The Anatomy of Radicalization: My Journey from a Jewish Extremist to a Peace Advocate. Part IV
Reflections and Moving Forward
What, then, have I learned? First, to have an impact, I need to have deep integrity and an authentic curiosity when working with communities that are not my culture of origin. I must dare to imagine what we want to accomplish, to think about the collective, to see other people around me, to try to understand their needs and their feelings. Second, since change comes from the inside out, I must use my imagination and my connection to the wisdom of others to create the critical capacity needed for large-scale impact. It is our awareness of what influences us — of our reactions and emotions, of our growth, and of our participation that allows us to create our new realities.
Why does each successive generation also need to experience war? How come for decades we have failed to come up with a solution? Logically, this seems far too high of a price for a conflict that could be solved in a different way. Both sides will talk eventually, so why not now, before more people die? In the meantime, each side justifies its own action, while at the same time, through its violence, it provides justification for the other side to continue the fight.
I am reminded again and again that we are all conditioned to live within the cultural norms presented to us by our gender, race, education, religion, politics, nationality — you name it. Our belief systems can lift us up, or they can blind us to the richness around us. The pressures to conform to my society and to do what it expected of me shaped me deeply, regardless of my initial attempts to rebel against it. If I hadn’t challenged what I was told, if there wasn’t a deep period of learning and introspection, I wouldn’t have achieved awareness of the numerous facets of my identity, which was the gateway to learning how multifaceted each one of us is, too. My experience has taught me that there are possibilities beyond the boundaries that are presented to us, but the unlearning is deep, and it takes great courage. Even now, in NYC, away from the violence back home, I have difficulty distinguishing between the self that was shaped by social norms and who I would be if they hadn’t existed. As I continue to question these things, I feel able, at least for a moment, to move outside of these parameters into a space of deep reflection, where, choice by choice, I get to determine my own identity. I am aware, however, that this will be a lifelong journey. I’m still glad to be on the path.
August 2015: Jordan
As I had landed and exited the gate, two officials were standing outside with my name on a tag: “Yakov Skolnick,” a super Jewish name. My heart skipped a beat as I thought of where I was, but I reminded myself I was there for a peace conference. While we rode to the hotel, I was struck by the familiarity of the landscape to the places in which I had grown up and to those in the West Bank, only to realize that I was actually only 45 minutes away from home. I imagined that: I could actually walk home, to my door, if not for the border. Over the next few days, I felt a confusing sense of familiarity — experiencing Amman’s nightlife with other organizers, including a local Palestinian-Jordanian activist whom I met in UN conferences, dining at Jafra, an iconic local restaurant, dancing to Arabic songs, smoking hookahs, feeling a sense of community — I could close my eyes and feel as though I was in Jerusalem.
One day, on our way to the mosque where some of the major protests against Israel were happening, we passed outdoor bookstands with books spread on the ground, including some on Ben Gurion. I asked her why Jewish books were included, and she turned to ask the bearded salesperson in Arabic. She gave me a knowing look, and said he replied, “You know, it’s important to know the enemy better.” Later she told me that her family used to live in Jaffa, and had a thriving business. “They are still yearning to come back,” she said.
She looked me over and said she almost never speaks with Israelis, asking if I was here for the peace conference. When I said I was, she asked me how I can handle the fact that so many people hate me. It made me realize how far we have to go: even though we have peace with Jordan, it will take a generation or more to repair, reconcile, or to see each other as peaceful people.
Meanwhile, inside the conference, it was amazing to see how a group of international activists and professionals believe in and spoke about manifestation and action. Will we have an impact? Maybe. What I do know is that we brought hundreds of activists and practitioners from conflict zones to share, and to push for an international agenda to empower youth. This is just a beginning, but I’m taking the perspective that change takes time — and meaningful change via a shift in consciousness and in reality could take decades.
Our long-term conflict needs long-term vision. The social fabric of relationships among both societies here has been torn apart by decades upon generations of hatred. Building new perceptions will not happen overnight. It requires careful planning to create the mechanisms by which Israelis and Palestinians can meet and work together, but new perceptions are the seeds sewn in neutralizing radicalization. People need a place in which to express and bury the trauma of loss and grief, and both societies need to begin to blossom through seeing the humanity and the narratives of the other side, even and perhaps especially because it’s uncomfortable to handle. Otherwise, as we have seen with the other conflicts and contexts in our world, the peace process can be thwarted by the manipulation for power of leaders at both extreme ends of the political spectrum.
The rapid changes and increasing complexity of the world today require an integration of ideas that are simple, but not simplistic. It is clear to me that, if we look at problems through multiple frameworks, we can identify the emergence of priorities and potential conflicts at their roots and in their leaves. This opens up new possibilities for action that channel destructive energies into positive ones, that contribute to constructive patterns of strategic actions, and that enable us to create the systemic shifts we all need. Our generation can choose to know each other differently, thus changing our ways and in turn, changing our future. When people meet with each other and break down preconceptions, the path to peace becomes as palpable and real as any stone or wall, and just as lasting.
June 2016 — June 2021: “Be the change you want to see”
I consider myself lucky that throughout my journey I have met incredible people who saw me, who encouraged me, who challenged me, who supported me in transforming my inner self and who led me to become who I am — who are still here beside —people from all over this world, once strangers and now friends: ESL teachers who taught me to communicate and listen in a language that reaches across the globe, university professors who became role models and guides, colleagues who understood me, uplifted me, who were always honest with me and who helped me to grow. Without them, I would not have been able to channel my anger, or hope, or frustration, or excitement, or disappointment into the concrete actions that led me to where I wanted to be — which is right here, helping others on their journey that I went through, and frankly still am on — because this is an ever ongoing process.
Though so many have the desire for change, how many have this support?
Together with incredible teams of people, decades later, I have have the privilege of co-creating curricula, workshops and spaces to share knowledge and build a community of practitioners with thousands of leaders from across the globe. I have had the honor of working with youth working for change, with incredible humanitarian colleagues. Of co-founding a non-profit with twelve amazing people, of starting a social enterprise company so I can serve humanity with my whole being.
And still, when the violence flares again I often feel useless and helpless, thinking and seeing all the children dying because of our leaders’ lack of imagination, courage and long-term thinking. This is where the community of likeminded people becomes so important. When our leaders are failing us, it falls to us to make our voices heard, to advocate for justice, to not be neutral in the situations of injustice, to shout and act collectively, until we can make a real, meaningful change that goes beyond declarations and words.
So, people ask me: what can I do?
First, we remember that this is a process: as with every complex problem, unraveling may take years or even decades: and that starts with you and me. Meaningful, lasting change often opens with small groups of people thinking divergently. Every step in the right direction is progress. If you are living with empathy and integrity, you have begun.
Second, we stay encouraged and continue to walk the path. I remember when I would read articles like this or see people talk about their journeys and I would think— but what can I do, where do I even start? Take heart. To be honest with you — there is no one right answer. We all have our own ways to come through things and action happens on different levels. But what we can all do to begin with is to challenge our assumptions, to take a step out and notice aspects about ourselves that perhaps we have never paid attention to — feelings, needs, thought and behavior patterns — and try to understand them.
Third, we commit to action. Think what you have done so far to spread the word, to educate people, to advocate for justice and human rights, to challenge your own and others’ assumptions — and don’t worry if you’re just starting, this takes bravery! Now you have to follow the only ways change has ever been lastingly made, and consistently commit to those actions —especially in community with others — for there is no better way to commit, energize and motivate yourself than having other people devoted to the same light around you as often as possible.
And for me? Beyond the humanitarian and conflict aspects of what is happening in Palestine and Israel, I am looking at things from a leadership perspective, something that I work on daily with people from all parts of the world. Both sides clearly lack leaders who are willing to challenge their assumptions, or to think about people first and not look at their own best interests, stuck in the endless loop of “us vs. them.” But we choose actions, locally, nationally, internationally, direct and indirect, small and large, that we can take to systematically support peace and awareness, empathy and understanding of complexity. Imagining it is possible is an important first step, but the next one, of taking those actions, takes real courage — because you will be impacting the reality and people around you. Yet you could be the leader that brings about that real change.
And look around you — this shift is already happening, the engagement is already rising, people are taking to the streets again to manifest and protest, peacefully and lovingly, because they care, because WE care. This is a momentum that we need to use — even though the change won’t come fast — it will take time and the efforts of all of us, at all levels, simultaneously advocating for meaningful changes. And I can assure you, it will be worth it. Think about your vision for a better world while you are reading about and watching what is happening in Palestine and Israel, or whatever conflict you want to change. Then take the steps forward. The vision should be bold, it should be ambitious — mine is and so are those of thousands of people I have met during this journey of a lifetime — but we should always keep on working together for a better world. We can make it happen. We WILL make it happen.