Meet the Fellows

In November 2021, we recruited 12 fellows to be part of the 2021-22 Peace Advocacy Fellowship Programme. The Balfour Project has arranged training for them on history and international law, focusing on the Creation and Termination of the British Mandate; the Case for Britain recognising Palestine today; Negotiation Skills; Peace Advocacy; the policy-making structures of the British Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and how to lobby them; campaigning and fundraising; and diplomacy at the UN.

The fellows are working on personal research projects, implementing some of the knowledge and tools they received in the training sessions, and focusing on their own personal interests and backgrounds. Their initial research will create a ground base for a future campaign and will assist them in networking and building partnerships, both personally and for the Balfour Project, with partner organisations.

Name: Emily Abdeni-Holman

Course: MA in Theology, Ecology, and Ethics, with the Jesuits in Britain at the University of Roehampton.

What started your interest in the region? I’ve always been interested in the Middle East and particularly the Levant. I’m British-Lebanese, was raised in both countries, and moved to Jerusalem for a postdoc following my doctorate in literature at Oxford. I’m very interested in relationship to place and in how landscape shapes us, and particularly in the impact a precarious relationship to land and ‘home’ has. Living in Jerusalem was many things, but it was also a stark and grim exposure to the extent to which political and religious narratives determine (and direct) broader socio-cultural discourse, and so also the atmosphere of daily life: the implications for everyday reality are absolute. Structural injustice is rife in many places, but in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine & Israel it is pervasive, intentional, and explicit, a deliberate part of policy, and its human cost can be felt in the most daily and concrete of ways. Paying attention to what language is doing has made me more alert to its capacity to enact very real and very deep harm, causing irreversible violence well before violence of more obvious kinds occurs.

Although some of this can sound quite abstract, it’s absolutely fundamental and decisive in the most basic of ways. The so-called nation-state law, for instance, removing from Arabic its status as an ‘official language’ of Israel, is an enshrining in law of a trend years in the making, and we’ll probably only fully understand its impact and implications in the future.

Why did you apply for the fellowship? For me, being part of the Balfour Project means being part of a conversation and community paying attention to these issues in the context of recognising Britain’s historic responsibility for what has unfolded in the region, and as crucially its ongoing responsibility as a result. It’s an opportunity to listen, learn, and contribute.

Name: Salma Altabari
Course: MA Comparative Literature at SOAS University of London.

What started your interest in the region?
My grandfather, who passed away in 2003, left behind a small library of all the books he read about Israel and Palestine during his lifetime. He spent his entire adult life trying to make sense of a history that displaced him and his entire family. Watching my grandparents struggle in the aftermath of this dark history planted a seed of curiosity in me to fully understand the psyche of Zionism.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? The fellowship’s focus on Britain’s responsibility in the Israeli Palestinian issue is what attracted me to the project. I have always held the belief that it is vital for Britain to acknowledge its colonial past more honestly in its public education sector. This complex and controversial history must be fully brought into the light in order for the healing to begin. I am hoping that through the fellowship I will gain better insight that will aid me in pursuing an academic curriculum-based project focused on Britain’s colonial history and its impact on the displacement of millions.

Name: Rebecca Argall

Course: MA in Law at Sussex University.

What started your interest in the region? Growing up, I had a general interest in international justice – for example, as a teenager, I was really inspired by the Make Poverty History campaign back in 2005, and went to the Edinburgh march with my church. I only had a very hazy knowledge of Palestine and Israel until I applied for the ‘Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel’ (EAPPI). It was actually the second time I had applied (I was unsuccessful the first time), after seeing the horrendous effects of the 2014 Gaza conflict. I spent three months living in East Jerusalem and lots of time in the West Bank, witnessing life under the occupation, working alongside Palestinians and Israelis pursuing just peace. It was an eye-opening, inspiring, and humbling experience. It has led me to my course of study, with the hope that I can work in the field of international human rights law.

Why did you apply for the fellowship? Ultimately, I applied because I agree with the Balfour Project’s mission to get Britain to acknowledge their historic role and current responsibilities towards the Palestinians and Israelis. The fellowship seemed like both an incredible opportunity to learn and to contribute to this goal. I was also excited to meet other like-minded individuals.

Name: Pyla Bird – Leakey
Course: LLM specialising in Public International Law at London School of Economics and Political Science.

What started your interest in the region?
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I look at whether customary law has developed to allow for states to use force in self-defense against non-state actors. I spent a lot of time looking into the region and at several specific incidents. I realised that until then I had never formally been taught anything to do with Israel-Palestine: at school or at university. This really shocked me and I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more education on a situation that had not only legal but political and religious implications. I really enjoyed focusing my dissertation on the conflict. It helped me to discover that I wanted to continue to learn more

Why did you apply to the fellowship? My father lived in Jordan and Egypt throughout his career, and my brothers lived in Lebanon for several years after they graduated. They all speak Arabic, and I grew up learning about the different cultures and hearing about their experiences. My father has always encouraged me to think critically and to make my own opinions, taking me to protests and rallies growing up and sneaking me into lectures at the University of St Andrews where he taught terrorism studies. When I learned about the Balfour Project and the chance to learn more about both Israel and Palestine, to hear from other people’s experiences, and to contribute with my legal knowledge and interest, I knew it was an incredible opportunity.

Name: Cecilia Cáceres Juan

Course: MSc Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

What started your interest in the region? My interest in the region started as a form of transnational solidarity. I grew up in the Canary Islands, a Spanish colony and one of the first successful European settler-colonial projects, near the coast of Western Sahara. I was born in the canary islands, but from mainland Spanish parents, who were always very vocal about the consequences of Spanish colonialism and strongly supported self-determination movements. I was raised learning that supporting anti-colonial movements and self-determination also meant supporting Palestine. So my interest in the region was definitely sparked at home, but it became a central aspect of my life after focusing on Palestine and Israel during my undergraduate studies. That is when my interest in the region went from being political conversations at home to academic, to personal yet with the privilege of being a white Spanish woman.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? Because I felt that contributing from a solely academic standpoint is not enough and wanted to spread awareness through a more grassroots, inclusive approach, which the Balfour Project fellowship scheme offers through its focus on colonial accountability.

Name: Anne-Marie Clements

Course: MSc Human Rights and International Politics at the University of Glasgow.

What started your interest in the region?

In Scotland, it is not unusual to see campaigning for Palestine as part of the movement concerning Scottish independence. Initially, I did not know much about it, but over the years I took the time to find out more. I attended talks, film screenings, and any other events that could educate me more on what was happening and why. I came to realise why the Palestinian cause was intertwined with the Scottish independence movement as similarities can be drawn between the two regarding a people, their sense of identity, and the concept of nationality. Whilst learning about these ideas, I also visited Auschwitz concentration camp and when reflecting on such a harrowing experience, recognised that Jewish people have an ongoing struggle for their identity, too. I realised how complex and personal these phenomena can be and I began to understand why the ongoing situation in the region is so difficult.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? Faith is something that I value highly in my life and I cannot help but feel saddened by the persistent human rights crises in a place that is so sacred to so many of us from different faiths. I applied to the Fellowship Programme because it gives me the opportunity to develop an inter-faith project; I see faith as a common factor that unites many voices in the ongoing Israel-Palestine dialogue. I was also inspired by the unique aim of the Balfour Project in that it works to hold Britain accountable for its historical role in the region and this is something that is paramount in addressing the legacy of imperialism and colonialism and its impacts that are still felt today in Israel, Palestine, and other regions, too.

Name: Jean Franco
Course: Arabic and Persian at the University of Oxford.

What started your interest in the region? I was aware of the region and its various political tensions from a relatively young age, but when I decided to study Arabic at university I decided to immerse myself completely. I was determined to learn Arabic and be able to engage more directly with political and historical issues in the region. Hearing about the almost mythical ‘Holy Land’ from my family in Italy, and from my parents who had the experience of the region, I was keen to learn more about it from my own reading and experience. Coming from a European background, I was aware that given my privilege as a foreign student of a culture that is not mine, there would be certain issues beyond my immediate understanding – Palestine and Israel was the first that pushed me to learn more and educate myself not only on the conflict but on the region as a whole. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to travel to the Holy Land three times, learning more and more about the situation each time. Being able to speak Arabic has allowed me to engage with people directly affected by the conflict, something that I hope will help me understand the issues at play more deeply.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? I applied as I felt connected to the aims set out by the Balfour Project. I am passionate about education and making sure that people in this country can learn more about Palestine-Israel, and exactly why it is such a crucial context to understand – not only for the region but for the world as a whole. Given my interest in history, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to both learn more about Britain’s historic responsibility in Palestine, as well as make a tangible change in how we discuss and relate to the region in our country. The opportunity to meet and collaborate with other fellows is one that I was keen to take, as I am always determined to challenge my own beliefs and develop my understanding through dialogue.

Name: Douglas Gerrard

Course: MSc Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics

What started your interest in the region?Having family in Israel, I visited regularly while growing up and have always had an interest in the region. These formative experiences visiting Israel – on both sides of the green line – had a profound impact on my politics, drawing me to Zionism as a teenager. However, reflecting on my experiences and reading Palestinian literature and revisionist Israeli history problematised my feelings, and eventually led me to become a member of Na’amod, an activist group dedicated to ending British Jewish support for the occupation. I have covered Israeli politics as a journalist, focusing mainly on the Zionist left. I have a particular interest in Israeli anti- and post-Zionism, as well as the politics of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Why did you apply to the fellowship?

I really appreciate the Project’s historically-focused approach to Palestine/Israel. While British people are often engaged politically in the conflict, there is far less awareness of Britain’s role in creating it. I believe this history must have profound implications for British policy towards Palestine and am keen to explore the practical implications of this with other fellows. I also want to further develop my understanding and think through my own relationship to the region, and was therefore attracted by the learning opportunities and workshops the Project offers.

Name: Amber Khan

Course: Law, Business & Management MSc and Legal Practice Course at the University of Law.

What started your interest in the region?Growing up I became aware of the conflict through conversations with family and friends who would reflect upon and share their experiences of the events leading up to the Second Intifada and its aftermath. During my role as a parliamentary researcher, I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with people from a diverse range of backgrounds who offered alternative perspectives and challenged my own black and white narrative of the conflict. I studied the conflict, and the historical role of the United Kingdom in the region, in greater detail during my masters. This led me to appreciate that the conflict encompasses many complex facets, including issues of identity, faith, nationalism, and that no solitary lens proves sufficient in accurately framing the conflict. My interest was further compounded when I elected to research a normative legal framework for facilitating peace after conflict for my dissertation, which focused on bottom-up peace-building processes and the international legal regulation of volatile post-conflict environments.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? I applied to the fellowship because I share the Balfour Project’s goal of advocating for peace, stability, and equal rights for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. I further concord with the Project’s view that Britain must recognise its historical responsibility to the region and engage constructively in future peace-building efforts Furthermore, the fellowship is an excellent opportunity to develop my understanding of the conflict, engage further with different perspectives, and collaborate with the other fellows in developing conflict resolution strategies and advocating for an equitable and just resolution to the conflict.

Name: Maya Novi

Course: LLM Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast. Previously MA Social Research at Goldsmiths, University of London.

What started your interest in the region? I am half-Irish and half-Spanish, so I have always had a personal interest in post-conflict societies and transitional justice. During my first masters, I researched post-dictatorship Spain, looking at the interplay between trauma and memory, concentrating on Spain’s grassroots and non-state driven attempts to address its history of violence in the absence of significant government recognition.

This interest in transitional justice is what led me to join my university’s Palestine Solidarity Society during my undergraduate degree, which is when I was first exposed to the region, and where I was fortunate enough to travel to the West Bank and Israel during my first year. Exposure to the region and those living in the region, made me realise the value of community-based peacebuilding and justice movements that focus on the lived experiences and voices of those living in Palestine and Israel.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? What I found interesting about the Balfour Project was its emphasis on Britain’s contribution to the present-day conflict in Palestine and Israel. It is something that I hadn’t previously properly examined when thinking about conflict resolution or transitional justice. There needs to be a call for the UK government to address its colonial history in reference to current conflicts, and a reflection on how past actions by the government continue to impact the lives of people beyond its nation’s borders.

Name: Eibhlin Priestley

Course: Ph.D. in History at the University of Cambridge

What started your interest in the region? A GCSE History module on Palestine and Israel and a course on Orientalism during my Erasmus year in Venice are where my interest in the region began. I went on to write my BA dissertation on Palestinian social history, gain an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies and work on a number of research and archival projects prior to starting my Ph.D.

Why did you apply to the fellowship? British colonial responsibility in creating the historic conditions of the present situation often gets lost in conversations about Palestine and Israel, so the way the project centers this as a starting point seemed unique. I was drawn to the principles of open and respectful communication that underpin the fellowship, and the framework it provides for interacting with people that hold different viewpoints. I was also attracted to the broad programme of workshops and the opportunity to develop advocacy skills and put them into practice in creative projects.

Name: Archie Williams

Course: MPhil Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Oxford 

What started your interest in the region?  I was drawn to this region primarily by its archaeological, architectural, and artistic heritage. This is frequently understood through a narrative of successive rulers building over one other to announce their conquests. But alongside that is a parallel story of how newcomers have borrowed from one another and shaped a shared visual culture based on engagement and exchange. By foregrounding these stories, I hope to help shape an understanding of the region’s history which is more nuanced, and ultimately more optimistic.

Why did you apply for the fellowship? In my field, I am often surprised by the widespread reluctance of academics to engage with contemporary issues of Middle Eastern heritage. This was starkly illustrated for me last year when I began to research the Dome of the Rock at the same time as the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. I was struck by the privilege of being able to speculate about art historical minutiae even as the building’s symbolic power and contested status guaranteed its appearance on the front page of the newspaper every day. As so often happens, the violence in 2021 was partly related to anxieties about the future of historic spaces and buildings. Though these are often depicted as triggers exploding deeper tensions, I applied to the Balfour Project to suggest that these issues might be placed front and center. Just as historic sites are actively contested, in the next year I want to explore how they can be used to foster productive inter-communal dialogue.

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