Can you get a better idea of someone’s humanity by listening to everything they have to say, no matter how offensive or discouraging it is to you? The Canadian-Israeli videographer Corey Gil-Shuster, creator of the Ask an Israeli / Ask a Palestinian webseries, believes you can.
Like many, Gil-Shuster is tired of the endless online battles between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine. He’s particularly weary of the way people on both sides of the conflict perpetually post a barrage of viral images, stories, and videos to “use” against the other side, “because somehow we have to win this virtual war as a reflection of the real war,” he says. “It really is ridiculous.”
His initiative: creating a YouTube series that breaks through traditional narratives and assumptions by demanding that everyday Israelis and Palestinians answer tough questions. These questions come not from him but from people all over the world.
“People would make claims [online], and I’d say, ‘Look, can I turn that into a question and then go ask people, so you can know?’”
Since he started the series three years ago, Gil-Shuster has amassed more than 400 videos, pulling everyday people aside and asking them others’ questions, including the following:
• Israelis/Palestinians: What do you think of gay people?
• Israelis: When an Israeli soldier does something immoral to an Arab, does it erode Israel's claim to be moral?
• Palestinians: Will you share Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount with Jews?
• Israelis: What do you think of settlers forcing Palestinians out of their homes in East Jerusalem?
• Palestinians: What do you know about the Holocaust?
• Israeli Jews: What do you think about the Palestinian right of return?
• Palestinians: What concessions do Palestinians need to make for peace?
Some of the videos are humorous, too:
• Why did the Israelis steal hummus from the Arabs?
The questions come from YouTube comments left on past videos, from Facebook posts, and from emails. Some are attempts to truly understand the other side, while some are what Gil-Shuster calls “set-up questions,” where one side requests that a question be asked of the other side in order to bring bigoted views to light, and make them look bad on purpose.
He’s even willing to ask a question when he's uncomfortable with that question or when he doesn’t personally believe the things he’s asking, because his goal is to find out what people actually think, rather than prove any kind of point.
According to Gil-Shuster’s self-imposed set of rules, everything he films—start to finish, with no edits—must appear in his videos. This way, he says, he can prevent viewers from jumping to conclusions about whether he’s cherry-picking his footage in order to take a specific stance. Even without any edits, Gil-Shuster says, “some people assume, depending on the video, that I’m anti-Israeli or pro-Israeli, or anti-Palestinian or pro-Palestinian. Each time it’s different.”
When you enter Area A of the West Bank, which Gil-Shuster often visits for his videos, you encounter a sign reads, The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives and Is Against The Israeli Law. Gil-Shuster acknowledges that the warning is real enough: “I did [encounter a subject] who thought what I was doing was anti-Palestinian, and so he threatened to tell all his friends in the West Bank to hurt me,” he says. But he continues to visit Area A. “A lot of it is more threat than real, but there are some real people who go and stab people because you pissed them off. That just sets something off in me—you told me not to do something? Now I want to do it.”
It’s this type of danger that makes Gil-Shuster’s mother and father in Canada worry about their son’s safety. As you can see in the video below, Gil-Shuster admits that it can be tough to talk with his parents about what’s he’s doing, especially when they plead with him to stay out of the West Bank. “I don’t want to lie [to them], but I still want to go,” he says. “I still think it’s important to go. I’ll do it until I think there are no more questions to ask.”
The Ask an Israeli / Ask a Palestinian webseries has a controversial reputation. Part of the controversy may stem from Gil-Shuster’s interview style, which can be aggressive. And then there are viewers who check in merely to have their own beliefs confirmed.
“I hope the majority can see it within context and can learn something from it,” Gil-Shuster explains, “as opposed to trying to use it to reinforce some negative sense that they have about Jews or about Arabs. There are a lot of people who are really invested in the conflict and they just cannot see anything else. But the people who most tend to react in the way I like are the people who say, ‘Yeah, that’s more complicated than I thought.’ They aren’t already sold on some idea. They’re there to learn.”
Working on the series and speaking with people from all walks of life has convinced Gil-Shuster that peace is nowhere in sight any time soon. “Peace to Israelis means the lack of violence,” he explains. “Peace to Palestinians means justice. I believe that Palestinians and Israelis are stuck in a fantasy world of what they think can happen.”
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, creating the series also forced him to engage with and acknowledge the humanity of Palestinians in ways that he hadn’t before, and that does give him some hope. For more on that, check out the short video from the Moral Courage Project here: