Politics

The Clubhouse Room Where Israelis and Palestinians Are Actually Talking

A smartphone with a two waving-hand emojis next to an Israeli and Palestinian flag, with audio bubbles next to them.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

On Thursday morning, I heard a woman in Gaza painfully describe how her terrified child clings to her during Israeli strikes. That was followed shortly thereafter by an Israeli Jewish woman describing how her parents were killed in a terror attack as they drove home from a child’s birthday party years ago. On Thursday afternoon, I heard from a woman whose Palestinian Christian grandmother fled Haifa for Lebanon in 1948, and from the Jewish French son of Holocaust survivors, who had lived lives of gutting trauma. Later, I heard from an American Palestinian woman who talked about her trips to visit family in Palestine, where she faced multiple IDF checkpoints and searches and harassment unimaginable to most Americans.

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The conversation was happening in an online chat room called “Meet Palestinians and Israelis” on the Clubhouse app. The room is presently on its fifth day, running continuously since Monday. Clubhouse is audio only. You can see photos of the speakers and their brief bios, but that’s all. Mostly on Clubhouse, you find yourself listening. For those of us who can’t … even … with the new apps, this room alone may change your mind.

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For most of the day Thursday, there were between 800 and 900 people in the room as I listened in. When I asked on Friday morning, the moderators told me that 105,000 unique people have cycled through, staying on average for four hours. These 18 moderators, mostly young Israelis and Palestinians, but with some facilitators who are neither, are working unbelievably hard to keep the conversation away from relitigating history or from political posturing. Largely they encourage only Israeli Jews and Palestinians to speak—to tell their personal stories, without trying to score points. The use of jargon and slogans is gently discouraged, as is whataboutism (they explicitly ask participants not to compare suffering to suffering). Talk of feelings is welcome, although occasionally speakers apologize for appealing to feelings as opposed to fact. An Egyptian Jewish woman described being forced out of Egypt as a child, and relocating to England without her possessions, and a Palestinian man thanked her for telling her story. A Lebanese man furiously described growing up in refugee camps. Some speakers vociferously objected to the idea of hugging it out. Some speakers were in tears because what else is there?

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Midday Thursday, the question of how parents are explaining the situation to their children arose and launched several hours of discussion. Moderators changed their profile pictures to their own childhood photos. A Palestinian man and a Jewish man, both in Brooklyn, realized they must live a few neighborhoods away. A woman whose Indigenous tribe in Central America has now been wiped out altogether talked about what it means to be in this room. A man from Kashmir described growing up in intractable conflict. He has a 1-month-old son. My teenage son, who had been listening next to me for an hour, lit up when a speaker said that children will play with anyone. “Just give them Legos and they will play.”

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Asking pointed questions is encouraged. “Does Hamas represent your views?” “Why can’t my family go back to Jerusalem?” A Jewish woman said her parents have been warned not to go outside this weekend, because they look “too Jewish,” while a Muslim man talked about being Muslim in Canada after 9/11. Moderators, who take shifts throughout the days and nights, ensure that questions receive responses. News of the cease-fire toward the end of the day Thursday was taken with a fat grain of salt. One of the moderators noted that everyone will be picking up the pieces for a long time. Another observed that this Clubhouse chatroom is the most well-attended peace negotiation since Oslo.

I had the chance to catch up with one of the moderators, Hamza Khan, on Thursday night. To say moderating a room filled with raw Israelis and Palestinians during wartime is daunting is an understatement. Khan is not Palestinian or Israeli; he’s a longtime Muslim American peace activist who has worked with Palestinians and Israelis for years. He explained to me that the room is moderated by a team of Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, with non-Palestinians and non-Israelis acting as “third-party neutrals” who have broad authority to interrupt and interject during conversations to help settle nerves and reset. No matter how fraught the conversation, one speaker after the next thanks the moderators, who say they have been briefing elected officials and diplomats about their progress in this room.

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“Reminding everyone that trauma isn’t owned by any one narrative or any one constituency is key to help keeping the conversations going and constructive,” Khan tells me, “but it has to be done with the right tact that reflects the cultural dynamics of the communities we are hoping to build bridges between.” His background with Mizrachi and Ashkenazic Jewish communities, as well as his experience mentoring and working with Palestinian youth for the past decade, has helped him through two sleepless night of powerful conversations—that, plus his love of freshly brewed coffee.

I had the Clubhouse room playing on my phone all day Thursday and Friday. My husband and sons have been eavesdropping. They’re not alone. “My children are listening,” one woman said. “They are listening to this room, to the tone you are taking. You are giving them comfort.” But it is not always comfortable. The word triggering surfaces several times every hour. Speakers explain which words set them off and why. “This discussion is literally rewiring my brain,” said one man. It is an extraordinary thing that technology—“it’s just code” someone said—allows a room of 900-plus listeners to come together with gifted, empathetic moderators, across security fences and checkpoints and oceans and generations to talk.

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Longtime peace activist Rabbi Alana Suskin and another moderator, Natalyia Eidelman, told me in an email Friday afternoon that although the original plan was to shut down the room when a cease-fire happened, the decision was made to keep going. “Over the days, this event has proven to be a history-making moment of emotional conversations and intimate exchanges,” they told me. “We now want to continue running this room until there is peace.”

At one point, an Israeli man who recalled seeing, as a teenager, photos of massacred Palestinians, said that the purpose of this room is to see other people, and also to be seen by others. He is correct, which is ironic, of course, because it’s all audio. A friend of mine who spent the day in the room on Thursday sent a note: This app, she said, “frees people to speak courageously but with some anonymity.” Semi-anonymous conversations across the globe permit a certain amount of both vulnerability and bravery. “It’s what talk radio should be,” she wrote. “It’s somewhere between talk radio and a telephone call.”

Listening to these disembodied voices describing their own lives, as though they are on an intimate phone call, made me think harder about accusations of “both sidesism.” Whatever that phrase has come to mean, it sometimes flattens the fact that there are, yes, actual human beings on both sides. That there is, in this bottomless, vicious cycle, a place where two sides can listen to one another, feels both like a miracle of modern technology and also an ancient, nearly lost art.

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