Arts & Culture

Learning to Speak Each Other’s Language

Should we beoptimistic about the current discussions intended to create two sovereignstates in the area of Israel and Palestine? I’m not optimistic. I thinkthe conscience of the world is soothed by these meetings and accords andmemoranda and Camp David get-togethers, … Read More

By / September 18, 2009

Should we beoptimistic about the current discussions intended to create two sovereignstates in the area of Israel and Palestine? I’m not optimistic. I thinkthe conscience of the world is soothed by these meetings and accords andmemoranda and Camp David get-togethers, during which agreements are made thatwill not be kept, as mostpeople on both sides know. Settlements will continue to be built,terrorist acts will continue to occur, an occupied territory will remain occupied, an occupied people will continue tolose territory and such rights as they have, and then in the course of time the attention of the worldwill again be focused on the next conference or meeting in Madrid. Those of us who care and keep watchwill be hopeful and then again despondent and then again hopeful when attempts at a newagreement are made.

Isthere any reason to believe that something now under diplomatic discussion willchange this pattern? I don’t thinkso.

Doesthis mean I am pessimistic and cynical about the possibilities of peace in theMiddle East? I’m not. However, Ido think we are looking for solutions in the wrong places, expecting oftreaties and agreements what can only be brought about by work on the ground,grassroots work, listening, mutual cooperation, and conversation. It’s heartening to know that asthe peace treaties come and go work of this kind is taking place, right now, inIsrael/Palestine. I have devotedan entire chapter of my book, Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home, to a study ofthese efforts. The good news (and there is good news) is that these attempts at understanding between two embattledpeoples tend to spread.

I wroteabout a village called the Oasis of Peace: Neve Shalom/Wahat-ha-Salam in orderto study the way it grew from a dream to a reality, hoping to learn how othersin the region could make their dreams of peace come true. In the Oasis of Peace, Jews and Arabswork and teach and study conflict resolution together. At first hearing, this effort must seemmuch less significant than the grand events (Oslo, Camp David, Madrid, Cairo)that enter headlines and call upon the attention of the world. On the other hand, while these summitsare regularly taking place and as regularly failing, the little village is growing; there are six hundred children in the villageschool and tens of thousands of teenagers have gone through the School for Peaceprogram. When I think of them Itend to imagine them as individual glowing sparks seeded out over the landamong their embattled people. These, and those like them, are the people who will find resolutions tothe conflict in the Middle-East.

Theearliest writers and dreamers about Zionism must have looked absurd to thepeople who surrounded them. Theywere poor and middle-class boys and girls living in Russia who gathered insmall circles to talk about building a homeland for Jews in Palestine.Dreamers, who knew how to work hard, they invite us to dream on the same scale they did-always rememberingthat a dream must first be planted on earth, in daily activity, in sustainedcommitment.

In1997, Amin Khalaf and Lee Gordon, Israelis of Arab and Jewish origin,established a non-profit organization called Hand in Hand. In 1998, they opened an elementaryschool where Arab and Jewish children study together. Since then, three more schools have been opened; over 800 students are presently enrolled in the four bi-lingualschools. Here, in thiscountry of bombs and attacks and shelling and dispossessions, 800 students now know how to speak each other’s language. Their parents are alsoinvolved, actively working to create social change. Soon it is expected that an entire, countrywide network ofsuch schools will exist, educating children from kindergarten through thetwelfth grade, educating their parents too, and the neighbors of their parentsand probably anyone to whom the children or the parents happen to speak abouttheir lived experience of peaceful co-existence.

Someyears ago, I dreamed that I waslecturing about how we, the privileged in a society of growing poverty, aredamaged by our efforts to deny what is happening to our less privilegedneighbors. We do not understandhow to help them and therefore we close ourselves off to knowledge. In the dream I grasped in graphicdetail the way this self-insulation as making us shrink, impoverishing us,covering us in layers of stiff gauze, so that soon, I kept saying in my dream,we will have enclosed ourselves in an indifference so profound we can no longerbe said to be alive inside all those layers of denial. This was not a dream about Israel andPalestine; I dreamt it years before I wrote my book, but perhaps, working inthe subterranean way dreams do, it eventually instructed me to write the kindof book I wrote, in which I study our ability to ignore what ishappening to our neighbors.

As weare approach Yom Kippur and theDays of Awe, we ask ourselvesto think over the deeds of the previous year, to atone and repent, and to askforgiveness for transgression. Perhaps this year we will be able to bring particular regard to a prayerwe have repeated so often on Erev Yom Kippur we may no longer pay muchattention to it.

"May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who livein their midst, for all the people are at fault." As is customary, we will saythis prayer three times. The first time perhaps for what we have done to thePalestinians; the secondtime for what the Palestinians have done to us. The third time for the possibility that these two peopleswill be guided to forgive each other.