Harriet Gimpel


It’s time to have my eyes refracted. That’s my conclusion from a three-day retreat of 10 Israelis with 10 Palestinians in Cyprus where we met to build staff resilience. This involved facilitated sessions to open lines of communication that became clogged since October 7 and improving that communication.

I could start by describing the idyllic group photo we asked a German tourist to take on the hotel lobby patio with the sea behind us. But I will tell you other things. Since October, I have written my weekly blog with family and friends abroad as the target audience in my mind. Israelis live with it, experiencing it, each in her and his own way. This time, I should write a version for my Israeli family and friends. The retreat was an experience that few Israelis even come close to having, especially now. I know if I tell Israelis about it, all too many will say there are no Palestinians interested in an end to war, in living in peace.

The retreat did not change my views. I continue to believe in the message of peace and reconciliation that our binational, cross-border, Israeli and Palestinian organization spreads. I continue to question the partnership, while knowing limitations confront us, with issues any organization might face. The retreat did not alter these beliefs. Perhaps it reinforced them. As it reinforced my conviction that there are individuals, like me and different from me, who share a genuine desire for the end of the bloodshed and accept that two national groups – Israelis and Palestinians – should live on this land in peace.

It means I connected to people and detached professionally, and then reconnected the pieces. I sat in a circle with my colleagues to listen, question, and process. We had sessions together with our Palestinian colleagues and separate uninational sessions of Israelis and Palestinians, and reconvened.

We went out for an evening of Cypriot folk dancing at a tavern and spent time laughing and chatting on the minibus getting there. I sat with a Palestinian colleague close to my age. We all know that hate and demonization is rampant on the other side, so I didn’t need to apologize for sharing a personal anecdote that makes the point.

I told him about a Tik-Tok clip my six-year-old granddaughter showed me a few days prior to the retreat. The flag of Israel on the ground like a carpet. A man positioned to trample it while holding the Palestinian flag. I doubt my granddaughter understood the message of stepping on the Israeli flag. She just wanted to show me the bad guy holding the Palestinian flag. I told her there are good guys and bad guys on both sides and got a skeptical facial expression in return. My colleague immediately said, “you have to tell her that this could not have been filmed in Palestine, in the West Bank.”

Another Palestinian in the seat behind us overheard us and reiterated the same. I understood, yet allowed them to explain, “Tell her if anyone in the West Bank were to make such a video clip, the Israeli authorities would immediately arrest them.” For the record, as per our mission, it goes without saying that my colleagues would not want to make such a video. It does not go without saying that all West Bank Palestinians are subject to searches, sometimes blindfolded, with their telephones taken for scanning at checkpoints when they go from one town to another. Not only must caution be exercised in having any such pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel messages on their phones, even empathy with their people in Gaza is less tolerated than it might be for me.

The Palestinian woman in the seat behind us also said we need to know that the slogan, “from the river to the sea,” is only used abroad. They don’t say it in Palestine. Maybe you have heard Israelis over the last eight months, or earlier, begging Jews, Palestinians, and others abroad, not to import the conflict, to advocate for reconciliation. Refraction. The slogan resonates with multiple levels of spotlights, reflected on this blood-saturated land, exacerbating conflict rather than contributing to its resolution.

The next day I told my contemporary that I spoke to my granddaughter on FaceTime about what he said. Disclaimer: I didn’t tell him she wasn’t really listening. But at the end of the retreat, he told me it was important to him that we remain in touch, beyond the staff meetings on Zoom. I told him I want to meet his wife. He was married last summer. His first wife was murdered in an attack on their car by Israeli settlers five years ago.

There were some unpleasant sessions, feeling our Palestinian colleagues quantify justification for trauma and largely unwilling to recognize our trauma. None of us would want to be in their place, under Occupation, living in fear of attack by extremist Jewish settlers or humiliation by an Israeli soldier, at best.  We are a cross-border organization of members and employees who acknowledge that the people in Palestine and the people in Israel are subject to different sets of rules and rights, and mostly wrongs. That does not replace the need for us as Israelis to have our trauma and struggles acknowledged.

With the lighting in the ceiling and the glare of the sun through the window, it is hard to distinguish when the national and the personal separate, and when the professional and the personal are tainted by the national. One session that primarily addressed professional issues and how our office conducts business as a binational team, left the Israelis distraught. As I walked from one hotel building to the other, intentionally alone, I cried. An Israeli colleague was walking with his professional counterpart, a younger Palestinian man. The latter noticed me passing with the glistening of tears on my cheeks. He implored me to say what was the matter and at least not to cry. For him, he said, it was as if his mother was crying, and he must reach out to help her. I assured him not to worry. Then at the dinner buffet, when he stood by a serving plate of something that appealed to me, I told him I was taking the offer – as his could-be my mother, I would take his place in line. We laughed and hugged.

On the final day, in a relatively pleasant session, I asked a question of a young Palestinian woman. Uncomfortable with her response, an Israeli colleague pressed her for clarity. She repeated a similar response in different words and with more precision. Afterwards in a private conversation, I told this Palestinian colleague, that in her answer to the follow-up question, I understood that she is going through a process. Sometimes our minds and souls contain interrelated and diverging thoughts and we verbalize only one of them. In responding to the second question, I could see where she spoke in a similar way, but with that divergence indicative of transformation. In the closing session, she commented that she felt I really listen to her to understand her. Before we parted, this young mother told me to text her when I get home. (We returned to Israel before the Palestinians returned to the West Bank.)

After the idyllic group photo we took before leaving, we were all hugging. One could hear the cacophony of English, Hebrew, and Arabic. I asked the woman who took the picture if she wanted to know who we were. She answered in German that she doesn’t speak English. I crossed my forefinger and middle finger to signify our being together and just said, “Israeli and Palestinian.” For a moment, I felt like her eyebrow raised in disbelief makes it all worthwhile.

But we need more. When building trust remains questionable, and it does, even for many committed to peace and reconciliation, we need more people who talk and hug. We need to be rid of leaders who interfere with allowing it.

I trust the desire of my Palestinian colleagues to live a peaceful existence, acknowledging our right to the same in this land, divided however it may be.  Others do not share my trust. We know from social psychology research that this is a common problem of long-term conflicts: the shared conviction that the other does not want to resolve the conflict.

I am convinced of the approach that claims that making the argument for a cause to someone who thinks differently is ineffective. The argument won’t convey the point. A story will. But now I think even a story is not enough. I tell this story, thinking, if only we didn’t have leaders perpetuating war on both sides, we could, with the harsh difficulties work towards peace. Yet my Israeli listener concluded the problem is that Palestinians do not want peace. Maybe my story will trickle down in the mind of my listener. Wishful thinking. It will take too long if it ever succeeds. Telling about my experience is not enough. Hearing about my hug from my Palestinian colleague is ineffective.

Everybody needs the real hug.

You need to refract the light rays because when they go through one object to another, they could touch your heart and change your mind.

Harriet Gimpel, June 25, 2024

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.
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