Not just an olive branch:a tree

The Board of Deputies has been battling against the latest boycott threat to emerge from the churches.

Last month, the Methodists launched an online consultation to gauge public opinion on sanctions against Israel, ahead of a policy debate next summer. In response, the Board has published a detailed paper setting out the case against the BDS (boycott, divestment sanctions), which, beyond the Methodist debate, will prove useful to anti-boycott campaigners more generally.

BDS is "negative, divisive and counterproductive", the Board argues; it is a platform which is advanced by groups that either seek a one-state solution to the Mid-East conflict or want to put one-sided pressure on Israel without seeing the need for concessions from the Palestinians.

Instead, the Board invites the church to pursue a more "constructive" agenda by supporting groups that promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians - groups such as One Voice, the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) or the Peres Centre for Peace.

It is a perfectly laudable suggestion but in order to give it credibility, the Board has to make sure that it is not seen merely as a tactic to deflect the boycott threat. Perhaps more could be done to support co-existence work more widely within the Jewish community, alongside other types of engagement with Israel.

For example, the UK branch of One Voice - which campaigns for grass-roots backing among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution - found it hard to recruit Jewish students to its summer school here this year. And one might ask what exposure such groups as PCFF have within Jewish schools here?

To some people, such dialogue ventures might seem a fringe activity, with little impact beyond their well-intentioned supporters. After all, peace agreements can only be struck by governments. But one of the problems besetting the latest Middle East peace talks is the mutual lack of trust. It is here that civil groups can make a difference by challenging the entrenched views on either side that shore up the walls of hostility.

Twenty years on, the optimism of the Oslo Accords might have all but evaporated amid suicide bombers and rockets, security barriers and settlement-building.

But some co-existence groups have managed to defy the retreat of hope. PCFF, which brings together families on both sides who have lost children to the conflict, started meeting in 1995. One Voice was founded in 2002 after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

Eti Shechtman, 27, is an Israeli journalist who is a graduate of one dialogue experiment, the Olive Tree programme at London's City University. "If you aren't changing the mind of people," she says, "you won't have acceptance of an agreement, even if it happens."

Launched in 2004, Olive Tree brings up to a dozen Palestinians and Israelis to Britain for their first degree; they also take part in extra-curricular sessions to encourage "dialogue across the lines of confrontation and distrust that frame their relations in the Middle East". 

Eti, who graduated in international politics in 2011, believes Olive Tree helped to broaden her outlook. "When you grow up in Israel, you study about the wars and the conflict, but you don't hear the other side."

One of her Palestinian fellow students, Elizabeth Jadon, 29, from Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, who graduated in law from City, says: "One of the most important things about Olive Tree was I felt I was being listened to". For her, that was a turning point.

A generation has grown up since Oslo. If the current round of peace talks proves fruitless, another generation may pass before the opportunity returns.

Maybe it is out of such initiatives as Olive Tree that leaders will arise with the vision to change the course of history. It is a long-term investment in hope.

    Last updated: 6:27pm, January 17 2014