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Can TED Talks Sell 50 Years of Israeli Occupation?

Israeli settlers are taking inspiration from TED talks to make their case to the world on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 War.

A new online video lecture series, called Talk17, features 18-minute talks from Israeli settlers and their supporters and even a few Palestinians about issues regarding the West Bank, the territory Israel has occupied since 1967. The videos will be released weekly throughout 2017 and can be found on the Talk17 YouTube channel.

The lectures look like TED talks. Lecturers pace a stage in front of a black backdrop, delivering short, high-octane monologues meant to “spread ideas” to a live audience. In this case, the “idea” is the lived experience of settlers, which organizers hope to broadcast to the international community.

The program is bankrolled by American Friends of Ariel, a U.S. not-for-profit that supports the Ariel settlement.

Avi Zimmerman, executive director of the organization, said he hoped to counter a trend among Israel advocates who emphasize Israel’s assets like beaches and high tech when faced with criticism over its treatment of the Palestinians. Zimmerman said that Israel’s advocates aren’t helping by avoiding talking about the West Bank. Instead, settlers should be front and center in telling Israel’s story, he said.

“We are doing something critical at this time,” he said.

To tell that story, Talk17 aims to depict settlements as places where Israelis go about their day-to-day lives, even as the international community rejects them as illegal under international law. The lecture series will cover topics including the media, environment, religion, relationships between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, international law and alternatives to a two-state solution, which would entail a large-scale evacuation of settlers.

At the program’s soft launch at Ariel’s performing arts center on January 3rd, organizers handed out red rubber bracelets with the “Talk17” logo and urged audience members to tweet with the Talk17 hashtag. The small theater was half empty with fewer than two-dozen audience members. Zimmerman requested participants to resist the Israeli urge to interrupt speakers with questions and comments, to ensure a quiet recording.

Speakers included Gershon HaCohen, the Israeli army general who commanded the pullout of settlers from Gaza in 2005, but now warns of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank should Israel evacuate; Yehuda HaKohen, an activist who opposes two states, and believes that Israelis and Palestinians can live peacefully together if they understand each other’s narratives; and Amal Medlij, an Arab student at Ariel University who gave a surprisingly candid talk detailing discrimination of Arab students by Ariel security.

Zimmerman said that he had urged Medlij to be honest about the good and the bad, in order to expose viewers to the range of people and experiences in the settlements.

“It would have been easier for Amal to say how wonderful Ariel University is, but I don’t think that’s going to spur the kind of discussion that could be had here,” he said.

Zimmerman said that he has invited speakers from across the political spectrum, even those that disagree with an Israeli presence in the West Bank, but that several declined. Palestinian speakers have been difficult to nail down too, he said. He said they face pressure from Palestinian leaders and peers not to come.

The lecture series comes at a time when human rights groups are also highlighting the 50th anniversary of the occupation, showing what life is like for Palestinians under Israeli military rule. Zimmerman wants the settler voice to be counted, too.

“We need to stand up and speak for ourselves,” he said.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected]

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