Saturday, May 27, 2006

Understanding narratives key to understanding conflict

(I wrote this piece for my column writing class that is being taught by 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.)

As much as Palestinians and Israelis may be divided about how to solve the conflict that has ravaged their societies for over 50 years, they are even more at odds over how it started.

This is never more apparent each year than on May 15, Israel’s independence day.

Israelis not only celebrate this day, but also contend that on this date in 1948, the Jewish state was formed as a necessary response to thousands of years of discrimination and violence directed against the Jewish people finally culminating in the Holocaust.

To Palestinians, on the other hand, this date means something very different. It particularly marks and harks back to memories not only of military defeat and massacre, but also the beginning of exile, when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel to the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding countries.

1948 is a bittersweet year for Israelis, but only bitter for Palestinians.

But this dispute in historical understanding is not limited to heated discussions in a friend’s home as may be true in this country when the issues of America’s founding and Native Americans arise.

Instead, this debate about historical correctness has fueled brutal violence, continued military occupation, and a destabilized Middle East.

This is why the work of two professors, Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On, one Palestinian, the other Israeli, is so essential.

Engaging the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the classroom, where opposition to the “other” is hardened for many through black and white history lessons, the duo, with teams of Palestinian and Israeli historians, has been publishing books that set both the Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives side-by-side on the same page.

They recently published this year the third book in the series. The publication tackles the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and recent peace efforts.

“The way a conflict or history is taught in the classroom can either support that conflict or (support) co-existence," Adwan told the BBC.

I couldn’t agree more.

Being that my mother is a Palestinian immigrant to this country, I, along with thousands of other Palestinian-Americans, grew up with tales of loss and sorrow. I remember in exact detail when and how my grandmother was able to escape from Jerusalem to the West Bank as Israeli soldiers invaded her school one morning.

But I also grew up with Jewish friends who also told stories of loss and sorrow. They recounted to me the family members who perished in gas chambers and stories from synagogue that described the painful history of Russian pogroms and the need for a Jewish state that would protect them. They told me more than once, “Never again.”

But these experiences of hearing both sides is almost non-existent where my Palestinian family lives.

Nestled in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, my relatives are prohibited like millions of other Palestinians from visiting the churches and mosques in Jerusalem or Israel that are so celebrated in Palestinian history. This prohibition isolates them. As far as Jerusalem’s sacred sanctuary may be, Israelis are even further.

Except for the soldiers.

My family sees the Israeli military on almost a daily basis, controlling almost everything in their daily material lives from what medicines they can import to their hospital to their movement on a one-mile stretch of road near the house. Interaction between Palestinians and Israelis in Jenin is done most times at the barrel of a gun.

And as my family negotiates everything from travel to medical supplies, they see the Israeli flag flying above these soldiers, symbolizing Israel as a country of imprisonment and occupation, not one of hope and renewal.

My family, though, along with hundreds of other Palestinians I have met in the occupied territories, have not lost hope.

Even after a simple chat about me having Jewish friends, and that they are not just friends but best-friends softens their hearts a little.

After a few moments of reflecting on this conversation one cousin asks, “Why can’t it be like that here?”

I tell him that with more education, such as what the professors are promoting, that fosters dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis and a healthy exchange that promotes understanding of the “other” such as what I have been blessed, it just could be.

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