Shir B. graduated from the master’s program „Conflict Transformation and Social Justice“ in Belfast in 2020. She wrote her master’s thesis about the Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue Seminar for Women*, which she coordinates. In an interview with Katharina Ochsendorf, she shares what her master’s thesis is about, what her findings are and what she takes away for her work as a coordinator.

K.O.: Why did you want to write your thesis about the project?

S.B.: There are many aspects of the project that I know but that I never put into words which make it special for me; especially regarding the potential that our concept offers for dialogue spaces in general. I think the main reason was that I wanted to articulate my thoughts and knowledge better. In the beginning I had many different ideas regarding the focus of the work, for example I wanted to write about normalization and how dialogue can and cannot be normalization, if it is possible to have dialogue without normalization at all, but in the end I focused on the question how it affects the dialogue process if there are no men* present and what we can learn from this for both women*-only projects and those all-gender settings.

K.O.: What were your findings?

S.B.: From the interviews with former participants and staff, the main finding was that the absence of men* allowed participants to engage in deep dialogue. This means the dialogue was never this sort of competitive throwing arguments at each other, but it was always a mutual listening and sharing of experiences that led to an analysis of the reality of the conflict in its complexity. When you really listen and really share, this first of all means giving space to oneself, which is very important. For the Israeli group, for example, this allowed them to share their own experiences and thus move beyond a sense of guilt. Not that everyone managed to do that; some got stuck in guilt, others moved on to anger (…).

But just after the 2019 seminar, I could see how the experience continues to move even participants who have not stayed in touch much. For example, one participant sent me a message seven months after the seminar saying how incredibly meaningful the experience was for her and how much she learned from it. But this happens all the time: I recently received an email from a participant who attended the seminar four years ago. She had grown up in a settlement and came to the seminar with a strong Zionist conviction. Four years later, she writes to me about how much the seminar changed for her.

In the seminar, not „only“ people of two nationalities who are in conflict with engaging in dialogue with each other; but also people who enter into a very deep process of dialogue with each other. The seminar teaches the participants a very unusual way of communicating with each other. It is not „merely“ about conflict. On the one hand, this means going beyond questions of guilt, for example, but at the same time this also means talking honestly with each other about the situation. I mean seeing beyond, but not in the contact approach encourages you to do along the lines of „fight stereotypes, we all love hummus,“ but learning to see that our identities are more complex, that we are „more“ than Israelis and Palestinians, and that no matter what other things we are, the occupation influences and affects our lives. One Palestinian participant expressed this in a metaphor: at the time, the group discussion was about discrimination and the fact that members of the LGBTTIQ* community experience discrimination in both Israel and Palestine. That’s when she said, ‚We’re both afraid to walk down a dark alley at night, but there’s a big chance that your alley is not as dark as mine.‘ A very good metaphor.

K.O.: Were there also results that surprised you?

S.B.: I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but I did come to the interviews with certain ideas and then some topics didn’t come up at all or were barely touched upon. (…) For example, I thought it I would talk a lot about how we define femininity and a lot about gender, and neither was the case. Instead, the women* talked mainly about two interesting aspects. First of all, it became clear that the so-called „women-and-peace hypothesis“ is somehow part of all of us. That is, we tend to think that women* are somehow inherently nicer, more tending to compromise, etc., all those characteristics that are often attributed to women. This was evident in statements like „yes, women* just listen better“ or „it was such a safe space because women* are less judgmental.“ On the other hand, many of the interviewees, when talking about being in a women*-only seminar, very often talked about the absence of men*: When talking about the atmosphere in the seminar and the limits and possibilities, they often said things like „if men* had been there, we wouldn’t have been able to do this or that“. (…) Therefore I used both definitions of the dialogue space, on the one hand the absence of men* and on the other hand the setting as exclusively for women*. Both are important, but for me personally the former is more significant, also because I am very critical of the „women-and-peace hypothesis“ (…).

The conclusion of my work is: It is not about women* possessing „natural“ or essential character traits because of their gender that would make dialogue easier. Rather, it is their life conditions, that is, contextual factors such as patterns of political violence, collective identities, social class, and gendered structures of discrimination, that cause dialogue between them to benefit from the absence of men*. Examples of this include the absence of restrictions Palestinian women* experience when moving in gender-mixed spaces, the fact that most Israeli women* in the army are not on active combat duty, or the possibility of talking about issues such as sexualized violence in a safe space.

Another aspect that I became aware of in the course of the research is that it is also about challenges of the intergroup dialogue approach in general. (…) On the „meta-level“ it was an exciting realization that in certain respects our work advances the entire field of dialogue seminar work and not only says something about dialogue spaces specifically for women*, but shows what dialogue can look like in general.

K.O.: So can your research findings be transferred to other contexts?

S.B.: I am convinced that we can learn a lot for mixed-gender dialogue projects from what happens in the women* seminar. Because what happens there is something universal. (…) On the one hand, I have a certain positionality in the world and this is important because it shapes my reality. On the other hand, I also have values and ideas about how things should be and that can connect me to others. For example, I am Black and lesbian, but not all of my interests and ideas and ideals will be shared with every Black Lesbian. I can be many more things without taking away the fact that my positionality in the world means a lot and it has implications. – The keyword here is questions about identity politics. (…) The difficult thing is to acknowledge that we speak from different positionalities (for example, from different positions of power) and we can still have common ideas and notions.

K.O.: What did you take away from your thesis for the project Vacation from War?

S.B.: I will now see the seminar through different „lenses“ than I did before. I also have some ideas on a conceptual level to further improve the seminar (…). Last but not least, this research has motivated me to want to facilitate also more spaces that are open to all genders.