Thursday, March 17, 2016

Competing Narratives

In any good story, there is one clear perspective that effectively grabs the audience's attention. From any fairytale, for example, the viewer can clearly distinguish between the good and evil sides of the story, which makes it easier to identify with the story's hero. If only real life were that easy. Particularly while living in Israel, I have learned that no story is complete without exploring all the different sides involved. Wherever there is one powerful narrative, there are always other significant ones to challenge it and make the story as a whole more nuanced. Though all these narratives make the story more complex, it also helps the audience decipher the core of the story and what its resolution should be.

There is no place in Israel where the idea of competing narratives is more apparent than Jerusalem. I have been to Jerusalem many times, and even lived there for four months, and each time I go I am always amazed by all the different layers the city has. Whether I'm looking at its ancient history, diverse cultures, or rich Jewish presence, just for example, I can always think about a subject with a new lens and learn something I didn't already know.

One place where I have been able to do so is the Knesset, the building that houses Israel's Parliament. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a ceremony there remembering Ariel Sharon, one of Israel's great Prime Ministers. As one who is very familiar with Israel's history and contemporary politics, I absolutely loved this event because it was a great opportunity to witness a session of Israel's main governing body and see famous Israeli politicians up close after hearing about them countlessly in the news. However, the most interesting thing I took out of the ceremony were the speeches by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. Coming from two completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, the right and center-left respectively, Netanyahu and Hertzog drew from very different aspects of Sharon's legacy and conveyed completely contrasting messages while remembering the same man. Netanyahu, delivering one of his typical nationalistic and "security of the Jewish people"-focused speeches, focused on Sharon's legacy as a military leader, and emphasized how this is meant to inspire the State of Israel and the world during its current fight against radical Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, Herzog focused on Sharon's legacy as a diplomat and a man willing to make tough decisions in order to move toward peace. He specifically referenced the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and said that Sharon realized that the only way forward was to make a "new reality," and that is something that must continue to be done in the present day. These speeches show that even when discussing the same subject, there can be completely different narratives that deliver competing messages.

The outside of the Knesset building
A parliament session before the memorial ceremony
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu speaking

A  beautiful menorah with depictions of different events from Jewish history 
Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog speaking
Some famous members of the Knesset, including (l-to-r) Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and Staf Shafir. Also Ayelet Shaked, the Justice Minister, is on the far right.
Something I love about Israel's government and Israel in general. Judaism is very in your face wherever you go!

The notion of competing narratives got explored even further during a day trip the Yahel group took to Jerusalem later that week. During this trip, we got to explore many of the city's important sights and witness the different narratives connected to those places. True, I had done this before multiple times during past trips to Jerusalem, especially when I spent a semester at Hebrew University. But this time, I was observing these places with a greater understanding of community and appreciation of the different pieces that determine whether a community functions well. Take Mount Zion, for instance. There is one building on Mount Zion that is considered a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims and has been under constant battle between the faith groups concerning its operation. For Jews, this is considered the site of King David's Tomb, and is embellished with a statue of the famous monarch and many quotes from his most well-known creation, the Book of Psalms. For Christians, the floor above King David's Tomb is believed to contain the Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus held his final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion during one of the most pivotal events in the formation of Christianity. For Muslims, King David and Jesus are both considered prophets, and so the site is regarded as a meaningful site for prayer and reflection. This site is so special for Muslims that a plaque was placed in the Room of the Last Supper designating that the first qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims was Jerusalem, and later on it got changed to Mecca.

From a first glance on a normal day, it does not seem that there are any conflicts occurring at this site. When I was there that day, I saw Jews praying at King David's Tomb, which is divided equally among genders and is used solely for Jewish prayer on both sides. Regarding the Room of the Last Supper however, though there was much Christian and Muslim scenery, I saw mostly tourists taking in the site rather than Christians and Muslims at prayer. This surprised me greatly for such an important religious site, but as our tour guide Yishai explained, this lack of prayer services is done very purposefully. Because the Last Supper room is shared between Christians and Muslims according to a status quo agreement established under Ottoman rule, Christians and Muslims can only hold services there on a limited number of days during the year. At the same time, the Christians also seek access to King David's Tomb, which is under Israeli jurisdiction and is only officially open to Christians on two days a year. These divisions over the same site, which all the groups want to use, has caused much tension which has eventually led to violence. While religious Jews have protested the appearance of Christian and Muslim rituals in their holy place, the Vatican has retaliated by demanding more access and control over this vital location in Christianity. In essence, the status quo agreement was supposed to enact an organizational plan of when each faith would use this location. This plan intended to create fair guidelines that would allow each faith group to use the space without stepping on the toes of another. However, what we have learned from the situation on Mount Zion is that contesting religious narratives are so powerful that even separation of space and time cannot be enough to satisfy one's needs. The loss of just a bit of access to something your narrative deems fundamental can lead to relentless fighting to correct the perceived injustice, even if it means taking away from others' privileges.

The Room of the Last Supper
The sign in Arabic designates the qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims
King David's Tomb

We saw this same idea in action later in the day when we learned about contrasting narratives of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Toward the end of our trip, we were able to drive by a large portion of the security barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank and a checkpoint leading to the road that goes to Rachel's Tomb and Bethlehem. After this, we went to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and were able to look into parts of the West Bank under both Israeli and Palestinian control. At this viewpoint, it was very interesting to see the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian areas of the West Bank. For Israeli land, there were clear population centers as distinguished by rows of houses and seemingly well set up towns. For the Palestinian areas, other than the city of Bethlehem we could see in the distance, much of the land I saw was either completely empty or used for farming. The security fence was also a major distinguishing factor between the Israeli and Palestinian areas. In regard to Israeli land, the fence seemed to be neatly placed between the Israeli towns and neighboring Palestinian villages. Regarding Palestinian areas, however, the barrier seemed to be placed specifically on Palestinian farmland, creating divisions for Palestinians between their homes and the land they work on. In one spot, I could clearly see how there was a fence and a road purposely constructed to divide two sections of land covered in green trees and abundant dirt.

This stark contrast between the two types of areas made me wonder why the Israeli and Palestinian lands look so different. In my mind, the fence did not need to separate Palestinians from the land they cultivate, and it could have been placed in a more convenient spot just as it is for the Israelis. Just as when I went to the Bedouin villages in the Negev, I came into this experience knowing about how Israel has been criticized for policies like this, and I could not help but look for a rationale that explained Israel's actions without framing it as an unjust entity. When I asked my tour guide Yishai why Israel decided to place the fence on a troublesome location for Palestinian farmers, he responded by saying that with the creation of the security barrier tough decisions needed to be made, and Israel decided to make the outcomes in its favor. Yishai showed us a map of the course of the security barrier, and it is truly a crazy path that has many twists and turns. With this in mind, the construction of such a disorganized project was bound to have negative effects for some people, and Israel made an effort to limit the negative effects on Jewish settlements by placing more negative consequences on the Palestinian land. Yishai also added that a big aspect of Israel's narrative and rationale in the construction of this barrier was that Israel took over this land during the 1967 six-day war, and therefore they considered all of it theirs to build on however they pleased. Additionally, Yishai noted that according to Israeli statistics, the barrier has drastically reduced the number of terrorists coming to Israel from the West Bank. This has made Israel feel the barrier is essential for its safety.

The lookout point into the West Bank from the Gilo neighborhood
A town in Area C, the Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank
A part of the security barrier I drove past
At this lookout, you can see both Israeli and Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The security barrier is by the dirt road to the left. 

A checkpoint on the border of Israel proper and the West Bank

At multiple points, looking at these different narratives in play right in front of me definitely hit me hard. In my mind, there is absolutely no rationale for separating people from their land, limiting one's access to their holy sites, etc. However, I have learned in general that no matter how much I disagree with people, the most productive and satisfying way to live is to accept that they will have their opinions and work on coming to a compromise that suits us all. This message has come across not just in Jerusalem, but in multiple spots throughout this divided country. Simply in the city I'm living in, I can find the whole spectrum of opinions from extreme left to extreme right, and there are many people's views I consider to be unfair and dangerous to the liberties of other groups. I know my family and friends in the US can identify with this now during the presidential race, as there have been many personal attacks dealing with competing narratives, some of which are unbelievably extreme. It can be challenging to accept this as a part of life, especially when constant arguments can make interactions with these people to be quite unpleasant at times. However, I have been trying to cope with this situation by thinking of what I learned from stories and Disney movies. The main lesson I have taken is that each story has more than one side, and each person tells a side that is unique and deserving of consideration. As long as all sides come into a conversation with intentions of being respectful and considering where everyone is coming from, everyone should be aware that the respect and values that bring us together are greater than the narratives that divide us.

It's hard to say how exactly the issue of competing narratives will work out in Jerusalem. We recently saw a similar situation to Mount Zion at the Kotel (Western Wall), where an egalitarian prayer space was recently established. This space is meant to allow Reform and Conservative Jews to pray the ways they are comfortable with without worrying about angering the Orthodox authorities at the main site. Needless to say, even though the people with different views are convened in totally different areas, the Orthodox are still mad this this type of behavior is being allowed at what is considered Judaism's holiest site. This mindset provides a pessimistic outlook on the solution of creating separate spaces for competing narratives, saying certain groups will never be satisfied with the presence of others. In order to find a solution that works for everyone, I believe there will need to be more compromise and consideration toward everyone's narrative, even if that means that hard decisions will be made for the greater good.

The main part of the Western Wall, which is under Orthodox authority

The newly recognized egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

A poster put up by the Ultra Orthodox about the "shame" of the new egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. The top line says, "The remains of our holy sanctuary are not for sale."

Before I saw the musical "Wicked," I thought of Elphaba as the infamous Wicked Witch of the West with no positive connotation to her name. After this story got turned upside down and another narrative was introduced, audiences started to discover a message they never thought was possible. Now, the Wicked Witch is not only an evil monster, but also a brave and thoughtful individual who cares about others and is not afraid to stand up for what is right. This example shows that if we could try to look at people and situations from different angles, especially in Israel, who knows the positive and rewarding messages we can discover.

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