The Narrative Project
‘I am talking all the time to my pupils about this group,' said a member of a dialogue group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers.
Five meetings of this group were part of the Narrative Project facilitated by the Bereaved Families Forum over a six-week period between February and April this year. I was privileged to take part in the final meeting, attended by 15 teachers from each side.
The series of encounters included an introductory meeting, a weekend, a day at the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and a day at the site of a former Arab village near Jerusalem, destroyed in the 1948 war. Similar meetings of the USAID-funded project were held with media people, psychologists, grandmothers, students and other professional groups. Altogether there have been 14 sets of meetings. The project was professionally evaluated by academics with expertise in conflict resolution.
The final meeting took place in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. Participants discussed how the meeting had influenced their views and in what way would it affect their future actions.
It was moving to hear participants describe the emotional impact of this work and the impressions they had formed of ‘the other'. Little contact occurs between Israelis and Palestinians in everyday life, except at the checkpoints.
Several Palestinians spoke of the difficulty they experienced coming to the meeting because they were angry and distressed about the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers. They were also angry about the treatment of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail who was dying of cancer as a prisoner and was not allowed to be reunited with his family. One Palestinian woman said: ‘At first I did not want to come today but if not, then what? We have to try and stop the killing on both sides - for this God created us.'
There were comments about the Holocaust and the issue of comparison of trauma. The highly skilled PCFF translator, a Palestinian who spoke both languages fluently, said: ‘Seeing people on their return from Yad Vashem, with their variety of responses made me curious, so I decided to go and see for myself. My response is firstly that you cannot compare it to anything. The Palestinians want to compare but this arises from their own pain.'
He added, ‘But I also came back angry with the Jews. After their experience I think Jews should become a compassionate people, they should be a light to the nations. When I saw how Jews became numbers I thought how when I was a prisoner in an Israeli jail I was regarded as just a number. Although I was not given a number on my skin, it made me think how can Israelis do this to us?'
Role play was used as a means for the participants to see the perspective of the other side. A group of Palestinians played the role of Israelis at the checkpoint, and depicted indifferent, callous and humiliating behaviour towards Palestinians, A female Israeli was shocked and very hurt, saying that if this was the only view they could show then all their joint meetings were meaningless. Palestinians in turn were shocked. A Palestinian woman replied, ‘We would not be here if we did not respect that there are other Israelis, like you, who are different, and we apologise - this was not meant to hurt, but to show something of our daily experience.' This response and apology helped the Israeli woman to feel better and to understand better the Palestinian situation.
During the role play an Israeli expressed a passionate Palestinian viewpoint: ‘I, a Palestinian also belong to this land. I want the Israelis to know that I have my links too... what future do you Israelis see?... I will say to Israelis you represent the last of colonial¬ism and apartheid. I am an old man and I won't fight but be prepared that we will make problems... we will reach you in your weak place... we will go to Yad Vashem and say how are you not ashamed to do this to us?'
The role play included quite a bit of laughter and humour as well as difficulties. One Israeli woman said ‘I just cannot speak words as a Palestinian - I cannot say ‘I am a Palestinian'. This was a very emotional moment.
There were many expressions of how meaningful the experience had been. People felt changed and said that they would be speaking to their pupils, colleagues and families about their experience. But it was also clear that there were real constraints and tensions about how free they felt in their respective environments to speak about meetings with ‘the other'. Many at the end said they wished that the project had allowed for further meetings and that they planned to continue the links they had forged with each other during the weeks of the project. The capacity to overcome serious tensions within the group and also the capacity for openness and expression of extreme views was seen as an important stage in creating greater understanding and respect.
I came away thinking of how important the narrative project is for bringing about meaningful change in the attitudes of the two societies towards each other. My wish is that it could be extended to many other groups so that it reaches ever wider circles. The Forum is applying to the European Community to fund a second narrative project. The need to raise funds for this and other projects is more urgent than ever.
During my stay I attended two other activities - one was a meeting in a private home in Herzlia - the host family invited a group of friends to view the film ‘Two-Sided Story'. A discussion followed, led by an Israeli and a Palestinian member of the Forum. A memorable remark was made by a Palestinian taxi driver who attended:
‘I would like to say I am a taxi driver and I have to look ahead of me. I say this is what we all need to do - we cannot always be going to the past, we have to think how to go forward.'
The third event was a classroom meeting of 17-18 year old boys and girls in an Israeli school in Jerusalem. The students are about to go into the army. There was surprise and certainly some unease when it was announced that two Palestinians from the Bereaved Families Forum were about to arrive. When asked if any had met a Palestinian, it transpired that out of 25, only one person had and only one spoke Arabic. The group calmed down and listened carefully to the Palestinian's story. Speaking quietly he told of the loss of his older brother in the conflict and what this meant to him. A feeling of empathy was certainly generated. Then a debate followed with a wide diversity of opinion about trust, about which side was more violent, about responsibility, and much more. It was clear that something new had been presented to these young people who would soon be in uniform and required, in one way or another to interact with, and take actions which would have impact on Palestinians.
It is truly uphill work to carry out these projects when peace talks are stalled and there is a such a degree of separation between Israeli and Palestinian societies.
I came away feeling deeply moved by the courage and determination of the Bereaved Families to continue this work.
I also felt invigorated to increase our efforts in the UK to support and raise funds for the inspiring projects I witnessed that are an essential preparation for a future peace.