A patchwork of mismatched, ambitious youth step off the bus into an enclosed garden in Ness Ammim, Israel. We have twenty-seven hours to cross a line that no one names, but everyone can immediately feel.
It is a time and space just for 33 Israeli and Palestinian young people. It is not a group of people meeting for the first time, but instead, teenagers who have known each other from childhood through their participation in Musalaha’s Children’s Summer Camps. Musalaha’s reconciliation training on identity is not for the faint of heart. It is challenging, emotional, and comprehensive.
Defensiveness and apathy step off the bus behind us, but before they have the chance to separate into their Arabic and Hebrew speaking cliques, the group leaders strategically intervene with a variety of games and activities. Laughter melts most of the unspoken pretense before it has time to ferment.
Yesterday my identity was subconscious; today it is worn on my forehead, in a simple but profound icebreaker we play to open up the weekend activities.
After worship and prayer, one of our staff leads the first session, discussing the different lenses with which we perceive and understand identity. We, as well as our society, assign general labels to people: Palestinian Christian, Palestinian-Israeli, Israeli-Arab, Messianic Jew, Israeli believer, and so-on. Together, everyone wades ankle-deep into the concepts of ‘Self’ (who am I?) and ‘Other’ (who are they?).
We separate the youths based on geographical location: Palestinian-Israelis from the North, Palestinians from Jerusalem, Palestinians from the West Bank, and Israeli Messianic Jews. Each group confers and presents to the rest an illustration of their collective Self, perceived Other, and how the latter shapes the former.
A thread running through each presentation is the cultural pressure to fuse personal identity with nationalism, and in turn, shape a collective national identity with absent or false information of the Other.
A string of chaotic games mold the next few hours; we laugh until we cannot see straight, until we are too bewildered to compete anymore, and too exhausted to be apprehensive with one another.
The following morning, another two leaders serenade everyone deeper into the water as they address identity in Messiah. They remind us that above the noise of society’s labels and perceptions of identity, our primary identity is found in Messiah and His love.
Rather than separating the students for the follow-up discussion, we integrate the groups so that both Palestinian and Israeli Jewish students are sitting together. This exposes an unexpected dimension of last night’s discussion questions; answers rehearsed among homogeny suddenly stall on students’ lips, and a palpable sobriety seizes the room.
The right to pounce on exclusive phrasing or unfamiliar rhetoric lurks appetizingly at the edge of each circle. But over the next hour, they tiptoe through one another’s minds, comfort zones in check, reflexes laid aside.
When one group drops the term “Chosen people” shoulders across the circle stiffen; opinions crawl forward; explanations are probed and elasticized. These small words at once connotate national fate and national pride. As the dialogue inches tensely forward, each potential correction or callout is replaced with a deep breath and a question.
I hover nearby, visually eavesdropping with my camera, wondering if I have ever seen this caliber of humility before in my life.
Eman, our fearless leader announces we are moving the discussion outside – to the beach.
During the picnic, I climb a hill to snap a candid wide shot of the whole group. The viewfinder on my camera reports something wholly different from yesterday. When we arrived on the chapel grounds, Jewish and Palestinian students gravitated accordingly; now, they weave in and out of conversation, wearing out one another’s names, reaping the sweet fruit of the afternoon’s labor.
We did it–we crossed the line.
The scene is strikingly normal. A group of young adults at the seashore lounge on picnic blankets, kick a soccer ball between them and yell inside jokes. It is radical because it is simple; it is sacred because it is ordinary.
By Hana Shapiro