"Agitators can't be allowed to dominate the debate"
Since 7 October, you've been in schools talking to young people about the war in the Middle East. On social media, you also write about how the situation is impacting you personally. So let's begin with the question: how are you both doing?
Jouanna Hassoun: To be honest, I don't know. I've tried following my mother's advice and completely switching off for three days, although that was difficult for me to do. Now I'm having to re-engage with the situation, as well as the way I feel about it.
Shai Hoffmann: I care about the region and the people who live there and whom I love. I'm worried about the possible development of further flashpoints there. At the same time, I'm looking to the UN, where Israel is being accused of genocide by South Africa and is having to defend itself.
A ruling by the International Criminal Court in the Hague will also affect how the issue is talked about here in Germany. We're observing high levels of uncertainty and the way I see it, the mood will continue to harden and get even more complicated. I fear the prospect of even more hatred between Muslims and Jews.
"This is the world's most emotive conflict"
Why are you focusing your work on young people in particular?
Hassoun: The catalyst was a violent interaction between a student and a teacher at a Berlin high school. Regardless of where you stand on Israel and Palestine, violence is never the solution. The Middle East conflict is the most emotive in the world.
That incident brought it home to us: we must intercept these emotions. We must face up to them as people with Palestinian and Jewish roots. We must create a space where we can talk about what's going on, listen and put events into some kind of order.
If we don't do that, in a school context especially, then we're leaving young people to the agitators, social media or irrational people who just want to spread hatred.
Hoffmann: Young people are a very vulnerable group. They're easily manipulated, insecure. They're already grappling with their own teenage existence. If we want to reach them, then it'll be largely through school as their place of learning. That teachers grant us access is a big responsibility, a privilege and an expression of confidence in us.
What emotions are you seeing in the students?
Hassoun: Fear, anger, disappointment, incomprehension, sometimes pain. But there are also young people who say: "We're grateful to be able to live in safety" and recognise that as a privilege.
Hoffmann: That's where an awareness of democracy begins. To ensure things stay that way, that we live in peace and we don't have to fear a bomb falling on our roof, is also the role of schools, of civil society. We need to realise that living in a democracy isn't something to be taken for granted, particularly now, at a time when more and more autocratic states are emerging.
Hassoun: It's really sad to see that young people who should be thinking about wonderful things fear the outbreak of a third world war. Sometimes youngsters directly affected by the Middle East conflict shed tears, as well as those traumatised by other wars.
Sometimes young people also cry for more general reasons. They say: "There are so many problems, the climate catastrophe and so forth, I don't know where to begin dealing with it all. I'm overwhelmed by my emotions."
Politicians' failure to reflect
What do you want to sensitise young people to?
Hoffmann: We want to sensitise them to listening and empathy, to self-reflection and an appreciation for ambiguity. We want them to learn to allow different opinions to be heard and not to always harangue others with their own views.
Instead, we'd like them to also understand another person's opinion as a complement to their own worldview. As far as the teachers are concerned, we want to get them talking to their students about their feelings and not just doing tests and writing poetry analyses.
What's particularly stressful for you both, and what gives you both strength?
Hassoun: I've experienced war myself and when I see images of the conflict posted by my family in Lebanon, I'm back there in the midst of it. When I see the images of children in Gaza or of the October 7 massacre, I think we've lost all grip on humanity.
What bothers me most is that most people only see enemy stereotypes, not human beings. For example: "All those dying in Gaza are terrorists and Hamas supporters". And vice versa: "All those who died in the 7 October massacre are our enemies." What gives me hope and strength is all the support we're receiving from society as a whole, as well as from the media in some instances. And the feedback we're getting from the students and teachers.
Hoffmann: I'm very affected by the ideological rift within families, including my own. Then of course, there's the question of how events in the region will develop geopolitically. With respect to Germany, I'm concerned about the documented rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism.
But at the same time, the lack of reflection on the part of some politicians is frightening, as is the way society is responding to what's going on, reactions that frequently turn into a racist debate. Which leaves us just going round in circles.
On the other hand, it feels like Jouanna and I are playing firefighter in the schools; it's as if we're holding a thin hose and just a few droplets of water are falling on the flames.
"We're concerned with equality and recognition"
What's your experience of the current culture of debate in Germany?
Hassoun: Jews who are critical of Israel are expressing their views and are then being cancelled for it. Or they're told they are self-hating Jews. Of course, no one can speak for all Jews, any more than for all Palestinians.
But in view of this cancel culture I'm left wondering – and I'm not talking about violent anti-Semitic individuals who commit crimes, but about those who want a debate: if we cancel everyone who criticises Israelis or Palestinians, who's left? The radicals? Those whose opinions we can tolerate?
We don't represent any kind of ideology. We have a message. We're concerned with encounter, equality, recognition, combatting anti-Semitism and racism. We're attempting to either hold a mirror up to, or to counter, a culture of debate that's often highly toxic, in both directions incidentally. But I'm aware that as a Palestinian, I only have to say the "wrong" thing once, from the perspective of one side or the other, and that'll be it.
What's the optimum climate for cooperation and discussions in your view?
Hoffmann: I'd like us to listen to each other first. In Germany's culture of debate, for example, international discourse doesn't get a look in. Here, little consideration is given to how human rights organisations are assessing the situation or which terminology they're using.
If we could just stop putting up red flags everywhere, then this terrain wouldn't be such a minefield. Then we might finally see some straight talk addressing what this is really about, what's actually going wrong.
So, the first step is to listen. It's important not to start with a tirade, as this can intimidate the opposite party or make them feel unable to speak.
It's often difficult to find Palestinians for talk shows, for example, because they're simply too afraid to express their views. What's the good of that? At the very least, it doesn't serve a healthy and respectful culture of debate where people listen to each other and respectfully exchange arguments in a bid to find mutual understanding.
Hassoun: We must recognise the pain of others.
Interview conducted by Ceyda Nurtsch
© Qantara.de 2024
Translated from the German by Nina Coon