Corey Gil-Shuster has split his time between Canada and Israel for 28 years now. (photo from Corey Gil-Shuster)
Corey Gil-Shuster is an Ottawa-born and -raised Jew who spends a great deal of his time and energy asking people their opinions regarding the Middle East conflict – and doing so on camera. He has his own channel on YouTube, called the Ask Project.
Gil-Shuster has spent the last 28 years splitting his time between Ottawa and different places in Israel. He first went to the Jewish state in the 1990s for a study-abroad program at Tel-Aviv University.
At the time, Gil-Shuster said he was just happy to find “a good, safe place to travel and then, from there, to travel to other places. Then, when I was here in Israel, actually I didn’t like it very much. It was very different than I expected. I found it too chaotic…. It took me about six months to get used to it. Once I did, I started to fall in love with the place.”
In 1995, Gil-Shuster met his now-husband, Yaron. The couple later adopted a child.
Gil-Shuster said he has found Israelis to be fairly open to discussing homosexuality, and noted a level of acceptance or openness that he has not found in Canada. Even strangers in Israel have felt very comfortable asking him questions about being gay, and he has used the opportunity to educate them about the topic. On more than one occasion, once that initial question has been broached, people have invited him over for dinner to ascertain how they can move to Canada, make a good living and buy a big house.
“I found Israel refreshing,” said Gil-Shuster. “I kind of enjoyed that, because it put me in control as opposed to the opposite – at least the early 1990s in Canada – being gay with straight people in control of whether you’re accepted.”
As he acclimated to Israeli society, Gil-Shuster found himself getting into debates about how Israelis really feel about the situation in the Middle East.
“I thought, well, I have a video camera, so why don’t I just go out my front door and ask random people on the streets to answer some questions?” he told the Independent.
What Gil-Shuster initially found was that, while people had their opinions, they were not interested in asking questions themselves or in listening.
“All these people are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, and they are sure they know everything about Israel,” he said. “But, nobody could come up with a question to either confirm their ideas or give the opposite of what they think. Finally, somebody said something about how Israelis won’t accept a one-state solution. Great, I’ll take that and ask that as a question. I asked neighbours, the guy who sells me fruit and veggies, and another grocery store guy.”
Gil-Shuster had to do on-the-spot translation of the comments from the street interviews. “I would translate as they were speaking Hebrew,” he said. “I put it together. I had seven or eight people and I put it in a film. I learned to edit, but I didn’t cut anything out, and I put it on YouTube.”
In no time at all, Gil-Shuster understood the power in simply letting people share their views – “how much power that can have to go against what mainstream media puts out, whether that’s Canadian, American, Israeli or Palestinian. Every country’s media has a certain narrative they want to say. They have a story they’re trying to sell to their people, and they have to frame the conflict within that.”
To make his videos more objective, Gil-Shuster started to venture further than his backyard in Tel Aviv. He began traveling the country asking people for their opinions. Regardless of what they said, he made a point of not cutting or editing the videos – even if racist or horrible comments were made that didn’t conform to his views.
That doesn’t mean he keeps silent, however. He allows himself the right to make sarcastic comments as he feels the need, noting, “It keeps me more interested. I try to make it very objective … I try to figure out, as much as possible, where they’re coming from. If their question is, ‘Why don’t you all just get along,’ I’ll reply quite naively insofar as what my follow-up questions are … thinking that’s kind of where they’re coming from.”
Gil-Shuster has been doing this for the past four years, with a growing following that comprises a mix of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian fans and many others in between. He provides a variety of views and topics to keep people watching.
When he has to travel for work, doctor appointments or other reasons, he brings his camera along, stopping to speak with people along the way. Jerusalem and Haifa are a couple of his favourite places to do this, as he is more likely to encounter both Israelis and Palestinians.
In general, he has found Palestinians to be more open to talking, though some are fearful and only want to be interviewed if he will agree to conceal their face. Typically, in these situations, he works with a translator.
“When I first started out, my hope was to use these videos as a forum for creating peace in some way, to create a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “For me, it’s about understanding. But, quickly, I realized that very few Israelis and Palestinians are interested in having a dialogue – at least, not in a public way.”
Some people get mad at Gil-Shuster, feeling he is doing something purposefully against one group or another. In contrast, he gets a lot of messages from people in the Middle East saying, “Thank you for showing me a different side of the conflict. I always had a feeling I was being lied to.”
“These are the emails I like the most,” he said. “You don’t have to like what somebody says, but I’m hoping they’re humanized as a group.”
When asked about how the project has changed his views, Gil-Shuster said he no longer thinks peace is possible.
“Israelis are tough-talking, but are willing to compromise to a certain degree. Palestinians are very open to other people in some ways, but, it’s very black and white for them. It’s all … the land was stolen by foreigners who shouldn’t be there, and that there’s no solution until they leave. Maybe someday they’ll get a leader who’ll be brave enough to tell them what reality is, but they don’t have those kinds of leaders. They always deal with Israel … [with the view that] for now, we can benefit from it, but it’s all ours, so we will get it back someday.”
To date, Gil-Shuster has created more than 500 videos. They can be found at youtube.com/user/coreygilshuster, and he encourages viewers to suggest questions.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.