I wish the day would come when I will be proud I am from the Middle East as I am proud being Israeli

By Limor Shiponi

This post is about politics and a different G story than what stable readers of this blog have been accustomed to lately. If you’re not interested, skip. If you’re not sure, try, it might elicit some thoughts.

Current events, turmoil of public opinion, twitter feeds screaming anti-Semitism, pictures of destruction. At the same time I’m walking down streets, riding buses, walking into public buildings – life goes on in Israel, for everybody. Sitting in the bus next to me while preliminary thoughts about this blog start to surface, is an Arabic women. For both her and myself, there is nothing strange in this seating arrangement.

We live in a complex society. The sources of complexity are many, dense, ongoing. Yet, in everyday life, there is a way. Life is eventually stronger, unless – someone insists on interfering life. Most probably, at least from what I see, because they think they know better.

Around eight years ago I was asked to share my thoughts “about finding a way for something “new and different and not hopelessly intractable to happen” concerning the presentation of Israeli/Palestinian issues” in a conference outside of Israel. I remembered that paper while riding the bus. I’m sharing some of it with you.

To whoever might be reading my words – Hello & Shalom.

I appeared at the conference as a storyteller. It was clear to me that people would perceive me not only as a storyteller. The audience came prepared and had some amazing questions. Some questions were asking for a direct answer, some were trying to gather more information about the way I or other participants perceive the subject in hand. I had the feeling the audience was “feeding” the thinking process, hoping to help those identified as “strong thinkers” to come up with something creative, something fresh about old and new issues. If I were sitting in the audience, that would be my wish.

I think that is what you are asking for, concerning I/P issues since going again through “The balancing book of the dead” or “let’s measure the map” or “who suffers more” does not lead to anything beneficial for any of the parties or for the conference. Some individuals and groups do actually benefit from that, which might be a good topic for a panel (“Who benefits from unresolved conflicts”, “Fearing Peace” etc).

My second thought comes with a story:

Several months ago, I received an email invitation to participate in a woman’s peacemaking event at Furedis – the Arab village just across the road from where I live. The invitation described what was going to happen, the ideological concept, the technique (Peacemaking circles) and other technicalities. At the bottom, it said that Mr. Richard Gere might come to listen. When I saw that line, I smiled to myself with amusement, not understanding what it was inserted for, or why he, if at all, should be there. Mind you, it was a woman’s gathering (thinking about it now…plenty of good reasons to have him…)

Well, the day arrived and I attended the event. Around 80 women arrived – Christian/Arabs, Muslim/Arabs, Jews, Druze, religious, non-religious – were all there in equal numbers. A few Arab men were allowed in, and in a very refreshing way, their presence did not dominate the women’s behavior, not even the religious ones. A few kids were running around too.

The circle discussions, once we got there, were personal and interesting. They were building up to a worthwhile level, very truthful, very open-minded, trying to reach and touch each participant’s heart in the way she could relate to the different issues. The groups, not dictated from above, determined the issues.

Suddenly, a fast movement outside… a small army of men, armed with large press cameras was fighting its way in. Yes, Mr. Gere (I’ll call him G from now on) arrived. The whole room stormed. Mr. G demanded the press to stay out of the room, and for the next hour they were hanging out of the windows like monkeys. Into the room walked a very handsome, gentle behaving man. Most of the women were suddenly so different – they behaved like high-school girls. It was loud, messy, crowded, noisy, demanding attention in a possessive way. One of the Arab women, dressed in a fine western suite shouted in Arabic: “Behave your selves, we want to look civilized to him”. That changed the room a little. The next hour seemed to me as an elementary-school show, trying to please, be nice, show our best, rhyme, sing, give presents, etc. The only true inspiration was Mr. G himself – gentle, listening to the activists very closely, serious, honoring. After he left, half of the participants disappeared. It was very disappointing for me. As we walked out for the lunch-break, one of the Arab men walked up to the woman who called that sentence in Arabic and said to her: “I didn’t like what you said. You made me feel that I have to be ashamed of who we are, of our way of life”.

That man phrased my second thought perfectly. The West very often perceives Middle Eastern culture as noisy, crowded, and overwhelming in a frightening way. At the same time, you see it as full of magic, sensuous and lively. There is a large gap there. Too often does it happen that people from the Middle East given a stage in front of Westerners, shift their behavior into a pleasing mode. It is unnatural and annoyingly week, effective but not affective.

I encourage you to think of a way to create the environment that will cancel out this almost automatic behavior. Some ideas: 1. Translation – many of the authentic and brave Middle Eastern voices are not able to express themselves in English. When a person speaks his own language he is more articulate and natural. 2. Time – the Middle Eastern ways of expression require more time than X minutes on a panel. There are various rules about manners, pace, honor, etc. If I’m trying to be creative here I would suggest a different setting when it comes to a panel about the Middle East with Middle Eastern speakers. Limitations – of course, the ones that will frame an effective discussion, not please the system.

This leads me to my next point. The pre discussion about bringing I/P issues into the next conference is conducted (if I got it right) mainly by ‘pro’s – pro-Israelis, pro-Palestinians. You really want to touch the conflict and find hope in it. Why settle for other conflicts? I/P are small nations while pro-I/P are giant forces and there are more than two groups. If you want the I/P input you would need to invite people who ARE Israeli and Palestinian and who LIVE IN the conflict area and intend to stay. Anything beyond that is another field of discussion. There is another set of issues here like “who caused the I/P conflict?”, “Who’s conflict is it really?”, “Is it all about religion” etc.

To those representatives on the different committees who are concerned about their “side” making their point:

As a person who has experienced being a participant at conferences, I can tell you it doesn’t work that way. You cannot invite a free thinker to the conference and expect him or her to say something previously dictated. The nature of the event causes turbulence in the participants’ minds; it is a super-creative state, which I see as the main reason to participate. This happens during panels, it happens at the dinners, in the cafeteria between panels, when you are alone between sessions, while you sleep – everywhere and all the time. I’m trying to understand what it means – being concerned about your side making your point. If it is about showing the other side is wrong – that is not interesting any more. If it is about anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim or anything of the kind – there are many opportunities to discuss those issues that you can create. Why over-load the I/P discussion? Making tunnel-vision statements is not a discussion; there is no dialogue in it.

Yet I understand your concern and I feel there is a middle way.

I don’t think any audience members were misled to think I don’t stand very strongly for Israel. How come they listened? I think they listened because I am touchable. People could feel I speak my heart, they could feel I seek truth, and they could feel I was not trying to “convert” anyone. They saw me listening, they saw me thinking and considering, but not even for one minute were they mistaken to think that I do not support the Israeli cause. No one asked me if I was a Jew. That was as-if obvious. Some of the most mind provoking questions I answered from the Jewish experience. Some deep moments were shared from the feminine side. Nobody thought I will turn into a male, non-Jew or Palestinian in front of their eyes.

So if you want a good representation of your “sides” I suggest you invite speakers who are well identified with their different identities, who can be themselves in front of an audience, and trust them. They should be motivated by the event, by the will to participate in the discussion, not by someone’s will for them to make a certain point. That is a dangerous request…

Israelis & Palestinians are two small people motivated with plenty of fear. Fear motivates more fear to the point we are experiencing now – a narrative war, as if one narrative could overtake the other. At the same time, a lot of peace work is going on here. It needs nourishing, time and respect. But every time Mr. G walks into the room, with all his good intentions, the hungry infants start calling out for a dime, displaying as many of their wounds as possible as if they would gain more because of that. If we I/P and their pro’s want to resolve this long-standing conflict we should invite visitors in not as patrons but as equal members of our peacemaking circle and stand with pride.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. May we all walk in greater peace.

Love, Limor, Israel.

Now it is eight years later and from what it seems, most of the world is still patronizing the I/P situation and pushing it to a very dangerous point because it thinks it knows better.

The only way to know what is really going on here is to come and visit. Come, drive through the country, meet the people on the streets, talk, ask questions, and see what we do, how we lead our lives. You might be very surprised. You might understand why this blog carries this particular headline and realize how you can help it happen.

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