New Hope in the ‘Other’

My narrative below could be written almost exactly the same from the other point of view, from the Palestinian point of view, substituting my examples for ones relevant to Palestinians. Though I speak here about building trust from an Israeli point of view, we must remember that it is a two-way street.

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It was yet another “grassroots peace encounter,” the kind of scheduled meeting that is so much part of my work for change in Jerusalem. I was the Jewish Israeli participant, and I was listening to a lecture on “the situation” by two prominent and earnest Palestinian leaders who were working as on the ground activists. The audience was a group of American students.

As I listened to the Palestinian speakers, I began to have a familiar feeling, the kind I have when my inner self is trying to tell me something that I am afraid to acknowledge. The words I was hearing from these two admired Palestinian leaders were painful, but still hopeful.  But, at the same time, my gut was sending me a message – a feeling of deeper pain and sadness. I understood what was happening: even their hopeful words left me feeling hopeless, unable to leave that meeting with real trust that they were truly taking the right actions to bring about a different future for our two nations.

It is not that I do not believe the stories they tell from the time of the second Intifada, the humiliation and pain they describe. It is just that I cannot see how their narrative, and the way they describe their peace work, can ever move people to create real change in their lives, given the risks and challenges this type of work entails. In my imagination, I became the Israeli soldier they described, coming to “look for terrorists” in their village. And try as I might, I could not see myself behaving any differently than the soldiers they were talking about, because I remember how urgently we felt the threat of terrorism, how important it was to prevent the next suicide bombing, and how entering Palestinian villages felt like the only way to do so.  You can call me a bad person, a failed peace activist. But they did not provide any concrete actions that they, as peace activists who are working on the ground (and not on the political/military level), are taking in their own communities to address the concerns of the Israelis that brought the military in the first place, such as creating inner changes in how they educate their communities about the State of Israel and Jews, which would prevent Israelis from feeling so physically and mentally threatened. If these two prominent activists could not provide any concrete actions that would convince me they were making real change in their communities, then how could they win over the trust of the Israeli public?

I readily acknowledge the asymmetrical power dimensions between the two societies, and know that what we can ask of one side we cannot automatically can ask of the other side. I also know very well that my beloved Israeli people need to make changes on the ground without precondition of Palestinian action. But while this is true on the political level, I believe that on the grassroots level, making change requires a totally different language and actions, ones which are meant to build trust between our peoples. These two leaders were lacking the right language to gain trust in Israelis’ hearts.

There is a mistaken assumption among peace activists that ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have no idea what the other side is suffering. If only more Israelis and Palestinians would be more compassionate and sensitive, things would look different! For me, this assumption does not honor the innate goodness and beauty of regular people, including so many of my friends and family members. These are people who practice sensitivity in their daily lives, but still cannot envision a different future.  It is this absence of a better vision, and a way to put it into practice, that deprives them of hope that there can be meaningful change for peace.

A few days after this “stuck dialogue” experience, I met with one of my students, a young Palestinian Muslim who, though only in his twenties, is already leading his own initiative for peace together with an Israeli colleague. We were planning our common projects when he suddenly told me of his admiration for Israel’s national anthem – a song about the Jewish yearning for a homeland – called Hatikvah, ‘The Hope.’  This young man knew the horrible reports of Israeli soldiers forcing captive Palestinians to sing Hatikvah at checkpoints in order to humiliate them. He knew the general disgust and hatred his Palestinian neighbors had for the anthem of their avowed enemies. He knew that Hatikvah was a song for the Jewish people, and that it therefore excluded him and his people, even those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. But this young man had listened carefully to the words of Hatikvah, and he told me that he often wished that Palestinians could create an anthem that symbolizes the same longing for a home, without resorting to militant language, evoking instead a simple human yearning to feel safe and hope for a better future.
I was touched by this simple conversation. You might say that my reaction was instinctive and impossible to resist, since my Palestinian student was, in a way, affirming my heritage as an Israeli Jew. But, still, I was surprised to be so touched by his words.  In recent years I have become so invested in the conflict that I have stopped being moved to tears, as I once was, on hearing my national anthem. How can it be, then, that I was so moved by this student’s words about the song? And why is it that this young man and his friends – proud Palestinians and devoted Muslims that they are – can gain my trust in each and every meeting I have with them?

“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings” (Elie Wisel Z”L)

There are two elements present in the approach of this young Palestinian activist, elements entirely missing in the lecture I heard from the well-known Palestinian leaders. First, my young student was not lecturing me about things that Israelis need to change. Rather, he put his focus on those things he wishes his own people could change. He had learned that when Hatikvah was written, Zionists were dedicating their lives to make a homeland for the Jews in the face of great challenges. He wishes to see Palestinians, too, dedicating themselves to living simply and creating a healthy society. He regrets that Palestinians have not found unity among themselves, or leaders who can transform their years of suffering into something good rather than into corruption. He understands that their chances for doing so are made all the more difficult by their circumstances, including the power dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians, yet he wants to strive for something better anyway. He understands what it is that I try to embody as a seeker of peace, that our role is not to critique each other so much as to critique ourselves, in the presence of the other, to make an intimate critique, thus showing the other side how we are trying to change ourselves for the better through real action.

Second, this Palestinian student has expanded his views on what it means to seek change based on ideas he encountered living with Israelis. This sounds very strange coming from me, since, as an Israeli peace activist, I am so quick to criticize my country for the wrongs it does. Yet despite its problems, Israel in many ways also strives for causes that are progressive and just, such as gender equality and inclusive democracy. But my student, while staying true to his own reality of living under Israeli occupation and the immense suffering it entails, has shown me that it is possible to learn from the good in a society while still condemning the bad.  He has been able to listen to his Israeli colleagues’ narrative with respect, and though he does not put aside his condemnation for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he also feels within himself a human yearning for freedoms he never knew he could desire, beyond only the end of occupation. He is willing to take on these new ideas despite the fact that they come to him from Israel because he is able to put aside hatred and blame and take positive ideas from wherever they come, even if from Israel.

I went home, listened again to Hatikvah, and – for the first time in years – had tears in my eyes.  This Palestinian colleague had not needed to tell me what he and other Palestinians suffer from the Israeli occupation. He knows that I know. Always, in meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, we struggle to find new ways to live together with dignity. But it is not enough to struggle. To improve our own lives, and therefore also the lives of the other side, we need the courage to show each other that we are fully committed to changing ourselves. More than that, we must somehow find a way to show each other that living side by side is not just a terrible curse that we will need to tolerate, but an actual blessing.

Now, when I hear Hatikvah, I no longer hear it only in Hebrew, only with that age-old Jewish/Israeli yearning. I hear it now with a new hope – ‘amal in Arabic – a hope that I can share with my new Palestinian family, with whom it is a gift for me to live.

(I would like to thank my teachers and colleagues Rev. Diane Nancekivell and Fr. Josh Thomas for their deep reading of this piece and their important notes)

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse