Be­yond Kum­baya

What Eetta PrinceGib­son learned from a Syr­ian refugee.

Forward Magazine - - News - Eetta Prince-Gib­son, the for­mer ed­i­torin-chief of The Jerusalem Re­port, is an award- win­ning jour­nal­ist who lives in Jerusalem.

Imet Shirin, a refugee from a vil­lage near Aleppo, Syria, while I was on as­sign­ment in Ber­lin. Her hus­band was killed in the fight­ing; over a year ago, to­gether with her two teenage daugh­ters, she fled to Turkey, then across the sea to Greece, then trekked across Europe to shel­ter in Ber­lin.

Shirin is not her real name; she still has rel­a­tives back in Syria, and is afraid they would come to harm if any­one were to know she is shel­ter­ing in Ber­lin — or speak­ing with a Jew.

Even in do­nated clothes, Shirin, 52, is grace­ful and el­e­gant. In Aleppo she was an English teacher; in Ber­lin she is liv­ing in a dor­mi­tory-like shel­ter, with lit­tle to do. The Jews vol­un­teer­ing in the shel­ter are the first she has ever met.

In flu­ent English, she told me she didn’t want to talk about the war, her hus­band, pol­i­tics or the painful trek to Ber­lin; in­stead, she talked about her con­cern for her daugh­ters’ fu­ture. We chat­ted eas­ily — un­til one of the vol­un­teers, an Is­raeli liv­ing in Ber­lin, in­ter­rupted us briefly to co­or­di­nate our sched­ules. Shirin pushed back her chair a bit. “You were speak­ing in He­brew? You are Is­raeli?” she asked me. I re­sponded, “I was and I am.” She turned away from me and, still speak­ing in English, talked to her­self: “The [ Syr­ian] gov­ern­ments taught us to hate Jews. I met Jews here, and they are kind. They taught us to hate Is­raelis — but this lady [re­fer­ring to me] is okay, a bit like me and has chil­dren like me... and she’s Is­raeli. The gov­ern­ment that brought this war on us, they killed my hus­band. Be­cause of them I am a refugee. I won’t be­lieve any­thing that any gov­ern­ment tells me any­more….”

Then she turned back to me and con­tin­ued talk­ing about her daugh­ter.

That con­ver­sa­tion with Shirin con­tin­ues to echo through my po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­texts. I think about how in­fre­quently we truly meet with the in­fa­mous “other” who lives on the other side of our con­flicts. Clos­est to home: How many Pales­tini­ans ever re­ally chat with Jews? How many Jews, Is­raeli or North Amer­i­can, ever re­ally meet with Pales­tini­ans?

That’s why I want the Pales­tini­ans to end their pol­icy of non-nor­mal­iza­tion with Is­rael — and I want the North Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity to in­vite Pales­tini­ans to speak.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pales­tinian Cam­paign for the Aca­demic & Cul­tural

Boycott of Is­rael, nor­mal­iza­tion is “the par­tic­i­pa­tion in any project, ini­tia­tive or ac­tiv­ity... that aims to bring to­gether Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis with­out plac­ing as its goals re­sis­tance and ex­po­sure of the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion and op­pres­sion against the Pales­tinian peo­ple.” A deeper read­ing re­veals that non-nor­mal­iza­tion is a de­mand any meet­ing be pred­i­cated on a re­nun­ci­a­tion of Zion­ism and ac­knowl­edge­ment of the il­le­git­i­macy of the State of Is­rael.

That, of course, I can­not and will not do. Yet I can un­der­stand at least some of the rea­sons that Pales­tini­ans present for non-nor­mal­iza­tion. Meet­ings, even seem­ingly in­nocu­ous ones, can be in­ter­preted as draw­ing a false equiv­a­lence, as though Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans can ever meet as equals as long as the oc­cu­pa­tion con­tin­ues. Di­a­logues can feed a sense of com­pla­cency, eas­ing the ur­gency for Pales­tinian in­de­pen­dence and sovereignty, and Is­raelis and Jews can abuse them to salve their trou­bled con­sciences.

I also un­der­stand why Jews, in North Amer­ica and in Is­rael, don’t want to pro­vide podi­ums for “the en­emy” at a time when even crit­i­cal pro-Is­rael po­si­tions have be­come un­ten­able on col­lege cam­puses, when the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment con­demns pur­ported “Is­raeli geno­cide” and when Is­raelis are os­tra­cized abroad.

And it’s true that all the co­ex­is­tence ini­tia­tives — from semi-of­fi­cial and Track II meet­ings to chil­dren’s choirs and women’s cook­ing groups — have not cre­ated a re­li­able peace process; if any­thing, both sides have be­come more in­tran­si­gent.

But it’s pre­cisely be­cause there are cur­rently no ef­fec­tive peace ne­gotithat ations or cred­i­ble lead­er­ship ef­forts on ei­ther side that civil so­ci­ety must move in. When we don’t meet, ha­tred and mis­trust be­tween our so­ci­eties and within our so­ci­eties grow stronger and more vir­u­lent. The seem­ingly un­break­able cy­cles of vi­o­lence un­der­mine the con­stituen­cies that we need to cre­ate a two-state (or any state) so­lu­tion.

Meet­ings by them­selves will not bring peace. The so-called “con­tact hy­poth­e­sis,” de­vel­oped by so­cial sci­en­tists back in the 1950s, has long been re­placed with sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that proves con­tact is not enough. Kum­baya camp­fires aren’t a re­place­ment for for­eign pol­icy; semi-of­fi­cial di­a­logues won’t lead to per­ma­nent agree­ments, and sweet chil­dren’s groups will not put an end to the oc­cu­pa­tion or to ter­ror.

But with­out meet­ings we are left with only our sim­plis­tic, zero-sum per­cep­tions of the other. When we meet, we do not give up our own po­si­tion or de­mand that they give up theirs. But we can come to un­der­stand that they be­lieve in their nar­ra­tive just as deeply as we be­lieve in ours, that their na­tional mem­ory and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties are as cru­cial to them as ours are to us, and that their hopes for their chil­dren’s fu­tures are much like our own.

My con­ver­sa­tion with Shirin taught me more: Meet­ing with the other is al­ways a meet­ing with our own self, our own fears and ha­treds. Lis­ten­ing forces us to change the cal­cu­lus of vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor and, view­ing our­selves dif­fer­ently, to think of new so­lu­tions.

Just as Shirin’s meet­ing with Jews and Is­raelis is part of her po­lit­i­cal reval­u­a­tion, meet­ings be­tween Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis can in­oc­u­late us against the hate that sur­rounds us. They can in­ure us to the fear­mon­ger­ing that our cow­ardly lead­er­ships use in­stead of lead­ing us to peace. And that can have a very real po­lit­i­cal im­pact.


Un­ex­pected Meet­ing: Syr­ian refugees tak­ing shel­ter in Ber­lin are com­ing into con­tact with Is­raeli Jews — in some cases, for the first time.

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