Sharing hopeful encounters
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Sharing hopeful encounters

Teaneck educator describes visits to East Jerusalem and West Bank

Tikvah Weiner, third from right, and members of her Encounter group met with Palestinians during their trip to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Tikvah Weiner, third from right, and members of her Encounter group met with Palestinians during their trip to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In June 2016, I went on Encounter for the first time.

Encounter (encounterprograms.org) brings American Jews to meet Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We meet Palestinians from all segments of life — educators, businessmen and businesswomen, politicians, nonviolent peace activists, and more. Encounter operates with a set of values that grounds its work in ahavat Yisrael — a love of the Jewish people — and kavod ha’briot — respect for all humankind. Fanning out from those values are additional ones that are needed for this kind of work: a sense, for example, that we each are obligated to try to fix what is broken in the world; that we need a balance of modesty and a little audaciousness to do so; and that we have to be able to listen deeply and empathetically, even if and when our own narrative is being challenged.

On my first trip, I was moved by the stories of three women — a mother, her daughter, and her sister. The mother was an English teacher — which is how I started my career — and she told us that in the classroom she blanks out the names of two poets — one Israeli and the other Palestinian — and has her students read their works. After the readings, she reveals their names, Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, and the students inevitably aren’t able to tell which poet is which. She told us that her students often say, “I didn’t know the Israelis have poets,” leaving our group struck by how little we know of each other.

Another story by another woman, Islam, also made an impact. Islam lives in the refugee camp Aida, just outside Bethlehem. Islam had a child with special needs but there was no school in the refugee camp for him. So she decided she would open one herself. But how? Islam began cooking and selling her food in a community center she created, even learning English so she could attract groups such as ours, visitors from other parts of the world. She was able to open her school, and proudly showed us two small rooms with equipment for occupational and physical therapy and literacy work. Her school eventually also had been funded by a European NGO.

Islam was sweet and optimistic, but we all noted the will of steel that hid behind her sunny smile; without it, there would have been no way that she could have accomplished all she had in the cramped and limited conditions of her life.

Yet another highlight from my first trip was the friendship I developed with Hussein Eddin, who runs the security and intelligence company Red Crow, and who was responsible for security on the trip. Hussein was the first Palestinian to be accepted to IDC’s Homeland Security program. Educated in Europe and with a warm and easygoing manner, long ago Hussein had learned to navigate the challenges of being Palestinian in Israeli society with equanimity and a healthy sense of humor. After I heard each speaker, I found myself wanting Hussein’s take on them, asking him for more details about what we had heard or seen. But the most important part of what I got out of speaking with Hussein was simply friendship, the connection that develops naturally when two people are in sync, see the world in similar ways, and just enjoy spending time together.

This summer I returned to the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Encounter. This time I was there as a facilitator, one of the people who work with small groups of participants to help them process what they’re seeing. I’d valued the facilitators who’d helped my cohort and wanted to contribute to the organization by playing that role. Selfishly, I also wanted to return to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to again meet and listen to the thought-provoking speakers we’d had in Bethlehem, Aida, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem and to hear new voices as well. I wasn’t disappointed.

Much about this recent trip was similar and familiar — once again we saw Islam and got to see the larger space she now was renting for her catering business; we returned to the small village of El Zakariyya in the Gush Etzion area; and we got to learn once more from the passionate Mahmoud, who, with his family, runs a bookstore and cultural events center in East Jerusalem. But there were new things to experience as well. On one morning during this trip, we were able to choose among three excursions. I chose to spend the day with Souli Khatib, whom I had heard speak in 2016. Souli, who co-founded Combatants for Peace with an Israeli counterpart, had spent time in an Israeli jail and told us how he had discovered the nonviolent peace activism of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It also had been stirring to hear him describe how he and his fellow prisoners wept after the Israelis had screened “Schindler’s List” for them.

On this trip, Souli took us to his family’s home in the village of Hezma. We saw the intricacies of the political reality that Palestinians live with as we entered Himsa. The West Bank is divided into Areas A, B, and C, with different political entities controlling all three areas. (Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, Area B is controlled by the PA and Israel, and Area C is controlled by the IDF.) But in Hezma, for example, Areas B and C blur, and not even the villagers know sometimes if they’re in Area B or C. Each street or alley can be controlled by a different governing body, and that affects services such as road and building construction and repair, power, and water.

Meeting Souli’s family was great. His aunt and mother spoke no English, so Souli had to translate everything they were saying, with his aunt rebuking him and telling him to bring Arabic-speaking guests next time. We got to meet a gaggle of nieces and nephews and hear about their schooling and plans for the future, or just watch the little ones watch us curiously. It was a simple, slice-of-life moment in what otherwise was an intense and emotional trip.

In fact, the next day, our last, we heard from a Palestinian, Osama, who had been incarcerated at 14. He had been put in a solitary cell and he recalled how scared he’d been, how lonely, how much he wanted his mother. Alone and crying in his cell one evening, he heard a lovely tune that calmed him and enabled him to fall asleep. The next night he listened for the song, but the soldiers didn’t sing it. Osama’s life experiences led to his joining Souli’s organization, Combatants for Peace, and one week he was invited to a Jewish friend’s home for a Friday night dinner. When the family started singing “Shalom Aleichem,” the song that begins the Shabbat meal, he broke down. He asked the family what they’d been singing, and was astonished to realize that this Jewish song was the one that had calmed him in jail, bringing him peace and solace.

People ask me why I go on Encounter. A common question I get is, “But do you think it will do anything?” My answer is, I have no idea. I don’t have lofty or grandiose goals or think that my sitting in a small Palestinian village, refugee camp, or bookstore in East Jerusalem will bring us any closer to solving the larger geopolitical conflict. All I can say is that I feel drawn to the program. As someone who started life as an English teacher, and in some deep, true way always will be one, I can tell you I believe in the power of stories, and I want to hear the stories of the Palestinian people.

Starting with the first Encounter trip and through the time I went on my second one, I’ve done just that. After I returned from listening to Palestinians share their stories on Encounter in 2016, I read. A lot. Memoirs, poems, novels, histories, not just of the people with whom, as Encounter likes to say, we are destined to share the land, but also of Israel, Israelis, and the Jewish narrative.

On an Encounter webinar this last year, I was introduced to a book called “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine” by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. The book allows people to set the Israeli and Palestinian stories next to each other; an educational version even has a blank space in the middle, so students can write their own stories. As Souli said on this last trip, “We each have to surrender our stories, so we can build a new story together.”

In truth, I don’t know what that looks like, and I know it seems tremendously hard. Not only do we Jews have a venerable and beautiful history, but we also have a story that includes being treated in the darkest and most savage ways by humankind. How do we make room for another people’s story when we’ve finally reached a point in history when we’ve found safe purchase in a land we call home?

Perhaps as a people we’re actually best suited for this task, we who know what it’s like to be the refuse of the world. Hussein told me that Palestinians sometimes refer to themselves as “the Jews of the Middle East,” since no one wants them. Another comment Souli made continues to stick with me too: “We’re all wounded. We have to clean the wound.”

It feels scary to cross a divide. To walk into the unknown. But it feels necessary. It’s taken me awhile to write about my experiences on the Encounter trips. I wanted to sit with them, process what I’d seen over a long period of time, read more, talk more face to face with all different types of people who hold differing and opposing points of view.

And with all that, I still don’t have an answer to those who ask, Do you think going on Encounter will do anything? I’m hoping, though, that maybe sitting in a small Palestinian village, refugee camp, or bookstore is one way to bring peace. Maybe peace is about sitting down for a cup of coffee with someone you’d never consider having one with. Maybe it’s reading a book that feels taboo, opening your ear and heart to a different people’s songs, seeing what life looks like from the other side of a security wall.

As we enter 5780, my hope is that in a world that’s polarized and divided, we stop living in binary places and find the strength and compassion to enter each other’s homes, sit around each other’s tables, and hear each other’s stories. In that spirit, I’ll end with an excerpt from a poem:

“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.”

— “In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish

Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck is head of school of the Idea School, a new coed Jewish high school at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Learn more at www.theideaschool.org.

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