This Dating App Is Connecting People Across A War Zone

World peace: There might be an app for that, and it’s called Verona.

Produced by NYC based developer Matthew Nolan, Verona is what happens when Tinder meets the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The dating app is specifically designed to connect Israelis and Palestinians, whether they’re looking for love, friendship, or someone to help find the key to peace.

“I was talking with my friend who is Palestinian, who had a new girlfriend who is Israeli," 31-year-old Nolan says. “We were joking around about JDate. I was like, 'Maybe we should do a J-P Date, Jewish-Palestinian Date.'”

That joke turned into a reality on March 29, with the beta launch of Verona, named for the town from Romeo and Juliet. Users log in via Facebook, choose either “Israeli” or “Palestinian," and are shown prospective matches in their area who identified with the opposite group. Users swipe right if they like someone, left if they don’t, and if the two match, they can start chatting and potentially meet.
Photo: Courtesy of Verona.

“I very much believe that the basis of any relationship is communication,” Nolan says, “so if these two cultures are forced to be separate in all this conflict, forming relationships between them could be the glue that hopefully ignites a shift in consciousness.”

As of April 24, the free app had reached more than 1,000 users — despite it only being in beta for Android. “I hear ‘I wish I could download but I have an iPhone’ about 10 times a day,” Nolan says, noting a push for an iOS release in May.

Roughly half of the downloads are within the New York area — college students with roots in Israel or Palestine, or people who’ve heard of Verona through word of mouth. A “surprising number,” Nolan says, are coming from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. “We’re still not sure how they’re hearing about us,” he says.

For one user, New York-based Rachel Hawkins, most of the conversations have revolved around the app itself, with some discussions of the conflict. "I've heard a lot of people's stories, their family history, so I'm getting some perspective," says the 27-year-old who is also friends with Nolan. "I did Birthright when I was younger, but it's interesting to hear about what it's like to be Palestinian in that area."

This concept of connecting people across divides is hardly new; the “contact hypothesis” goes back to social psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950s, who theorized that bringing conflicting groups together in optimal circumstances can help reduce discrimination. Verona is essentially a continuation of dialogue-building measures inspired by this practice — Israel Loves Iran went viral in 2012, with thousands of Israelis posted photos and messages of love to Iranians, and vice versa. And, even before new media, The Parents Circle - Families Forum created a call line for anyone who wanted to discuss their experiences within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There is stuff out there like this, but I haven’t seen an app that’s doing this particular thing at this level,” says Craig Zelizer, PhD, founder of The Peace and Collaborative Development Network and interim director of Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution Program. 
 
What makes Verona distinct from its Facebook-centric predecessors is that it essentially forces participating Israelis and Palestinians to interact with one another. “Back in the ‘80s, a lot of Palestinians worked in Israel, so there was a lot of day-to-day interaction,” Thomas Zeitzoff, PhD, a political scientist at American University, says. “A side effect of the violence is that now people don’t really see each other that much, there’s not a lot of contact, and people don’t have the ability to humanize and empathize with the other group. So potentially Verona could be a really good thing as it’s peace-building from the ground up.”

While Verona's slogan "world peace, one swipe at a time," might be an overstatement, Dr. Zelizer hopes that it could be a space to connect millennials with dialogue projects, spark conversations, and inspire positive action. “It’s not a substitute," Dr. Zelizer says, "but it can show politicians and others that people really do want to connect and understand.”

Of course, no one thinks that this app will be a panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as many people we spoke to pointed out, the conflict isn't rooted in hatred between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather a decades-long dispute over land and the displacement its inhabitants. The app itself could be an entry point to confronting prejudices, "but again, it addresses symptoms, not root causes," Simona Sharoni, PhD, a SUNY Plattsburgh professor studying gender in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wrote to Refinery29 in an email. "There are no interpersonal shortcuts to systemic problems."

What we do know, however, is that people on both sides of the conflict are more separated than ever before, as Dr. Zeitzoff said, and bringing them together could spark a change on the ground level. The fact that the app has garnered so much interest organically means it hit a nerve — people do want to connect and talk. The next hurdle would be enacting change on a larger scale, beyond users who are likely left-leaning to begin with. “Best case scenario, it launches, goes viral, and people start using it,” Dr. Zelizer says. “Then, if Verona can create a community that allows people to share what they are doing to inspire others, it can lead to concrete interaction."

Worst case scenario, it gets a few downloads but disappears. Even that interests Nolan. “If people are saying ‘We don’t want your stupid peace app, we don’t want to associate with other people,’ that itself is interesting,” he says. “But, I feel like there’s a secular, liberal youth base in both cultures who just want change, they just want fucking peace. And, I want these selfies, images of people who have met, to show that this is bullshit — we can get along, and here’s proof. If there’s war, more conflict, I want people to know that it’s completely invalid. This is going to be the first step.”

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