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Can Social Media Bring Peace to the Middle East

Yesterday I passed by the square on King George and Gershon Agnon in Jerusalem on my way home from shopping. I am getting used to these Friday afternoon trips right before the Sabbath, and after just three short months in the country it is getting comfortably routine. Except for one thing …

Last week while passing the square I saw a protest, about thirty people dressed in black with cardboard signs in the shape of black hands saying “end the occupation.” My first reaction was one of anger and disgust: “how could these apologists do this in the center of the Holy City?”  I wanted to tell them how misguided they were, how wrong, how could you!  But then reason prevailed: what would my ranting get for any of us?  The fact of the matter is, I am not educated in these issues at all.  My simple understanding comes from a passionate love of Israel, growth in Torah Judaism, and a superficial knowledge of history.  I’ve read the first three chapters of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (on my “Someday” list) and a bit of a large volume on the Israel’s history.  This hardly qualifies me to take such a strong opinion.

I walked up to one of the women holding a sign and asked: “what’s the occupation.”  She looked down at me (she was standing on the ledge of the fountain).  I was wearing my usual big white knitted yarmulke and tzitzis (traditional strings worn by orthodox Jewish men as a reminder of our obligations to G-d) hanging from my belt.  “Seriously?” she asked.  “Can we talk about this?”

“Sure,” I said, realizing she probably gets a lot of criticism from people who look like me.  “What’s the occupation?”

“The settlements in the West Bank and the isolation of Gaza,” she said.  I thought about that; Wonder Woman and I had been strongly considering settling in a little town called Neve Daniel, a place that would likely fall on this woman’s map in “the West Bank.”

“So what’s the solution?” I asked.

“A two-state solution,” she said, a Pavlovian response to this question.

“How could a two-state solution work,” I asked.  She proceeded to tell me about the hardships Palestinians face b/c of the Jewish State, how it is unreasonable to expect that we can maintain a strictly Jewish State, and that Palestinians and Jews could live in peace if only they had their own state in the territories she mentioned before.

“But will they get along with each other?” I asked her, pointing out that Gaza didn’t turn out to be such a utopia in the end, with Hamas and Fatah fighting each other for violent control of that area.  She defended that incident by condemning Hamas as promising to fight corruption and then becoming corrupt themselves.  At the end of the conversation I didn’t feel any clearer.  She told me that I should meet and speak with some Palestinians to hear their side of the story.  Then I had to get home to help my wife get ready for Shabbat.

Social media provides us with a communal atmosphere to have discussions, share thought leadership, meet new people, keep tabs on contacts, friends, and family, and mobilize action.  Don’t believe me on that last point, think back to the Iranian elections and how Twitter became a rallying point for the opposition.  Still don’t believe, think back to the campaign of President Obama, and how he successfully used Facebook, text messages, and multimedia to get his message out there, bringing him from grass roots rising star to Pennsylvania Avenue.  There is no doubt that the power of social media lies in the potential it has for any voice within the community to be heard and for people to connect who would not do so otherwise.

Can this medium work to humanize Israelis to Palestinians and vice versa?  Thinking back on my experience in the square, it dawned on me that I don’t know any Palestinians; not personally at least.  I see them in the shopping areas, the medical clinics, and on the street.  They work in our homes (I recently had plumbing work done by a mixed Israeli/Palestinian crew), have cities between our cities where we are not allowed to go, and pray right behind the Western Wall in their copper domed mosque.  Still, they seem completely foreign to me.  I know none of them, nor am I completely comfortable getting to know them.  But what if could start small?

Think about it: a group on Facebook called “Israelis and Palestinians: Who Are We?” (perhaps this already exists?  If so, please comment).  Any such group should be run by a joint community management team consisting of Israelis and Palestinians.  It should have a big disclaimer about what kind of dialogue will be tolerated (rules of engagement), and while forum discussions should be allowed to get somewhat heated, direct abuse or threats should not be tolerated.  Members should be encouraged to share their story: how did you come to Israel (were you born here or immigrated)?  What do you love about this land?  How many people are in your family?  What’s your favorite past time?  Why did you join this group?  Do you believe we can ever have real peace?

Maybe this won’t ever happen, or even if someone starts such a group maybe it won’t change a thing.  Maybe we need an act of G-d to make this all work.  Maybe we’ll go on fighting for the next 20-centuries with each other.  But I do know this: we are seeing  a revolution in communication, relationship and trust building from social media interactions.  Getting to know each other or at least about each other can help change attitudes.  At the very least, if it brings us to the negotiating table a bit more open minded b/c we see the other side as human too perhaps we’ll think more clearly and find an acceptable solution (I don’t know what that is).

What are your thoughts on the topic?  Do social media sites have the power to bring opposing peoples closer?  What objective resources do you read on the Israeli/Palestinian situation (I recently found this one: ProCon.org)?

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YouTube Diplomacy: Broadcast Your Peace

In a message of virtual peace, President Obama extended best wishes to celebrants of the springtime holiday Nowruz.  More than just a good natured holiday greeting, he used this opportunity to give a special shout out to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, spending most of his 3 and 1/2 minute message in online diplomacy.  A dramatic shift away from America’s isolationist policies towards Iran for the past 3 decades, President Obama pointed out common interests and goals, while calling for peace.  He gave props to Iranian culture for it’s contributions to American culture, and extended a pixalated hand to Iranian leaders to build constructive relationships.

Using online video broadcast to spread political message is nothing new. Terrorists have spread online hate for years.  The Obama campaign (and Hilary’s primary run) used YouTube effectively to secure votes during the last election.  But a fireside chat broadcast to a nation once dubbed an “Axis of Evil” card member takes a new approach to dealing with adversarial relationships.  Posting a message of peace in this fashion (which had Farsi subtitles running across the screen in the Iranian version), President Obama has found a new way to use new media.

Will his approach be effective here?

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