Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yom Haatzmaut vs. the Nakba: A Contradiction in Terms?

Something I have loved about my Yahel experience is how it has made me view aspects of Israeli society in a totally different way than what I have grown up with. As I have mentioned numerous times on this blog, my experiences working in Lod and meeting Israel's diverse populations has allowed me to gain multiple perspectives on what it is like to live here.

One of my most meaningful experiences came around the time of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. While growing up in a traditional Jewish and pro-Israel community, I always viewed this day with a very joyful and celebratory attitude. When I lived in Jerusalem for a semester two years ago, this attitude persisted as I was surrounded by Zionist Jews who discussed with me the significance of the day, and as I attended gigantic parties during the holiday to acknowledge its momentous meaning for the State of Israel.

This year, while celebrating Yom Haatzmaut in Lod, my holiday celebration was very different. True, I was still surrounded by Jewish Israelis, and there many big parties including a giant concert near the center of the city that held tons of people. However, the day still felt very different because Lod is different from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and most other cities, it is easy to find yourself surrounded by a Jewish population that celebrates your holidays and shares a collective Jewish culture. Lod, however, is a mixed city, and wherever you find Jews you can also find many Arabs. In this regard, the Arab population of Lod played a large role in my understanding of Yom Haatzmaut this year, and this completely changed my perception of the day's overall meaning.

I knew that working with Arab kids at this time of year would mean being exposed to opinions and perceptions of Israeli society that were drastically different than what I was accustomed to. I did not expect, however, to be so profoundly impacted by these different outlooks. One moment that particularly shocked me was hearing the two-minute long memorial siren on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for soldiers and terror victims. The siren sounded during the school day, just as I was beginning one of my small group lessons. It was right after the bell rang, so it was hard to hear, but I was awaiting it and took notice as soon as I heard it. I went to the window of my classroom in order to hear the siren better, and I asked my students to be quiet so I could pay attention. At first, my kids got confused, and some even thought that the siren was from a rocket that was fired. I then explained that this day was a sad day in Israel and the siren was meant to help us remember fallen soldiers and other people who were killed.

I could tell that my kids were reluctant to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I took this moment as one that could teach me a lot about how Israeli Arabs view Israeli society, and I started pushing more for a response. Eventually, some of the fourth graders I had during the siren felt comfortable sharing that they do not like Israeli soldiers and they do not feel they should be remembered in a positive way. They also carry this feeling of disdain to other Israeli officials in uniform, especially policemen, because they feel like they cannot trust these officials to treat them fairly or see them as anything but criminals.

The responses I got from my fifth graders the same day were much more surprising. This group of fifth graders is very bright with great knowledge of both English and Hebrew, so I thought they would feel more positively toward Israel than some of my other groups of students. The response I received, however, when asking about Yom Haatzmaut in particular was not the response I hoped to receive. When asked how they felt about Yom Haatzmaut, one of my kids, Hassan, said he hates the holiday because it marks the beginning of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. He also said that he hates Israel, he hates Jews, and he would prefer to live in Palestine. This is the type of response I would have expected in the beginning of my time in Lod, but after eight months of getting to know the Arabs in this mixed city, I was flabbergasted by this extent of negativity. I was especially surprised when Hassan said he hates Jews, because I have perceived my role as a Jew working with Arabs to be a bridge between the cultures and a way to show the Arabs I work with that not all Jews are bad. I followed up to this statement by asking Hassan if he hates me since I'm Jewish, to which he responded that I am good but all other Jews are bad.

Though this response left me confused and a bit discouraged about my impact on building bridges between Jews and Arabs, it was also very telling for me about how many Israeli Arabs view their roles in Israeli society. Though many Israeli Arabs gather in public spaces and make use of all their society has to offer, especially in Lod, on the inside many feel great animosity toward the events of 1948 when the State of Israel was established, and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. While the exact events are 1948 are contested between the different sides, it is understood by Israeli Arabs that when Israel won the territory for its state it also conquered Arab lands and violently drove out the Arab populations living there. This is why even if I see Arabs at the beach or the movie theatre enjoying the same space as me, in many cases they cannot help but resent Israel for its destructive acts toward the Palestinian people. Due to this, these Arabs cannot feel fully Israeli and take part in Israel's independence celebration. I did see multiple Arabs enjoying themselves at the Yom Haatzmaut concert I attended, so I am sure this does not speak for the whole population. However, from the responses I received from my kids, it is clear that many Israeli Arabs hold hard feelings toward this holiday in particular, in large part due to the detrimental impact it had on their history and identity.

You would think receiving feedback like this would create a negative, pessimistic perception of Israel's future conditions regarding relations between Jews and Arabs. However, one thing my Yahel experience has taught me is in Israel, nothing is as clear as it initially seems, and there are always efforts underway to make the impossible possible. When efforts like this are occurring and multiple sides can have their stories told, I have found that multiple opportunities can arise for dialogue and understanding. My fellow Yahelnikim and I were lucky enough to be exposed to multiple examples of such efforts during a recent five-day seminar in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The first example of such an effort came when we traveled inside an Israeli controlled section of the West Bank near the Gush Etzion Junction, which has been the site of multiple terror attacks recently. There, we visited the compound of Roots, an organization that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to engage in dialogue and learn about the other while developing a mindset of empathy and nonviolence. While at Roots, we spoke to the founder Ali Abu Awwad, who told us much about his fascinating life story and how it motivated him to become active with nonviolence. As you can see here in a TED Talk he presented, Ali grew up in a political Palestinian family and was taught from a young age to hate Israel and rebel against it at any cost. This is why he participated in the First and Second Intifadas, which led to his subsequent arrests by the Israeli police. Ali's animosity toward Israel intensified in November 2000, when his brother was murdered by an Israeli soldier. This event made Ali bent on revenge, thinking an Israeli's brother should be killed so an Israeli can feel the pain he felt.

Ali's thinking fundamentally changed a year later, when he received a phone call saying bereaved Jewish parents wanted to come to his home and help him grieve for his brother. Up until this point, Ali had never heard of Israelis wanting to come to his house, and he never thought it was possible for Jews to cry and grieve just like Palestinians. This is when Ali started to realize that Israelis and Palestinians have much in common and both have much suffering, and instead of acting out through revenge it is possible to end both sides' suffering through nonviolence and dialogue.

Through his work with Roots, Ali has truly been able to make the impossible possible. Not only has he eliminated his own prejudice, which reached an extreme level during his involvement in the First and Second Intifadas, but Ali has also been able to reach out to multiple groups on both sides in order to incorporate many sides of the conflict and achieve a compromise between these different perspectives. For example, Roots recently began including Jewish settlers from the Gush Etzion area in its dialogue sessions, and Ali is confident that these settlers will begin to see Palestinians differently as people with rights and will "add [his] truth to their truth." Another inspiring story Ali told us was one when he was at a security checkpoint and the Israeli soldier present was giving him an unusually hard time while passing through. Ali could have responded with anger and frustration, and spoken out against his unjust treatment. He, however, chose to respond by saying that he acknowledged the soldier has suffered just as much as he has. The soldier, in shock, replied, "This is the first time a Palestinian has recognized my suffering." I am inspired by this story because it shows how it is possible to cross divides that seem so rigid and join together for the sake of a mutual interest in peace. I admire Ali so much for his courage and commitment to nonviolence, and I am hopeful that through people like him peace can occur.

Ali Abu Awwad speaking to us at Roots
Group picture at the Roots compound, near Gush Etzion

I also witnessed this sense of open-mindedness and compromise through the efforts of an organization called the Middle East Religious Peace Initiative, spearheaded by the efforts of Rabbi Michael Melchior. Like Roots, this organization attempts to reach across the political spectrum to engage different groups in dialogue that can encourage greater understanding and recognition of the other. However, what distinguishes Rav Melchior's work is his unconventionality and his willingness to make drastic and risky moves in order to move closer to peace. Throughout his career as a peace activist and social change maker, Rav Melchior has met with representatives from every Israeli and Palestinian group imaginable, including the Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) community, West Bank settlers, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Rav Melchior adamantly believes that in order to create a sustainable peace, each party needs to be actively involved, especially the skeptics.

Just like with Ali, I was inspired by Rav Melchior's motivation to make the impossible possible. Never before had I contemplated sitting with members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to talk about Israeli-Palestinian peace, let alone having right and left wing Israelis sitting around the same table. However, Rav Melchior's vision of having open dialogues and incorporating all perspectives into a final solution has opened the door to this inclusive, open-minded type of thinking. Rav Melchior has developed many strategies in order to gain the cooperation of all these parties, and I admire how skilled he is at playing to each group's interests in order to motivate them to contribute to his mission (in other words, he is the master at sucking up). One of his techniques that I found particularly interesting was how he utilizes Jewish values without relying strictly on halacha (Jewish law). Since Rav Melchior is an Orthodox rabbi, I expected him to have a much more rigid interpretation of how a Jew should act. However, he mentioned that from his perspective, halacha is not the sole source that guides one to live according to Jewish values, and it should not be the dominant influence on Israeli legislation. Rav Melchior explained that in his mind, having a Jewish state means more so grappling with Jewish texts when contemplating government decisions like taxation and foreign policy, and not preemptively imposing religious will on all citizens. This inclusive discourse allows for more representation and equality among citizens under the law, which has translated into an increased willingness for Jews and non Jews in Israel to collaborate with other groups under Rav Melchior's guidance. In this sense, I believe Rav Melchior has a profound vision that has great potential to foster a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

At the same time, the things I witnessed during my time in Jerusalem and the West Bank also fostered messages of separation and exclusivity. A primary example came from my visit to Susya, a Jewish settlement situated south of Hebron. Our visit to this town began in the ancient Jewish settlement of Susya, which is believed to date back to 1600 years ago (around the 4th century CE). While walking around the historic ruins including a large, beautifully constructed synagogue, I was impressed by how well preserved the structures are and how deep the Jewish connection is to this area I had hardly heard about. While talking to Rav Ariel Rokach, a Susya resident who runs a yeshiva in Rishon L'Zion that Yahel works with, and watching a video describing Susya's ancient artifacts and importance as a sizable population center during the Talmudic era, I got even more intrigued by the town's relevance to Jewish history and how this land had been inhabited by Jews so far back in history. However, I have been taught by my experiences with Yahel to always consider different narratives, and at the same time as looking at these ruins I knew that this strong Jewish narrative was overshadowing a Palestinian narrative to this land that needed to be explored.

Ancient Susya

Susya's ancient synagogue

Listening to Rav Kokach in the new synagogue of Susya

Though I did not know much about Susya prior to my visit, I had been exposed to an article in Haaretz that discussed a pending demolition of a Palestinian village called Khirbat Susya located adjacent to the Jewish settlement. The Israeli government intended to demolish the village because it was built without a permit in Area C, the area of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. The international community was in uproar about this decision, with many foreign governments putting pressure on Israel to rethink its decision. The rationale against Israel's intention to demolish was just as there is a historical Jewish connection to the area, the Palestinians living there also have historical ties. This claim was legitimized last year when a document was found describing Ottoman land ownership in the Susya area dating back to the year 1881.

It is always hard to contemplate competing narratives to the same land, but when thinking about both the Jewish and Palestinian connections to Susya, it was especially challenging to grapple with how this point of contention can be resolved. There has been a lot of talk of Israel giving away certain parts of the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, but how can Israel give away land that has such a deep historical connection for Jews? At the same time, how can Palestinians accept relinquishing their claim to land they also have a strong historical connection to? This dilemma became even more problematic for me when my group went to Rav Rokach's home and spoke to him and his wife. Throughout the conversation, they were both adamant about Samaria being the land where the Bible took place and a place where Jews have a "rooted connection" that compels them to live in their historical land. They also consistently mentioned their desire to have Jews "be sure in [their] way" and unapologetically recognize their right and religious duty to live in this land.

Something that was sorely missing throughout this conversation was the notion that not everyone has the same "way" as Rav Kokach, especially Palestinians, and those people should not be expected to follow his way. While listening to Rav Kokach amd his wife speak, I was looking for a willingness to be open-minded and compromise that was present in my conversations with Ali Abu Awwad and Rav Melchior. I found, however, that the residents of Susya feel more compelled to stick to their own community than branch out and collaborate with their Palestinian neighbors. Rav Kokach's wife explained that she remembers having "friendly relations" with her Arab neighbors until hostilities during the Second Intifada increased tensions. She also mentioned that when settlers first came to Susya, it was important for them to get the land legally and "not ignore the people who were living [there]", in order to prevent one from saying that they took other peoples' land.

From this statement, I could infer that Susya residents have good intentions toward their Palestinian neighbors and do not want to provoke hostility against them. However, the ways Rav Kokach and his wife spoke about Palestinians as the conversation progressed presented a very different tone that contradicted their seemingly friendly and receptive demeanor. Having witnessed Palestinian villages and towns in Area C prior to our visit to Susya and seeing their lack of infrastucture and resources compared to neighboring Israeli settlements, our group was very interested in the reasoning for this disparity and how Jews in the West Bank think about this issue. This seemed especially relevant concerning Susya, which has a developed system of roads, holds a large and beautiful synagogue, and supports dozens of religious families with children. In response to our questions about this issue, Rav Kokach said that the Israeli government has tried to provide more water and infrastructure for the Palestinians and they simply do not want it. One of my fellow Yahelniks, Devon, followed up to his response by proposing the idea of a communal swimming pool in Susya that both the Jews and Palestinians there could benefit from, which could also allow Israel to help improve the Palestinians' quality of life. Nevertheless, Rav Kokach replied to this by saying it is pointless to attempt such a collaboration with the Palestinians because they "do not want help" and would resist any effort by Israelis to provide them with services. From this message, our group gathered that Rav Kokach and other Susya residents are unwilling to take initiative and help create more sustainable lifestyles for their Palestinian neighbors who lack basic resources.

The situation I observed in Susya, with the residents unwilling to approach their Palestinian neighbors with an open-minded attitude, seemed very discouraging regarding the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Just like my student on Yom Haatzmaut, these people were presenting a very one-sided narrative that ignored the possibility that other perspectives could also be valid. With this in mind, it is easy to consider that there is no way to negotiate a sustainable peace when so many refuse to be open to other people's narratives. However, my meetings with individuals like Ali Abu Awwad and Rav Michael Melchior have allowed me to think otherwise. From these meetings, I have learned that even when another group's narrative is perceivably in total opposition to your own, it is entirely possible to listen to what that group has to say and arrive at a common goal that both groups can work toward. If Ali, after everything he went through, was able to find a way to trust and engage in dialogue with Israelis, other Palestinians and Israelis should be able to find a way to come together and develop a mutual respect that can lead to a lasting peace. True, there will continue to be tensions, and these challenges will encourage people to say that peace is not possible. However, my experiences on Yahel have showed me that there are initiatives in place that are successfully engaging groups in dialogue and understanding, and I am confident that if these initiatives continue to spread there will be a very bright outcome in the near future.

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