The Children of Peace Interview: Joan Ryan MP

This interview first appeared on Children of Peace. Click here to view the original.

In the latest of her regular series of exclusive interviews Professor Sarah Brown talks to Joan Ryan MP, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel (in the UK parliament).

Sarah Brown: Can you tell us a little about the factors which have shaped your views on Israel/Palestine, and which led to your becoming the Chair of LFI?

Joan Ryan: I travelled to Israel for the first time during my first year in parliament, in 1998. As with many of my colleagues, that trip helped me gain a greater understanding of the complex situation and the hopes and fears which exist on both sides. I have also had a long interest in the situation in Kurdistan and Cyprus – I was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Cyprus under Gordon Brown. Clearly, each conflict is very different in terms of its roots, the peoples involved and the key actors, but I think my knowledge of other conflict situations helps to inform my understanding of, and views about, the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Sarah Brown: Tell us something of your experiences when visiting Israel/Palestine. Which encounters have proved most memorable?

Joan Ryan: I’ve been to Israel and Palestine three times over the past year and I’m about to go again so there’s many experiences which come to mind. Obviously, meeting and listening to politicians, opinion-shapers and experts on both sides always helps to deepen your understanding of people’s motivations and their concerns. However, I think it’s the encounters I have had with ordinary Israelis and Palestinians which are probably the most memorable. I spoke with a woman whose town in Israel had come under attack in the 2014 war and was struck by the way she framed it: Hamas, not the Palestinian people, were the enemy and Hamas was the enemy of the Palestinian people, too.
I also went to a kibbutz and met a man who had been very badly injured in a rocket attack as he tried to shield his children. His wish for reconciliation and hatred of war and violence – all told us to under the shade of olive trees just metres from the Gaza border – was very memorable. Finally, I’ve now twice met students at MEET in Jerusalem. I never fail to be inspired by the stories of young Israeli and Palestinian people who come together to learn new technological skills but end up learning a lot more about each other, and about how much they share.

Sarah Brown: Which individuals or organisations in the region do you think are doing most to promote peace and co-existence currently?

Joan Ryan: I mentioned MEET. I wouldn’t wish to single too many others out, but the work of One Voice, the Peres Centre for Peace, the Abraham Fund and, here in the UK, the UK Taskforce (which does such great work on issues relating to the position of Israel’s Arab citizens, and has tremendous support from the British Jewish community) is all very important. In my mind, young people are key. Finding ways – through education, sport, the arts, and other activities – to bring young people together is vital, which is why the work that Children Of Peace does to support organisations committed to reconciliation and coexistence is so valuable.
It’s why I am so enthusiastic about the campaign LFI is launching this month in support of the creation of the Alliance for Middle East Progress’ International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. We want Britain to become a leading player in the creation of the fund which is modelled on the International Fund for Ireland and, like it, could potentially do so much to increase support for coexistence projects.

Sarah Brown: It’s well known that this conflict is sometimes mirrored within our own communities in the UK. How can this problem best be tackled?

Joan Ryan: I think you’re right to identify the fact that societies such as our own are not free of many of the tensions which – obviously on a greater scale – scar Israel and Palestine. Again, young people are key. Anything which segregates children and young people by their background – whether it’s on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion or, indeed, class – is, in my mind, not healthy in terms of building shared societies based on equality, respect and an understanding of the great value of diversity. On a positive note, I am immensely proud of the manner in which London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, has, in just a few short months in office, become our country’s leading spokesman for those values.

Sarah Brown: What are the greatest threats and opportunities facing Israel/Palestine – and what is the best way for those outside the region who hope for a peaceful and just solution to demonstrate their support?

Joan Ryan: I think the greatest danger is further polarisation and another round of the kind of spiral of violence we have witnessed in recent years in Gaza. I think, as outsiders, the more we can do to support those on both sides who seek peace and coexistence – whether they’re politicians in Jerusalem or Ramallah or people running small-scale projects in Israel or the West Bank – the better. I am absolutely opposed to measures, such as the BDS movement, which seeks to drive the two sides further apart, particularly the pernicious charges of ‘normalisation’ which seek to prevent bonds developing between Israelis and Palestinians.
I dislike too the way in which the BDS movement seeks to attack those elements of Israel which should be most celebrated. Turning its record on LGBT rights into ‘pinkwashing’ is particularly perverse. If nothing else, it dishonours the hard-fought struggle for equality waged by Israel’s LGBT community.

The Children of Peace Interview covers a range of viewpoints regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and may not necessarily reflect that of Children of Peace.