November 3rd, Day #2

1. Tour Old City of Jerusalem with Eliyahu MacLean

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Old City of Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Old City of Jerusalem

2. Shahad Al-Hamad and Elad Vezana, Israeli-Palestinian partners, Havayati/My Story, a dialogue approach to peace-building.

Elad and Shahad, by Dr. Joel Berman

It’s hard to believe that we arrived only yesterday. Today had so many rich and memorable moments that it feels like two days in one. The hour is late, so I’ll relate only one:

Tonight we had the enormous privilege of listening to the stories of  Shahad, a young Arab Israeli woman whose father and grandparents were expelled from the city of Lod/Lydda in 1948, and Elad, her Mizrahi Jewish friend and colleague whose parents immigrated from Morocco when he was a child.

Both Shahad and Elad carry searing wounds from their childhood – related to their separation from their communities of origin (although Shahad’s father was eventually allowed to return to Lod as a farmer, his siblings were not, and he never saw them again); isolation from their respective mainstream cultures because of their “otherness”; and for Elad, the added burden of PTSD related to his military participation in the senseless violence of the most recent invasion of Lebanon, and his recent confrontations with Palestinian teenage rock throwers in the West Bank.

Elad and Shahad bring young Jews and Arabs together for encounters ranging from half-day story telling to 3-day wilderness trips in the desert in which the participants simply tell their stories to one another. They say the results of these compassionate listening activities are transformational and enduring.

Throughout their story telling, we sat silently in a circle. Our eyes were locked on theirs. No one in the room stirred. Our collective attention to their every word was laser-like. As they each told their stories, they exchanged gazes and gestures that conveyed deep respect for one another.

After their sharing, I asked Shahad, “Suppose if by magic the government of Israel acknowledged the Nakba (the “Catastrophe” of 1948 when 750,000 – 800,000 Palestinans became refugees from the new state of Israel) and formally apologized. What would that mean to you?”

She thought for a while and then responded: An apology – a simple “sorry” – would not mean much. But official recognition of the harm that Israel did to her family of origin and to her community, and formal acknowledgment of the Israeli government’s efforts to eradicate Palestinian history and culture – that, she said, would be very important to her, very meaningful. Visibly moved by the opportunity to answer such a question, she thanked me for asking it, in front of the group and again at the end of the session.

After numerous additionl questions, our leader Andrea called it a night out of respect for their time and the lateness of the hour, and we started to rise from our chairs when Elad interjected:

“I need to say one more thing before we leave – that I’ve known for many years, but I’ve never said to anyone…not to Shahad, not to my friends or family (longer pause, as he turns and looks directly at Shahad). Shahad, I do recognize the severe harm that my country did to your family and your village and the Palestinian people. I haven’t said this before, but I’ve known it and now I need to say it to you and to others.”

No words passed between them. None were needed. All of us sat silently witnessing the profound power of that moment, which lasted nearly a minute.

I cannot put into words what it felt like to be a part of that extraordinary moment of grace and compassion and common humanity that moistened eyes, melted hearts, and filled the room with a palpable energy that entered like a burst of rejuvenating oxygen.

Elad and Shahad told us then, and again as several of us walked them to their car, how helpful and powerful it is to be able to tell their stories to a roomful of such attentive, silent listeners. They thanked us and encouraged us to continue to listen compassionately to everyone we will encounter during the next two weeks.  As they drove through Lion’s Gate, out of the old walled city of Jerusalem and into the evening’s windstorm, we listeners turned and walked back towards our guesthouse.  A few of our group chatted softly, but I chose to steep a little longer in my own wordless company as a way to pay homage to the profound power of respectful silence.

 Joel Berman is a retired doctor who is committed to changing the conversation about Israel and Palestine in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire. 

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