Inside the Days-Long Clubhouse Room for Israelis and Palestinians

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I have spent the past few days in a room on Clubhouse called Meet Palestinians and Israelis, which began on May 17 at 5:08 p.m. on the west coast and continues uninterrupted. Under the banner “Balance,” more than 450,000 individuals from all walks of life have logged into the room, an online space created for those directly affected by the ongoing conflict and violence, to discuss their personal experiences and views. The room, moderated by “third-party neutral” Israelis and Palestinians, was launched in an effort to create a multi-track path toward dialogue, education and, ultimately, peace.

With no idea how long the online conversation would go — some rooms on Clubhouse fold quickly, while others can continue for upwards of 15 hours — the Meet Palestinians and Israelis room has, so far, lasted more than eight days, earning it the nickname of “the miracle room,” reflecting the Jewish Chanukah miracle in which an oil candle meant to last for one day lasted for eight.

As an Israeli-American currently living in New York — I lived in Israel just before the pandemic — the room has helped me become more comfortable speaking with Palestinians because it certainly doesn’t work in the “rally” scene of New York City. With a structure not unlike a 12-step meeting, each participant gets a chance to share a personal story without interruption. If you keep coming back with honest stories they invite you to share more.  Moderators have no small task in keeping the conversation from devolving into anger, but as they remind attendees multiple times, “the purpose of this stage is to humanize.” My friend Majed Othman, a Los Angeles-based Palestinian, is one of the dozens of volunteer moderators. I don’t always agree with him. We’ve yet to meet in real life, but yes, I consider him a friend.

I spoke several times while in the room, sharing various personal experiences — like what it was like going to Hebrew language school (called Ulpan in Hebrew) when a missile attack struck and I had to race to a bomb shelter. The room has allowed me to express my empathy for Palestinians in Gaza — to see how the terror tunnels built by Hamas are the de facto cousins of the bomb shelters Israelis are provided with by its government. Individuals in the room talked about being from the same place, albeit with different access and purpose.

A Palestinian woman from Jerusalem spoke about her family’s house being demolished twice. She talked about the horrors of Israeli checkpoints and how dehumanizing it is to have your movements monitored with suspicion. Others shared a similar sentiments of feeling trapped or caged in the territories.I shared a personal story about being at the Har Nof terror attack hours after four rabbis and one Druze officer were killed with butcher knives on Nov. 18, 2014 and how multiple news services’ reports differed. Even though I dislike checkpoints, others saw the humanity in my story.

Some in the room spoke about antisemitism, and I told them about my older brother, who is training visible Jews to defend attacks due to the massive spike in hate crimes across the United States, Canada and Europe. History is analyzed in depth by both sides, but most impactful are those providing firsthand experiences, as is the room’s intention. I witnessed attacks on Jews with my own eyes this week in NYC and even prevented one in Times Square.

Clubhouse is currently the only place where individuals can have productive, unfiltered, solution-oriented conversations about such a difficult topic, and they are able to do so without interruption by TV interviewers or editors looking for soundbites. On the flip side, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter have become a “choose your own adventure-type” format where false information (on both sides) is disseminated worldwide as reactionary statements desperately in need of fact-checking.

An ongoing theme is the triggering effects of generational trauma, even more appropriate today as it’s currently mental health awareness month. The overwhelming majority of Israelis and Jewish Americans speaking in the room mentioned having had family members who survived terror attacks and the Holocaust. Palestinian participants recounted stories of families being displaced from their homes and having to relocate to other villages or other countries. In both instances, everyone seemed to agree that sharing on social media was taking its toll on their mental health. I, for one, have not gone to sleep before 4 am on any night over the last two weeks. Each meme video and infographic hits like an addictive drug. For a recovering addict with 16 years sober, I was reminded of daily 12-step meetings held in Jaffa bomb shelters with both Jewish and Palestinian attendees. The goal then, as it should be now, was to heal collectively.

Where I see a growing rift is in the arts, which is painful as a rapper who’s extended a hand to collaborate with Palestinian artists in years past. The pressure exerted by BDS movement is partly to blame. And as much as I have remained hopeful about possible collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian superstars like DJ Khaled and Netta Barzilai, I feel far less hopeful of such possibilities following 11 days of fighting between Hamas and Israel.

Still, Clubhouse made it possible for creators to speak and attend. People like Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian actor in “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” who remembered the joys of working with Adam Sandler but also the issues that surface through his own upbringing; Adam Swig from the culture building nonprofit Value Culture; hip-hop artists 24hrs; Geoffrey Cantor, of “Daredevil” fame; Palestinian actor Mousa Kraish; the president of Somalia Mohammed Farmaajo; Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul; and Palestinian and Israeli filmmaker duo Nora Hawair and Kadia Saraf.

Every time I logged onto Clubhouse in the last few days, the “Balance” room had in the vicinity of 500 people listening in. Has there ever been this large of a public dialogue in real-time? Are our leaders paying attention?

Clubhouse today is like Twitter in 2007 — it’s a platform that’s in its infancy — but it’s breaking down walls built and fortified over many decades. I myself co-hosted the first-ever talk with a Holocaust survivor on Clubhouse, a talk that continued for over 14 hours.

Back in July, we curated an event named Soul Vey. It was a virtual Shabbat dinner celebrating Black, Jewish and Muslim unity and included performers like Akil from Jurassic 5, Gangsta Boo and Y Love. Sami Steigmann, the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor I brought to Clubhouse, stayed for the four-hour event and watched every performance. When I commented that he had outlasted many of the other guests, he said it was because, “I have respect.”

So to those reading, next time you feel a desire to post about the conflict on social media, please respect that here are two peoples who ultimately have to live with each other. As a popular 12-step saying goes, progress not perfection.

Kosha Dillz, born Rami Even-Esh, is a 39-year-old hip-hop artist based in Brooklyn, New York. His latest album, “Nobody Cares Except You,” is out now, and he recently posted the song “No More War” on his Instagram. 

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