February 8, 2010

First Person: Pilot TCP dialogue group a meaningful experience

Melissa Sacks (left) and Susu Zughaier

Melissa Sacks is an administrative assistant in Office of Financial Aid

Even though I had a previous positive experience participating in the Transforming Community Project’s Community Dialogue program discussing race relations on campus, I hesitated to be part of a new Palestinian/Israeli Conflict Dialogue group. The TCP held this pilot program for Emory staff, students and faculty last fall.

My boss, Dean Bentley, director of financial aid, called this venture an example of President Wagner’s goal of “courageous inquiry.” Previously, I would never have felt confident or comfortable discussing this subject in a public forum. I realized that in order to enter the group with an open mind, I would need to forgo any judgment or preconceived notion of right or wrong.

We were16 participants, a mixture of students, staff and faculty of various backgrounds, including Palestinian, Iraqi and Jewish. Each session was more thought-provoking and emotional than the previous. On one particular Tuesday night, I was involved in one of the most intense discussions of our eight-week session.

After reading and discussing an excellent thought-provoking article by Emory Rabbi Vicki Armour-Hileman, “The Rhetoric of Legitimacy in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” we were asked to pick three words that affected us the most, and then narrow it down to the one that really raised our hair. We then formed small discussion groups to practice the techniques discussed in this article. My partners were an Emory scientist, Susu Zughaier, who is of Palestinian descent, and Ken Hornbeck, who works in the Emory Equal Opportunity Programs office and also as a consultant for the United Nations. I chose the word “occupation.” My two discussion partners chose the word “terrorist.”

The discussion began with why I reacted so strongly to the word “occupation.” Responding immediately, my Palestinian partner asked, “How else would you describe the actions of the Israeli government?” I reacted to the words “occupation and occupiers” with disdain, believing that the Israelis’ primary goal is to protect their families and country and live in a safe environment. As Ken recoiled in realization that our little sub-group was on the verge of exploding, I could feel myself reacting but then remembered to take a deep breath and practice what we had learned in the article. Instead of countering Susu with facts and figures, my response was an expression of deep and heartfelt sympathy about what she and her friends and relatives must have experienced. I explained that I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to not have the freedom to travel, or to have the power to freely choose your actions in your daily life.

My two partners then shared their trigger word, “terrorist,” and each explained why this word had such a strong effect on them. Ken felt that the word unfairly labeled Muslims, and Susu explained that she felt that it was the Palestinians who had felt terror at the hands of the Israelis, but were labeled “terrorist.” We asked Susu to tell us about her own journey, from being a young Palestinian growing up in Israel to living in Atlanta. As she shared her experiences with tears in her eyes, I opened my eyes and heart and truly felt her pain. In turn, my partners understood why I react to being labeled an “occupier” and the negative connotations that this label held for me.

When the time came to recap our discussion for the rest of the group, we realized how truly momentous our exchange had been. As my Palestinian partner reached her hand out to mine, I took it with both my hands and joined my new friend!

While we may not be able to come up with a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, what was most important was learning how to talk about it. We also may not feel confident that a lasting political solution is imminent, but the positive feelings that are being built by participating in a group such as this will be shared with our children and grow further into the next generations.

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