Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hearing Both Narratives (Through Clenched Teeth)!

Report of a Young Adult Conference,
At which were present Israelis and Palestinians
Sponsored by MUSALAHA, a movement for reconciliation and transformation

Every Passover, the Jewish people remember God’s deliverance from the oppression they suffered under Egypt. Jews recount how in every generation someone had sought to kill them as a people, but it was God who delivered them, leading them back into the Promised Land after two thousand years just like he had done in the past. For two thousand years they have longed for the land of our ancestors and they have returned to a land without a people for a people without a land- forgetting, however, that over 700,000 people had lived there for centuries.

Every May, the Palestinian people remember a different type of exodus, not one of deliverance, but one of displacement as they were forced from their homes in a land where they had a rich historical and religious connection. They strongly proclaim their continuous presence, enduring occupations from the Crusaders and Ottomans to the Israelis. “We are oppressed and we bear no responsibility for any of our circumstances.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians have their own interpretation of oppression and history as each has a nationally defined historical narrative. And, so, 28 Israelis and Palestinians at the Young Adult Follow-Up Conference learned, analyzed and challenged their own historical narratives this past October 4-5. The experimental, and very relevant, conference proved to be one of the deepest and most intense of Musalaha’s conferences.

In order to frame the discussions of the next two days, Musalaha Director Salim Munayer presented a concept of ‘narrative,’ a word which has been used to mean both history and propaganda. Historical narrative expresses a people’s past and also points to a vision of the future, providing identity through relation to a shared story. Narratives, or stories, create meaning and healing when they are open to change and new perspectives. However, narratives can be, and are, distorted in order to justify conflict and to breed exclusivity because history is not a concrete, static entity with only one undisputed version; it is rather an interweaving and oftentimes contradicting pattern of connected narratives. All stories have at least two sides, and history is no different. Everything is unavoidably told through a specific voice coming from a specific person with a specific worldview. The way to achieve some balance is to tell two different narratives together and allow them to be informed and to inform the other, to add and subtract and to make whole.

Only through a changed understanding of our own narratives in the light of another story can true reconciliation, and therefore transformation, occur, both on a personal and societal level. Palestinian participant Fuad was particularly affected by the close juxtaposition of two opposing views: “At times when the Israeli narrative was being talked about I was sitting there with my teeth clenched and, you know, getting angry thinking ‘This is not true!’ And then when the Palestinian narrative was being presented I saw some of the Israelis doing the same thing. I think if you brought a group of Palestinians and Israelis off the street to have this talk, there would be chairs flying.”

In the midst of heated debates about identities we must remember that in order for us to find our identity we must first lose it. Everyone met together at the conference because they share a commitment to a redemptive narrative about a kingdom, a way, a banquet table where there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor, Israeli nor Palestinian.

By Jonathan McRay

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