Young Israeli and Palestinian Leaders on Modeling Difficult Dialogues
By Wendy Fernandez
Each semester, the Humanities Institute hosts a Public Forum as part of our Difficult Dialogues program, designed to foster dialogue-based learning on campus. On February 13th in the Texas Union, the HI hosted a panel discussion with Creativity for Peace, a non-profit organization that trains young Palestinian and Israeli women to be peacemakers in their communities. The organization hosts a three-week summer camp in Santa Fe, NM that teaches these young women how to dialogue across cultural and sociopolitical lines for the purpose of fostering peace.
The panel included Dottie Indyke, Director of Creativity for Peace, and four Young Leaders with the organization ready to share their stories. Indyke opened the panel discussion, clarifying that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not primarily a religious war between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, but is, rather, primarily a struggle for rights to the land. The Israel-Palestine conflict is most commonly traced back to the end of World War II, when, in response to the immigration crisis in Europe with regard to Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees, the Jewish People’s Council, in cooperation with the newly formed United Nations, established the Jewish state at the site of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Areas of Palestine were partitioned off for Jewish settlement. The conflict over shifting boundaries can be seen today in the suicide bombings, raids, and demolitions that afflict both Israel and Palestine.
Of the four young women on the Difficult Dialogues Public Forum panel, two were Palestinian, one was Israeli, and one was both Palestinian and Israeli. The panel discussion was organized around each panelist describing their personal experiences growing up in the region and what they had learned from attending the three-week Creativity for Peace summer camp. The first speaker, Dima Khalifa, a Psychologist from a small Arab city in Palestine who first attended the CfP camp in 2006, described witnessing houses of the Arab minority in Israel being illegally demolished in front of the homeowners in order to make way for Jewish settlements. Khalifa recalled an instance in which Israeli authorities wrongfully identified a Palestinian high school teacher as a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That he was trying to prevent his home from being demolished led them to believe he was plotting a terrorist attack. Many innocent civilians ended up getting killed when the police arrived on the scene as a result of this misidentification. Khalifa said that it is because of injustices such as these that the Palestinian people must continue “struggling and fighting for [their] right just to be.” At camp, she recalled, Khalifa argued with the Jewish girls, blaming them for the injustices she had witnessed and about which she had heard, until her dialogue training kicked in, and she learned how to actively listen to their stories about their own experiences of the conflict.
Mai Shbeta, a human rights lawyer who attended the camp in 2008, described the village she grew up in as one of the very few villages where Israelis and Palestinians lived together in peace. Shbeta herself comes from a mixed family, and she proudly considers herself as fully part of both Israeli and Palestinian cultures. Shbeta recollected watching Muslims, Jews, and Christians dance together at her wedding and wondering to herself why, if these people could dance together, the rest of the world couldn’t dance together too. This experience reminded her of the hardest part of leaving the CfP camp: the realization that although she had experienced changes through CfP’s program, the world had not changed. She told the audience that after that kind of realization, “it’s really hard to continue your life. That’s why we’re so involved.”
The third panelist, Deema Yusuf, shared a story about her grandmother’s home. Her grandmother had handed Yusuf the key to her old house and asked Yusuf to go to see if the house was still standing. Yusuf found that her grandmother’s home had been demolished. In its place stood a hotel, and, Yusuf said, she filled with anger. When she attended the CfP camp in 2012, Yusuf attempted to organize the Palestinian girls against the Jewish girls, finding ways to make the Jewish girls feel guilty for what she saw as their complicity in the injustices Yusuf and her family had experienced. Yusuf said that it was not until she had listened to a Jewish girl at the camp tell the story of how her grandmother had been killed on a bus by a suicide bomber that Yusuf began to understand that Jews suffer in this conflict too.
Sivan Kedem, a Jewish woman, was a CfP camper in 2005 and has been a Young Leader since then. She is also currently a facilitator-in-training. She described the camp as a place where young women could “bring their voices, bring their pain,” and that through learning to listen to each other, these young women could begin to heal. Had Deema Yusuf never listened, for example, to her Jewish campmate tell the story about her grandmother’s death, Yusuf would still be filled with anger today. Similarly, Sivan Kedem, responding to Mai Shbeta’s earlier comment about the difficulties she experienced after returning home and realizing the world had not changed, said, “we go back home to the same reality; this is why we need to keep working.” In addition to the drive to keep working towards peace, Creativity for Peace has taught these girls how to listen, how not to “reject what you’re hearing,” what Kedem called the essence of the camp.
During the Public Forum, the panelists modeled the very dialogue they were discussing by sharing their personal experiences with the audience. As one of the panelists observed, while two individuals may not see eye-to-eye on the nature and causes of any given conflict, no person can tell another that she did not experience what she experienced. The women involved with Creativity for Peace, by discussing how they had been personally affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by discussing their personal experiences and growth while attending the CfP camp, asked their audience to empathize rather than intellectualize, creating a foundation for dialogue.