Most people are unaware of the existence of Israelis or Palestinians working to find a non-violent solution to the conflict in the region. Violence and bloodshed make for better headlines and allow the conflict to be easily reduced to “us versus them.”

But Ronit Avni is trying to change that. Ronit is the founder and director of Just Vision, an organization that documents and raises awareness of Israeli and Palestinian grassroots peace activists. She is also the co-director of the documentary Encounter Point, which features the stories of activists she has met through the course of her work.

The film has been screened at several festivals over the past few months, including Hot Docs, the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Sao Paulo Film Festival, and the Vancouver International Film Festival. Encounter Point also won the audience award for best documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May. It opens for a limited run at the Quad Cinema in New York on November 17.

The interviewer: Randy Klein, ITF Board of Directors member
The interviewee: Ronit Avni, filmmaker and activist

You have been involved in human rights work for a long time and Just Vision seems like an outgrowth of several of your past experiences. What was it like interning for B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories?

Human rights work is generally a sobering and difficult experience. You develop a vocabulary you wish you would never have use for; words to describe torture, degradation, assassinations, discrimination, abuse. It is painful to confront what we human beings are capable of. It is especially painful if you were taught to hold your community or society to high standards of moral conduct. The dissonance can be destabilizing.

I interned at B’Tselem in 1999, during the Oslo process. It was eye-opening. A field researcher, Najib Abu Rokaya, was kind enough to take me with him on various occasions to the West Bank as he collected testimonies of Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed or whose child had been hit by a rubber-coated steel bullet. At the time, the intern coordinator introduced me to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) so I would split my time between my own research, PCATI, and B’Tselem.

What struck me was that communities who lived ten or fifteen minutes apart from one another had virtually no sense of the other’s perspective. It isn’t a unique phenomenonæthere are plenty of communities in Brooklyn or Manhattan that never interactæbut it really affected me. B’Tselem gave me the opportunity to see through these two separate lenses. I have tremendous respect for their work. It is never easy to hold a mirror up to one’s society. Many prophetic voices have been killed or ostracized over generations for critiquing dominant views or habits, and yet such voices are essential to our growth as ethical human beings. B’Tselem holds a mirror up to Israeli society. Those who take the time to read their reports see a picture that is less than flattering. I also started reading Stanley Cohen’s work during that timeæabout different ways that societies deflect responsibility through denial, or rationalization or by displacing blame. I was seeing this play out in the public’s responses to B’Tselem.

You spent several years working at WITNESS, which is an amazing human rights organization. Tell us a little about the organization and some of your experiences working there.

WITNESS was conceived by Peter Gabriel. The idea was to train human rights organizations to document abuses using video cameras. After the Rodney King beating, the organization was launched together with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, now called “Human Rights First.” When I started, I was one of three full-time staff members, so each person wore many hats. Part of my role became to train human rights organizations from countries including Afghanistan, the Gambia, Honduras and Senegal to document violations using video and to strategize with them about effective uses of video for social change. I loved the work as it was at the intersection of technology, film, human rights advocacy and public policy. It was also tremendously humbling to meet so many courageous people. I was particularly inspired by indigenous rights advocate Joey Lozano from the Philippines, the women from RAWA [Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan], and the youth of color from the Bay Area who all demonstrated civic leadership in their communities despite personal hardship. They were not politicians, yet they had a sense of agency and urgency and this led them to get involved. They inspired me to look for Israelis and Palestinians doing the same within their own societies. This was the beginning of my journey to launch Just Vision.

What did you learn about using video as a tool for advocacy?

I learned about the strengths and limits of the medium. It is an inherently reductive, narrative-driven medium that lends itself to telling personal stories rather than providing a structural overview of a systemic problem. Also, there are few rules; what is safe or ethical or effective in one context might be entirely problematic for another. It takes patience, planning and networks of support to make change happen. Very few rights violations are documented as they unfold. Instead, video is often used for evidence, awareness-raising, to reconstruct events or as a deterrent to further abuse. Most of the work happens after the film is producedæto ensure it is seen by those with the power to effect change. I learned that ultimately it is about community organizing, strategic thinking, reliability and quality. If all those elements come into play, you are more likely to be effective. If you are disorganized, lack buy-in from potential stakeholders, or are unreliable or shoddy in your work, you are unlikely to succeed.

When did you get the idea for Just Vision? Which came first, the film or the organization?

Encounter Point is an integral part of a broader effort to raise awareness about Palestinians and Israelis at the vanguard of a movement to promote nonviolence and peace building. The film was never meant to emerge in isolation. From the beginning, we wanted to create in-depth materials online to complement the film, since no 90-minute film can ever do justice to the painful, divisive and complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For this reason we are interviewing 180 peace builders and publishing this living history archive online at JustVision.org together with educational curricula and a timeline of the conflict through the lens of these 180 people who are committed to ending it. We are also trying to connect such peace builders to policymakers, journalists, community leaders, religious figures and more. We’ve taken our work to members of the State Department, Capitol Hill, the World Bank, the Oprah Winfrey Show, temples, mosques and community centers, to name a few.

Why do you think stories of these brave and inspiring individuals are so absent from the coverage of the situation?

They are not sensational. They are complex and hard to describe. They don’t “sell” or “pitch” well. A photo of a bomb or the wounded is self-explanatory. The picture tells the story. Peace work is slow, incremental, it is relational and requires context. I don’t think there is any ill-intent by journalists who do not cover this story, but it requires them to know more background, to speak the languages of the peace builders, to take time to learn the nuances of different approaches. And social change is slow. Policy is immediate and wide-ranging in its impact so it feels urgent to report on. Grassroots work is ongoing and develops over years or decades, Sometimes we take this for granted and don’t bother to stop and say, “Wait, this is important.” We have yet to fully appreciate the impact of this type of work, though. The Israeli movement to withdraw its troops from Lebanon began with small grassroots organizations and networks of mothers and then soldiers and others who wanted to see change. It took two decades, but it finally happened by and large. These movements take a long time to take root, and to enter into public discourse and ultimately to reflect the mainstream.

Just as the individuals featured in the film come from different backgrounds, Just Vision is itself a collaboration of people from various parts of the globe. Can you talk about some of the various staff and what their perspective brings to the organization?

We are a core team of young women from Israel, Canada, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Brazil and the US. Julia Bacha is from Brazil. She was the co-writer and editor of the filmControl Room, and studied Middle Eastern history and politics. Joline Makhlouf is the first Palestinian woman pilot. She’s worked with Israeli-Palestinian co-existence and dialogue groups ranging from Face-to-Face, Faith-to-Faith and Seeds of Peace. Nahanni Rous is a journalist from the US who interned in Jerusalem with Linda Gradstein of NPR and traveled cross country interviewing families after September 11th. I am part Israeli, part Canadian. It takes everyone to move this agenda forward. The more communities begin to back non-violent peace builders, and the more we demand that they be reported on and supported, the better.

You have shown the film at locations in Israel and the West Bank.  Can you talk about the reaction of the audience at these screenings?

The reactions to Encounter Point have been largely positive. We opened the film in West Jerusalem at the Jerusalem International Film Festival to a sold-out audience. It was perhaps the most diverse group of people I have seen in the region with cynics and sceptics along with those eager for the film. They ranged from Israeli orthodox Jewish settlers to Northern Tel Aviv secular affluent Israeli Jews to Palestinian Christians to Palestinian Muslims from Ramallah, Jenin, East Jerusalem and other nearby cities. We were terrified at how they would react but the film subjects received a standing ovation at the end. One orthodox Jewish Israeli man got up and stated that he felt the film was biased in favor of Palestinians. One devout Palestinian Muslim woman stood and expressed that she felt it was biased in favor of Israelis. Afterwards, most people went outside and continued the conversation for 1.5 hours. This included the two individuals who felt the film favored the “other side.” It was truly amazing.

In East Jerusalem we received a similarly positive response. We also showed the film in Haifa and Jenin. In Haifa, we screened the film three times but people were just returning to their homes so the turnout was low. They have invited us back for a proper, publicized screening. In Jenin about 100 people came, watched the film, clapped and then ran into the streets as the Israeli army had just invaded, so we didn’t have a substantive Q&A afterwards. In Gaza, I wasn’t there, but my understanding is that the audience had a hard time. The Israeli army was engaged in military operations in Gaza at the time, so it was even more tense than usual for residents. Their only exposure to Israelis are as settlers and soldiers so they had difficulty seeing empathic depictions of Israeli civilians. Also, they wanted to see the army invasion reflected in the film, which it was not, although the military occupation is. We have just been invited to screen the film in Nazareth and Tel Aviv and are working on a Ramallah screening.

Are there any plans to reach out to schools or community groups to use this for educational purposes?

Yes, definitely. We made a special Arabic and Hebrew version of the film and have offered it to local educators and community leaders to use as a tool for sparking dialogue and understanding on some of these issues.  We’ve been working with graduate students from Columbia University Teacher’s College, as well as the staff of Abraham’s Vision to provide in-depth educational lessons about this issue. We hope to distribute the lessons to high schools and colleges across the country, as well as online.

Has the trouble over the summer in the West Bank and Lebanon impacted the work of the activists featured in the film?

Not really—Robi, Ali, Shlomo, Tzvika and Sami continue to be advocates for resolving the conflict through non-militant means. As far as I know, everyone is still engaged in their work.

Finally, it is impossible to have a conversation about the conflict without asking about the elections.  You have commented that Just Vision tries to focus on the people who will “have to live with the peace.” What are your thoughts and what have your contacts on both sides expressed to you concerning Hamas gaining so many seats in the Parliament?

Generally, we really focus on the people who do this work regardless of who is in power. So many events garner that question. When [Ariel] Sharon was elected, many Palestinians reacted similarly to Israelis’ reactions to Hamas’s victory. Yet peace building must continue, and it does. We want to strengthen the voices of those who are trying to build a culture and consensus that favors nonviolence and peace. This will take time, but it is essential. I was not surprised about the Hamas election. I don’t think it signals the radicalization of Palestinian society, just as the Likud vote for Sharon did not necessarily signal a major shift to the right by the Israeli public. People want to trust their leaders, and they want change. History demonstrates that sometimes hard liners make tough choices that doves cannot. I can only hope that whatever the outcome of these two elections, ultimately the voices for compromise, dignity and diplomacy on both sides take center stage. “Inshallah,” as they say.

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