Holding on to a Vision: The Willy Brandt Centre in Jerusalem

In hard times, the Willy Brandt Centre in Jerusalem is trying to build bridges between young Palestinians and Israelis. The centre for international dialogue opened its doors this month.

Matthias Ries in Jerusalem

​​"Over there; that's our house!" The German political scientist Matthias Ries is pointing towards the Abu Tor quarter of town, and you can hear the pride in his voice. He's coordinator of the Willy Brandt Centre, an international meeting place in Jerusalem, which has opened for the first time in October 2003. Here, Israelis and Palestinians are invited to enter into dialogue with each other, and with Europeans.

It took a lot of commitment and staying power even to get this far. Matthias Ries, a civilian peace activist, has already been in Jerusalem for three years, pushing the project towards completion. From a tiny office in the Old Town, Ries set up seminars and workshops for Israeli and Palestinian partner organisations. Now, he's backed by a small team of Palestinians, Israelis and Germans; and now, he is running a real Centre, named after the German politician and Nobel prizewinner, Willy Brandt.

In times like these, holding on to the vision of such a meeting-place is no easy task (nor, indeed, has it ever been easy). All official contact between Israelis and Palestinians has been cut off, the future of the Akaba peace plan is in doubt, and projects promoting dialogue – as in the days of the Oslo peace process – are actually far from popular. The vision behind this project dates back to 1996. As the Oslo negotiations took their course, young politicians from all three sides – the Palestinian Fatah youth, the youth wing of the Israeli Labour Party, and the German Young Socialists (Jusos – the youth wing of the SPD) – agreed on a contract to establish the Centre in Jerusalem. Since March 2002, the project has been under the aegis of the “Socialist Youth International”, and further partners have joined them since then.

Dialogue? Yes – but not at any price!

With the escalation in violence since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, the actual establishment of the Centre receded in importance. It seemed much more urgent simply to keep any kind of dialogue going at all - even if this meant accepting that there’s more than one way of interpreting the word “dialogue”: in response to the wishes of those taking part, Israelis and Palestinians began holding their own, separate, seminars and workshops. In other words, there were no shared meetings between the two groups.

Project participants at the Willy Brandt Centre

​​“Nowadays”, says Matthias Ries, “I don’t have the motivation to persuade both sides that it matters to maintain dialogue. In fact, I’m very far from doing such a thing, and that has a lot to do with having experienced the “encounter projects” during the Oslo process. I mean, it can’t be our goal to bring two individuals together and say, ’Oh, now they’ll notice that the other is also a human being, or that he doesn’t fit their image of the enemy.’” Ries insists that it cannot be his task to convince the partners – i.e. the Israelis and Palestinians – to accept anything they just don’t want to accept right now.

That dialogue is possible nonetheless lies in the very nature of the project. In many cases, the Internet helps, allowing anyone to access the results of “the other side’s” seminars and workshops. Although there is a widespread inability to communicate across the gulf, a series of seminars entitled “Deciding for History” does offer one way of breaking the silence. It allows each side the opportunity to present its own view of the country’s history, by means of an image-based, multimedia presentation in the Internet – and it enables everyone to see how that history is perceived by the other side. By using the Internet in this way, Ries hopes to allow all those participating to comprehend the other side’s viewpoint. In the long term, he hopes, this will lead to a meeting of minds on a basis of equality. The main targets of this project are young adults, who may later turn out to be the political decision-makers in their society.

"What does peace mean to you?"

Project participants at the Willy Brandt Centre

​​More than 30 seminars in this series have already taken place; a highly promising project, says Ries. And once the results have been evaluated, the idea is to be taken a stage further. The next phase will be entitled, “Decision for Future“. Matthias Ries explains: “We want to ask the participants, ‘What does peace mean to you, and what can you contribute to the achievement of peace?’, without shifting the focus onto what others need to do.” Ries is particularly proud of the fact that those taking part are now collaborating actively on the project and making their own suggestions as to how things should proceed. “During the first phase of my work”, Ries recalls, “I was busy knocking on doors, making offers, saying ‘Hello, here I am; I’m your contact from the Willy Brandt Centre - what are the chances of working together?’” Now, however, more and more people are approaching him and the Centre.

Some want to take part in seminars, while others come requesting assistance –for “Future Forum”, for example: a project from the Israeli side, conceived as a kind of Think Tank for the study of important current political issues. On the Palestinian side, the most popular seminars are those on how to prepare for elections; should elections ever actually take place, people here want to be ready for them. In Germany too, says Ries, there is a lot of interest in the opportunities afforded by the Centre: “It allows young German socialists to encounter Israelis and Palestinians on an equal footing. One week, they can be talking to young Palestinian politicians, and the next week they can be doing the same thing with Israelis.”

Holding on to the vision

The opening of the Willy Brandt Centre marks an important stage on a long journey; yet a great deal remains to be done. Most Palestinians live on the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and will therefore have no access to the Centre - for they are not permitted to enter Jerusalem. Thus, the Centre’s staff will still have to travel to Nablus, Ramallah or Gaza City in order to hold seminars and keep contact. Moreover, says Matthias Ries: for the time being, “separation” will also be maintained in the Centre itself: “For now, activities at the Centre will continue on the basis of separation. We will carry on holding separate seminars as long as this represent the wishes of the participants, especially those on the Palestinian side. But: in the same building!”

Sooner or later, Ries hopes, there will come a time when all parties will enjoy equal access to the Jerusalem Centre, and will be able to use it as a forum for communication and exchange amongst equal partners. The right place has already been found: according to international law, the house that will host the Willy Brandt Centre is located on the Green Line – the former border between the Eastern and Western halves of Jerusalem. It’s a symbolic gesture; and now, the task is to bring the vision to life.

Tania Krämer, © 2003 Qantara.de
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

To get to the web pages of the Willy Brandt Center, click here.

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