As the time drew near for the public affairs leaders’ seminar, which took place this past weekend in Athens, we at Musalaha began to worry about the mounting tensions in the land. Nonetheless, we continued planning for the weekend meeting. Almost every other day we could hear shooting and saw news of killings. We felt concerned because in the past when things got tense and violence escalated, people withdrew and didn’t want to participate until things quieted down. The participants of our groups face pressure from family and friends not to come meet together with “the other.” The tension and violence in our country continued to escalate to a high level. However, to our joy and encouragement, the members of the group were determined to come and meet with each other, to share and listen to one another.
This group of public affairs leaders had previously met several times at a desert encounter weekend and a couple of other weekend seminars. They had already begun to develop relationship and trust. They had already gone through our identity seminar and were ready for the upcoming seminar about historical narrative. This seminar is usually the most difficult. The historical narrative seminar is one of the milestones in the stages of reconciliation for Musalaha and is usually the most heated, emotionally charged and difficult to facilitate. Talking about historical narrative can become heated and emotional because it examines and challenges the stories of history we’ve been told by our schools, communities, and families that have formed our worldview and our individual and collective identities. History is rarely taught in objective bullet point form but is weaved into a story that gives meaning to our identity, therefore becoming a narrative. Narratives are useful for motivating people to action and giving them a sense meaning and belonging. The historical narratives we believe tell us who we are, who our enemies are, why our enemies are wrong and we are right, and inspire loyalty to our group. In instances of conflict, especially ours, there are often many narratives that conflict with each other.
In the seminar on historical narrative, not only do they learn about historical narrative, but they also have to write down the two main narratives and work in groups to present each other’s narratives. The purpose is not only to process their own narratives and see the challenges to it but also to see the gap between the historical narrative they’ve been living by and that of the other group. Seeing and understanding this gap is very important to illuminate to people the shortcomings about their narrative. Many times when the groups present, they make statements that aren’t true and reveal their biases. They resort to denial, rejection, and blaming. The two groups ask difficult questions aimed at each other. Things can get charged quickly and people shut down.
With this group, there were many challenging questions, but they were answered with openness and civility which was encouraging; however, it was still emotionally draining. Unfortunately, many times the groups stop here at attempting to understand each other’s narratives. However, with this group, we were able to facilitate the creation of a joint narrative for the Israelis and Palestinians. To my joy, this group was able to create a joint, common narrative that they could build together. For example, they discussed creating a shared narrative of being in and living in the land together. Points they had in common were that both communities have experienced exile, both have felt betrayed by the international community, and both dislike the current situation of segregation, suffering from their political leaders, and the current cycle of fear and violence perpetuated by extremists on both sides. Lastly, they talked about how they want to turn conflicting narratives about 1948, which for Israelis is the year Israel gained independence and for Palestinians is the year of Nakba or catastrophe, into a new narrative that bridges the two. They showed great maturity and resilience. They also agreed to continue meeting and are determined to start a joint project.
Did we solve the Conflict this weekend? No. We didn’t expect to. But we DID help 20 community leaders find their way through the emotionally charged discussion that brings us one step closer to reconciliation. Who knows if one of these people will be a leader of their political party and help to give us all a better future?
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D