Imposing, Expressing and Enlarging Identity


In the past we have shared about workshops we lead on Identity.  Identity is complex, and in many situations, we find that others want to impose an identity on us.  Yet, it is more important to know and discuss how we see ourselves. In many cases, what others call us is different from what we call ourselves.  The way people discuss identity in conflict can be very combative, and we often find that people build their identities at the expense of others.  As a result, identity tends to be the first casualty in conflict, something we and many others have observed in reconciliation activities.

Last week we conducted another workshop on Identity with our Zayt group. It can be overwhelming to see how many identities we have in our small countries.  Due to the mixed nature of this group, with secular and traditional Israeli Jews, traditional and religious Palestinian Muslims, and Palestinian Christians, we had a long list of identities we prepared for the activity: secular Jew, religious Jew, Orthodox Jew, Jewish Israeli, Jewish, Israeli, Israeli Arab, Israeli Palestinian, Palestinian, Palestinian Muslim, Muslim Arab, Muslim, Palestinian Christian, Christian, Christian Arab, Immigrant, Foreigner, Arab. One of the important points we emphasize during our meetings is that we should allow others to self-identify.  This is an instructive activity because it allows participants to define themselves, and it gives others the opportunity to learn why each group member identifies as they do.  It also shows how diverse our groups are as we are not just Muslims, Christians and Jews, but many different types of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

When dealing with many different types of identities, external forces seek to simplify them by imposing labels upon them. In Arab Christians in British Mandate Palestine: Communalism and Nationalism, 1917-1948 by Noah Haiduc-Dale, he discusses important issues Mandatory Palestine’s Christian community faced as the British began redefining religious identification, how Muslim Arab leadership emphasized religiousdifferences to gain more power, and how religion became increasingly politicized and the conflict took on an increasingly national-religious character. The British tried to simplify the diversity and control the religious communities by dealing with them in three groups, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Particularly for the Christian community, they fluctuated between nationalism and communalism in their identity, always identifying with Palestinian nationalism, but at various points focusing more on their communal religious identities as well.

In the Zayt group workshop, we divided the Israeli and Palestinian women and asked each group to discuss their identity and put it down on paper.  It was interesting to see how the Palestinian women drew a picture of an olive tree, Jerusalem, a kefiya, and a number of religious sites.  They wrote that their identity is comprised of religion, land, refugees, culture, existence and historical/religious sites.  The Israeli group, in contrast, wrote at length about what it means to be Israeli, emphasizing parts they love about their cultures, issues they struggle with, and more.  One Israeli lady had a hard time expressing this verbally, and she drew a beautiful sketch at the top of the page with many colors and interwoven parts.  Afterwards, I asked the ladies to identify what was missing in each of their identities.  As we usually see in these sorts of interactions, when we discuss our identities, we do not include the other side.  Commenting on the Palestinian sketch, one Israeli lady mentioned that they could add a Star of David; the Palestinian ladies were visibly upset at this thought.  The Palestinian ladies, likewise, challenged the Israelis about where they fit in the Israeli identity, and they noted how the Israeli version depicted their privilege.  Whereas the Palestinian identity reflected basic human needs and desires, the Israeli identity was filled with some basic needs, but also with internal debate, self-reflection, and lighter conceptions of identity.  The Palestinians were surprised at the prominent place that fear played in Israeli identity, and they asked the Israelis how they can be so fearful when they have the strongest army in the Middle East and all the power in Israel/Palestine.  When the Palestinians emphasized that they could not give up any part of their identity, the Israelis were shocked, and one lady surprisingly asked how then, could there ever be peace?  Later, I asked the ladies to pick what was most important for them.  While the Israelis had different ideas about this, the Palestinians were united on the fact that their existence and historical sites are the most important aspects of their identity.

This meeting was informative and eye-opening, and the ladies left the meeting with more questions, but also a better understanding of the challenges we face.  As the group spends this week in Germany together, they will learn more about how the strengths and weaknesses of how they remember contribute to their identities in positive and negative ways, and they will learn how they deal with these issues constructively together.

By Salim J. Munayer and Musalaha Publications Department