Building Bridges Even When it is Hard: School Principals Respond to Trump's Declaration

DECEMBER 15, 2017

Two months ago, Musalaha was asked to conduct a reconciliation seminar for Palestinian and Israeli school principals in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is undoubtedly a center for tension between these two communities and young people are increasingly taking part in the conflict, initiatives to build bridges, first between them and later among their students, have potential for great impact. This group of principals came to a deadlock in their ability to progress, so we were asked to come and present our model to help them move forward. To our great delight, the group was very excited to learn about our model and the six stages of reconciliation.

However, the statement made by US President Donald Trump more than a week ago, declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and sharing US plans to move its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, caused a stream of emotional reactions on all sides.

Many people asked to interview me, to write something, and share my thoughts on the subject. Instead of responding, I decided to share with you my experience in working with these school principals.  

A few days following Trump’s declaration, I received a message from this group of educators, asking me to come and facilitate one of their meetings. The discord among them was tense, they began cancelling their joint trips, meetings, and doubting whether it was even possible to build bridges. Nevertheless they knew it important to meet and asked for me to join them and offer suggestions in how to move forward.   

I was asked to present and address the topic of Jerusalem in the context of possible solutions and peace. We provided a platform for the teachers to express their opinions. We found this meeting to be a microcosm of the voices in the larger Israeli and Palestinian societies.

There were split opinions among the Israelis. While there were some who shared the opinion that Trumps’ announcement was similar to a declaration of war, most expressed the opinion that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and is a fact that everyone needs to accept. As a whole, it was difficult for the Israelis to see why announcing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be insulting to the Palestinians.

For the Palestinians, Trumps’ statement brought about collective betrayal and hurt. “This declaration makes us seem like dust, like we are a people who don’t even exist. We are far away from them and they think they can do whatever they want with us.” They expressed in this meeting how it reminded them of the pain of what the Balfour Declaration meant for the Palestinian people and shared their fears that rhetoric could lead to a second Nakba, similar to the first when Palestinians were expelled from their homeland.

The declaration has created an obvious inequality, and exacerbated the imbalance of power to its peak. Across the board, Palestinian school principals feel betrayed and cornered while Israeli school principals feel that by not recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is equivalent to denying the right of the Jews to live in the land.

Both reactions are deeply colored by fear—fear of the response and potential impending violence and deterioration of the situation. Within this context, the question ultimately presented to the group was, “how do we move ahead?”  

In spite of the very chaotic events in the last week, the group came to the conclusion that they wanted to continue to meet and work together for their communities and their students. Bringing both sides together when one side feels powerless is an incredible challenge, not only emotionally, but also for developing relationships, addressing the situation, and the needs of each community in a manner that is respectful and honoring to both sides.

It was encouraging to see that instead of looking to politicians for the answer to bring about peace or come up with a solution to the conflict, these principals were eager to take an active role in building bridges between the communities and to create a solution even when it is hard.