Learning to Live Together

text by Michele Chabin
photographs by Miriam Sushman

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From the start of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987 until Israeli troops began withdrawing from Palestinian towns and cities in 1995, virtually the only Israelis that most Palestinians encountered were soldiers armed with tear gas and bullets. Israeli civilians, who once so eagerly explored the ancient West Bank hills, wadis, towns and villages cited in the Old Testament, stayed away, fearing attacks by stone-throwing Palestinians.

Yet these days, strolling through the peaceful streets of the Palestinian town of Nablus, it is tranquility, not violence, that comes to mind.

Although many residents of Nablus and other Palestinian towns still have serious grievances with Israel, particularly with regard to closures and severe travel restrictions, there is a glimmer of hope. Apartments and offices are under construction in Nablus, and the old city and its casbah, which once witnessed Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, are bustling with shoppers. There is even a push to restore the old city’s picturesque Turkish baths in the hope of attracting tourists.

On this late spring day, however, a sure sign of hope may be found in a nondescript building near the city center. Here, in the modest office of the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees, a small group of Palestinian and Israeli young people, most in their 20’s, share their pain, their hopes and their dreams in a two-day workshop entitled “The Transformation of Suffering.”

Divided into groups of twos and threes, the participants are asked to recount one pleasant personal experience and one unpleasant one. The anecdotes, they are told, “may refer to anything except the conflict.” While many of the Israelis and Palestinians are able to recall meaningful events related to their families or friends, teachers or colleagues, a significant minority cannot seem to divorce their memory from the words “soldier,” “war,” “bombing” or “terrorist.” They recall incidents of harassment at checkpoints and describe how people they knew and loved had keen injured in shootouts or killed by fanatics.

The facilitators, Palestinians and Israelis who believe that dialogue is a key tool in the quest for a peaceful Middle East, sigh deeply and then offer encouragement and guidance. Despite deep wounds and painful memories, neither the workshop leaders nor the young participants appear discouraged.

“This is all part of the process,” says Israeli facilitator Marcia Kreisel in a reassuring tone. “It takes time to build communication and trust.”

Dr. Ron Kronish, Director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), an umbrella organization of more than 60 programs that promote interfaith cooperation among Christians, Jews and Muslims, agrees that the process toward reconciliation takes time.

“Dialogue and pluralism are not intrinsic to the neighborhood,” Dr. Kronish says with a smile. “The environment is less than fertile.”

Because people from different backgrounds have difficulty seeing things from the other’s perspective, he says, “communication is vital. As we move toward peace – and I think we are closer than we were five or ten years ago – there’s more need than ever for dialogue about the other.”

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Tags: Middle East Palestine Israel Christian-Muslim relations Jewish-Catholic relations