What drives a middle-aged Jewish man from Canada to start walking around Ramallah, stopping Palestinians on the street to ask them, on camera, what they think of gay people or if they want to destroy Israel? And to ask Israelis in Tel Aviv if they don’t want non-Jews in the country or if they think the Israelis are acting like Nazis? For Corey Gil-Shuster, who has spent the last two years doing exactly that with his Ask an Israeli/Palestinian Project, it was a Facebook argument.
“It started when I was bored looking for jobs, talking to people online,” Gil-Shuster says. “They kept making these claims about Israel and Israeli society that didn’t match up with what I knew. So I got in this argument with this French-Canadian about the tent protests and I was living on Rothschild at the time. And she was saying all these things about how the Jews didn’t want the Arabs to be in the protest and I was saying, no, that’s not what’s going on. And she said, ‘How do you know what they think? What are you going to do – interview each and every person and ask their opinion?’ And I thought, you know what? That’s a really good idea.”
Since then, Gil-Shuster has filmed around 250 videos, each about ten minutes long and each one featuring a different question which he poses to Israelis or Palestinians or both. He gets the questions from viewers living abroad, mostly in the US and the Arab world. Then he sets out with his tiny $180 Best Buy camera and gets as many man-on-the-street interviews as he can on the subject, edits them together and uploads them to his Youtube channel.
The project is entirely self-funded and despite its relative popularity — videos average around 10,000 views with some approaching or over 100,000 — has flown under the media’s radar.
Gil-Shuster follows a few rules when he makes his videos: He doesn’t edit out content and he includes every conversation he has about the subject, no matter what the participants say. He also tries to seek out different groups in different areas whenever possible but since he does this without any outside funding, he can’t always afford to travel.
“Anytime I have to go somewhere for something else, I take my video camera,” he says.
Gil-Shuster grew up in Canada and moved to Israel after studying urban planning in college. Then, during the Second Intifada he left and returned to Canada. While there, he decided to go back to school.
“I wanted to have a better understanding of what I experienced [during the Intifada],” he says. “So I started a masters in conflict studies in Ottawa. And at the same time I wanted to understand the Palestinian side, what do they want? So I got involved in a Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue group.”
The group had Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians and “Ashkenazi left-wing Jews who felt guilty.” But the Israeli perspective was missing.
After he finished his degree, he came back to Israel and looked for a way to put his studies to use. He tried volunteering in a number of different organizations before finding his niche with the video project. And even then it took a while before the questions really started coming in.
According to Gil-Shuster, sometimes the questions can be uncomfortable and they frequently come with an anti-Israel perspective.
“The usual type of question is, ‘Why do you steal Arab land when you’re not really from here?’ A lot of it is aimed at jabbing someone. They don’t actually want an answer but because the belief is so common, I address it. There are people who believe that Israel shouldn’t exist at all. From the Arab world, they ask, ‘Don’t you know that before Zionism everything was good?’ I get that a lot.”
And the reactions on the street from his interviewees can be equally uncomfortable.
“A lot of people just assume I’m a far left-wing activist and I’m doing this to embarrass Israel,” Gil-Shuster says. “I approach and I say I’m doing this project where people ask questions and you answer the question. So I ask and a lot of them are obnoxious questions but I’m not going to start out and say, I don’t agree with this, because then you affect the answer.”
Many of the questions are aimed at specific groups as well – asking Arab Israelis what they think of Hamas for instance or Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African) Jews if they feel like second-class citizens.
Once in a while Gil-Shuster will start with asking someone the question he’s been given but will turn it into a mini-interview when he discovers that they have a particularly interesting story to tell. He’s built up a whole section on interviews with Jews who lived in the Arab world before 1948 for instance.
For the next three months Gil-Shuster will be in Canada teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
So after two years and 250 videos, what has he learned that he can now teach his students?
He says he is frequently surprised by the political leanings of different communities.
“Truthfully I found there are just as many right-wing people in Tel Aviv as there are in Hadera,” Gil-Shuster says. And people in many settler communities in the West Bank “are just as moderate as secular Israelis.” Sometimes he’ll guess someone’s affiliation easily as he walks up to ask his questions, but sometimes he’ll be way off.
And what about peace?
“I don’t see peace happening,” he says. “Culturally, mentality-wise, Palestinians and Israelis are in such different places. There’s no way to even have a conversation at this point. Sometimes you get ok, moderate answers. A lot of times you get conspiracy theories about how Jews are controlling the world and there can’t be peace because the Zionists want all the land.”
Gil-Shuster says that to deal with conflict, both parties need to understand the minutiae of the situation.
“If you don’t understand the complexities of the problem, any solution you find won’t work. In this case, I don’t know if there is a good solution, but the more people understand about both sides, the closer we can get,” says Gil-Shuster.