Palestinian Territories: Leaders’ Family Gathering, February 2007

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This e-mail newsletter is coming at a time when the people in the land are celebrating Passover and Resurrection Sunday. Both events are part of our historical narrative, and both can be viewed either negatively or positively. We can remember the terrible things that the Egyptians did to the Israelites during their enslavement, or we can, as Scripture directs us, recall the Passover as a demonstration of God's faithfulness and a lesson that we also must be kind to the stranger and alien, for we too were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Similarly we can remember Jesus' death as a terrible injustice and loss, or we can remember the great sacrifice Jesus made in order that we would be freed from the bondage of sin, and restored in relationship to the Living God.
During the Leaders' Family Gathering in February, we began to deal with our historical narrative. From an Israeli point of view, the year 1948 was the successful founding of the State of Israel. From a Palestinian point of view, it was the An-Nekbeh - the Catastrophe. In the following report, we share how the group dealt with this year in history. Such a discussion often results in division between Palestinians and Israelis, but as you will read, it can also bring understanding and reconciliation.

Thank you for praying with us!

The Musalaha Team


Each year Musalaha holds a number of leaders’ conferences and follow-up gatherings. One weekend in February we brought together leaders, with their spouses and children, to meet for two days in a kibbutz near Jericho. Approximately 90 children and 50 adults attended. The purpose of the follow-up conference was to further strengthen and deepen participant relationships with one another and to continue discussions of sensitive issues. To that end, we spent the first afternoon and evening dining together, worshipping together, having fun with the kids, and renewing acquaintances among the fragrant spring blossoms of the kibbutz courtyard. Some participants had not been in contact with us since the conference last year, so there was a lot of catching up to do.
As the youth went off to their activities the adults met together to resume the hard work of reconciliation. The air became tense as we began addressing the issue of historical narratives.
Our historical narratives, the Palestinian and the Israeli ones, have been used to justify our positions in the conflict and to deny one another’s truth. It is an extremely sensitive issue, and confronting it is a skill our future community leaders need to learn. In order to teach them the skill, we split into groups separating the Israelis and the Palestinians.
We asked each of the groups to write the narrative of the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel from the perspective of the other group. Back together, each of the groups presented their narratives, defended it, and received feedback regarding the accuracy of their portrayal of the event.
Several observations were immediately apparent. Each group was capable of writing the other’s narrative, but everyone was uncomfortable doing so. There was no small amount of cynical laughter and snickering to be heard as the groups worked! Israelis and Palestinians had very different perspectives on what happened in ’48.
It was relatively easy for both Israelis and Palestinians to report on the events and rationality behind them. They could answer questions regarding the other groups perspective like, “What did they think happened?” On the other hand, answering questions that called for empathy relating to the other group’s emotions, such as, “How did they feel about what happened?” was much more difficult. They could do it, but it obviously required quite a bit of effort for them to truly imagine themselves in the shoes of the other.
The imbalance of power became strikingly clear when we played an empathy game together. Two chairs were placed in the middle of the group seated in a circle. In one chair sat a Palestinian, in the other an Israeli. A moderator would give the pair a specific historical event and ask the Palestinian to talk about the event from the Israeli’s perspective, and vice versa. When they had finished narrating the “audience” was asked to “vote” for the narrative they felt more empathy with (essentially, which one was more “true” for them). All of the Palestinians felt more empathy for the Palestinian narrative even though it was narrated by an Israeli. The Israelis, however, were split.
In social psychology this is a well-known phenomenon: the strong group can afford to empathize with the weaker side, but the weaker side, feeling it has more to lose, stands firmly with its own.
It was also apparent that Palestinians knew the Israeli narrative better than the Israelis knew the Palestinian one. This was hardly surprising because some of the Palestinians learn Hebrew which exposes them to the culture, history, and religion (to some degree) of Israelis. Palestinians also hear snippets of the Israeli story almost incessantly: in the media, in books and in school. On the other hand, most Israelis do not learn Arabic nor are they exposed to Palestinian history in school. The narratives that Israelis wrote for Palestinians in the conference were largely composed of private stories that they heard from individual Palestinians they had met. Hence we found the Palestinian narratives of the Israeli story to be more historically detailed while the Israeli narratives of the Palestinian story were more personal and anecdotal.
These observations are not mere interesting facts—they have important consequences. Because of their greater awareness of the Israeli narrative, Palestinians were more prepared to deal with the Israeli narrative both practically and emotionally. When Zionist slogans were mentioned, they reacted with cynicism, but overall it was Israelis who felt more threatened by listening to the Palestinian narrative.
Their lack of familiarity with the Palestinian story and this sudden confrontation with it made them feel that the truth of their own story was being compromised. The question, “Does accepting the other’s narrative mean that my own narrative is not true?” was a major point of discussion. Because our identities as Israelis and Palestinians are so wrapped up with the history of the conflict this is a very delicate question—but its resolution is crucial to the reconciliation process.
What conclusion did we come to? Listen to these statements by conference participants to see the reconciliation process in progress:

I grew up with a truth and I believed in it but now I’ve heard another narrative that challenges my truth. What am I going to do about that, how am I going to live with it?

Do I need to give up what I hold dear to understand the other?

I went through three stages: In the first, I wasn’t at all used to being in another person’s shoes. In the second, I put myself in their shoes, but realized that it made me vulnerable, because I’m used to defending my position. In the third stage, my faith taught me to consider and be merciful to the other, challenging me to empathize.

Listening and trying to understand your narrative will help me next time I’m not in this group, but outside. The next time I meet an Israeli soldier, I’ll understand better where he’s coming from.

The fundamental question is not how to reconcile these "two truths," and even less so whose truth is "more true." These are questions that are too difficult, if not impossible to answer. History is more complex than any of us is prepared to deal with. The historical events in question as this workshop shows are not black and white: they are filtered through the gray screen of individual experience. The truth of the other does not necessarily negate one's own. This realization enables us to open up and listen to the other, to accept, understand, and respond to his reality with empathy and love.
Of course, there were participants who contested the need to focus on Israeli and Palestinian narratives. A common sentiment was to focus on our unity in Christ, "We have a common narrative because we’re all believers in the Lord." However, the moderators made clear that, even though this is a very positive attitude, we must confront and come to terms with these separate narratives. Ignoring them will only allow the tension they create to remain between us, and that tension will continue to rear its ugly head as we try to live together. Bringing the narratives into the open will help us understand one another in future disagreements, which will ultimately strengthen relationships.
As the conference ended participants expressed a desire to get together again to pray, fellowship, reflect more on the issues that came up and to cover ground we didn’t have time to cover in these two days. Another conference will be scheduled soon to meet that need.

Thanks to all who have covered this ministry and its activities in your prayers. If you would like to contribute towards covering the expenses of Musalaha projects, please send donations (tax deductible) according to following information: In the USA, checks should be made out to Reconciliation Ministries and mailed to: PO Box 238, Medina, WA 98039-0238, USA. Please attach a letter designating the funds to Musalaha. In the UK, checks should be made out to The Andrew Christian Trust and mailed to Mr. Roger Tootell, Rockwood, Storth Road, Sandside, Milnthorpe, Cumbria LA7 7PH; Registered Charity Number: 327845. Please attach a letter designating the funds to Musalaha. Donations may also be sent directly to Musalaha at the PO Box 52110, Jerusalem, Israel 91521.