SHARON Booth, founder and director of the Solutions Not Sides organisation, can’t forget what happened when she took an Israeli and a Palestinian to speak at a further education college in south London.
When the Israeli speaker walked into the room, the students, all of Muslim background, banged their fists on their desks, shouting ‘Free Palestine’.
Some of them were wearing badges stating the same slogan, while others donned the keffiyeh, synonymous with Palestinian nationalism.
“I didn’t start the session in a normal way, instead I handed it over to Ahmed, our Palestinian speaker,” Sharon told me.
“He told them that he had not travelled over three borders and been interrogated for two hours by the British Border Agency for his ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’ to tell him what to do and think as a Palestinian.
“He said, ‘why should you tell me what to do? and ‘do you want me to go and fight a war in Tel Aviv?’.
“The room went quiet and I told them that they don’t have to agree with what our Israel speaker said, but to listen to him. In the end, it turned into a good discussion.”
That kind of politically-charged atmosphere is something Sharon has become used to as Solutions Not Sides regularly arranges for Israelis and Palestinians to address young people aged 15 to 25. The total number of participants so far exceeds 20,000.
Its aims include the humanisation of Israelis and Palestinians through meeting moderate young Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, understanding both sides’ narratives and debunking conspiracy theories about Israel and Islam, and the myth that Jews and Muslims should inevitably be in conflict.
In Leeds on Tuesday (7.30pm), Makor and UJIA have organised an evening with Israeli Shahaf Goren and Palestinian Rama Qabbani.
Following three years of national service, Shahaf, 27, started working to save money and go travelling.
Returning home, he passed through Jordan and “couch-surfed” with a local in Amman.
It was the first time he met an Arab person on equal, non-work related grounds. They are still friends and Shahaf tries to visit him every year.
Rama, 21, was born and raised in Kfar Yasif, a Palestinian village in Israel. She holds Israeli citizenship and has been part of the Seeds of Peace organisation since 2011.
It brings young people and educators together from areas of conflict around the world to hold dialogue sessions and live together for a month.
Warwickshire-raised Sharon, who has an MA in theology and religious studies from Cambridge, was an education director at the OneVoice Movement, a global initiative which supports Israeli and Palestinian grassroots activists.
She recalled: “We were promoting a two-state solution and taking speakers to university campuses. It turned out to be a waste of time because we were not achieving what was set out to be achieved.
“The thing about university campuses is that they don’t provide a safe space for real dialogue. We were showing up on campuses and there were only 15 students turning up, despite all the advertising.
“The pro-Palestinian groups wouldn’t attend due to their anti-normalisation stance while, at the other end, the very pro-Israel groups wouldn’t attend because they didn’t agree with a two-state solution.
“What we ended up with was largely liberal Jewish students who already believed in a two-state solution.”
Sharon went on to do her own research, speaking with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, and looking at the psychology of dialogue.
She set up her own programme and Solutions Not Sides was formed in 2015.
“We don’t take a political position and we want to be able to have a conversation and learn in this country how to respect each other,” Sharon said.
“We are teaching critical thinking tools that can help in any setting of disagreement or opinion.
“Our Israeli and Palestinian speakers are role models and are in their 20s, so younger people can relate to them.
“It is about humanisation, as in meeting an ordinary person from Israel and Palestine, as well as helping students embrace diversity in terms of opinion and narrative.
“If a student makes an antisemitic comment, then the Palestinian will speak out and the same with the Israeli if someone makes an anti-Muslim comment.”
If you have a story or an issue you want us to cover, let us know - in complete confidence - by contacting email@example.com, 0161-741 2631 or via Facebook / Twitter