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The inner lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers

6213_THE140213BRIDGES_47I live in two universes when I work in the Middle East. One is a universe where peoples are divided by bitter and violent sorrows, old resentments, understandable suspicions, and completely polarized affiliations. It is a world of great injustices and passed-on abuse, a place where people wait for apologies but are unable to offer any.

Within that world, however, there is another world, a secret world of those people who dare touch those of the other side with their words, their deeds, and their hearts. That special world is to me -- as an activist, spiritual seeker, and analyst of conflict -- a universe of enormous significance. For it is in that mysterious world of human bridges between enemies that we find flowering up from a ground of death, hatred, and war, something extraordinary: the seeds of life, the seeds of the future.

So writes Marc Gopin in the introduction to Bridges Across An Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers.

I have been working my way through this book slowly. The writing is clear, but the stories the peacemakers tell are intense and they merit close attention. Here's another quote from Gopin, responding to the beginning of  the story told by peacemaker Ibtisam Mahameed. Ibtisam has mentioned the battle in Tantura in 1948; in the standard Palestinian narrative, this battle was a horrific massacre of Palestinians by Israelis. In the standard Israeli narrative, though the fact of a battle is uncontested, there is no massacre. Gopin writes:

I have become used to hearing these stories from the many Palestinians who I have come to know over the years. So many stories, and they seem to add up to a pattern of abuse in 1948 that continues to shock me. Each time it sends me into a tailspin, and I am still trying to examine my own reaction. Is it shame? I was brought up to believe that Jews were incapable of acting this way.

Gopin's description of the tailspin engendered by hearing these kinds of stories is familiar to me. I don't want to devolve into endless navel-gazing about how my Jewish soul aches both when Jews are victimized and when Jews victimize others -- but I think that confronting my own feelings can help me do the important spiritual work of living with the both/and where the Middle East is concerned.

Ultimately, he concludes, for the purposes of this book it does not matter whether 250 people were killed extrajudicially in Tantura or fifty. What matters is that it was a horrifying night for civilians, who (everyone agrees) were expelled from their homes and imprisoned just after the battle, and that there were deaths, and that this memory continues to haunt those who were there and the descendants of those who were there. What matters, on a personal scale, is the trauma which continues to be carried. (On every side.)

In her interview, Ibtisam moves from the trauma of memory to a philosophy which argues that war and violence are the easy path, and that peace is the hard courageous work:

I don't want to leave anger and sadness in my heart. First of all this will affect my health, and I felt that dialogue and discussion with the other side, even if you feel a strong pain inside, is better than throwing a rock at them. I want to give peace as a legacy to my children and grandchildren.

Ibtisam articulates a feminism which is rooted in her sense of the God-given equality of men and women. And she also argues for the importance of having women as peacemakers and bridge-builders:

I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started long ago, not from the 1948 war, it started since Ibrahim's era when he decided to marry Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. Then Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and then both of those women have a conflict over one man, Ibrahim. Therefore Ibrahim had to take Hagar with her breast-feeding baby to a distant mountain which was deserted. He left her there and return back to Sarah. Therefore the brothers were raised separately and didn't have any kin relationship...

I believe that at the end, there will be a solution to this conflict, and there will be peace in the Middle East. But the role of women in this conflict is harder than that of men, because women are those who hold their child inside. And they are the ones who are responsible to raise him. So, if a mother loses her child, she will hold a severe pain in her heart. That's why we as women have to be more aware to the political movement, and become part of it.

Here's an excerpt of an interview with Ibtisam. This is part of an interview series called "Unusual Pairs," also a Marc Gopin project (with filmmaker David Vyorst) -- I believe the videos came first and the book grew out of the video interviews.

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it at YouTube: Elana and Ibtisam.)

Parallel to the chapter which tells Ibtisam's story is a chapter which tells Eliyahu McLean's story. Eliyahu was the leader of the Jewish half of the Dual Narratives Tour of Hebron which I did earlier this spring. He recounts how he first fell in love with Israel, and how his Zionist activism in Berkeley, California, offered him the opportunity to go beyond his comfort zone and hear a different story:

[W]hen I first came to Berkeley, there was an initiative to make Berkeley a sister city with Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza... I was opposed to the initiative at the time. I started to meet the Yes on Jabaliya [group], and for the first time I started to learn the narrative of the other side of the story, the Palestinian people.

I became so curious to learn about the "enemy" that I started to study Arabic, Islam, Middle Eastern Studies... [Later] I was at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I met the dean of students at Bethlehem University. I met a young student at Bethlehem University from Deheishe Refugee Camp and I became friends with him. So then I started to bring students from California to Bethlehem, Bethlehem University, and the refugee camp; that was the beginning of my bridge building work.

I'm particularly moved by Eliyahu's story about how, influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Jewish mysticism, Eliyahu goes to Cairo and meets a West African Sufi who becomes, in his words, his hevruta -- his spiritual study partner. As Gopin notes, "This is cognitive dissonance for a traditional Jewish audience; it is a psychic and epistemic reframing of the nature of the Jewish spiritual universe." Eliyahu adds:

I think that friendship and building friendships is a very important aspect for peacemaking... I hear a lot of left-wing Israeli activists, or people in the mainstream, saying we don't have to love the Palestinians. We just have to come to a pragmatic agreement, separate the two sides, give them what they want, take what we want. But I believe that that is not enough... My work is about building a deep, deep connection and friendship and partnerships with Palestinian Muslim Arabs, Christians, Druze.

Eliyahu also talks about how -- as Gopin puts it -- "most people cannot cope with staying truly in-between, as a connector between enemy groups. But he feels that this is the essential task that is necessary for a different future."

There is a dynamic, sometimes, when Israelis form friendships with Palestinians. They feel so guilty and shameful about what Israelis are doing to the Palestinians at check points, the Occupation, all of these things, they feel resentful towards their own community, and they feel like they have to over-identify.... And I believe that I can understand that motivation and it's very honorable that they feel so much compassion for the other.

But I feel that to make a shift in an Israeli-Jewish public and society, it is important for me to be grounded within my own close circle of friends on the israeli side and also on the religious Jewish side... In order to make an impact I have to stay and keep wearing my payos and keep wearing my tzitzit and stay as someone who is fully connected to that community... [And years later someone in that community might think,] We want to connect as human beings, but we have so many walls of fear, walls of fear between us and the other. But our friend Eliyahu has broken through that wall, so maybe he can be an example for us.

Eliyahu also tells an amazing story about going to a shiva (paying a visit on a mourner) for a friend of his who had been killed by a suicide bomber, and how he felt awkward saying to the bereaved father in that setting that his work was in the field of peace and dialogue with Arabs and Palestinians. And then a year later he was at the unveiling of his friend's tombstone, and the bereaved father said "I am counting on you" -- "In other words, keep doing what you are doing."

Here's video of Eliyahu talking about these issues and this work, alongisde Sheikh Bukhari -- another "Unsual Pair."

(If you can't see the embedded video, it's here: Eliyahu McLean and Sheikh Bukhari.)

The latter half of the book contains in-depth quotations from peacemakers in their own words. "The entire project of Unusual Pairs, both the film project and this written study, were designed by me with a working assuption tha a true understanding of the mysterious way in which love and friendship reaches across the boundaries of enemies can only be understood through a direct exposure to the peacemakers themselves, through film and through their words," writes Gopin.

Most American Jews don't know, or meet, or hear from peacemakers who are doing this courageous, difficult, incredibly important work. If you care about the Middle East, or about peacemaking writ large, this book is well worth your time.