I know about leaving. People would say to me ‘If you don’t like it, go change it.’ What they mean is, ‘Go away and change it.’ But there’s power to staying.
—Tova Hartman, founder of Shira Hadasha, a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem that has no central leadership or rabbi, and permits women to lead services and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
Read Kevin Grant’s full article on The Huffington Post.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A Skeleton Key to Stories and Ideas, Legend and Myth
by Krista Tippett, host
When we were in Israel and the West Bank this past spring, the momentum was building for what is now unfolding on the floor of the United Nations — a new approach to Palestinian sovereignty that, depending on whom you listen to, might change everything or might change nothing. Still, while the new energies of the emerging Middle East herald new beginnings with uncertain outcomes, they are bringing a definitive end to the recent status quo.
But “recent” is a relative term, as I palpably experienced in Jerusalem and as Sari Nusseibeh embodies in his person. “Recent” in American minds might be a matter of months, perhaps years. Here it is a matter of centuries. Seeking to understand that profoundly different sense of time and history is the only way we will be able to see the complexity of what is now unfolding — to apply caution where it is needed, hope where it is warranted, and a sense of how we can best care. Sari Nusseibeh’s voice is a gift towards that end.
For starters, he has an utterly fascinating personal story, which contains layers of Arab history now shaping history in the making. The original “Nusaybah” was a female companion — and fellow fighter — of the prophet Mohammad. And sometime after the Muslim entry into Jerusalem in the seventh century, one of Nusaybah’s relatives was appointed the official keeper of the keys to the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, an elaborate ritual of opening and closing the church’s ancient wooden doors with an oversized skeleton key continues, and Sari Nusseibeh’s family remains part of that ritual.
Fast forward 13 centuries, give or take, and his mother’s family lost everything when the state of Israel was created, out of war, in 1948. His father, nevertheless, had an illustrious career as a statesman — as governor of Jerusalem, Jordanian ambassador to London, and Jordanian minister of defense. For, in one of those chapters it is easy to lose sight of the “recent” history of the Middle East — before the watershed year of 1967, when the current and ever-contested borders of Israel and Jerusalem were drawn — the West Bank was a territory administered by Jordan, not Israel.
In the sweep of his memory and experience, then, Sari Nusseibeh provides helpful, necessary context for thinking about the Arab world as it’s evolving in real time today. His perspective concretely addresses current events. But it is the combination of this lived perspective and his philosophical mind that makes his wisdom uniquely illuminating and useful. He sees through current events, through political cycles of turmoil and progress, to the “human evolution” that is necessary for real change to happen. He argues forcefully that this is underway, albeit painfully slowly, and cannot be measured merely in terms of politics and peace processes, either successful or failed.
Sari Nusseibeh’s stories and ideas leave me with so much to think about. And from his unusual vantage point, he adds yet a new layer of complexity to my thinking about the contradictions, perils, and promise of events in this land: the layer of myth and legend and their force in human life. Naming this piece of the picture actually helps bring some of the rest into a more manageable focus. This part of the world, he knows in his bones, brings a special intensity to the human inclination to shape reality as much on the basis of what is imagined as what is real. We must take this seriously as a way human beings make sense and find their ways toward truth. He speaks to the evolutionary possibility in all of our lives, and all of our societies, when he says this of the “legends and myths” that are part of rock-solid reality in his land:
“You have to somehow grow into them, grow out of them, know how to deal with them, live peaceably at them — while at the same time accepting other myths that may conflict with them. But I think it’s happening.”
About the embedded photo: A keyholder to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre locks the front door before ceremonially passing the key through a lower portal to a Greek Orthodox priest on the inside. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
How Aida Refugee Camp Got Its Name
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
We met Kholoud Al Ajarma, a Palestinian woman who coordinates the arts and media activities for the Lajee Center, while conducting interviews within Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this past March. What a gift to meet her and take her photo, along with many others while working there.
Members of our staff all had different ideas about where she acquired her marvelous English accent; we were all wrong. But now we know. Maybe you’d like to guess? Listen to the audio clip above from this week’s show in which Kholoud tells a charming story about how Aida camp got its name. Submit a comment here, and I’ll post the answer shortly.
Every time I read the comments thread on an article about the Israel-Palestine conflict, I regret it. It’s like there’s one sports team on one side called Team Israel, and another team on another side called Team Palestine and you have to support one or the other. Facts or logic don’t play into this; it’s just straight up Yankees-Red Sox or Celtic-Rangers idiocy.
Q:First, I just want to say I love the show and Krista you deserve a noble peace prize for the work you do. I have been really enjoying all the pieces stemming from your trip to the Middle East. I just read an editorial from the NYT that resonated with me and just wanted to share it with you'all :-)
Here is the link : http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/25/opinion/25friedman.html?_r=1&smid=fb-nytimes&WT.mc_id=OP-SM-E-FB-SM-LIN-LFT-052511-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click
Thank you for saying so. We’re working hard at presenting many voices from this region and hope we’re adding value to the news reports and political discussions taking place. But, when it comes to shows featuring Israeli and Palestinian voices, the metrics for visits to the websites and podcast downloads for these types of shows dip — often quite dramatically — in the weekly trending graphs.
We realize numbers aren’t everything, but we do ask ourselves how we can frame and promote these shows differently to attract more ears and eyeballs because we know that these alternative perspectives are worth hearing. Plus, they are so very interesting and relevant to our own lives.
If you have ideas, please help us. We are game for great ideas.
With regard to Thomas Friedman’s column, his idea of West Bank Palestinians peacefully marching all the way to Jerusalem is talk that ignores the realities and logistics of the situation. Mr. Friedman admits that it’s crazy (sorta?), but it’s even crazier than it sounds. But his larger point of building on the idea of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring is not lost on us either.
—Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When a Jewish Kibbutz Neighbors an Arab Village: 50 Years of Cooperation in Israel
by Bethany Firnhaber, Rosalina Nieves, and Robyn Carolyn Price
The relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel has been strained by failed peace agreements, suicide bombings, and the construction of a separation wall — all which have fostered fear and anger on both sides.
Since Israel became a state in 1948, the road to peaceful coexistence has been, as many people in the region describe it, complicated. Somewhere in the midst of the conflict, however, are two communities — one Arab and one Jewish — that for years have shared a well, harvested crops together, and attended each others’ weddings and funerals.
Their relationship began in the early ’50s when Kibbutz Mezer was established. Unable to find a viable water source of their own, the new kibbutz relied on the generosity of its Arab neighbors, who allowed them to share their own small well. In gratitude, Kibbutz Mezer shared with Meiser tips for navigating the new Israeli bureaucracy.
Both communities say that, in time, respect and even friendships grew. And not even the murder of a family at the kibbutz by a Palestinian extremist on November 10, 2002 could dismantle the peaceful relationship the two communities share.
The video above is a tale of Mezer and Meiser, communities that have lived side by side for over 55 years, offering a model of what peaceful coexistence in the region might look like.
Bethany Firnhaber is a Los Angeles-based freelance reporter and photographer who recently received a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is most interested in reporting on issues of social responsibility and human rights, especially across cultural and international borders.
Rosalina Nieves is a master’s degree candidate in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Southern California. After graduating from Purdue University, she began her career at WFLD-TV (FOX) in Chicago. Since that time, she has worked at KABC-TV and is currently an assignment editor at CNN’s Los Angeles bureau.
Robyn Carolyn Price is native of Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University, and studied in Florence, Italy. She is currently a master’s degree candidate in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California. Her specialization is American politics and its effects on marginalized communities.
Read more about their reporting in Mezer and Meiser on their website, We would also like to include a link to the projects’s website, Coexistence in Israel: A Tale of Two Cities.
Multiple Narratives and Many Truths about the Same Facts Emerge If We Only Listen
by Krista Tippett, host
I first discovered Yossi Klein Halevi in the early days of this program. I picked his book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist off the shelves of the public library and was riveted by this son of a Holocaust survivor’s journey into, and then beyond, violent rage.
In the 1970s, in Brooklyn where he was growing up, he got very close to a charismatic rabbi who inspired his followers to bomb Soviet embassies to liberate Jews in that now-vanished empire. A deeper connection to the spiritual core of Judaism drew him out and took him to Israel. And there, in heady days of the Oslo Accords of the 90s, he undertook another kind of journey inward and outward — an experiment in religious empathy.
He sought knowledge of the religious others in his land by way of their devotional lives rather than their religious, political, or civic identities. He prayed with monks and nuns and sheiks. He knelt in prayer with his skullcap on in Palestinian mosques. He came, as he described it, not merely to revere but to love Christianity and Islam.
And even as Yossi Klein Halevi was testing — and defying — the border crossings between faiths, the Oslo process was unraveling under bad faith and broken promises on both sides. The second intifada in the early years of this century made Yossi Klein Halevi’s project unthinkable. It also ultimately brought an end to the simple freedom of movement and human contact that had made it possible. Meeting him in person for the first time as a guest in his home in Jerusalem earlier this year — I looked out his window at the wall that obscured what was once an expansive view of desert and of the Palestinian West Bank.
During our days in Israel and the West Bank, of course, we also experienced that same wall from the other side — from Palestinian refugee camps and communities where it has sliced life and dreams apart. In this newest most tangible representation of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, a quintessential characteristic of multiple narratives about the same “facts” emerges. For one side, the wall signifies security and safety; for the other, separation and oppression. Both reactions to it are valid on some deep level.
“There are no facts here,” someone said in our early days in Jerusalem. Yossi Klein Halevi admits the maddening intensity of life in a place where the abyss between different interpretations and enactments of the same history, the same facts, obliterates any sense of shared reality, much less a basis for dialogue or peacemaking.
Yossi Klein Halevi — with his own personal wells of integrity and eloquence, of grief and despair — asks provocatively how the dynamics of the Holy Land could be any less dramatic, any less extreme, on their way to whatever resolution, whatever “miracle” they must be leading towards. The Jewish story, after all, is a test case of intimacy with God; Jerusalem in particular is a crucible of sacred sites and stories that trace dispersed glimpses, as he understands it, of “different faces” of God. Yossi Klein Halevi calls this a city where not just religion but the essential human story is played out with a particular intensity. It is messy like the Bible is messy. Like human life, it is treacherous and purposeful at once.
I can’t help but correlate this observation with a conversation I just had with a great astrophysicist, Martin Rees. He recently ended a term as the president of Britain’s Royal Society, the academy to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. And after more than four decades immersed in the study of complex phenomena in the cosmos, Rees freely contends that human beings are the most complex systems in the universe. It is far easier to make definitively true statements about the constitution of stars, he says with no irony, than about dieting or child care. Imagine the Holy Land, then, as a kind of human, geopolitical black hole: space becomes time and time becomes space. Here land becomes memory and memory, land.
I can’t sustain this analogy for long, though. The Holy Land is not a place from which no light can escape. I was captivated by the human courage and long-term (if not short-term) hope that digs roots there right alongside conflict and the death of dreams. In my conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi, as with my recent conversation with the Arab-Israeli civic leader Mohammad Darawshe, I experience an incredible counterintuitive weight of human dignity and possibility.
Israelis and Palestinians both said to me, applying different words but kindred visions, that what is needed — indeed what is underway, however painfully slowly — is something like a human evolution, a maturing of people and peoples. They and I hold on to that promise, even as they also see that history progresses here one step forward and then at least two steps back, with severe trauma on both sides all along the way. To be merely hopeful would be foolish.
Yet somehow — as Martin Rees helps me take seriously — the very complexity of a Yossi Klein Halevi, or a Mohammad Darawshe, is redemptive. It complicates my hearing of the news from this region. The future is always, undeniably and everywhere, a far more fluid, expansive, and surprising thing than we ever take for granted. And as I’ve heard from diverse Israeli and Palestinian conversation partners across the years, the rest of us serve the possibilities of now unimaginable futures when we insist on seeing lives of dignity and courage amidst more prevalent images of despair.
About the image: Yossi Klein Halevi and Krista Tippett speaking in his offices at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
The Literature of Conflict in the “News” Lags Behind the Human Story
by Krista Tippett, host
Since we went to Israel and the West Bank, I haven’t been able to read the news from those places in the same way. Before, it generally depressed me. Now I find it painful with a more personal edge.
But on a profounder level than that, I am made crazy by the incompleteness — the narrow lens through which reality in this most intense of human and religious places is filtered. We often only get one side of something that has countless sides, at least more than two. Or we get the tail end of a story that is multi-layered and can’t be told validly without something of its beginning and its middle. And always, in the West, we are focused on what is happening at the tip of the iceberg — the high-level, political arena of negotiations, of votes, of posturing.
So there were big news flashes recently that Fatah and Hamas are resolving to work together. But that did not happen because they had a change of heart. While we were there, thousands of citizens marched on streets of Palestinian cities, inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt, calling on their two governments to grow up, talk to each other, and better represent their people. That story was buried, understandably, under other unbelievable headlines that week: a Japanese reactor that looked ready to melt down, Saudi tanks rolling in to squash demonstrations in Bahrain, the early days of a Libyan revolution.
I’ve started to look with extra vigilance for pieces of writing that tell more of the truth and suggest more possibility.
This commentary in the Guardian, while fiercely partisan towards the Palestinian cause, also reveals that what we digest as “news” lags behind the real human story on the ground. I’d also recommend a slim, remarkably thoughtful and readable book in a very different tone by the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, What is a Palestinian State Worth? (I also interviewed him, in East Jerusalem, and we’ll turn that conversation into a show later this year.) As one reviewer wrote about Nusseibeh’s book, “There is nothing like it in the literature of this conflict. Every year thousands of articles and blog posts are produced about how to end the conflict. They all feel stale. This book does not.”
The truth is, the “literature of the conflict” is limited by its focus merely on conflict and high-level solutions.
A larger truth that increasingly grips me, as my Israeli conversation partner Yossi Klein Halevi says, is that there is something at stake in the Holy Land that gets at what makes all of us human. It matters, and it matters that we aspire to see it with greater nuance.
About the image (bottom): Sari Nusseibeh during our interview in his office at Al Quds University. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
Life Together: Arab-Israeli professor in Galilee Partners with Jewish University in Jerusalem to Deal with Diversity
PART THREE: OVERCOMING STEREOTYPES IN THE COLLEGE CLASSROOM
by Christin Davis, USC graduate journalism student
Manal Yazbak looks down when she remembers the treatment that some of her Jewish teachers meted out to Arab students.
“Some lecturers mistreated us once they knew we were Arabs,” she said of her experience at The Hebrew University, where she earned a doctorate in Education Management. “One proficiency teacher was very rude to us. And it didn’t matter how hard we tried, she gave us bad marks.”
In the Jewish state of Israel, Ms. Yazbak is a member of the minority. Arab citizens of Israel comprise just over 20 percent of the country’s total population. Ms. Yazbak felt the physical and ideological separation of Jews and Arabs in Nazareth while completing her teaching practicum at a Jewish elementary school.
“In their teaching, they ignored the existence of people living in Israel before the state was created,” she said. “They said the Arabs are ‘violent and try to kill us.’ It really bothered me because it was like brainwashing.”
Now as a professor at Sakhnin Teacher’s College in the Galilee — which includes mostly Muslim and Christian Arab students — Ms. Yazbak instructs a course on dealing with diversity for second-year students in the English department. The class is taught in partnership with the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, and comprised primarily of Jewish students.
Wearing a sharp red pea coat, Ms. Yazbak, 40, pushed her shoulder-length russet hair behind her ear. In a chic eatery not far from the Well of Annunciation, where Christians believe Mary learned she would bear the son of God, Yazbak conveyed a devotion to teaching students how to deal with the “other” and promote a peaceful resolution to her nation’s conflict. With a self-control that is not riled by or indulged in extreme emotions, she said she believes this outcome is possible despite a number of her own failed friendships with Jews.
“The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is endless, but my hope is to raise awareness of human beings,” Ms. Yazbak said, “so that between ethnic groups and religions we can tolerate each other.”
Yazbak’s own experiences with the “other” rarely had happy endings. Growing up in Nazareth she and her siblings spent time with her father’s best friend, a Jewish man from Ra’anana. The two met while working together in a car factory. Having daughters about the same age, the two fathers and their families spent Saturdays together, often barbecuing and taking trips to the water. Ms. Yazbak attended an Arab junior high school that partnered with a Jewish school for activities. She said they even had sleepovers at each other’s homes. But neither experience bred lasting relationships.
“The truth is we didn’t make real friends,” Ms. Yazbak said, “but it was nice while it lasted.”
She later lived in Jerusalem for eight years while attending university and made friends with a few Jewish students. They studied together, but didn’t maintain contact following graduation. “There wasn’t email or mobile phones then, so we didn’t keep in touch,” she said.
According to Ms. Yazbak, hers is the only course in Israel that focuses on teaching diversity. She said some education is directed toward multiculturalism or social issues, but no other class instructs future teachers in how to reduce stereotypes and interact with people who are different than they are.
“We changed the name of the course a couple of times, but we chose Dealing with Diversity since it includes all the themes of conflict resolution and bias awareness,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The ‘other’ could be any other, not necessarily the Jewish other. The key is interaction.”
The one-year program — conducted in English to put both groups on equal footing — is aimed at developing student awareness of bias and stereotyping as well as teaching skills for conflict resolution. It incorporates activities, theoretical material and application, and is currently in its third year.
At the end of the first semester, students from both colleges meet together in Jerusalem. They discuss their own identity and the personal experiences that led to a desire to teach. Yazbak said by highlighting this similarity in career choice, students see commonality between themselves and their Arab or Jewish counterparts and start to reduce stereotypes.
They then divide into groups of four — two from each college — and decide on a topic for a collaborative project. During the second semester, groups prepare a presentation via online meetings. The projects require group research, discussion, negotiation, planning, and compromise, and then are presented in a final combined meeting at the end of the academic year in the Galilee. Previous projects presented strategies for classroom conflict resolution skills and using language to prevent conflict between pupils.
“My students haven’t met Jewish students before, and the opposite is true for the Jewish students,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The Jewish students are astonished when they see we’re not living in tents. Meeting together produces a change of attitudes — even the food and atmosphere helps gain better understanding of the other.”
After the final meeting in 2010, an Arab student thanked Ms. Yazbak for the opportunity to meet Jewish students with no enmity and said, “Together we learned about conflict resolution, an emergency need for the new generation.”
The course has had its challenges. In its first year, the initial meeting came just after the Gaza Operation; in the second year, it began the week following the Gaza flotilla incident. Both events, Yazbak said, made the Jewish students fearful of visiting the college in the Galilee.
“The Jewish students are easily affected by the political situation in the country, which means they want an excuse not to come to Arab cities,” Ms. Yazbak said. “They are always threatened. Those who did come learned that political disagreements did not rule out collaboration on a human level, nor did they overshadow other areas of commonality.” She said it’s important for these teachers in training to receive this kind of education so that when they one day lead a classroom of young people they can have a positive influence in eliminating stereotypes about Jewish and Arab people.
“The political situation in [Israel] discourages me sometimes, but I believe in peaceful resolution. It’s the only way since other alternatives exercise all sorts of violence,” Ms. Yazbak said. “Coexistence is a hard question, but [in this class] we want to understand each other.”
Photo (bottom): The Well of Annunciation in Galilee by Christin Davis.
This series is part of a collaboration between On Being and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism in an attempt to add to the public’s understanding of the diversity of stories of daily life in Israel and the West Bank.
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