Just Vision Skip to main content

Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

Browse Interviews

Michal Eskenazi

Michal Eskenazi is a coordinator at the Young Israeli Forum for Cooperation. YIFC promotes dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and encourages young leaders and professionals in Israel to participate in conflict resolution and policymaking. Originally from Karmiel, Michal has volunteered in various organizations in the past, and is currently a student of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.

  • Please tell me about yourself.

    My name is Michal Eskenazi. I'm from Karmiel , my parents still live there. I live in Beer Sheva, I study at the university there.

  • Please tell me about YIFC.

    YIFC was founded with three goals in mind. The first is promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. The second is less common in this field, to promote European involvement in dialogue here and in the conflict. We believe Europe has much to contribute and we stress the importance of relations between Israel and Europe. The third goal is creating a framework for young leadership in this context. In Hebrew, we haven't yet found a term for distinguishing young leadership from young professionals. Young professionals are young people who have attained respectable positions, mostly due to their leadership abilities. At YIFC we claim that although they have achieved a lot for their age, it hasn't amounted to that much, broadly speaking. These leaders are in the outer circles; for example, assistants to members of parliament. There isn't a tendency to welcome young people [in politics], quite the contrary. So these people work as parliamentary assistants or student union leaders and relative to their age they are successful, but we believe that there is much more to be desired. These people are very open, they are creative and flexible thinkers and have fewer commitments than they will have ten years from now. In ten years, they will be committed to family life or work; they are employed now but there are still more possibilities open to them now. We believe that these [young] leaders are situated between civil society and decision makers. What is special about YIFC is that it wasn't founded after there were funds or even in an organized manner. The organization was founded two and a half years ago, in August 2003, and already we are working on our sixth conference, besides many other projects and Euro-Med conferences. Our main focus is on organizing conferences. There were activities going on even before the organization was set up. Besides the conferences, YIFC focuses on examples from other conflicts and their solutions, such as Ireland and Moldova, and examining solutions vis-à-vis the conflict here, keeping in mind the question of whether implementing solutions found abroad is even possible. There are Euro-Med projects, a conference in Ireland that focuses on conflict resolution, projects focusing on vision, how we would like this region to be in twenty years. We put together a team of Palestinians, Israelis and Europeans to work and "envision" the future together and then to examine the ways by which to realize their vision. Methodologically, we define and examine our aims, the obstacles that exist, and then search for a solution. Another thing we do is emphasize the importance of follow-up activities. The next conference in Germany won't be completed when the conference ends. The conference plan includes the follow-up meeting scheduled to take place a month later. I want to stress that we have always planned to do this but lacked the funds.

  • Why is follow-up important?

    It means grounding the conference's outcome or allowing for implementation of its conclusions in a well-organized and better planned manner. Some 50% of the people we send to conferences continue to be active in YIFC or maintain ties with YIFC while they are engaged in other activities. This is important. There is a stage, which is very important, in which there is time to think things over on the last day: if this matters to us, how should we proceed? Usually this is when people have lots of good ideas for ongoing activity. During one conference, someone came up with the idea of Middle East 2020, in another, joint educational programs meant for Israelis and Palestinians in higher education in Europe. There are very creative ideas, especially given the fact that people come up with them at the very last minute on the final day, but things end there. We think it's a good idea for people to return from the conference and let things sink in, let people get their bearings, tell everybody about it and only then meet again. This ensures things are calmer because every person went through a process on a personal level and from there people continue together. During our last conference in Amsterdam, we contacted the Clingendael Institute, which is near The Hague. They have specialists in negotiation and they gave a short workshop about negotiation and game theory at our conference there and it left quite an impression on all our participants. We would like to organize professional workshops for people who want to work together on joint projects.

  • Please tell me about the conference you took part in.

    For me personally, it was very powerful because I came with opinions that were very clear-cut. Many people whose opinions can be counted as left-wing and who believe in cooperation with Palestinians have simply never met Palestinians. It's important for people who don't believe in such cooperation as well, but it is especially significant for people who believe in peace or believe in negotiating. My own experience is that I had a very well constructed idea of what was necessary or what I wanted to see happen to end the conflict, so you would have thought I'd be a fairly "easy" case. But when I arrived, I understood that reality is different. You can think you know what you want [to know] but you don't really know the other side, so you don't even have the means to imagine such negotiations or dialogue. It is impossible to get a sense of this from reading the headlines, interpretations or those articles you read in school. In the meetings, I discovered that it all boils down to differences in mentality, differences in what we want, diversity of backgrounds (ultimately this affects everything) and therefore necessitates bridging matters that are less apparent. This was very difficult for me because it isn't as simple as I thought; you don't just show up, make peace and then go back home, things don't work that way. Other participants came carrying psychological baggage I wasn't aware of.

  • Can you give an example of this?

    I will give you three. I was challenged by the matter of "why don't they understand that we want to talk to them? Why don't they understand that we want to make peace with them?" I'm exaggerating, but it always comes down to suicide attacks. I was shocked to hear people tell me to my face that they were in favor of them! This was during Operation Defensive Shield or maybe later, in March 2004, at the peak of the second intifada . I understand the complexity. There is a reason a person will say this - it's because of social pressure. Some people came to the conference before telling or not intending to tell their community they were going to meet with Israelis. I know I should appreciate that they came. Second is the matter of anger. When you meet, people need to unload all their prejudices; everybody unleashes slogans and only afterwards can you begin to talk; this is a process. This was my first time. People come, let everything out and then they begin to talk matters over. After people had unpacked everything, I couldn't understand why they [the Palestinians] were still so angry. I mean, we were there and we had come to talk, so why was it so important to get all this out? Though I knew and understood, it struck me suddenly that I was seeing, before me, people who pass through checkpoints every day, people for whom the checkpoints are now the core issue for debate or even of the whole conflict because it's their daily routine. These people, who endure this reality daily, were explaining it to me and I needed to make the connection—them going through this and not just figures in articles. Third, and I recall this strongly because I also encountered it after, is the differences between perceptions of the meeting. Perhaps it is linked to their background and daily life, but they [Palestinians] come and very much want to make an immediate change. We hold our dialogue sessions yet nothing changes, as though for the Palestinians we Israelis are the representatives of the State of Israel and we are responsible for changing the situation. I would like to instigate change but right now I can't...I am also just a civilian, I do have the power allotted to citizens but it isn't the same power the state has, not yet. Towards the end of the conference, after having undergone a very significant process together and many discussions, something happened in Gaza and eleven Palestinians were killed. The Palestinians refused to speak to us. We tried to explain that we were there and that we hadn't done anything, but their perspective was that "you live in Israel, you served in the IDF , the guys serve in reserves, and we have nothing to say to you." This was after we had the joint process. I grasped the asymmetry in coming to these discussions, in terms of how people perceive them.

  • How did you overcome the crisis?

    It was much to the credit of the Dutch facilitators, and it was mostly a matter of time. We had a discussion that night. There are a few reasons [we overcame the crisis]; really we had undergone a process together; we had talked and talked and talked, it wasn't as though we had just arrived at the conference. We really tried speaking as honestly as possible and we told them we could understand them. I felt it was also an act they had to perform in order to demonstrate something. Ultimately, we did get to talking. I felt as though I had been exposed, as though part of my skin had been peeled off. I think that the differences between us within [our] groups became apparent then. We didn't come bearing a single opinion, united; on the contrary. In YIFC, we try to stress that people aren't representatives during the conferences and that people represent themselves. We don't have meetings at night to plot our strategy for the next day and there is room for right-wing people or left-wing people. Every person should say what they think. [The Palestinian participants] had a different approach and perceived [themselves] as one body representing something, and it resulted in asymmetry as well as being a power struggle. In the end, there was a shift within the group.

  • What was important for you to say during this conversation?

    Some people stressed that it was important for us to defend ourselves too. Part of the Israeli group tried to focus on what we had gone through together. It was important for me to bring it down to the level of "you and me". Everyone knows that although we may have concluded what needs to be included in educational curricula in order for there to be peace, it doesn't mean that tomorrow it will appear in [Palestinian and Israeli] schoolbooks. This exists everywhere, not only here. The path begins on the personal level and from there it will continue, so I said, "Let's take it from the personal level and then move further". If it didn't work here between us, how could I leave hopeful about succeeding on higher levels?

  • Why are the conferences held abroad?

    It's actually quite simple: logistically speaking, it is very difficult to organize a conference here, you need permits; sometimes Palestinians aren't necessarily willing to enter Israel for this. It's simpler to hold the conferences abroad. It's absurd, we know we are flying people abroad to meet though they live as close as half hour from each other but considering the logistics, this works. It isn't easy for us, but this is more convenient and it is easier to fundraise abroad if we hold a conference in the donor country rather than here. However, we aim to hold the follow-up meetings in Jerusalem; it will be a smaller gathering and we will be able to raise funds for it in advance. Our goal is to hold as many of the meetings here as possible. Let me give you an example. In mid-December [2005], two weeks ago, we held a conference. It was less a dialogue conference, more like a discussion, entitled "Europe and the Middle East Peace Process: the Role of Young Leadership". We managed to attract high profile Palestinian participants as well as young people [Israelis] who had taken part in a Belgian project that took place in September, but it wasn't easy, and in that case there were only a few people.

  • Earlier you mentioned a project called Middle East 2020, could you tell me about it?

    There is a European project called Europe 2020 and it occurred to Nimrod Goren, our Executive Director, to have such a conference for the Middle East. It means bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to plan what we want to have here, what scenarios are possible here and how to promote them together. Last winter, Franck Biancheri one of the initiators of Europe 2020 and of Erasmus came for a visit and participated in our conference here. Now we are working on planning and on scheduling. There is the matter of funds. I hope it will be successful.

  • How do you intend to make your work and your conferences affect the political level?

    At present there are a few levels. In the organization, we are networking and exposing people to our work as well as working on public relations. Every year we mark YIFC's birthday. It's an excuse to celebrate and we organize a meeting and invite a lecturer from another organization. This year we held the birthday meeting at the Floerscheimer Institute and they did a presentation of scenarios concerning the future of Jerusalem. We invite people to introduce them to our work; we invite officials, too. We publish our conference conclusions in reports. We try to emphasize the importance of the role young leadership has [to play] and select people who have not yet been exposed to this issue and who can reach decision makers. We also have a few ideas for joint projects with people from the field of technology in different areas who are influential and could affect the field, which is important. I must say, it isn't easy. We all volunteer, none of us get paid and this affects our work in both positive and negative ways. The positive aspect is that people act out of pure motivation because it is important to them. This is very clear at meetings; people are very busy with their lives, our schedules run until nine or ten pm but in spite of this, people still manage to do something else, and this is a big advantage. The negative aspect is that people have less time to invest in this work because they have to survive, financially speaking, or have prior commitments. I know there are things we could do more quickly, but because we only check in at night to see what happened all day, it takes longer. That's okay; we are progressing and things are working out.

  • Are there Palestinian members in YIFC?

    No. It is an Israeli organization which always collaborates with other organizations. I can't think of a single project where we didn't partner up with another organization. Part of what we are saying is that we need to work cooperatively.

  • What challenges does this work pose?

    My initial challenge - which I overcame—was to create a system for our work. At YIFC a person is responsible for their project from start to finish, in terms of logistics, fundraising, summarizing, and it was really difficult to connect individual work to connect to the others' but it was really important; the organization operates differently now. Currently, the challenge is how to make time when there is none. We want to increase the number of volunteers. The question is how to integrate people, because to do that you need people to supervise their work. We are all volunteers, so there is a limited amount of human resources. In terms of [organizing] conferences, the challenges are endless. There are the technical challenges of the budget and all kinds of things, as well as the question of how to promote ourselves. There are questions too, such as what do we want to happen at the conference? What do you want? What are the concerns? How do we ensure we work well with the other side and refrain from hurting people from the other side? I think a general challenge for me in all this work is realizing that things are possible, because I am very skeptical. It might not sound like I am, but I tend to complain and be skeptical. I overcame my cynicism, but that was part of it, too. Gradually, I have come to understand that it is not a matter of skepticism but rather believing that things can take place, and looking up a bit. If you do, you can walk in the [right] direction, but staying skeptical won't lead me anywhere. This is YIFC's vision, generally speaking, and it applies to my work as well. I really appreciate the people who are active in YIFC. What has always amazed me is the fact that they aren't checking to see what the next step should be, rather they are thinking about the next five or ten steps and about getting there. I wasn't even capable of thinking ten steps were possible. This is not a minor challenge.

  • Is there anyone you wouldn't work with on ideological grounds?

    I never discussed this with people from the organization formally. Let's just say that I need to believe we basically share the hope that both sides need to exist here, this is fairly basic. I'll have a hard time getting a formal letter acknowledging this, but I do need mutual agreement to the continuing existence of both of us here and the need to learn to live together. I'm not here alone, nor is the other side; there is no point in dialogue if that is the assumption. From there on, we can discuss questions such as why and how, as well as everything else. We discuss this often, about how people I would never think are capable of having such a dialogue participate.

  • Like whom?

    On the Israeli side an example is people who live in settlements, or people who support the Likud Party. People who are active there [in these ideological and political movements] came claiming there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Yet they did come to talk to them about this and this is a very important kind of change and this is the most important effect. I think that when we bring people who would not have come otherwise, it is the most important part. It is important to stress that every step we take towards cooperation and dialogue is meaningful, even if it is only in the mind of a single person. Maybe the next time they are sitting around with people they will say something that is different. I don't need people to think as I do, I want people to discover that dialogue is an option.

  • What kind of prejudices do you encounter?

    From what I see on the Palestinian side, to them we are all just one big army. I can imagine where this is coming from; people have never met Israelis who aren't soldiers. On the Israeli side, during the conference I participated in, I didn't encounter so much prejudice as reactions to the initial encounter such as, "Why are they always complaining?" "They're just trying to propagandize!" "They are here to complain." "The only thing important to them is that we give and give, to see how much we are willing to give them, then what they want is for us to feel sorry for them." These responses come up at first, and then they lead to more profound dialogue, which is more difficult.

  • How do people react to your work?

    People are very curious about it from all over the political spectrum. I am studying politics and government at Ben Gurion University so obviously people there are curious about it. I find myself talking about the meetings quite often, without having been the one to initiate it, with people who are relatively right-wing.

  • How does your work promote an end to the conflict?

    People are always saying that when there is peace civil society needs to be prepared, people should know. First of all, it affects what happens; what starts at the bottom will rise to the top. Second, I think we need to invest as much work as possible in what will take place the "day after" [peace] and how we envision it to be. You can sign an agreement officially but from our experience here, we know that at the end of the day it's meaningless. There needs to be something structured in society; this needs to happen among decision makers too, but they [civil society] are not the people who signed the agreement, so this seems important to me. I took part in a discussion at the American Consulate with a well-known [Palestinian] activist and suddenly she said, "I don't understand. We are working and working and we have activities, yet you continue building the fence!" I am involved but not because I think my work will lead to peace with the Palestinians or that tomorrow the wall will fall (the fence, or whatever it's called). This is an important process, affecting the people around me, we need to affect as many people as possible, keeping in mind that it isn't going to happen tomorrow. When it does happen, it will be in a much more stable environment because it will be across society.

  • You mentioned that often Palestinians expect the meetings to lead to political actions while Israelis expect personal relations. How do you address this at your meetings?

    It's a match between optimism, which says this is what will help, and the fact that we are talking to people and the effect is personal rather than political. We walk the line and I think it is because we want to create a change, but this will always be there, we are working with it. Not everything can be bridged.

  • You are reaching out to Israeli young professionals and academics yet you said the process needs to be bottom-up.

    When I talked about the work beginning at the level of the people, at the bottom, I meant what should be happening generally speaking. I think that in YIFC we stress the people situated in between - between bottom and top, meaning leadership. When we talk to people at universities, we welcome people who aren't students if they are very active and are influential, because I am searching for a way to influence decision makers. We are addressing the middle, there is no doubt. Before I joined YIFC the people there took part in a project with Palestinian kids and took them on guided tours to the Museum of Islamic Art in order to demonstrate that Israelis don't hate Islam, how Israelis perceive Islam and their respect for it. That was a social activity. We had an idea that we would begin a film project using films that deal with the conflict's core issues and discuss them in different groups within Israeli society, and outside it, as a series of discussions. We are focusing on the people in between, with the assumption that each organization focuses on their specific forte. There are so many organizations so we have to decide what we think is right, what is important for us, and what we can focus on so we can do that.

  • How does the political situation affect your work?

    In terms of logistic matters, it is constantly affecting my work, and it is difficult. There were Palestinian participants who arrived late to our conference because they weren't given permits and they arrived a few days late. They could have contributed much during the first days of the conference but didn't arrive. I understand the need for security; people talk about the political and the personal levels. Politically, I want there to be security but on the personal level, a person is standing in front of you after running around in the world for three days, yet he came.

  • How does that affect the meeting?

    During the conference it has an effect because it is the beginning and dialogue begins starting at that point, with you needing to apologize for something. It is also related to the part where people let everything out, when you unpack all your emotional baggage and then begin to talk.

  • What is this conflict about?

    I think this conflict is mostly about myths and symbols, theirs and ours, and less about what is happening on the ground. I'm thinking about the topics that are considered problematic, putting aside the others—such as checkpoints, because I think that's a different matter. Issues that usually come up during negotiations are Jerusalem, the refuges, borders, and security. From what I have read and researched, if you were to separate these issues from the symbolic and cultural framework they are wrapped in, it would be possible to resolve them. We were raised on this conflict and its myths; we were told what is true and what isn't, who is right and who isn't. This goes for both sides, and now it's difficult to repair things. We were raised on history as it is in the eyes of our teachers and it takes time to begin to think in a different way - maybe it doesn't necessarily have to be this way, maybe things can be fixed. The question is, is it really possible? That is the major part of the work, and like anything else, requires time, unlike a political process, which is much simpler. This process exists, we can see it. We [Israelis] have developed myths and stories for ourselves. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in them or something understandable, but interests guide this symbolism. This is how I see it. On the other hand, I think whoever wrote the history book I study, or better yet, the Palestinians' history textbooks, has a well defined and vested interest, mentioning an issue only if it seems beneficial for their side. On the other hand, I can give you a personal example that concerns my family. My parents made aliyah and we have arguments over many things, but I understand that one of the reasons they made aliyah is Zionism, straight up. The Zionism they were raised with is something that I can direct my anger at, but this is what brought them here from Argentina.

  • What do you think about former peace processes?

    I don't think they failed completely, even though we're disappointed with the outcome. Fundamentally, they made us go through a very significant process and changed many things here. In terms of the social change, which is much harder to create, we are in the midst of doing this now. I studied the inside process - how it was run - because I studied what went on behind the scenes during negotiations at Camp David, Taba and Stockholm during the years 1997-2001. I learned how things are really run and it offered many of the answers I sought. Besides the political games and the fact that sometimes the political powers were the determining force instead of the educated and knowledgeable people, only the near future was considered. People were thinking only a second ahead without looking to see what was taking place on the other side, without investigating the scenario for what would happen there. I'm not claiming here that the Palestinian side was blameless; I am criticizing our side and saying, things were being run in a very disappointing and generally amateur-like manner, without thinking ahead. Nobody was listening to people who were able to think a little beyond the immediate present. Nobody listened to the other side.

  • Do you think there can be peace here?

    Yes, ultimately. Each side has its internal affairs, regardless of external relations and interaction with the other side. After that, it depends a lot on what is happening outside. I am scared, or I reflect on what will happen the day we cease to fill the headlines in foreign press, newspapers abroad in Europe and the US; what will happen when it ceases to interest people there? What will become of us?

  • What is the role that external actors play here?

    They play a role that is partly necessary. Right now external agents are offering incentives, maybe this will encourage us because it seems that the notion of peace and quiet is not sufficient, so we need help from the outside, and there are parties that can fulfill this role. I mean economic support as well as political support, trade agreements. We need political agreements more than cultural agreements here. We are part of a larger system, in which we play a role and which affects us.

  • What are your hopes for the future?

    I feel like I'm being repetitive but I think that I really would like to be a neighbor and not an enemy. This may sound overly optimistic - but it's okay if we are talking about hopes. End.

  • Follow up November 2006

    Michal finished her BA degree in Politics and Government and is currently pursuing a Masters in this field. She works at Ben Gurion University at the Centre for the Study of European Society and Politics and continues to be active in YIFC.