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Israeli Youth & Young Adults and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -Some Reflections

According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), as of the end of 2019, over 3 million Israeli citizens, around 33% of the population, were under the age of 17. Of which 72.2% Jews and 24.5% Arabs (Muslims, Christians, and Druze)[1]. In 2018, there were 1.96 million young adults (18-34) living in Israel [2]. Which means that over half the population in Israel is considered youth or young adults. This majority of Israelis — most of them too young to have been stakeholders in the Oslo process but old enough to be fully conscious of its collapse into the second intifada, repeated Gaza wars and the continued dominance of the right-wing — are the constituency who will likely largely determine the fate of Israelis and Palestinians.

Peace activism often positions “the next generation” as its main reason for action, as in, “We are doing it for our children and our grandchildren.” But we need to ask how this generation is being engaged in this process, what experiences they bring with them, and what we, the older generation, have handed down to them. Soon they will be the majority who decide the fate of this country and of this region.

In Israel, the peacebuilding community and cohort of citizens who most highly prioritize an end to the conflict tend to be older. Take a look at the audience or panelists at most events discussing these issues, and you will see that clearly. We must therefore ask ourselves a few questions regarding the generation that is emerging after ours: Where do the youth in Israel stand today on the issues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jewish-Arab relations? Do they relate to the way we, the “Oslo Generation,” frame these issues? What can we do to enable them to take ownership of this struggle and become genuine agents of change for peace and equality and to learn from our mistakes? How can we provide them with hope, motivation, and confidence that they can do it, that life can be different, with dignity, justice, equality, and fairness in daily life for all? That life can be safe for them to live in our region?

Equality and peace work operate for Jewish-Arab Palestinians relations in two different spaces — first, shared society, talking about equality among Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel; and second, cross-border, talking about peace between Israeli citizens, involving mostly Jewish participants, and Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), mostly the West Bank. We are witnessing political changes in both spaces; some are already in evidence: In the political discourse in Israel, for example, where both the center-left and right-wing are normalizing the Arab political lists as legitimate partners for coalition-building in the Knesset. In the cross-border context, the new U.S. Administration on one hand, and political instability in Israel and Palestine on the other, are creating a context whereby the future is very unclear, with the identity of Israeli and Palestinian governments still up in the air and plenty of ambiguity about what policy and degree of priority that the Biden administration will apply. Unstable and unclear politics can push the young generation toward despair — but it can be an opportunity for them to jump in and make the change in an environment where everything is unusually and suddenly up for grabs.

The Influences on Younger Generations

We know that there are a few circles of influence on younger generations:

  1. The families and family biographies.
  2. The environment and conditions of their life.
  3. Education — formal and non-formal.
  4. The societal political discourse.
  5. And the reality of daily life, the most powerful “educator.”

The atmosphere in each one of the above is not supportive these days, to say the least, of the social change we aim to achieve to make a significant impact on the young generation’s perceptions and attitudes. Thus, the challenges facing a peacebuilding community seeking to place youth at the center of their strategy and theory of change are significant. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accentuated many of these challenges, affecting the youth acutely with social distancing, employment anxieties, and the loss of trust in the political leadership impacting the motivation and capacity for working toward social change engagement.

About 90% of the Arab society in Israel live in Arab localities and the rest in Arab neighborhoods in mixed or Jewish cities, according to a study by Givat Haviva (2017)[3]. Most Jews live in Jewish localities and only 22% in mixed localities. Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip live from an Israeli perspective, beyond the walls. Segregation and separation are the keywords here. This segregation leads to strengthening fears, stereotypes and lack of empathy and does not create any opportunity to change it. This is the context in which the identities and opinions of Arab and Jewish youth are formed.

The relations between social groups are shaped by severely imbalanced power relations and privileges for one group over the others, segregation in most channels of life, language and cultural barriers, and physical barriers — which has been exacerbated since March 2020. With the onset of the pandemic, all permits for peace activities were canceled, and what little opportunity there was for contact and cooperation largely vanished. Peace work is not considered essential for the permits' authorities and decision-makers in Israel. In a critical report in 2016, the state comptroller wrote that “[s]ince the beginning of the 2000s, the Ministry of Education has initiated systemic moves for education for tolerance and coexistence, but these have either not been implemented at all or have been implemented to a limited extent and without any direct connection to the fight against racism among students.”[4] The situation on the ground has not improved since 2016.

Tending Toward the Right

Research by the Chord Center (2021)[5] shows us the results: “Israeli society is a divided society, characterized by tensions between different social groups. These tensions, which have gradually deepened over the years, are expressed by negative attitudes, hostility, intergroup distancing, and sometimes even as violence between the groups in Israeli society….” A poll of youth between the ages of 15 and 18 conducted in February 2021 by Frogi, a youth web magazine, found that 68% of respondents identified themselves as right-wing supporters [6]. A 2021 ADL poll found that only 30% of the population in Israel think that the Arab citizens are an integral part of Israeli society. Among the Arab public, 41% do not see themselves as part of Israeli society [7].

A Shetufim youth poll (ages 18-35) done for the Ministry for Equal Opportunities (July 2019) found that “nearly half of the respondents, 47.5%, indicated that they are not involved in various ways to advance social or community goals which are important to them, compared with 43% who indicated involvement. It has been found that the degree of involvement of younger people, up to the age of 21, is lower than that of older people, aged 31-35 (40% mixed versus 48%). It was also found that among Druze 
and Muslims, 56% and 55% are involved to a greater extent, respectively; while 42% of Jews are involved in activities to promote social goals.[8] Research conducted by NAS for the Gandyr Foundation (August 2020) on Arab Youth (ages 18-24) in Israel found that “…in the Arab society as a whole — both among stronger and weaker groups — there is not only a structural but also a conceptual vacuum when it comes to community involvement, volunteering, activism and civic participation.”[9]

We can see that those opposed to peace and equality are very good at capturing the hearts and minds of the young generation. This has a direct impact on public atmosphere and political discourse, compounded by the years of disappointments in our leadership and the stagnation of our reality, and to some extent, its deterioration. As a result, young people tend to be indifferent and apathetic to social issues, and too many pro-peace spaces have become spaces for older people. We need to change that.

What can we do to answer these challenges?

Becoming Architects of Change

ALLMEP members, more than 130 NGOs focused on peace and equality, are proposing different theories of change to answer this challenge and operate in a variety of fields. Activities are increasingly being tailored toward providing relevance to the needs and interests of the younger generation, not simply encounters for the sake of encounters. Member activities serve as a basis and a starting point for getting to relevant issues, putting young people on a path whereby peace, equality, and political participation can become part of their identity and daily lived reality. How each group accomplishes this varies widely. Some do it via sports, others do joint learning in schools, either through the public school system or in joint bilingual schools, or informal education. Meanwhile, others find the environmental issues as the right place for joint activities, and still others do it through interfaith dialogues, employment and startup creation, or direct activism. Activities vary in size and location. Some are small and community-based, while others are larger with presence in various locations across the region. They are designed to accommodate not only different needs but also different target audiences, expanding the socio-economic, religious, and political categories that such activities have tended to stay within.

For all of our members, this is a process, not a destination — a process designed to create engagement and commitment, to support and develop leadership skills and motivation, while creating an environment where peace and equality are again legitimate values and where young people, teens and young adults, can find themselves part of the change and become leaders and architects of that change.

The Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA) [10] was enacted in December 2020, after almost ten years of ALLMEP’s advocacy work. It will deliver $250 million over five years in support of these sorts of projects as well as economic projects that can give this emerging generation a real stake in the future. This is an opportunity for peace activists and anyone who wants the reality of the Middle East to be different, better for all its habitants to make progress and to put youth at the core of that strategy. Real, lasting change is a multi-generational project and one that the youth of this region must be the authors of. Now, at least, the resources necessary for that to happen might just be on the way.

Endnotes

[1] CBS, Nov 18th 2020 
[2] CBS, Feb 24th 2021 
[3] Givat Haviva, December 2017 
[4] https://www.mevaker.gov.il/he/Reports/Report_545/92be6185-dbc9-44d9-8c97-98eead865fab/Life-together_Final_preview.pdf 
[5] aChord Feb 2021, 
[6] Frogi poll Feb 2021 
[7] ADL poll, Feb 2021 
[8] Shetufim July 2019 
[9] NAS-Gandyr, August 2020 
[10] MEPPA (2020)


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