Palestinian Territories: Uncommon Identities

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Cyprus Women's Conference, March 2007

At the beginning of this year, after having met in small groups throughout 2006, the leaders of Musalaha's four women's groups felt it was time to bring all the women together. Through sharing their life stories with one another and learning together the basics of reconciliation at their smaller meetings, they had sufficiently strengthened their relationships and built enough trust to feel ready to tackle some of the harder issues of the reconciliation process.

So, in March, we traveled to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus for a four-day conference. After lunch and introductions, we launched right into discussion of a divisive issue: identity. Particularly, our uncommon identities. While it is true that we are one in Christ, and that we all share the identity of God living in us, we also need to understand the other spiritual, individual, group, and social aspects of our identity. Our identities are not simple things: they are shaped both by a sense of who we are as individuals and by feedback we receive from the world around us.

To help us understand these complexities, we separated into Palestinian and Israeli groups. Several chairs were placed around the front of our meeting room, each chair labeled with a different identity pertinent to the different groups. For instance, before the Palestinians were chairs labeled “Christian”, “Arab”, “Palestinian”, “Muslim”, and “Israeli”. The chairs before the Israelis included “Israeli”, “Messianic Jew”, “Hebrew Christian”, “Jew”, “Christian”, “Foreigner”, and “Immigrant”.

The labels themselves generated some interesting discussion. On both sides, there was a lack of awareness regarding distinctions between some of the identities on the other side. For example, our Palestinian sisters did not know that an Israeli can identify herself as a Messianic Jew, Christian, or Hebrew Christian, nor what difference her choice makes. Likewise, Israelis asked for clarification of the reasoning behind identifying oneself as Palestinian as opposed to Arab.

The first choice of almost all the women was to identify with their faith. No matter how it was labeled, being a follower of the Messiah was clearly the most important aspect of their identity. The chairs of the women's first choice were removed and each had to choose again: Which of the remaining descriptions did she identify with the most?

Discussions again arose not only between the two groups but also within the groups, many asking for clarification and explanations. We began to see the women's multiple identities as well as the discomfort those identities created in others. One Palestinian woman shocked her Israeli friend when she said she wasn't sure whether she would prefer to live in a Muslim society or a Jewish one. Faced with the identity issue for the first time, an Israeli woman realized that she had been trying to identify with a group that she does not really fit into, and discovered she really feels a sense of belonging in a different group.

Following this exercise, we looked at the importance of identity to the reconciliation process. First we must accept that our identities are a reality whether we want to look at them or not. We must confront all aspects of them, because discovering what components our identity is made of and what value we place on each different component is essential to the process of being transformed into the image of the Messiah. Simply changing our behavior will not make us a new person—transforming and renewing our minds will. This transformation is a process begun by the Holy Spirit, but assisted by other believers. We can help each other to achieve it.

Once we understand who we are in God and how God Himself sees us—as eternally loved (Jer 31:3), infinitely valuable (1Cor 6:19-20), and thoroughly competent (Phil 4:13)—we can clearly see and stand firm in our true identities. And as we become more secure in our own identities, we feel much more comfortable embracing people with identities different than our own.

Finally, knowing our true selves and accepting others, we are able to understand our own behavior, attitudes, and reactions to others. Especially in crises, emotions are evoked that tap deep into the identities that people derive from the social groups in which they live. Understanding where those emotions come from—both mine and those of others—can help us better respond to the conflicts around us and even help transform the others embroiled in those conflicts.

We saw this process taking place before our eyes. The women's new understanding of the complexities of identity, combined with new learning of its importance, made it impossible for them to judge their sisters as they did previously. They began, instead, to respond with empathy and compassion to the tensions in which they see the others living. The following statements made toward the end of the conference testify to God's continuing transformation of our hearts.

I am ending this conference with a sense of integrity, connecting to myself and connected to the body. Last year's meetings with Musalaha planted many seeds. This year, the seeds are growing and blooming. I can see the power of this conference!

Though most conferences leave one with a feeling of having been on a mountain top, this conference has left me with a feeling of something much more. I believe the work we have begun in terms of exploring our identity has only begun, and the relationships that are being formed, solidified, and even tested are being strengthened in ways that will prove very meaningful in the future.

We all traveled to the airport together, but as we prepared to board the planes— Palestinians on one flight, Israelis on another—a glass wall separated our groups. We were already being thrown back into the reality of our world of separation and conflict. As we stood on either side of the glass, talking, laughing, waving, and crying, we all realized that, though the conflict separates us, the Holy Spirit is knitting our hearts together. And no wall—neither glass nor cement—can keep us from loving one another.

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: We are now able to accept donations online by credit card at our website: www.musalaha.org. 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

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