With the world’s eyes on Israel and Palestine, many people are searching for resources and ways to educate themselves on the historical context of unrest in the Middle East following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing airstrikes in Gaza. With misinformation spreading on social media and tensions rising on university campuses amid student demonstrations, Harvard University junior Shira Hoffer created a new text hotline she hopes will invite dialogue and learning without bias.
Hotline For Israel/Palestine’s goal is to provide “transparent, non-partisan, and dialogue-focused education around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to their website. If you text 617-313-2125, you’ll be anonymously connected with a volunteer who will share educational resources and start a dialogue with you around questions you may have been too embarrassed to ask your peers or professors. And rather than providing clear-cut answers, the hotline seeks to help users educate themselves.
“We’re trying to share a lot of primary resources, like, ‘This is the Hamas Charter from the 1980s,’ and, ‘This is the Israeli Declaration of Independence,’” Hoffer tells Her Campus. Hoffer studies social studies and religion at Harvard, and is a licensed mediator in Massachusetts, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics in the Civil Disagreement program. “The idea is that when volunteers answer questions, they’re providing different perspectives. And so therefore, it’s very common to see in a response, both a link to Al Jazeera and The Times of Israel, for example, which is pretty uncommon [elsewhere] to see [in] the same conversation, but that’s the goal.”
Hoffer was inspired to start Hotline For Israel/Palestine after Harvard president Claudine Gay released a series of statements following the events of Oct. 7. Not all of the statements were emailed to the entire student body, leading to a campaign by Harvard’s Hillel student group, which Hoffer is a part of, to send Gay’s second statement to their dorm communities. “I was very willing to send the statement, but … I didn’t want people to assume something about me based on [that] fact,” Hoffer recalls.
So at the bottom of her email, Hoffer added her contact information and explained her background in conflict resolution, encouraging students to reach out for a conversation. “A bunch of people asked me questions and I was like, ‘Oh, interesting. It seems like maybe there’s a need for this.’”
So far, the hotline has acquired 25 volunteers from all different backgrounds, including Palestinians, Israelis, Muslims, Christians, and more. Though many of the volunteers are from Harvard, Hoffer emphasizes, “It’s not a Harvard project. It should be a national, if not international project.” In the first week since the Oct. 30 launch of the hotline’s number, at least 30 questions came in, with an increase each day.
Volunteers are screened through an online application and phone interview with Hoffer, who assesses their qualifications to answer questions about Israel and Palestine and their ability to put aside personal beliefs in order to provide information to users. When they’re chosen, Hoffer gives them training inspired by her work as a mediator in small claims court. “I went through this 35-hour training, took a lot of tips and tricks from there about being an empathic listener, asking open-ended questions, all sorts of dialogue tools to provide the volunteers with,” she says. “We obviously always want to be providing constructive answers.”
She provides the example of a user asking, “What’s the best solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict?” “A non-constructive answer would be, ‘A two-state solution is the best solution because X, Y, Z reason, and here’s a link in support of a two-state solution. That may be the volunteer’s personal perspective, and that’s fine,” she says. “But a constructive answer would be, ‘That’s a really important question. Let me give you some history and context. Here are some agreements that have been tried in the past,’ and providing resources to understand those. ‘Some people advocate for a two-state solution, and here’s an argument in favor with a link. And some advocate for a one-state. Here’s an argument in favor with a link. Why don’t you take a look at those resources and we can have a conversation about it?’”
The hotline’s non-partisan approach extends to language, too. When the Harvard Crimson posted about the hotline on their Instagram, some commenters fiercely disagreed with the headline’s use of the term “war between Israel and Hamas,” writing things like, “This is NOT WAR this is literally Genocide” and, “It is the War on Gaza not between Israel and Hamas, you have to have an equal footing two powers or entities to be a war.” Hoffer says she personally reached out to each of the commenters who left criticism to introduce herself and start a dialogue, with at least one student taking her up on the offer.
Hoffer is also very aware of the way that language can invite bias: Volunteers avoid terms like “war,” “occupation,” and other similar terms. “For example, instead of speaking of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, we would say something like, ‘Here’s a report that describes how Palestinians don’t have freedom to move throughout the entire West Bank,’” she explains. “And if somebody wants to draw the conclusion that that’s an occupation, they’re free to do so. And if not, they’re also free to do so.”
Looking ahead, Hoffer hopes the hotline will reach users beyond Harvard’s campus. “Students are a great target audience, but I think it’s meant for anybody with questions,” she says. And even as a month has passed since Oct. 7, she sees the value of this project for a long time to come. “While the events of Oct. 7 and the following almost month now have certainly been a flashpoint that has brought the attention of the world to this issue, the conflict’s been going on for 75 years and even longer. We, as the human community, have never been good at dialogue around this topic … so I hope [the hotline] goes on as long as we can keep it going on.”