A Letter to ICSC Members

November 21, 2023

To Members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience,

What we are witnessing today in Gaza is a moral failure and a humanitarian disaster that will plunge the world into deeper polarization and renewed cycles of violence.

In just over six weeks more than 12,000 thousand civilians have been killed in Gaza, including 5,000 children. Thousands are severely injured, unable to receive the medical care they need, and many more remain under rubble in need of rescue. Patients, including premature babies, are dying in hospitals where basic medical care can no longer be provided because of Israel’s blockade and attacks on hospitals. And thousands of families are desperately awaiting news of loved ones who have been missing, abducted or killed. 

Additionally, approximately 1200 Israelis and over 200 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed. 

Over a month into this humanitarian disaster, the world has failed to stop what amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity according to the United Nations and prominent international human rights organizations, as many turn a blind eye, or in some cases, actively support Israel’s escalation of violence.

The normalization of conflict and death, the absence of empathy and the prioritization of certain lives over others is a failure of our shared humanity and our promise of “Never Again.” 

Since its founding in 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC) has learned critical lessons from dealing with conflict in different contexts around the world–the most relevant in this context being:

1. Violence never results in peace and security.

Violence, be it structural or active, never results in or restores peace and security. Violence only breeds more violence, reduces empathy and compassion for the other and prevents warring factions from participating in a dialogue.

Israel’s ongoing attacks against Gaza’s civilian population in the name of self-defense is not only unlawful, but is contributing to global instability and fueling new cycles of violence, as we are already seeing in the growing number of anti-Arab, Islamophobic and antisemitic acts around the world.  

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience calls for:

  • A total and immediate ceasefire;
  • The provision of desperately needed humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza;
  • The release of all Palestinians arbitrarily detained in Israeli prisons;
  • The release of all Israelis held hostage by Hamas; and 
  • The right of both Palestinians and Israelis to enjoy equal rights.

2. The search for truth and justice is the only way to end repeating cycles of violence.

During protracted conflicts, there are myths, stereotypes, manipulated narratives of victimhood and victory, and silences that are transferred across generations. This contortion of truths contributes to ongoing cycles of violence and vengeance. Uncovering truths about the past through judicial and non-judicial mechanisms allows a society to come to terms with the past and prevent denialism and revisionism. It also allows for an understanding and emergence of multiple truths–factual truth that is grounded in verified documentation and evidence; social truth that focuses on a dialogic process among diverse individuals and groups; and restorative truth that is victim-centered and built on the premise that a just, resilient society requires the acknowledgement and recognition of victims’ suffering and their right to dignity as well as to live alongside one another. A post-conflict society must be rebuilt on the recognition of victims’ rights to truth and justice. 

The search for truth and justice for all crimes perpetrated before and during the latest hostilities, including the root causes, is the only way to ensure security and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.

ICSC advocates for:

  • Investigating the root causes of the current deadly cycles of violence and atrocities, including ending Israel’s 16-year blockade on Gaza, illegal perpetual occupation and settlement, and apartheid policies; 
  • Prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by all parties, both before and during the latest hostilities;
  • Reaffirming the international community’s unwavering commitment to human rights principles and international humanitarian law in all contexts; and
  • Working collaboratively to reject a double-standard approach toward the application of international legal and human rights standards.

3. Healing from trauma must be prioritized and centered.

In conflicts, particularly when individuals have been exposed to extreme violence and injustice, mental distress has long-lasting effects on survivors and future generations. When trauma remains unaddressed and victims are not provided the tools and support they need to heal, resentments, hatred and violence are perpetuated for generations to come. 

In both the Israeli and Palestinian contexts, transgenerational trauma from the legacies of genocide, forced displacement, settler colonialism, war and structural discrimination has deepened divides. The path towards a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians will require a reckoning with the past. Reconciliation can only occur when there is space for truth-telling, justice and healing.

ICSC stands for:

  • The implementation of a trauma-responsive approach to the current crisis; 
  • The provision of sustained psychosocial support tools to victims and survivors and the acknowledgement that healing takes time, often decades; and
  • The long-term centering of trauma healing mechanisms, which will require a commitment to providing resources and avenues for Israelis and Palestinians to share their experiences of past violations and injustices as well as their aspirations for peace, justice and reconciliation.  

4. Simplistic, singular narratives must be challenged.

Narratives can play a crucial role in enabling peace, but also in fueling violence and conflict. Simplistic and self-reinforcing narratives that promote the legitimacy of one group and exclude the experiences of others can easily become justifications for division, dehumanization and violence.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, mainstream media around the world bears responsibility for silencing Palestinian voices and disseminating harmful narratives that stoke polarization and extremism. In societies where “the other” is dehumanized, the ability to communicate with each other–which is vital for healing and reconciliation–is lost.

ICSC stands for:

  • Forging new, inclusive narratives that shift from one dimensional, simplistic narratives to multi-faceted, pluralistic ones in order to build peaceful and just societies;
  • Providing platforms for victims and survivors to share their stories, their experiences of the conflict and their hopes and visions for peace; 
  • Promoting responsible media that condemns the demonization and dehumanization of Palestinian and Israeli civilians; provides impartial, factual and fair coverage; creates space for and amplifies oppressed voices; and fosters empathy for all victims by providing spaces for learning and discourse; and 
  • Supporting journalists who advance atrocity prevention efforts by countering misinformation with factual, objective reporting and by sharing stories that support empathy, understanding and social cohesion rather than hatred and fear.

5. A critically engaged civil society is a safeguard against all forms of oppression.

A critically engaged civil society has always been the best safeguard against all forms of oppression. Civil society actors not only stand as public advocates but also play a central role in capacitating and informing local communities on steps they can take to engage in positive transformation; promoting dialogue across conflict divides to begin to shift entrenched divisive narratives; mobilizing for peace and social justice; and holding states accountable. However, social apathy is also a reality and people too often disengage, especially when they feel they are not directly affected by unjust systems. 

In the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, many civil society actors feel paralyzed and unable to speak out–either for fear of harming their community or of expressing their opinion on a conflict they see as too complex.  

But history is complex. Narratives are multiple and trauma that is passed on to new generations is deep. When pain, fear and anger is clouding our vision, human rights principles and international law should be our ethical compass.

In reality, much of civil society is being silenced by fear of retaliation, including a fear of losing their jobs and/or their funding. Attacks on free speech and the instrumentalization of antisemitism to muzzle civil society is a dangerous path. In this regard, while antisemitism–defined as hostility toward or discrimination against Jewish people as a cultural, racial or ethnic group–should always be condemned, critics of the Israeli government’s violations of international law and support for Palestinians’ equal rights are not inherently antisemitic. No one should be discriminated against for speaking out on these issues. 

An active civil society, free to express a diversity of views and stand up to injustice, is a bulwark against violence and bigotry, and as such must be defended at all costs. By holding governments and policymakers accountable and calling out their shortcomings, civil society plays a crucial role in advancing truth and justice. Without an engaged civil society, peace is not possible. 

ICSC stands for:

  • A civil society that is empathic and stands for all victims affected by conflicts;
  • An engaged civil society that is empowered to advocate for human rights principles and international law;
  • A civil society that condemns any form of hatred, violence or discrimination, whether it be antisemitic, Islamophobic or anti-Arab.

What is our role as Sites of Conscience?

Rooted in their communities, Sites of Conscience hold an important responsibility to foster compassion and dialogue. As institutions committed to activating the power of memory in the service of human rights and social justice, they can help communities move away from apathy and fear by creating safe spaces conducive to critical reflection and social empowerment. 

By drawing on learnings from the past to expose and address human rights violations today, Sites of Conscience become singular amplifiers of human struggles for peace and justice; repositories of new stories and narratives that promote plurality and participation; and advocates for the respect of human rights worldwide.

The staff of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is constantly inspired by its members, who have chosen to pursue the hard path–the one that does not bow to the past in deferential fear, but confronts it with transparency and courage in order to create more peaceful and equitable futures for all. 

As an international coalition, we are in a unique position to harness our collective power and have an impact. Individual member sites may have different capacities and require tailored tools to take action, but the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience stands with them as we all work to:

  • Stop the violence now and provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians;
  • Foster empathy and compassion by supporting and sharing more inclusive narratives;
  • Provide programming that advances healing to community members affected by the current conflict; and 
  • Create safe spaces for honest, respectful dialogue that uplifts our shared humanity.     

We are stronger and better together. As always, we welcome your thoughts, lessons learned and questions. You can contact us at coalition@sitesofconscience.org or through our staff page.  

In solidarity,

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience