

With this, I slowly began to realise that the most toxic elements of this conflict – the absolute segregation of two peoples, incitement and hatred of the other – had leaked into the contemporary discourse and conversations about Israel and Palestine.

Just like in Israel and Palestine, I saw how some people were so entrenched in their hatred for one side that it became impossible for them to fathom a humanised perspective of the other.

I saw the Emerson fellowship as a big opportunity to achieve what I had been seeking to achieve for a long time – education. Education about the issues that mattered to me and many others, on a platform where I would have opportunities to engage with a variety of people from differing backgrounds and discuss the most complex and difficult issues.

Admittedly I was fearful going into the fellowship – I feared that many of my views or opinions would not be welcomed, or people would simply denounce what I had to say. However, the total opposite turned out to be the case; from every single event and every interaction I had, whilst we may not have always agreed on every single issue, we were able to openly share and discuss our beliefs and opinions, and learn from one another.

The educational sessions proved to be consistently rewarding and interesting. I learned a lot about aspects of Israeli society and culture which were new to me. One of the most interesting sessions I attended was done by Charlotte Korchak, where she covered conceptions and misconceptions of Zionism. Despite extensive discussion, not all of us managed to agree on one single definition of what Zionism actually is – I guess this is just a testament to how complex the issues we learn about truly are.

What I also found to be particularly fascinating with the Emerson sessions was that the speakers we had were from different backgrounds – everyone offered their own personal stories and perspectives which only broadened my understanding of the topics we discussed. One event which I thoroughly enjoyed was having a Palestinian youth activist coming to discuss his life growing up in the West Bank and his work. We were incredibly lucky to have him come and talk to us, and I learned a great deal from that session.

At the LA conference, despite being the only Muslim present, when speaking to people one on one, I felt welcomed, listened to and respected. It gave me hope knowing that despite our personal differences and beliefs, there were those who were willing to engage and learn from one another – that our generation can go forward into the future, not scarred by the trauma of the past, and with an open mind that is prepared to communicate with the other side and have a willingness to strive for peace.

Thinking back almost six years ago, I was in a very different place in my beliefs to where I am now.

It is fair to say that this journey of undertaking the Emerson fellowship has been of great personal reward to me. Sentiments of exasperation, fear and frustration have all been replaced with hope.

I have made friends with people from across the world and learned so much. For all this, I could not be more grateful. Whatever the future may hold for the upcoming Emersons and those who choose to continue in this field of work, I will leave them with this quote from a late, great Jewish scientist:

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” – Albert Einstein

About the Author
Ali Drabu, is a Muslim student and a graduate of the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship programme 2019/20. A recent graduate from the University of St Andrews in International Relations, he is undertaking a master's degree in International Security at King's College London. Ali is a former Member of Youth Parliament, with his work focusing on campaigning against Antisemitism and Islamophobia.
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