January 28, 2008
Learning to listen in a divided land
Chris Megerian is an Emory College senior and editor in chief of The Emory Wheel.
My true introduction to the complexities of the Middle East came during a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem. I was one of 14 members of a trip organized by Emory’s Office of Religious Life, and our group had been divided up among several Israeli families for dinner on our first night in the city.
The family I visited lived in a small ground-floor apartment with four children. After prayers were spoken and the challah was portioned out, we were graciously served a large meal of chicken, rice, potatoes and vegetables. About halfway through the meal, trying to make conversation, I asked where the wine was from.
Before the mother could read the Hebrew label on the bottle, the father cautioned me. “If you find out, you may have to stop drinking it,” he joked. After all, wine made by Jews in the Golan Heights — territory captured by Israel from Syria in 1967 — would be undrinkable to some consumers. “Everything is political here,” he said.
Luckily the wine was made inside the internationally recognized 1948 borders of Israel, circumventing any potential squabbles. The conversation soon turned to the U.S. primaries, but the father’s words stuck in my head.
Over the course of the trip — which wound its way through Israel, Jordan and the West Bank — my 13 fellow travelers and I spent nine days struggling to understand a region mired in conflict. It was the 25th educational trip to a center of conflict organized by Emory Religious Life.
If I learned anything, it’s that the cliché is true: You really don’t know anything until you see it for yourself.
For one thing, the language used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is woefully inadequate. The term “settlements” does not sufficiently describe the apartment complexes and shopping centers that are home to hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West Bank, and seeing the communities firsthand reveals not only why they are so offensive to Palestinians, but also why Israel is so reluctant to forfeit them.
And terms like “pro-Israeli” and “pro-Palestinian” lose all meaning when some Israelis (including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) are saying that the survival of the Jewish state is dependent on the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
During the trip, we met with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, peace activists, a think tank director, a Bedouin family, an Iraqi refugee and an Armenian priest. With each interaction, I felt like I was entering a parallel dimension. Everyone was talking about the same conflict, but with almost opposite narratives.
Sometimes the conversations took a turn for the morbid, but they almost never brought clarity. Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor who ran against Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, said Palestinian women were sometimes forced to give birth at checkpoints in the West Bank because Israeli soldiers would not let them reach the hospital. Three days later, Israeli Knesset member Yoel Hasson told us the checkpoints were necessary because terrorists once placed a bomb under a pregnant woman in an ambulance in order to kill Israelis.
Even if the truth is somewhere in the middle, this is not the kind of conflict where you can split the difference and expect everyone to walk away happy. After 60 years of fighting, very few people are willing to step across the green line to enter a constructive dialogue.
Perhaps the most inspiring story we heard while in the Middle East was told by Gershon Baskin, a Jewish activist and analyst who was willing to cross these boundaries. He had been working toward a two-state solution for some time, but he had never really spoken with Palestinians until the First Intifada broke out in 1987.
Realizing he was missing a large part of the story, he hopped on his Vespa and motored over to a nearby Palestinian city in the West Bank. There, Baskin, an American-born Jew who considers himself a Zionist, began a series of interactions that would eventually lead to the creation of the respected Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Information.
That kind of openness is rare in a region rife with such deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions. Far too often, listening is equated with weakness and orthodoxy is considered strength.
During the meeting with the Armenian priest, I asked him whether there was any interfaith dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem, an ancient city holy to all three faiths. He shrugged. “We already know what they believe, what is there to talk about?”
Let’s hope world leaders take a different approach to making peace in the Middle East.
This essay originally appeared in The Emory Wheel.