Thursday, May 08, 2008

Naqbe-Independece Day Seminar - First Impressions

It's the 60th Independence Day in Israel today. Been a bit of a strange one for me this year, having attended the joint Israeli-Palestinian, or Arab-Jewish, or whatever you'd like to call it, meeting/seminar or whatever you'd like to call that...

It will take some time for me to digest what I've seen and heard, I think. So, these are just first impressions, really. In fact, I'll focus on just describing what went on, I think, just tell what I experienced.

We arrived at Givat Haviva yesterday, my parents-in-law and myself, yesterday at 2PM. A quiet day, Memorial Day in Israel, a day when Israelis take time to remember those who have lost their lives in our many wars. It's always a quiet sad day, with sad songs on the radio and nothing but Memorial programs on TV (not that I dare watch any of them - way too painful). So, four hours are the sirens were blowing for two minutes in memory of the fallen soldiers, we arrived at the Kibbutz.

People were hanging around one of the main halls there (they have quite a few places there, since the Kibbutz specializes in courses and seminars). People of all ages, Arabs, Jews and others too. Some children running around too. We signed up at the entrance and went into the hall, where there were mattresses and pillows on the floor, and plastic chairs all around. A musician was playing sad and beautiful music on a clarinet.

After a while, people entered the room and the first session begun. It was led by two people, an Arab man, Jamal, and a Jewish woman, Michal. The whole event was in Hebrew, by the way, with speakers in Arabic translated into Hebrew. They did apologize for that, sort of, and explained that it was a technical thing.

There was quite a long opening talk, where the organizers thanked us all profusely for coming, and took time to emphasize how difficult it is for people of both sides to make this step, this hugely unpopular step for many outside the room, and try to spend the Naqbe Day/Independence Day together, sharing our experiences.

The main theme of the whole seminar, as explained by the speakers, was to listen to each other's pain, to listen to each other's stories, without judging and without guilt too. I really liked that approach, as expressed there and then. The idea was to listen and not to argue. Not to focus on historical fact, and argue about which event was real and which was not, but just show empathy and make room for the other side's narrative. Solutions were not to be discussed either - a rather feminine outlook, I guess, of solving conflict by listening and showing empathy.

I liked that notion a lot, and it was actually why I came in the first place. I will say here and now that I feel that the seminar did not fully achieve its goal, at least not during the time I was there (I did not stay till the end). I felt that while the Palestinian narrative, the personal, emotional one, was well delivered, no room was given for the Zionist narrative of the same events. I am not talking about historical facts either, just about emotions and human experiences from the time. I think a Palestinian acceptance, not in the sense of agreement, just as acknowledgment, of the Zionist narrative is just as crucial as a Zionist acceptance of the Palestinian narrative.

The next session was a lecture by an Israeli left-wing historian, Dr. Yair Boimel, about the Zionist-Palestinian conflict (his definition btw, which I really liked). It was absolutely fascinating and delivered in a very professional, well balanced way, and with some humor too (more on that later). His lecture went by the premise that history is shaped by decisions made by human beings. Be them politicians or ordinary people, it's actions which people chose to make that shaped our history.

Dr. Boimel then went on to review the various points of disputes and dilemmas through out the history of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict from 1800 till today, reviewing decisions on both sides and essentially pointing out how they were decisions, and not something forced on any side. I liked both the thesis presented and the wealth of solid information provided during the lecture. It was an eye opener on some points, even.

Next on the evening's agenda was a joint Memorial Service, which turned out to be pretty much a Memorial Service for the Naqbe. Now, having grown up in a mainstream Zionist environment, the Naqbe, as a concept, was something we learned about fairly recently, about a decade ago. In that sense, I have a lot to learn, and it's what I came to experience too. To listen and show empathy to a national trauma experienced by "the other side".

I had no problem with that part of the evening. My problem was with the lack of balance. The evening was made up of two personal stories. The first was a moving tale of an elderly Palestinian gentleman, whose family ran away from their village in the Galille, lost their homes and became refugees because of the war. It was told in Arabic (and I was surprised to see that I could understand at least half of what he said without the translation), and brought a very personal childhood story of one person. Highly effective and moving, and the kind of story I would like to see more Israelis exposed to.

The second story, I expected to be the story of an Israeli/Jewish person who lived through the same war, and would come to tell about the fear of annihilation, about refugees from the holocaust facing destruction again, about fighting and losing your friends and dear ones to the war, and then the joy of being saved and gaining independence. Instead, we had a Jewish-Israeli person of the right age, who came to tell us again about the Naqbe experienced by the Palestinians. Basically, telling us how he had witnessed the bulldozers destroying the empty villages near where he had lived and building new neighborhoods there, and then talking about the denial the Israelis live in, and the guilt we should be feeling. Not very constructive, I felt, and definitely not a story to evoke emotions of empathy and sharing.

Next was a peaceful and quite moving ceremony. The clarinet was playing a sad tune, and a circle of unlit candles was placed in the middle of the room. People were invited to come forward and light a candle in memory of someone who was killed, or a community destroyed or anything else that they wanted to bring up. It was again, personal and a place of empathy and joint sorrow. Palestinians lit candles for people they knew who were killed in war, of their late parents who became refugees. Jews lit candles for people killed in wars and terror attacks, and also for family members who died in the holocaust. The children of Gaza were mentioned more than once, by both sides (unfortunately, the children of Sderot killed by Kassams were not mentioned...).

I think this post is getting long enough, so I'll describe the next day in another post. Time to get back to earth, clean the house, clean the kids, feed them and tuck them into bed. Back to the normal life of a mom - in the hope for normal lives for moms, dads, kids and everyone else in our region.

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