Surveying Arab and Israeli Attitudes: An Interview with Corey Gil-Shuster

On October 22, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views interviewed Corey Gil-Shuster. Corey was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada and became an Israeli citizen in 1995. After spending many years in Israel, he wanted to make sense of the patterns of behavior observed living with Israelis related to the Israeli-Arab conflict. He received an MA in Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa and worked for the Canadian Ministry of Health with Aboriginal populations as a project manager. He is currently working towards his PhD at University of Haifa researching Palestinian culture and conflict.

SGV: What is your background and where did your passion and interest in the Middle East come from?

CGS: I am a Canadian Jew. I was very involved in the Jewish community in Ottawa growing up. In 1989 I traveled to Israel to study at Tel Aviv University. After months of culture shock, I fell in love with Israel. It was more Middle Eastern, chaotic and interesting than I expected. The more time I spend here, the more interesting I find it. While living here and becoming part of Israeli culture, I could see patterns in the dynamics between Israelis and between Israelis and Palestinians that seemed related to the conflict. I wanted to understand these dynamics so when I was back in Ottawa, I completed an MA in Conflict Studies.

SGV: Your YouTube channel acts like a public service announcement for those interested in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. What inspired you to launch this project and take to the streets as an investigative journalist to survey Israeli and Palestinian attitudes?

CGS: It is obvious from my videos that I do not have a background in journalism, communications or film making. My background is in conflict analysis. Part of learning about the Palestinian side or narrative was to take part in online discussions through forums, Facebook, etc. What I experienced was stranger dynamics than the conflict on the ground: most of those who are passionate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not Israeli or Palestinian but all take a very black and white ideas on what they believe is happening on the ground. At least for the Israeli side, very little of the opinions, claims or “facts” that were discussed matched the reality I see day-to-day on the ground for the past twenty-plus years. I was so frustrated with trying to correct misinformation from someone I was arguing with that I said I will go out and ask random people in Tel Aviv their opinions. That was how the series was born. I was also interested in whether Palestinian views were what we are being told they are through the media so I asked for questions for Palestinians. There are now more than seventy videos.

SGV: Many Israelis and Palestinians reveal moderate, tolerant and sensible responses to your questions when it comes to perceptions of the other and prospects for peace. Yet mainstream media often portrays only the extremist voices. Are we getting an accurate account of the facts and attitudes or is the conflict much more nuanced and complex than we are led to believe?

CGS: I don’t think the media – mainstream or fringe – gives an accurate portrayal of the complexity or the viewpoints of the people. That is what is so frustrating. Each gives a different perspective based on an agenda which may be sales or political. The media perpetuates the extreme views by constantly focusing on the extremes of society. I suppose moderate, sensible and contradicting views don’t sell news and that is the reason. When Israelis watch the Israeli news, they know that a story about a bank robbery, a murder and rape on the 8:00 news does not mean that all Israelis are bank robbers, murderers and rapists. The news gives them information that stood out that day and keeps people interested in watching.

Since it is not the day-to-day experience of the average person to encounter such extremes, they don’t then take the stories from the news and apply to those around them. Yet when they are exposed to news about violence from Palestinians and that is all they see, it is applied to all Palestinians. I had a similar experience asking questions. I have very rarely spent time in the West Bank and settlers are foreign to me. The West Bank is like another country with a very different mentality. I purposely went to the West Bank to get more extreme opinions to balance the responses from the Tel Aviv and coastal areas. What I found surprised me. I found that Jewish settlers had a variety of opinions. Most were moderate and sensible in terms of agreeing to live with Palestinians, but perhaps not in the legal arguments related to settlements.

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SGV: Do you think that your work is breaking barriers and changing perceptions of the conflict?

CGS: I don’t think any one project can break barriers or change perceptions to a substantial degree. For those emotionally involved in the conflict (for example, Jews and Arabs outside Israel and Palestine) the videos can even challenge them in a negative way. They have been brought up with a skewed view of both groups and showing them aspects of the reality that contradict what they believe to be true is not an easy process for anyone. Also, I feel I am up against so much skewed information and misinformation out there on the internet and in the news. But I still think this project is very important. The basis of conflict resolution is good analysis. If we don’t analyze the conflict properly from all sides, taking in all important aspects of it, we cannot really understand the conflict and cannot find solutions that work for those involved.

SGV: In all your interviews, what is one response that has really surprised and challenged your own preconceived notions?

CGS: Not much has surprised me with the Israeli interviews because I have heard so many viewpoints over the years although sometimes I am surprised at the level of ignorance seemingly intelligent people have about the conflict and its history. The Palestinian views are sometimes more surprising. I thought of doing a humorous video asking Palestinians when they planned to throw the Jews in the sea and I planned to follow-up with wise-cracks like “I need to know what to pack” or “let us know so we can prepare the boats.” I thought I would get some laughs with the question and responses. But the first interviewee said that the Jews made up this myth to get world sympathy and the next two said “as soon as possible.” While difficult to hear, I was happy with the honesty and have to step out of my emotional self to understand where that level of hatred and pain is coming from.

Since the beginning of the project, I have been looking for people in the Arab world to do the same kind of project. So far no one has agreed to do it. Most say they live in countries where asking people questions on the street may not be legal and could get them into trouble – including the Palestinian Authority areas. I sometimes forget that I am spoiled growing up and living in a country that protects and encourages free speech.

SGV: What do you wish to accomplish with your work?

CGS: I hope people open their minds and understand that no situation is black and white. And I hope it inspires people to come here and see the truth for themselves. I recommend that anyone with strong views on the conflict spend an equal amount of time with both people just getting to know them and maybe even working to bring them together.

SGV: There exists so much misinformation and propaganda when it comes to Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. Is there one message that you would like to share with our audience about the conflict that perhaps is not covered in your videos?

CGS: We are both kind of crazy. I think Palestinians are crazier than us but I am biased. Anything not covered, please ask in the form of a question and I will take it to the streets of Israel and Palestine.

SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

For more information, please visit Corey Gil-Shuster’s YouTube channel to watch surveys of Arab and Israeli attitudes