Elizabeth Tsurkov

Research Fellow | The Forum on Regional Thinking

 Brief CV   Years of experience:  10+   Previous jobs:  Consultant at International Crisis Group | Advocacy Coordinator at Gisha-Access | Projects Director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants | Analyst & Department Head at Terrogence | Co-founder of Advocates for Asylum    Studied at:  University of Chicago, Master of Arts in Social Science (with a concentration on political science) | Tel Aviv University, Master of Arts in Middle Eastern History | Hebrew University, Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Media & Journalism   Languages spoken : Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic   Find Elizabeth online :  Twitter  and  LinkedIn     EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY CLARA MARTINEZ IN JUNE 2018

Brief CV

Years of experience: 10+

Previous jobs: Consultant at International Crisis Group | Advocacy Coordinator at Gisha-Access | Projects Director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants | Analyst & Department Head at Terrogence | Co-founder of Advocates for Asylum 

Studied at: University of Chicago, Master of Arts in Social Science (with a concentration on political science) | Tel Aviv University, Master of Arts in Middle Eastern History | Hebrew University, Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Media & Journalism

Languages spoken: Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic

Find Elizabeth onlineTwitter and LinkedIn 

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY CLARA MARTINEZ IN JUNE 2018

You are currently pursuing a Master’s in Political Science and Government at the University of Chicago. What has motivated you to continue your education?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Media & Journalism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Afterward, I wanted to ground my knowledge of the Middle East in a rigorous academic environment and improve my Arabic, which pursuing a master’s in the Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University allowed me to do.

Currently, I am completing a second master’s degree with a concentration in Political Science at the University of Chicago. My research and coursework focused on political violence and civil wars. In particular, my thesis explores how civilians in war zones experience war and how violence plays a role in shaping public opinion. My case study is the Syrian civil war and it has been the focus of my research for several years.     

You are a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, which is a progressive think tank based in Jerusalem. Tell us about the fellowship and what you do.

Over the past year, I have continued to conduct my research at the Forum for Regional Thinking and also worked for the International Crisis Group as a consultant. The Forum was established in 2014 by Israeli scholars studying the Middle East with the aim of presenting to the Israeli public a more nuanced and less paranoid view of the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims. Israeli public discourse, media, and academia are dominated by commentators and researchers who present Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East as hostile toward Israel, dangerous, fanatical, and backward. The typical Orientalist views.

We publish mostly in Hebrew because our target audience is the Israeli public. In our research, media and public appearances, we emphasize the civilian aspects of life in the Middle East and analyze developments in their own right, without focusing on how they affect Israel, which is the dominant approach to analyzing the Middle East in Israeli media. We believe that our work can help shift public opinion in Israel regarding integration in the Middle East. As long as the perception that Arabs are violent and extremists persist, the longer it will be impossible to reach any peace agreement with the Palestinians and our neighbors—mistrust will remain, and fear will remain.

My research on Syria takes geostrategic calculations and leaders’ perspectives into account, but I try to emphasize the lived experiences of individuals and communities in the shadow of war. This micro-level of study is often neglected in the current analyses of the Syrian war.

You have volunteered and worked for Israeli human rights organizations for almost a decade. Tell us about your experience.

Working for human rights NGOs in Israel is not easy. The Israeli government has been successful in convincing much of the Israeli population that human rights NGOs are not looking out for the interest of Israel. Human rights and leftist organizations are labeled as foreign implants helping forces seeking to destroy the country. One issue that I’ve been working on for the past decade is advancing the rights of refugees and migrants. Israel has adopted abusive policies towards asylum seekers in an effort not only to deny their right to obtain refugee status and rights associated with that status, but also compelling them to leave the country through detention, deducting their pay, and denying them basic rights such as medical care. The struggle to secure their rights is ongoing. NGOs, including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, where I’ve worked and volunteer, have had considerable success, despite the government’s incitement against both the refugee population and the NGOs helping them.

In addition, I worked at Gisha, Legal Center for Freedom of Movement as a Public Policy Coordinator. Gisha is a human rights NGO fighting for the freedom of movement of Palestinians in Gaza. The Israeli military withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but continues to maintain control over many aspects of life in Gaza, especially by controlling land crossing. In Israel, Gisha is the only NGO with a singular focus on Gaza. It provides individual assistance to Gaza residents who wish to leave or enter the Gaza Strip, and people who want to trade and bring goods in and out. Gisha also files court petitions and carries out public advocacy work in an effort to change Israel’s policies toward Gaza. For the purpose of this legal and public work, Gisha documents the effects of the Israeli closure policy on Gaza, and the separation policy, which aims to maintain the two parts of the Palestinian territory, the West Bank and Gaza, separate from one another by restricting travel and trade. The closure policy has had a devastating effect on Gaza’s economy, infrastructure, health sector and society.

The NGOs fighting for refugee rights have had greater success in Israel relative to organizations that deal with the occupation. The High Court is cautious about ruling against the government fearing that right-wing governments would advance additional laws curtailing its independence, but the Court is particularly docile with regards to the occupation. It approves decisions by the Minister of Defense that appear ridiculous. For example, one Gisha case before the High Court concerned women from Gaza in their 40s. They wanted to study democracy and gender studies in the West Bank—a blanket ban exists on anyone from Gaza studying in the West Bank dating back to 2000. We appealed on the women’s behalf and the High Court rejected it. The women weren’t a security threat in any way (they were allowed to attend workshops in the West Bank), but weren’t allowed to study there full-time. God forbid women in Gaza study gender and democracy to improve their society.

You encounter considerable opposition in volunteering and working for human rights organizations in Israel. What keeps you motivated to continue the work?

I grew up in a right-wing Russian-Jewish community in which my current views are considered heretical. As I matured, I underwent a gradual ideological shift. When I became aware of the injustices happening around me, the injustices that are carried out in my name as a Jewish Israeli, I felt compelled to act. The Israeli government says treating refugees humanely would lead to the dilution of the Jewish character of the state—it could somehow alter the demographic balance inside Israel. But to me, Jewish values are not just about preserving a demographic majority, but about learning from our history.

I am the third generation of Holocaust survivors who were refugees and fled from Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union to survive the Holocaust. I wouldn’t be alive today if borders had been closed and if refugees had not been allowed to escape persecution.

As for the occupation, Israeli citizens are told that subjugating Palestinians via military rule will keep us safe. Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and placed Palestinians under military rule for 51 years, which deprives them of basic rights such as the freedom to assemble, freedom to protest, and freedom of speech. In the name of keeping me safe, Palestinians are deprived of their rights. I feel the need to speak up and change this reality. I have been volunteering and working for human rights NGOs in Israel for a decade and the situation has only gotten worse in that time. I know that my efforts may not be successful, at least in my lifetime, but I can’t remain silent. In hindsight, I can say that I was on the right side of history.

When did your interest in international affairs become clear to you? Why did you decide to specialize in security studies and the Middle East?  

In 2008, I was one of the first Israelis to join Twitter. I realized that this platform can allow me to talk to people I may never meet in person due to travel restrictions. I talked to people from all over the Middle East because I wanted to learn more about the region. I grew up in a right-wing environment and those conversations had a significant impact on my worldview. I noticed the disconnect between the dominant narrative and literature in Israel and what people on the ground were telling me about their experiences.

In the mainstream scholarly approach in Israel, Arab society is presented as stagnant, backward, and obsessed with the past and recreating the Muslim empires that once existed. When talking to average and middle-class Arab citizens in those countries, they couldn’t care less about recreating the glories of the past. People are concerned about the absence of freedom of speech, unemployment, and the high levels of corruption and nepotism. In 2010 and 2011, some of them ended up leading and participating in the uprisings across the Middle East. Later, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.

You mentioned being a consultant at the International Crisis Group (ICG). Tell us about your experience.  

For several years, I have cultivated a network of contacts across Syria to conduct my research. When ICG needs additional perspectives from civilians, insiders, and community leaders, they approach me to supplement their own work. For a recent report they published on southwestern Syria, I examined the perceptions of communities towards possible political solutions and Israel, and the extent of Israeli aid to communities in southern Syria.

I previously conducted research about Israel’s covert program of military assistance to Syrian rebels. It was a challenging process because Israeli officials refuse to talk about it, and Syrian rebels did not have an interest in talking about it because many Syrians oppose accepting aid from Israel.  In 2017, Israel stepped up the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria and took credit for this in public. But what I began hearing from contacts in southern Syria, is that Israel also increased the provision of military assistance. It took me several months, but I managed to get rebels from six different groups to confirm that they were receiving assistance from Israel. I published my research on War on the Rocks, a security-studies focused website, documenting Israel’s military assistance to the opposition in Syria, which hasn’t received as much attention as the foreign military assistance by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the CIA.

As a woman specializing in Middle Eastern Studies, what has it been like breaking into the field, and what has helped you succeed?  

In Israel, this field is overwhelmingly dominated by men. There’s a lack of awareness about women being marginalized. For example, when invited to speak at a panel, I would usually be the only woman. I could sense that being a woman, and younger than the other panelists (i.e. retired generals and professionals in their 50s or 60s), my comments and analysis weren’t taken as seriously. In other instances, myself and other women in the room would be rudely interrupted by men. Unfortunately, in Israel, this is the norm. In the U.S., I feel things are somewhat better because there’s an awareness women’s voices need to be given space. But there are problems in the U.S. as well. While men-only panels are becoming rare, articles on the Middle East and national security often cite only male experts, and even when women are represented, at times this representation is quite limited.

What advice might you offer to young women interested in a career with a focus on the Middle East and security studies?

What helped me succeed in this field, maybe paradoxically, has been not looking at it as a career. If you look at it as a career, it may quickly result in frustration. Avenues for advancement are limited in a small country like Israel. Since I was 18-years-old, the Middle East has been a passion of mine—something that deeply interested me—whether or not I can make a living doing it. At first, I wrote for websites because I wanted to share my views and analysis to amplify the voices of people in Middle Eastern countries—voices that were missing in Israel. Later, my writing attracted media outlets and the Forum for Regional Thinking’s founders.

I highly recommend taking the time to develop one’s language skills. I think this is not emphasized enough in U.S. academia. After completing a four-year college program or a two-year master’s program in Middle Eastern Studies, graduates struggle to hold a conversation in the language they have studied. If you are interested in regional studies of any kind, I would advise mastering at least one relevant language.

In most fields of research related to foreign policy, women are also absent as local informers and interviewees. I recommend making an effort to try to understand whether men and women are playing different roles, hold different views or are differently affected by historical developments. For example, it areas surrendering to regime forces, women are much more likely to remain there than men, who “choose” to be displaced, because men will be wanted for military service and women are not obligated to serve. When researching a topic, make an effort to read what local women are writing and saying. In the case of Syria, I make sure to read everything published by women such as Lina Sergie Attar, Loubna Mrie, and Zaina Erhaim