Around and within the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today, there exist obstacles: physical, emotional and psychological, ideological and theological, simple and complex. The women in Musalaha’s multi-ethnic/religious Zayt group, now running for over a year, can rattle off more than a handful of these obstacles without giving it much thought. Some overlap between Palestinians and Israelis, and some are distinct for each group. When the group met in March to discuss these obstacles the women were able to share with a higher level of listening and openness than in previous meetings. It was one of those times where everyone present showed up in an authentic way, were willing to share painful experience and listen to experiences from the other side that challenge their identity.
One of the Israeli participants said that the Israeli media portrays these obstacles as all just a part of “the situation,” known as “ha-matsav” in Hebrew. An Israeli English teacher in the group described ha-matsav as an abstract, catch-all entity that you can throw anything and everything conflict-related into, to effectively “get it out of the way” so that you can quickly move around whatever it is and go on with your life. Underserviced neighborhoods in Jerusalem? It’s a result of the situation. Segregated school systems? The situation requires it. Overt racism on the street and buses? To be expected in this situation. You’re unable to visit a new friend who you’d really like to go deeper with, due to lack of freedom of movement? It’s all a part of the situation.
There are many components of the situation, which can produce opposing reactions, depending on a person’s national, ethnic and religious identity. A Palestinian from Bethlehem expressed that she feels isolated and alone in her sadness about the situation when the group doesn’t meet for a while. When the group does come together, she feels she is doing something to change the situation. These feelings are a natural outgrowth of the many physical obstacles, such as the separation wall, checkpoints, and the always-elusive pieces of paper known as “permissions” for Palestinians needing to travel into Israel. For both Palestinians and Israelis, seeking reconciliation with new friends requires not only stepping out of one’s comfort zone, but for some, also depends on logistical details that can change at a moment’s notice.
Many Israelis carry the thought in the back of their minds that maybe their enemy really does want to, “throw them into the sea,” a sentiment expressed by some Palestinians over the years. As a minority people group in the violent, unstable Middle East, many Israelis feel an existential threat to their existence. It is also understandable for these Israeli women to think, “Is it really worth it to go to East Jerusalem or the West Bank, knowing that something could go terribly wrong and alter the course of my family’s life? Is getting to know my Palestinian sisters worth risking my safety?” Fear of Palestinian hostility, which does exist, acts as a paralyzer and obstacle to reconciliation.
An Israeli in the group was eager to share how she and a few of the other Jewish women had visited two of the Palestinians in Bethlehem where they are physical therapists at a school for differently abled children. While planning the visit she said she felt “terrified” of going into a Palestinian town in the West Bank. However, when they met at the designated point and drove together to the school, she felt at ease. In fact, after seeing the school and their work, she shared, “I was overwhelmed with happiness to see how special this place is, but then I felt very angry that no Israeli Jews know about it, and it’s only 10 minutes from Jerusalem!” Her reaction to seeing what is on the other side of the separation wall highlighted just how powerful these obstacles can be when it comes to seeking reconciliation. If a well educated, well-travelled Israeli feels terrified about going to visit a school for little children, which is likely partially due to lack of exposure and disinformation about a people group and neighborhood, how would we expect that she be able to bridge these emotional and psychological barriers on her own?
A Palestinian from East Jerusalem shared a story about her daughter’s commute to her university in Bethlehem. She rides the bus into the West Bank city and back into Israel where she must get off the bus each time, stand in a line, and wait for Israeli soldiers to check her identification. Recently, one day it was very cold so the young woman had her hands in her coat pockets while waiting in the line outside the bus. To her surprise a soldier came up to her and started screaming and pointing his gun in her face. Her friends immediately realized that she should take her hands out of her pockets. Over the past 18 months Israeli soldiers have suffered many knife attacks by young people, women included. More than ever, no one is assumed innocent. Her mother shared, exasperated, “I told her, ‘Don’t put your hands in your pockets at the checkpoint! What can we do? Just don’t put your hands in your pockets!’” Her story reminded the group about the obstacles to reconciliation in the lives of their children.
In reply, an Israeli participant shared that her story highlighted the inequality in ha-matsav, the situation, sharing, “My daughter doesn’t have to go through any checkpoint to get to work. But, her taxes are going towards the situation.” She sees the detriment to both of these young women, and how even though her daughter does not experience the same level of injustice, it still intrudes into her life in practical ways. Further, she felt open enough to tell the Palestinian mother, “I’m scared of what you’re feeling towards me because of what’s going on towards your daughter. The inequality between us is an obstacle to peace.” This moment highlighted the circle of inequality, injustice, fear and despair that all people experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One passionate Israeli shared, “Most Israelis don’t get it, emotionally, about the injustice. Our minds are all the time brainwashed; we just do whatever we need to because we are scared.” Her sentiment emphasized again two major contributing obstacles: disinformation and lack of information. It is all too clear how societal conditioning, taking place amidst lack of accurate information about one another’s everyday lived experiences, can lead to the current day reality. It only follows that a group of people could go on living life as if fear is a valid excuse for continuing injustice. For this reason, groups like the Zayt group remain critical to progress on the ground, among the people. They provide a safe space to hear new stories first-hand, to venture new places with new friends, and to make new connections with the aim of seeing what is possible within the situation.
-Musalaha Staff Member