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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.

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Ariel Huler

After his mandatory army service, Ariel Huler trained in conflict management at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He worked with young people in the fieldof the religious-secular divide among Israeli Jews prior to working at Seeds of Peace. Ariel first worked at Seeds of Peace Camp in the United States, where Israeli and Palestinian teenagers (as well as groups from different conflict regions) live together, have fun, and participate in coexistence dialogue sessions every day. Along with a Palestinian partner, Ariel was a facilitator in these dialogue sessions. He now works at the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem, where the young people who have attended camp continue to participate in year-long programs.

  • Could you talk about your personal history, where you grew up, and how you ended up in this job?

    I was born in 1970. I grew up in Rehovot, which is is famous because of the Weizmann Institute of Science. At the time there were lots of orange groves, so there was this smell in the air. It was one of the first yishuvim in Israel, of the Zionist movement. It was established in 1890, even before the Zionist Movement officially existed.1 Many of my teachers in the primary school were first generation in the city. I'm mentioning all that because I was very patriotic, a local patriot. There is a story that when I was twelve I spent a week in Paris with my father-- I don't remember this but everybody tells me-- and when we came back and everybody asked me, "How was the Champs Elysee,"2 I said, "Rehov Herzl3 is better." In my youth, I played on the soccer team and I was active in the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which is considered a left-wing youth movement. So I had kind of what you would call a "left" opinion about many things.

    • 1An airbase located outside Rehovot in Israel, originally founded during the British mandate period. The base was used to launch air-strikes against the Arab forces during the Wars of 1948 and 1956 and remains an important training base for the Israeli Air Force and Israeli paratroopers.
    • 2An avenue in Paris leading from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. A popular tourist destination.
    • 3Hebrew for "Herzl Street," named for Theodor Herzl, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Huler is referring to the main street in Rehovot.

  • After you graduated from high-school what did you do?

    I did three and a half years of service in the army. For almost all of that period I was in a base in the north of Israel. In those days the first intifada broke out and looking back I feel lucky that I didn't have to physically be in the West Bank or Gaza during my service. When I finished my military service I worked in all kinds of jobs. One of them was as a guide for Jewish youth from South America -- Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil -- who were on a one-year program here [in Israel]. I was kind of a coordinator for three or four months, and I was with them all the time. This was a very interesting experience for me. I intended just after this to go and travel in South America. My parents are Argentinean, and they got to know Israel when they were eighteen, doing a very similar program to what those youngsters were doing. So at the time I found it interesting, in a way. They ended up in Israel only twelve years after their program, when they were thirty. I traveled for a long time in South America and when I came back I started studying psychology and special education, and then I was working in all kinds of educational institutions. Then I heard about a program at Hebrew University about conflict management, conflict studies, which was unique at the time, and I signed myself up. This is how I got to Jerusalem. While I was studying I had an interest in doing work in the field with things that might relate to what I was studying theoretically. So I started working in an organization called Gesher that deals with the secular-religious conflict1 between the Jewish people, working mainly with youths. Looking back at it, it was an important experience to have before doing what I'm doing right now, here.

    • 1One of the deepest fissures in Israeli society is between the religious and the secular. Many Israelis "believe that this divide is sharper than the one between Arabs and Israelis or between Israelis and Palestinians." Robert Freedman, Shmuel Sandler, Shibley Telhami "The Religious-Secular Divide in Israeli Politics" Middle East Policy Council Journal vol. VI, no. 4 June 1999.

  • How did your experience working on the secular religious divide prepare you for what you're doing now at Seeds of Peace?

    It gave me experience in facilitating. It was before the intifada started. Over time I understood, I mean you don't have to be too wise to see this, but I got a sense from the field that the priority should be given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I was very glad when Walid [another Seeds of Peace staff member] called to tell me Seeds of Peace was recruiting people for camp.

  • What surprised or impacted you when you first started doing this job?

    Well, camp had a very strong impact on me. I was there as a facilitator. I had what we call a process, I had my own process there. I was having a lot of discussions with my co-facilitator—she's from Nablus. She told me very difficult stories about what happened in Nablus after the Israeli invasion, the take-over, which I think was in April 2002.1 Also some things that happened in our group... I wouldn't say it changed me, made me another person, but I think it had a strong impact on me. And the way I saw how strong an impact camp has on the young Seeds2 was also powerful.

    • 1There was an Israeli "takeover" of Nablus in April, 2002. After three weeks, Israeli forces withdrew (Baker, Greg "Tanks on the move as troops leave Nablus" The Advertiser 4/22/02, pg. 23). Israeli forces reentered Nablus in early June, 2002 (Kifner, John "Israel's Forces Move Into Nablus, Seizing 100 and Imposing Curfew" New York Times, 6/1/02, pg 3).
    • 2Participants in Seeds of Peace.

  • You said you went through your own process at camp. What did you mean by that?

    You learn a lot about the conflict. Even though you know, or you think you know, you can always know more. In my group there was one Palestinian kid who was once taken for an investigation at the police. According to his story he was treated very badly. I became more familiar on the emotional level with the issues of Palestinian prisoners. I got a sense then that way too many people are put in jail. This is the sense I got from people who were in my group. This was very strong to hear from the kids, they are fourteen or fifteen. There were also some interesting dynamics between Israelis and Arab-Israelis.1 This is a name that Israelis prefer to describe those people. But if we refer to this definition as describing their conflict of identity, it's not between their Arab identity and their Israeli identity; it's between their Palestinian identity and their Israeli identity. It's not accurate to describe them as Arab-Israelis, just small examples of things I thought I knew before. Sometimes right at the beginning when a Palestinian-Israeli, or a Palestinian living in Israel, or however they describe themselves, describes himself this way, this already creates some problems for the Israelis, if they have no experience with this group, or haven't gotten deeper into their understanding of the conflict. Our group had ten people, four Jewish-Israelis, four Palestinians, two Palestinians who live in Israel. So it was interesting to see the dynamics there and really to see with your own eyes, not just reading about it, that Palestinians living in Israel are really caught in the middle. Everybody at camp knows these kids have the hardest time at camp. But I think camp also strengthens their sense of identity, of being what they are.

    • 1National Public Radio reported that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship "long felt caught between their Israeli citizenship and their Palestinian identity" ("Analysis: Israeli Arabs Feel Trapped Between Their Israeli Citizenship and Palestinian Identity." narr. Robert Siegal. All Things Considered. National Public Radio 7/2/02 - http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/transcripts/2002/jul/020702.gradstein.htmlAnalysis"). For an in-depth examination of these identities, see Rouhana, Nadim Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997 (for a book review: http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/hrj/iss12/benvenisti.shtml)

  • And as a facilitator, what did you do to help your group through?

    Our aim was to make our group face up to the truth as much as possible. Now, there's not a thing called truth, but when there's a sense that the group isn't ready to face things, they need to be shown this somehow. Something I remember is an argument in the group about Rachel Corrie,1 and somehow the discussion got around to whether a bulldozer has brakes or doesn't because the Israeli group started being defensive and saying that the bulldozer driver couldn't brake and that's why she was run over. So my job at that point is to show them, in a way they can understand, that this is not the point. Things like that.

    • 1Rachel Corrie (April 10, 1979‚ÄîMarch 16, 2003) was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who was run over and killed by an Israeli soldier-operated bulldozer while she was protesting Israeli demolitions (sic) of Palestinian homes in Rafah in the Gaza Strip." See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Corrie. Factual accounts differ. "Witnesses said that the driver of the bulldozer should have seen her because he came toward her from a distance and had an unobstructed view. Israel's military prosecutor exonerated the Israeli soldiers, finding that the driver did not see her." "Getting at Truth: As Israel ally, U.S. must probe activist's death in Gaza" Houston Chronicle 9/1/03, A-24. For eyewitness accounts, see: http://www.palestinemonitor.org/Activism/Affidavits.htm. For some, Corrie was an accomplice to a hateful movement aimed at the destruction of Israel. See, Shattan, Ruhama "A 'tribute' to Rachel Corrie" Jerusalem Post, 3/2/04, pg 15. For others, she was a brave activist who deserves to be memorialized: http://www.rachelcorrie.org/.

  • So how did you explain to them that the point isn't whether the bulldozer has brakes or not?

    By pointing out that it's easier to discuss whether a bulldozer has brakes or doesn't have brakes than to start talking about how it happened that an Israeli bulldozer ran over an American peace activist, who clearly wasn't threatening the bulldozer. What was interesting was that the group itself came to the session the next day and somehow they understood that they had a pretty silly conversation the day before in the argument about whether a bulldozer has brakes or not. They were in a state of really clashing with each other and it was easier for them to accept this. I don't remember exactly where this took them, but it was no longer the issue of whether a bulldozer has brakes or not. That's an example I remember, they also remember it well. We use the term "reflections" when we interfere with the group dynamics and say what we have to say. Sometimes one of us interferes when we feel that the group is avoiding a discussion about what I before described as "the truth." This was a reflection that there is no doubt I should have made as an Israeli.

  • So did you interfere that time or not?

    Yes. Maybe it's easier to talk about this technical issue than to talk about what really happened. And you know, there are times when it's also hard for Palestinians to acknowledge some points. Or sometimes we feel the kids have a lot to say, sometimes strong things, but they aren't saying them. So one of our goals is for those things to come up. Especially at camp when everybody is feeling... you know, there are some fun activities, and sometimes they are really afraid—it's natural of course—they're really afraid to break this fun atmosphere. But this is what dialogue in camp is all about.

  • After the camp what is your job here?

    Well, officially my job here is program coordinator, and the idea is to work with kids who return, so that they continue taking part in activities connected to Seeds of Peace. We hope they will continue their in-depth involvement in the conflict. Also in some way, on a personal level, we try to give them a strong sense that we are still here for them, because they have strong experiences at camp.

  • What did you see here at the Seeds of Peace Center in Jerusalem after camp?

    This year there were all kinds of incidents that made us kind of break our regular activities, so when we were meeting them after these breaks it was very easy to see that they were upset with these breaks.

  • What were the kids/Seeds upset with?

    I'm talking more about the Israelis because I got to see, as an Israeli-- this is also important, this is why I'm here I think, the way I see it, I mean everybody here on this staff has his own identity, and I was brought here on as the "Jewish-Israeli". And I think it's important that Israeli-Jewish Seeds will see this identity in the staff. I'm here on the staff mainly to bring their voices out, I'm not saying that I'm the best person to do it, but the identity thing is very strong in their view. In parentheses, I'm sure the Palestinians from the West Bank don't feel comfortable that we don't have this identity on our staff.1 I'm sure about it. I mean, I'm 100% sure about it, even though I might be wrong... Because it's not that I interviewed every one of them, but I'm sure in some aspect it doesn't serve them.

    • 1As of November 2004: There is now a Seeds of Peace staff member who is a Palestinian from the West Bank.

  • You said that there were some things during the year that made you cancel programs?

    We all feel that the conflict escalated after they came back from camp. I mean, when we look at the conflict in September 2003 and May 2004, I think it's not at the same point. Activities were more and more difficult to run at some points, both logistically and psychologically, so we played it safe. We saw a phenomenon that the Palestinians do not feel right coming to talk with Israelis. And the Israelis had some criticism about Seeds of Peace canceling what they feel Seeds of Peace is all about. Which is a reflection of the conflict.

  • When did you cancel activities?

    We canceled some activities, for example, after the murder of Yassin, and even before that. At Purim1 there were some very high security alerts2 so a decision was made to cancel things and most of the Israeli kids were very upset about it. So, all this was just to say that I sense that they sometimes have, I would say, even a psychological need to be in contact with Seeds of Peace, meeting the other side. I'm talking maybe mostly about the Israelis.

    • 1A Jewish festival commemorating the deliverance of the Persian Jews from the plot of Haman to exterminate them as recorded in the Book of Esther. Celebrated on the 14th and 15th of Adar in the Jewish calendar (late February/early March), with a reading of the Book of Esther and the giving of gifts to friends and the needy. A joyous celebration, Purim is celebrated with masquerading and parties. See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=613&letter=P
    • 2Huler is refering to Israeli alerts that attacks are being planned against Israel.

  • Do you like your job?

    Yes. First of all it's daring. Sometimes I have a feeling I'm doing too much office work, but then you have your groups outside, so it's not only office work. I enjoy what I'm doing. I have a chance to deal with what I see as the most burning issue in Israeli society, and get paid. I like the idea that I get to know and understand the Palestinian side more and more, and I like the idea that I get to improve my Arabic.

  • Are you surprised to find that you are in this role?

    No. Well, maybe a little bit surprised, but as I told you before, I have a strange feeling that maybe the things I did in my life were kind of a preparation for this job.

  • What does your family think about your work?

    They think highly of it. You know, my closest friends in some ways share ideas or visions about the conflict that are not that far from my point of view. So my close surroundings are kind of a support. Although even I myself... you know you always have your question marks about what we're doing here.

  • What are some of your questions about the work?

    Nowadays many people have a sense that this conflict is way too complicated to end in the next two or three decades. Sometimes I also have this feeling too, and it's more frustrating, because now it comes from having a better understanding of the conflict. So it's more grounded, I have demonstrations of it. Evidence, right? Evidence.

  • Do you get resistance from anybody, any friends, anybody in your community?

    Not really. There isn't anyone, not yet. It's not that I walk around with signs that say "I work [at Seeds of Peace]." But whoever asks me, I tell them. So far, although many Israelis are cynical or skeptic about what good or what change it could bring, very cynical, I haven't faced any resentment yet. Of course I will.

  • Do you think this kind of work has the capacity to influence things?

    Yes, of course. On the personal level, of course. But everybody that has some experience with education would say that whatever educational activity you do is like a drop in the sea. But I do think it has a very strong impact on the people we are dealing with.

  • Can you describe some of what you would call the successes, or the influences of the work?

    I didn't do any research about it, but I have a strong feeling that stereotypes about the "other side" among the Seeds are much lower compared to their society. I can tell you about the Israelis, that when they hear what's going on on the Palestinian side they pay much more attention to it than compared with a regular Israeli. I'm not sure they go and seek out other kinds of sources, but I'm sure that at the end of the day, if you would take a regular Israeli teenager and ask him what happened today in Gaza, I'm not sure he could give you the details. And I'm sure that the Seeds who had heard the news would be able to tell you. So those are things I'm 100% positive about. There might be many other things, but I'm not 100% sure, so I wouldn't make statements about them.

  • Who have you met during your work that you wouldn't have met if you hadn't been doing this job?

    Well, all the Palestinian people I meet. No chance I would have met them in any other job. Of course the Americans. But for me it's more important [to have met people on] the Palestinian side.

  • And have you gone to places, besides camp, that you wouldn't have gone to otherwise?

    Maybe, but not really, because I don't enter the West Bank right now. It's not only that I'm not allowed to; I don't feel safe going to the West Bank. And I'm sure that people here wouldn't like me, a Jewish Israeli, to go as a Seeds of Peace staff member to the West Bank because of all the sensitivities for the organization, how the organization is perceived and how the Palestinians feel. But I pick up Seeds sometimes at checkpoints, and those are places I wouldn't go in other jobs that I can think of, or other jobs that I did before.

  • Aside from working full-time at this job, how has the conflict affected your life?

    My daily life? I really have to overcome some feelings when I get out of here and go into Jerusalem. Like sitting on the bus. I really feel nervous doing it. So sometimes I do it, but it's kind of an effort. This has nothing to do with the job, I think. I would say this is the major thing. And maybe you're more nervous than you usually are, it's hard to put your finger on what's different. Are you more nervous in Jerusalem than you are in other places? More nervous than in Rehovot, yes.

  • What's most important for you to achieve for yourself, for the future, what do you want to see change?

    I think more and more people have this feeling that both societies deserve true leaders. Many people, I think, feel that they are kind of prisoners in the hands of their own leaders. I would really like to see a leader that knows what it takes to get there and is willing to make the effort. And is courageous enough to do it. I don't see anyone on the horizon that will do it.

  • What do you think it will take for people to elect a leader that you're satisfied with?

    You're talking about the Israeli society of course. I just had a discussion today about the media, that was trying to deal with the fact that in surveys Israelis reflect some understanding that a solution would be a two-state solution and that they are willing to withdraw from all the settlements in order to achieve this. When they do surveys you can see that the majority of the Israeli public, around 65%-70%, thinks more or a less that that's the deal.1 They're prepared for this. But when elections come around they don't vote for parties that represent these ideas. And that's a paradox in Israeli society. Voting originates in a lot of places. There is this Ashkenazi - Sephardi conflict,2 and many Sephardi people, even though they support the idea on the whole, or understand that there should be some compromise, would never elect a Leftist party.3 So if you ask, I mean, the way to break this pattern is maybe for some new party to emerge that will in some way attract [people with certain] identities that find themselves in a difficult position to vote nowadays for parties who represent this idea.

    • 1A Jaffee Center poll in 2003 found that "59 percent of Israelis would agree to establishment of a Palestinian state in the framework of peace, up from 49 percent " in 2002. "Poll: 59% of Israelis support evacuation of settlements " Associated Press, 6/10/03 An April, 2004, poll showed that 53% of Israelis would support removing all the settlements if peace required it. (http://spirit.tau.ac.il/socant/peace/peaceindex/2004/files/apr2004e.doc).
    • 2Huler is refering to the cultural clash in Israeli society between Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European descent) and Sephardi Jews (or, more accurately Mizrachi Jews-- Jews from Muslim or Arab countries). The terms Sephardi and Mizrachi are sometimes used interchangeably, however Sephardi refers to Jews "descended from those who lived in Spain and Portugal (the Iberian peninsula) before the expulsion of 1492." See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/gloss.html#s. Mizrachi, meaning "eastern" generally refers to Jews from Muslim or Arab countries.
    • 3For a book exploring this, see: Segev, Tom Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and The Americanization of Israel Owl Books, 2001 (Published originally in Hebrew as Hatziyonim Hakhadishim. Keter Publishing House, 2001)

  • Which international audience do you think is most influential or can be the most constructive here?

    The Israeli society is more and more America-oriented, and I think most of the people feel that the United States is a true ally. I think the problem now is that the Palestinian side doesn't see the States as a neutral party. So maybe the American involvement doesn't help. Maybe it does the contrary. I always have an idea that might sound bizarre, but I think that Jordan, Egypt and Germany—Germany because of the history—could be very powerful mediators. But I don't think that Israelis trust Europeans nowadays. But I don't know, I don't see that Israelis have problems with the Germans now. They have problems with what they hear from France, maybe Spain. Italy is very supportive lately, to Israel, so maybe some combination of the pre-World War Two fascist powers could be a good mediator nowadays.

  • Why do you think that previous peace processes failed?

    Well, it's more and more understood that it was on the grounds that the Palestinians didn't see any change. They just saw settlements growing bigger, there was the checkpoints issue that I think made ordinary people's life more complicated. And I think also some of the leaders failed to understand or to feel the hard core of the conflict. I think many of the Israeli leaders, coming from where they usually come from, which is an army-oriented kind of thinking, mentality, failed to see moments where they should have had more compassion, more understanding, more feelings. Because there's no solution to this conflict without involving those aspects. There is of course a solution that is very rational, I give you this, you give me this, things like that. But I think the major colossal failure of Ehud Barak -- he has a reputation of being an analytical person, and there are many jokes about this. But this was his problem, maybe this was a reason for the break or the failure of the Camp David 2000. I don't know much... I'm really confused about the Palestinian leadership; I could have a lot of criticism for their leadership, but I know better about my society, so I prefer referring to my leaders.

  • So what do you think has to be done differently, and who do you think has to do it?

    That's a good question, who has to do it? Grassroots activities like we do, this is how you do the job. You must have some expression of that coming from the leaders. I mean, everybody understands that, I think that honest leaders, an honest Israeli leader and Palestinian leader, should explain to their societies as much as they can about the other side's trauma. I always use this analogy when people that are coming from outside the conflict don't understand the context: I tell them to try and imagine what kind of relationship a traumatized couple would have. And I think this is the case with the Israeli and Palestinian societies. I think honest leaders should do as much as they can to show their societies what are the essentials, what is the trauma that the other side is suffering, because this conflict is not only about borders, it's about traumas. Both societies have different traumas.

  • Do you think you'll see a solution in your lifetime?

    No, and lately it's really hard for me to live with this notion. I am leaving room for the possibility, but I don't really believe in it.

  • So how do you keep doing your job if you don't expect to see a solution in your lifetime?

    I don't know. Maybe within a certain amount of time, maybe a year or two, or maybe in five or ten years I will be burned out.

  • Do you have a plan for refueling yourself?

    Refueling myself? I sometimes go and do some fun things, so yeah, for now that's refueling. Having some very powerful interactions with Palestinians is also refueling. So it's complicated.

  • What does peace mean to you?

    Peace. First of all, satisfaction. And a sense that you can live your life the way it should be, or the way you think it should be.

  • What do you think about the fact that this is an American organization doing this work here?

    I don't know really what to say. Everybody understands that this organization exists because of American resources, money. So in some senses everybody's grateful for having people in the States that are interested in making a change here. Deep in their hearts I think everybody [the staff and Seeds] feels this way. But what I was describing earlier about how Israeli Seeds responded to the cancellation of activities... I think that sometimes people feel that Seeds of Peace, being an American organization, is too soft. Whenever there's tension things are canceled. Also, I personally don't have a definite feeling or point of view on this, but I find it very problematic that Seeds of Peace is doing all it can to bring Seeds from here to do their higher education in the States. I can see the American humanistic point of view but sometimes in doing this people are going away and getting distanced from their societies. And then I think they are lacking something that's very important if we want them at some point to influence their own societies. I'm aware of the fact that sometimes higher education in the States is better than here and can give you better opportunities once you come back. But personally, I'm not 100% sure that as a default policy it's the right thing to do. Just to give you some glimpses of the problematic issues I see with the American involvement.

  • What's your hope for the kids for the future?

    I think you should ask them. I think that the same hopes I have for myself I have for them as well. I mean, I'm chronologically older, and maybe at some different points in my viewing things, but personally I also feel that I have many more things to accomplish in the future, and the situation wasn't like that before I did my service, in the army of course. And although I was in a leftist youth movement, I wasn't meeting much with Palestinians; I didn't get to see the other side. So sometimes I'm puzzled with how Seeds feel before going into their service in the army. What's on their mind? What expectations do they have of their military service? That's a big question for me.

  • Do you have a way to discuss how they feel about their military service with them?

    I didn't do it so far, but I think I'll try to do it more and more, although it is a VERY sensitive issue nowadays for Seeds of Peace. I have my personal feelings about how I'd react in this position.