Listening to the Narrative of the Other


I would like to acknowledge this land that we meet on today is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their country. I also acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the Adelaide region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.

This story is about what Aboriginal people call country. To both Jews and Palestinians, Israel is “country.” That is their tragedy and, who knows, the seed of the solution.

I was in Jerusalem for an international Conference on ‘The Contribution of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue to Peace-Building in the Middle East.’ The conference for about 200 people took place in Jerusalem in June 2008 and was sponsored by the International Council of Christians and Jews and the Israeli Centre for Interreligious Encounter with Israel, which is an umbrella group for interfaith dialogue in Israel.

Today I want to talk mainly about the pre-conference tour of Jerusalem and northern Israel, called “Hearing the other’s religio-historical narrative”.

Israel is the country of my birth. It’s not for nothing that I bought this wonderful Jerusalem tallit there. I was very excited about the trip when I left here but I was not ready for the breath-taking beauty of what I saw looking out onto what’s called the Holy Basin from high ridge called the Tayelet. I realised how much I felt both at home – a sabra returning after more than 56 years and also how distant I felt. After all, I am in the land of my birth and I can’t read the billboards or talk to a bus driver.

I travelled in small buses with 11 wonderful companions. On the bus and in our travels we visited places that represented tragic or jubilant moments, vented and invented. More than half of my companions were Christians with a very strong commitment and connection to Judaism and to Israel. Much stronger than mine. Most of them were powerfully involved in interfaith relations with Jews. Many of them had spent years learning Hebrew, or being involved in Jewish-Christian activities. I hope my friends won’t be too upset if I only mention a few of them. For example, Kathleen Rusnak is a feminist Lutheran pastor who has been very involved with a Lutheran kibbutz called Nes Ammim, (lit. Banner of the Nations) a Christian community in northern Israel, founded by European, mainly German Christians in solidarity with the Jewish people after the Holocaust. Sr Michelle DeBrouwer is a Belgian Sister of Sion who knows many more Hebrew songs than I, has lived in Israel for many years many times and is committed, as is her order, to interfaith relations between Jews and Christians.

Of the Jews, Rabbi Amy Eilberg is deeply involved in interfaith relations between Jews and Muslims and in peace activities between Palestinians and Jews. Shifra Mincer is a young Orthodox New York-born undergraduate who wants to do research in Orthodox feminisms. Our guide was Jared Goldfarb. New Hampshire-born and Brandeis-educated, he describes himself as a freelance Jewish/Israel educator. He has long flowing hair and wears a knitted kipa. Jared was also program director of Ta Shma, an organisation that explores Jewish texts, through many lenses of Judaism. Jared described himself as religious but preferred to pray outside synagogues. He was a deeply committed environmentalist who, among other things, was involved in gay liberation struggles in Israel.

Our tour included the Old City, the walls, both the Western Wall and the Separation wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Ghetto fighter’s house (Itzhak Katzenelson Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum), Kinneret, the destroyed town of Biram, the Gush Ezion bloc of settlement, the site of the Deir Yassin massacre, a shabbat service in an orthodox congregation that meets in a community centre, a tour through one or two of the most ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, discussions with Jewish and Arab history teachers, the best hummus in all Israel the bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, the Bereaved Relatives Circle, and Yad Vashem.

Ron Hoenig at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem

The stories we explored help Jews and Palestinians and Arabs, Christian and Muslim and secular who live in Israel to order experience; they diminish the scary randomness of events, giving people some comfort that the world is indeed explicable. These narratives are national stories where the hero is a people – the Jews or the Palestinians. Among these powerful national narratives are the story of the return of the exiled people into the promised land of Israel, and the story of the Naqba, expulsion from Palestine, the land of our fathers, by the colonial invaders.

These narratives do not have the same substance as physical facts or events. They are constructions placed on events. I don’t want to say that either of these narratives is true or not true. Each prefers to gloss over some facts, or minimise them. Each story meets its critique in the counter story – and roles shift so that the heroes become villains and vice versa. When it is clear that they do not fit the fact, the narratives are edited in the national/tribal consciousness so that they do. Their job is not truth-telling; it is much more complex than that. Each story exists fully formed in itself; its role is to draw people together in a mutual national belonging.

It became very clear to me that both Jews who trace our belonging there say 6,000 years and Palestinians, who even if we accept the most hostile stories about their time of taking up residence there outdistance White Australians’ residence in what we unblushingly call “our land” by many times. Both genuinely call the land their own.

Adherents of both narratives spend time trying to diminish the claims of the other. Archaeology is political. The Israeli state spends a lot of time and energy establishing its biblical roots in the stones of Israel. The Palestinian narrative, which is written in stories and memory of land, attempts to draw a distinction between the Jews who were expelled from the land about 1700 years ago and the white European colonialists who bought the land and settled it again from the 1870s on.

In the words of Benedict Anderson, a nation is an imagined community, and very often the nation is defined in a way that excludes an Other. None of us can live without our personal and national narrative, and yet, we may find it hard to understand that the counter or shadow-narrative may not merely be a tissue of lies.

Exploring different narratives can be both frightening and liberating. It is frightening because we may not want to confront the fact that our most valued beliefs are “only” stories – and liberating because it may enable us to take some of the heat out of the encounter with the Other to realise that their narrative is, like ours, a story.

On the morning of my first day in Jerusalem, we start from the Haas Promenade (ha-Tayelet). overlooking Jerusalem's Old City and the Dead Sea, where Abraham was shown Mount Moriah as the site for the sacrifice of his son. This view gives you an overwhelming panorama of what’s called the Holy Basin, where the Dome of the Rock stands in golden glory amid multiple shades of white. We take a walk through the archaeological park and take a bridge over the Kottel and look down through the windows in our covered bridge at the separate men’s and women’s prayer areas at the Western Wall. Then we arrive on the plaza in front of the beautiful Dome of the Rock with is golden dome its bright blue tiling.

And in the afternoon, having walked the Via Dolorosa and grabbed bagels and lox in the Cordo, the Jewish part of the Old City, we hop on board our bus and we pick up a 70-ish man, fit but slightly overweight, whose English is good but not perfect and who looks a bit like an old cop. That’s just what he is. Eitan Katz, formerly a high-up police official in Jerusalem, tells us as a good Zionist and a proud Israeli, but he’s a bit ashamed of what he has to show us. It feels like telling tales. Eitan is now a volunteer with Ir Amim (“City of Nations” or “City of Peoples”). Ir Amim describes itself an “Israeli non-profit, non-partisan organization which actively engages in issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city”.

Eitan tells us East Jerusalemites are both Palestinians and uneasily connected to Israel. As residents of Israeli Jerusalem, they have social security, education and other social benefits from the Israeli government, as well as freedom to move throughout Israel. Thus their per capita income is much higher than Palestinians in the West Bank, who may live in the neighboring town.

But East Jerusalemites are not considered, and do not consider themselves, Israelis. They do not hold any passport, and are not allowed to vote in Israeli national elections. The Palestinian Authority has no official responsibility for East Jerusalemites, and is officially forbidden to operate in East Jerusalem. According to Ir Amim East Jerusalemites have been functionally disenfranchised and organizationally paralyzed. They will not, on principle, vote in municipal elections. Fearing to lose the meagre, but important, benefits of their residency status, they have not often organized for their own welfare (e.g., through political parties, labor unions or community associations). As a result their villages are not served by the city administration. The word village is misleading. These are highly built up areas, but the building is unplanned, not according to city regulations so the rubbish is not collected regularly and the roads are not made and there are no footpaths.

Eitan takes us all over East Jerusalem following the path of the separation barrier, or the fence or the wall, or as he calls it “it”. More than 150 kilometres of the 760 kilometre barrier wind in and around Jerusalem. At one point we are driving along a main road and we stop in front of a bedraggled petrol station. In front of us is The Wall. Here it is nine metres tall, huge, ugly towers of concrete. There is lots of graffiti, most of it in English, including words of support for the Palestinians from western organisations such as the Scottish football team. I look down at the foot of the wall and see a tiny plant struggling out of the dirt, and as I take a photograph I realise that next to it is a syringe. Truly this place is the end of hope.

Children at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand SchoolOne of the places of hope in my journey was a beautiful school called the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School. Education in Israel is extraordinarily segregated. Not only is it almost unheard of that Arabs and Jews go to school together, there are also segregated school systems for secular Jews, orthodox Jews and ultra orthodox Jews. However, this, one of the places of hope we went to, is located between an Arab village called Beit Safafa and a Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem called Patt. There, built mainly with European Union and US money is a beautifully designed school which features the first secondary school where Jewish and Arab kids go to school together from Kindergarten to year 9. Children speak both Hebrew and Arabic and they have both a Jewish and an Arab teacher. And a Jewish and an Arab principal. There are special lessons for the Jewish teachers to speak Arabic because European background Israeli Jews don’t usually speak Arabic, while Arabs living in Israel tend to speak some Hebrew. The kids speak both and are able to shift from one to another to accommodate a new child joining a group. There are 300 some kids at the school. It celebrates Christian, Muslim and Jewish holidays, but the big challenge is how to teach religion, history, sociology in a country where religion and history are flashpoints.

The Hand in Hand school in Galilee has recently developed a curriculum for teaching all three religion and teachers are working on developing a curriculum which will equally value the Jewish and Arabic narratives of the country’s history.Recently, the school had to deal with the challenge of how to celebrate/commemorate 60 years of Israel’s existence with its vastly different student population.

One attempt at doing this is that followed by PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East) a joint Palestinian/ Israeli project to teach both Jewish and Palestinian students the historical narrative of the other. PRIME was founded by a Palestinian educator Sami Adwan, Professor. of Education, Bethlehem University and an Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On, Professor. of Social Psychology at, Ben Gurion University.

The work is based on Bar-On's pioneering research on methods of reconciliation between the children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazi perpetrators and how these techniques (called To Reflect and Trust or TRT) . PRIME's projects also draw much from Prof. Adwan's research on Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks and his experience with people-to-people dialogues in the region.

They have gathered two groups of historians – Palestinian and Israeli – to develop the narrative from both perspectives for a 16 year old student reader. They have trialled and tested the work independently in both Israeli and Palestinian schools and now have produced a book called Listening to the Other’s Narrative. The book is published in landscape form and on one side is the Zionist narrative and on the other is the Palestinian narrative. And between them there is a place for the student to make their own comments.

One of the disturbing things is the way in which state power valorises certain narrative and erases others.

In answer to a student's question suggesting that Israel adopt a policy of punishing Arabs who commit crimes in the West Bank by deportation to Jordan, Moshe Dayan called for co-existence with Arab neighbours in this often quoted and misquoted paragraph:

“We came to a region of land that was inhabited by Arabs, and we set up a Jewish state. In a considerable number of places, we purchased the land from Arabs and set up Jewish villages where there had once been Arab villages. You ( He was talking to university students) don't even know the names [of the previous Arab villages] and I don't blame you, because those geography books aren't around anymore. Not only the books, the villages aren't around.”

As you walk or drive out on to Hackney Road, think for a moment of how comprehensively we White Australians have written our own geography onto this land of the Kaurna people, the indigenous traditional owners of the land.

The village of Biram was evacuated by its Christian Arab residents at the request of the Jewish forces in 1948. The residents were told they could come back when the fighting was over in a couple of weeks. Those few weeks are now 60 years. In 1953, when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the residents could return, the Israeli army bulldozed the town. The legal procedures are still continuing.

I want to just suggest a way in which interfaith understanding can begin to work with this nation of narratives. Firstly, we are all involved in at least one significant narrative, the story of religion. Those of us who practice a religion or align ourselves with a faith tradition participate in a particular narrative. Specifically our religious narrative gives us a sense of identity and cosmic belonging. We are here, they say, for the fulfilment of some larger purpose, a purpose we sometimes have too little difficulty describing as God’s will.

Yet, when we meet a person from another religious tradition, we are compelled to see that our story of God’s will is only one story. Those who participate in a different tradition, see themselves living out a different story. Religion can be one way in which people who are tolerant and liberal, and some who are not, can experience the power of this notion of the co-existence of different or even opposing narratives.

That is one of the hopeful things I learned at the conference. That while religion can be a force for divisiveness, it can also be a source of recognition of the “godliness” in each human person. Rabbi David Rosen, a former president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, was only the first among many speakers at the conference who said that while it was true that the centre of the problem in the Middle East was not religion but territory, the solution to that problem had to take into account the religious dimension.

In fact in the first session of the conference that theme was re-iterated by Michael Sabah the Emeritus Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Khadi Mohammed Sidhi, the Khadi of Jerusalem. In another session of the interfaith conference Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of the Knesset, pointed out that it was the relationship generated between the Chief Rabbi and the Latin Patriarch and Muslim leaders in Palestine through the Alexandria Declaration, which helped to create a back-channel that allowed Israeli leaders to speak to Hamas.

Interfaith relationships operate as a kind of dance between rejection and “acceptance” of the other and her narrative. The initial position from which we start when we participate in interfaith relationships is that we hear each other’s narrative as foreign or strange, often threatening. Then, it becomes clear as you speak to a practitioner of a religion that they’re not just fooling you or trying to upset you or con you. They really do believe that stuff. Just as powerfully and just as, in some ways “unthinkingly” as we believe our stuff.

I just want briefly to compare two horrible moments.

Kfar Ezion, a kibbutz just outside Jerusalem, was established in the 1920s in extraordinary hostile territory. In the 1948 war, the settlers were attacked by their Arab neighbours and Jordanian troops. The settlers were imprisoned or trapped in a bunker and all but four of the 250 adult settlers were massacred. Fortunately, their children had been sent to safety in Jerusalem and nearly 30 years later they returned. In 1972, religious settlers from the US and the children of the adult settlers returned and Kfar Ezion is now thriving. We saw a sound and light show which commemorated the horrible history and the kibbutz’s rebirth. At the end of the show, the screen on which it was recounted was raised and we walked down to the stage, which was built over the remnants of the bunker.

And another one. Between 107 and 120 villagers were killed in the village of Deir Yassin during and possibly after the battle by the Jewish irregular forces the Irgun between April 9 and April 11, 1948. It occurred while Yishuv forces fought to break the siege of Jerusalem during the period of civil war that preceded the end of the Mandate. An initial estimate of 254 killed. The size of the figure had a considerable impact on the conflict in creating panic and became a major cause of the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The incident was universally condemned at the time, including repudiations from the Haganah command and the Jewish Agency. But this is not memorialised.

There is no sign of this moment in the quiet Jerusalem neighborhood now called Givat Shaul Bet. There is no memorial.

In Israel, Jews have the  unusual experience of belonging to a socially dominant group. It’s not something we are used to. Worldwide we are much more experienced at defining ourselves as a minority. I think part of the issue for Jews in Israel has something to do with the heady but insecure sense of at last being in a place where we are the majority. I don’t think we handle that very well.

But back to the interfaith relationship as a model for dealing with co-existing narratives. Our ability to converse with one another does not depend on my accepting the truth of what the other believes. It firstly depends on my accepting that the other actually believes what she says she believes. A next step is 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).

It is because of this person’s sincere belief in something that I don’t share that they act towards me in this positive or negative way. It’s not because they are bad but because of how they see me. Which is not the same thing as saying that I am as they see me. But it is a cue to me to think about what it is that I really am. And how can they know what I really am and how can I communicate that to one who sees me in a totally different, perhaps threatening, light.

A further part of this complex discussion is how much responsibility do I bear to the other for actions that are taken in my name. That, too, is what many Jews and Palestinians deal with. 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.

The further step is much harder. It involves me saying – what would I be like if I believed what this person believes. How would the world look like to me? How can I bridge the gap between those two narratives. In Israel, but not only in Israel, that is extraordinarily difficult, and often people just decide it’s better for their psychic health that they don’t try.

But some people do and, for me they are the heroes of this story. My heroes include the writers of the PRIME textbooks, the staff and the parents at the Hand in Hand school, the educators at the Centre for Humanistic Education, the committed Jerusalem cop, but most especially the members of the Bereaved Relatives Circle. These extraordinary people, on both sides, whose family members have been killed by the Other – in terrorist attacks, in military raids. Some of these people who have paid the ultimate price of loss are willing to call not for vengeance but for peace. They have telephoned each other and given support across the lines. They have developed a moving demonstration outside the United Nations with hundreds of coffins wrapped in the colours of Palestine and the colours of Israel. They have faced the narratives at their most destructive and decided to confront the humanity of the Other. My call is for us who are distant not to buy so deeply into our own narrative that we cannot give these people our support. I believe it is our role in the diaspora to help them.

This is the edited text of a talk given by Ron Hoenig, Co-chair of the South Australian Council of Christians and Jews at the Beit Shalom Synagogue Adelaide on Saturday, August 23 as a report on his participation in the ICCJ Conference on ‘The Contribution of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue to Peace-Building in the Middle East’. It refers mainly to the pre-conference tour of Jerusalem and northern Israel, called “Hearing the other’s religio-historical narrative”.