The youth, change, and social agency conference

26-28 April 2017, Bethlehem University


The conference

by Abeer Musleh (Bethlehem University)

Bethlehem University hosted the 1st  conference about sociology of youth on the 26th  – 28th of April. The conference theme “Youth, change, and social agency” is highly connected to the themes discussed in the Arab world about young people and how they could be strong actors on the ground through many challenges in which the societies are living. The conference had three main subthemes as its focus: youth as actors of change transformation from the individual to the collective commitment; engagement under repression: how to create and sustain commitment within a context of repression; youth resiliency and engagement how to move forward in time of conflict and instability.

This conference is distinctive because it is the first conference about sociology of youth that took place in Palestine, and it is held in association with RC 34 and RC 47. This conference follow up focused on enhancing the cooperation between various partners to advance the literature about Arab youth in Arabic language and the possibilities to advance this cooperation. Representatives of both RC 34 and RC 47 were present at the conference. Both Howard Williamson – RC 34  organizational secretary and treasurer-  and Ana Margarida-Esteves  -a researcher from Portugal and representative of RC 47- focused in their address to the conference the connection between the International and local setting work conducted in the field of youth and engagement.

Speakers in the conference included Palestinian and international speakers. Keynote sessions included both Palestinian and International scholars. Rita Giacaman, a Palestinian scholar discussed the concept of resiliency from a Palestinian perspective, Carles Feixa a previous vice president of RC 34 presented about youth cultural agency in Arab Mediterranean countries with focus on the SAHWA project, Peter Alexander   who is a professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg who focused on the Apartheid and its impact on youth in South Africa.  The conference included other speakers locally and internationally their papers focused on experiences of youth in creating their own model of engagement in Palestine, Youth generations and emerging as actors in Egypt, organizations and their role in building youth resiliency, Youth political practices after 2011 in 5 Arab countries, and youth antimilitarism engagement in Sardinia. The conference was followed with a session with masters’ students at Bethlehem University and International researchers in which students research projects were discussed and commented on.

The conference progress was highly affected with the daily life of the Palestinian society, as it coincided with the hunger strike for 1500 political prisoners in the Israeli prison. The second day of the conference, could not take place as planned, yet it was changed into a day in which international participants had the chance to learn firsthand about the life in Palestine, and meet with organizations working with youth in one of the Palestinian refugee camps in Bethlehem area.  The conference was also followed with a sociopolitical tour to the city of Jerusalem, in which participants were oriented about youth work and life in Jerusalem city in large.


Five feelings. Reflections on my visit to Palestine and Bethlehem University in April 2017

by Howard Williamson (University of South Wales)



During the week I was in Palestine, in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem – after being driven through Israel, from and back to Tel Aviv – I was bombarded and often overwhelmed by the information provided by taxi drivers, waiters, security officers, community social workers, students and academic colleagues: about different forms of ID that facilitated or limited individual movement, the status of different areas (A, B and C), car number plates signifying different possibilities (and restrictions) for travel, Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements in the distance, refugee camps that have existed for 70 years (but which do not fit any of my own stereotypes of such a description), house building prohibitions and demolitions, water (in)security, erratic electricity supplies, housing density and, above all, the ubiquitous presence of various kinds of ‘wall’, the physical, psychological and symbolic representation of separation.  Although so much is visible (concrete, metal, barbed wire, closed circuit TV cameras, graffiti, images, pictures, flags), so much more is invisible, hard to see and sometimes even harder to understand.  Division between and within people (by faith, nationality, ideology and more) will remain a lasting memory (within so much faith-based historical rhetoric about peace and love, humanity and co-existence), but so will solidarity, warmth, friendship and hospitality from the Palestinians I met.  That my visit coincided with a general strike and days of action in support of the 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners who, shortly before, had started a hunger strike gave it an added dimension and poignancy, as I saw small glimpses of Palestinian activism and Israeli occupation beyond what a ‘tourist’, ‘traveller’ or ‘visitor’ might routinely witness.

  1. Sadness

I suppose one profound feeling was that of sadness.  That is almost certainly why I had the song ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’ running through my head throughout the week.  That was the one I played at Thursday’s barbecue, along with the song ‘Hold Your Head’, written by a personal friend – youth worker and singer/songwriter Cecil Patton, who died of a stroke aged 41, a few years ago – who had himself grown up in another ‘conflict region’, Belfast in Northern Ireland:

Your blood runs red, as mine runs red

Our tears fall just the same

The only difference is our creed

Our colour and our name

The sense of sadness derives from the realities of the human condition, particularly now in places like Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Cyprus – and Palestine – where peoples with different histories, cultures, beliefs and lifeworlds cannot live in peace.


  1. Calm within the storm

Yet it was often possible, for me at least, to almost forget where I was in the world, as I engaged in an international academic conference at Bethlehem University, enjoyed the hospitality of individuals in their private homes, walked in olive groves, or sat in restaurants.  There were often few signs, there, of conflict, trouble and violence – unless you looked a little further or listened a little more.


  1. Commitment

What I really loved about my visit was the witnessing of a sense of commitment – of course, a commitment to the Palestinian struggle (though I heard many versions and interpretations of what, more precisely, this and its end goal should be) but also a commitment to friends, to family and to community.  In particularly, I relished the commitment of Bethlehem University to its students and to its ‘community’ responsibilities.  It is something I miss in the ‘west’, if it ever really existed in higher education, beyond my own personal commitment that derives from my other professional background as a youth worker.  Indeed, I have often joked with my own Vice Chancellor and other senior management of my university that I enjoy my work there because it is ‘like doing youth work in a university’.  A profound commitment not only to academic discipline and attainment but also to personal development and community engagement is something that I noticed, admire and respect.  ‘Inspiring students’ is an ambiguous term, both a description and an aspiration, and both apply.

  1. Anger

There is a line in another Irish folk song that says ‘When trouble gets too close to home, your anger turns to fear’.  Yet, during the week and despite some quite close observation of the power of the crowd (at the demonstration on Tuesday evening and on the day of the strike on Thursday), I rarely felt unsafe or scared in any way.  I did, however, feel angry from time to time, largely on account of displays by Israelis of provocation and intimidation, ranging from the circling of the three helicopters of the Israeli military early on Thursday morning to the petty shows of ‘authority’ and force by police officers and settlers on a number of occasions.  But in fact, by the time I saw these things, I had almost come to expect them.  That was probably because I had already been prepared for them.

What I was not prepared for was my anger, though ‘alienation’ is probably a better word, about the Banksy hotel: the Walled Off hotel right next to the separation wall, promoted as having the ‘worst view in the world’.  Of course, I wanted to see it; I had already seen newspaper articles about it.  But almost as soon as I arrived there, and had taken the stock tourist photographs, I wanted to leave.  I was rather sickened by the commercial exploitation positioned so close to such a human tragedy, even more so by the obviously quite privileged young people from other places having ‘fun’ using purchased stencils to add their bit of graffiti to the wall.  I may have misread them and may be doing them an injustice – they just could be committed campaigners, though I doubt many, if any, were – but I was reminded of Nancy Macdonald’s wonderful line, which just happens to be from her ethnography on The Graffiti Subculture, when she talks about approaching her research ‘with an open mind, but not an empty one’.  The saving grace of the hotel is its superb interactive museum; I just hope that those young people who had such fun climbing the ladder with their spray can also paid their 15 NIS to learn something of the history of the Palestinians and the geographical fragmentation of their country, epitomised by the wall, so that they left still with an open mind but without an empty one.


  1. Belief and hope

And though, with the might of the Israeli forces, the oppression of the occupation, the inaction of the international community (despite many resolutions and condemnations, especially of the Israeli Settlements and imprisonment without trial), the situation in Palestine can feel like a ‘hope-less’ one, there is still an impressive resilience, determination, grit and spirit amongst the people I met.  This should not, paradoxically, be surprising.  Such circumstances usually do produce solidarity and togetherness, as internal distinctions and difference is suppressed in the face of a common enemy. History tells us this.  We also know, from Clausewitz’ seminal study of war that its single purpose is to destroy the ‘capacity to resist’.  In 70 years, this has patently failed.  We know that there are many forms of resistance to inequality, servitude and oppression.  It is not just about stone-throwing and other forms of violence; it is equally about not engaging in conversation with, or not communicating in the language of, the occupier.

At the conference and during the impromptu seminar with students held by the international visitors, there was a brief discussion of meritocracy.  As long ago as 1958, Michael Young wrote a satirical book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, in which he point out that a real meritocracy would be a dystopia, not utopia.  Precisely because there are no perfect meritocracies, those facing poverty, isolation, marginalisation and subjugation still include individuals with great talent, skills, motivation and leadership skills.  It is that fact that conveys hope and maintains promise of change for the better in the future.

The conference also focused a great deal on the idea of ‘resilience’ or ‘resiliency’.  I am not sure that this was necessarily a wise idea, because I am not convinced that the term itself really has any solid academic provenance.  Perhaps it was just invented, accidentally, as academics and policy makers – some years ago – started to discuss risk and protective factors in people lives (in relation to, inter alia, education, employment, health and crime); it is conceivable that the word ‘resilience’ just popped up as a counterpoint to ‘risk’.  Nonetheless, it is useful to be reminded of the seminal text by Michael Rutter and David Smith, Psycho-Social Disorders in Young People: Time Trends and Their Causes. This comprehensive analysis of worldwide data suggests that the mental health and behavioural problems that now beset so many young people in the ‘western’ world are the product of social dislocation, not social disadvantage.  It is because young people do not know where they come from nor where they are likely to fit in the future.  This is clearly not the case for Palestinian youth, who are firmly ‘located’ through an acute sense of their past and a very real understanding of their present and their aspirations for the future.  At the demonstration on Tuesday evening, I was struck by the generational contact and connection – children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and old people.  Both horizontally and vertically, through family, neighbourhood, experience and identity, people are bonded and bound together.  Of course, there are distinctions and I hope I am not romanticising my picture too much, but it is these features and factors that produce optimism in adversity.  As Studs Terkel once wrote, ‘Hope dies last’.


On my way to Palestine, I was called to the desk at the departure gate in Amsterdam. I was told I had been upgraded to a better seat.  I was moved to Business Class.  On my way home, I was called to the desk in Tel Aviv.  I asked if it was a change of seat.  No, they just wanted to check my passport.  Was this because we had been stopped at the airport checkpoint and because I had been driven by a Palestinian driver?  I suspect so; a small experience of the pervasive and efficient surveillance culture that overshadows the lives of those who live in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

I have been very privileged to have been given almost an insider view of the Palestinian predicament.  I have learned a lot, though I know there is much, much more to learn.  Next year is the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel, and the start of enforced migration of the Palestinians and the colonisation of their land.  This year is the 50th anniversary of what I grew up knowing as the Six-Day War, after which the Palestinian territories were occupied.  Those anniversaries hold both promise for renewed efforts at resolution and the possibility of renewed conflict and confrontation.  I have no idea which scenario is more likely to materialise[1].

There is much that I have not included in this brief memoire of my visit.  Some is because it is, arguably, rather sensitive.  Most is because it is either superfluous to the points and reflections I have advanced above, or more likely because, beyond being able to describe it, I have not yet had time to process it and position it in any kind of more analytical framework.  That will come in time.  I have already spent time reading more, in my quest for further pieces of the jigsaw or, drawing an analogy from the brilliant animated film about the first intifada, The Wanted 18, still searching for the missing cow.



[1] On the very day this was written, Hamas – always portrayed as the more extreme of the two Palestinian political parties with a commitment to wiping out the state of Israel, the other being Fatah that leads the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank including East Jerusalem; Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 – published a new, reportedly more moderate position with regard to its acceptance of the possibility of a transitional Palestinian state based on 1967 borders (in other words, the Occupied Territories), and maintaining that its conflict was with Israel, not with Jews or Judaism.  This was reported early in the morning on May 2nd by the BBC.  The on-line Guardian newspaper reports that ‘The new Hamas document essentially brings the two [Palestinian] sides closer to the same negotiating objective’.  The document states that ‘Hamas advocates the liberation of all of Palestine but is ready to support the state on 1967 borders without recognizing Israel or ceding any rights’.  It was announced just days before Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, would meet Donald Trump, the President of the United States.