Israel and Palestine: a conflict of narratives

When I was in Palestine earlier this year, I reconnected with Musalaha, whose work I have followed through the years. After the jump, you can read an an encouraging account of a recent gathering of Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a story of tears, anger, pain … and increased understanding too.
(Meanwhile, stories like this one continue.)

From Musalaha:
Whenever we bring Palestinians and Israelis together and attempt to talk about the history of our conflict, different and conflicting narratives emerge. Both sides think of themselves as peace-loving, innocent victims, and think of the other side as the aggressor. For example, the Israeli narrative claims that they came to the Land in search of refuge, and were only reluctantly dragged into a conflict with the Arabs because the Arab unwillingness to accept them and share the Land which God had promised to the Jewish people. The Palestinian narrative claims that they were living peacefully in the Land for many generations when the Zionists arrived and began kicking them out of their homes and off their land, culminating in the Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948. While there are certainly elements of truth in both of these narratives, neither of them are the whole truth.
Recently, Musalaha hosted a young adults conference on Historical Narrative in Limassol, Cyprus, bringing together 40 Palestinian and Israeli believers. We decided to do a conference on Historical Narrative because it is one of the biggest obstacles which stand in the way of reconciliation. Narratives are stories that give meaning to our experiences and actions. We began the conference thinking about the different aspects of narrative, and how they influence us, especially in the context of conflict. We spent a whole day learning about the conflict in Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots in order to learn about narrative in a neutral, non-threatening way.
After learning of the Greek and Turkish conflict that physically divides the island of Cyprus, we heard presentations and critiques of the Israeli and Palestinian narratives. It was not easy for the Israelis to quietly listen to the Palestinian narrative, nor was it easy for the Palestinians to hear the Israeli narrative without responding. The room was filled with frustration, and over the lunch-break there were lively discussions at each table. Some harsh words were spoken, there was anger and tears, but overall we were all able to fall back on the relationships we had deepened and talk to each other with understanding and respect. In some ways, the most difficult part of the day was hearing the critique of each narrative. During the critique, each side challenged some of the ideas presented in their narrative. When we listen to the narrative of the other side, which blames us for the conflict and vilifies us, we can easily write it off, telling ourselves “they are simply misinformed.” But when we hear someone from our own side, pointing out all the bad things we have done, and all the ways we have contributed to the conflict, it is much more painful.
We closed the conference with discussion. One Palestinian participant, said “I always wondered how Israelis can sleep at night, because of the all the terrible things that they did. But now, after hearing the Israeli narrative, I see their point of view. This is a huge benefit for me; my whole view on the conflict has changed forever.” An Israeli participant said, “I was shocked to learn that Palestinians were kicked out of their homes. This is not what I was taught in high school. It also made me angry that I wasn’t aware of the Palestinian narrative and their pain.”
As a result of this conference, many of the participants felt that “We can bridge the gap between the two narratives, and come to a better, empathetic understanding of each other through learning each other’s narratives.” This was an encouraging sign, and fit with one of our three main goals for this conference, which were: 1. to learn each other’s narratives and bridge them as much as possible, 2. to accept and respect (not necessarily agree!) each other’s narratives, and 3. to try and move toward a narrative of reconciliation, by remembering our common narrative: we are all humans made in God’s image, we all have a sense of belonging to this land and a love for this land, and we are all followers of the Messiah.
We closed the conference by breaking up into small prayer groups to remind us of the reason we are there together and how we can approach boldly the throne of grace, especially with the difficult things that influence our lives. One participant summed it all up with, “We can go on with bitterness and pain, thinking that we are the victims, or we can say ‘What can we do now to make a better solution?’ We have to work together, not just my solution or your solution. That is the consequence of both narratives, because they exclude each other.” We are called by God to include each other, especially our “enemies.” This was the radical message of the Messiah, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Only through love can we direct our focus away from our own pain and see others through the eyes of the Savior. This does not excuse injustice, and where it is found it should be denounced and corrected, not through bitterness and hate, but through love.