Peace in Middle East depends on both sides hearing the painful narrative of the other, according to Jewish Co-Chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (SA), Ron Hoenig.
Reporting to a Council meeting in Adelaide on his return from the recent ICCJ conference on “The Contribution of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue to Peace-Building in the Middle East”, Hoenig said that to both Jews and Arabs, Israel was “country” in the sense used by Indigenous Australians. He said claims to the land by both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict were, if anything, more “legitimate” than the internationally unquestioned right of ownership of “white Europeans” to Australia. Referring, in particular, to a pre-conference tour called “Hearing the other’s religio-historical narrative”, Hoenig described a national narrative as a construction put on events to create a sense of national belonging. Both Jews and Arabs had narratives of immense loss: the Holocaust and the Naqba (catastrophe) of exile, expulsion and colonial occupation.
Hoenig said understanding competing narratives was an important way to defuse “some of the anguish and confusion” he felt in reflecting on the journey. Exploring the other’s narrative could be frightening he said, because people may not want to see their most valued beliefs as “only” stories, but it could also be liberating: “It can take the heat out of the encounter with the other to realise that their narrative is, like ours, a story,” he said.
Both Arab and Jewish people in Israel sought to pursue peace through sharing narratives. Arab and Jewish historians, for example, involved in a writing project called PRIME (Peace Research in the Middle East) had structured a history text book for both Jewish and Arab students where the Palestinian and the Israeli narrative had been written side by side with a space for the student to make their own comment.
Another opportunity for Arab and Jewish children to hear each other’s narratives was at The Centre for Humanistic Education at the Ghetto-fighter’s kibbutz. Here the story of the Jewish Holocaust was used not just as a narrative of immense Jewish suffering, but to show the destruction of human rights, which could happen anywhere. Arab students living in Israel, Hoenig said, understood the implication of the historical erosion of human rights more intimately in their lives than Jewish students.
A benefit of the program was for both sides to better understand the other’s pain, yet some narratives were valorised and others erased. While the Holocaust was commemorated in many locations both in Israel and all over the world, there was no memorial for the displacement of Arab people from their villages, such as Biram in the northern Galilee, and the killing of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin in 1948. The very Arab presence in the former Deir Yassin was obscured by Jewish families living in the former mosque and re-naming the village.
Hoenig said among the strongest signs of hope in the Middle East was the Bereaved Relatives Circle in which families who had lost members in terrorist acts or military actions reached out to each other across the lines. He said, the strong agreement of the conference was that, while the issue in Israel/Palestine is one of territory, religion has to be taken into account. What he described as the “dance” of interfaith encounter could be used as a model for relationships between communities and narratives.“ Our ability to converse with one another does not depend on my accepting the truth of what the other believes,” he said. It depends on accepting that the other actually believes what she says she believes and to look at that person with respect. “That means that not only do I accept that that person believes what she believes, but that he/she is an alright person (in brackets, nevertheless),” he said. The real issue, was to see oneself through the eyes of the other and to think about what one might do if one were in the same shoes.
Another issue was taking responsibility for actions “taken in my name.” “Many Jewish Israelis I met said they were proud Zionists but were unable to live with some of the actions taken in their name. Palestinians I met were equally torn about the use of violence.” Hoenig said he was disappointed that there was no publicity for the conference while it was taking place, but spoke about the breadth of publicity of interfaith activity and pro-peace activity through alternative media such as the e-journal "Common Ground.”