by Breanne White, ICCI intern
Thursday, December 1, I attended a meeting with a panel presentation of alumni from some of ICCI’s youth and young adult programs, which was given for rabbinical students at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. After a short explanation of the purposes of ICCI and what these groups work to accomplish through dialogue, the alumni discussed what they had learned from their participation in the various programs and how the dialogue process is still affecting their lives.
As a new intern for ICCI, I was fascinated both by the questions the HUC students asked and the varied responses the alumni gave about the high points and challenges of the programs. Both specific and general problems presented challenges to the dialogue process. A specific example from this past year was the effect the conflict in Gaza had on the programs. Several of the alumni who participated in programs last year mentioned that continuing dialogue during that conflict was particularly difficult, but they all felt a sense of satisfaction that they were able to push through and keep attending meetings together. Another challenge that the participants have run into is affecting them now more than while they were in the programs. Many of these alumni agreed that while the dialogue itself was often difficult, now that they are done with the program they find it hard to continue this type of dialogue with members of the community who haven’t participated in similar dialogue groups. As one Jewish alumnus said, “I can’t just go up and start talking to Arabs on the street about what they think about the conflict here; they’d think I was from the Israeli intelligence or something!”
Several alumni mentioned that one of the high points of the programs was the opportunity to learn about other religions in a neutral context. A Palestinian alumnus from East Jerusalem said that learning about Jews and Judaism was one of the most helpful parts of the program for her because she was able to distinguish between the negative propaganda that she had been taught about Jews and what their customs and traditions actually mean. Learning about Judaism and associating with Jews helped her to appreciate many aspects of the religion and understand the mindset of Jews better.
Two things were particularly poignant for me in the discussion. One of the Palestinian alumni talked about his experience in a 2-week international camp in New York. One day the Israeli and Palestinian participants had to sit down together and discuss possible solutions to the conflict, but neither side was willing to agree with the other and give up what they wanted in order to come to a peace agreement. In that instant, he realized that peace through dialogue was perhaps much more difficult than he had previously thought. However, even though feelings might have been hurt on both sides, after a few days and some team-building activities, they were able to be friends again. I found this especially interesting, because even though both sides thought they were right and the other was wrong, they were still able to find ways to overcome their differences and stay friends. It was encouraging to me that even though they might have thought the conflict would never be solved, at least they could keep the dialogue process going.
The second thing that struck me from the discussion was a question that one of the American students from HUC asked the participants: “How would you define yourselves in just a few words?” It seemed easy for the Americans present to answer such a question, at least peripherally: the words American, student, and Jewish could provide an accurate description for most of the HUC students present. However, as one of the Palestinian alumni stated, for the Israelis and Palestinians, “It’s complicated!” Some of the answers that were given were half-Christian half-Muslim, Palestinian from East Jerusalem with a Jordanian passport, and Jewish but not religious. Even seemingly simple questions, such as those concerning religion and nationality, were difficult to answer. Although not all of the alumni were able to adequately describe themselves in just a few words, the responses that were given showed the difficulties that can arise when trying to define “identity.”
After the panel and discussion, the alumni joined the students for dinner and lively discussion about their personal lives and their experiences with ICCI. The HUC students had come with open minds and an eagerness to learn about the conflict and how ICCI’s programs had opened up possibilities for dialogue for Israelis and Palestinians. Because of this, the open discussion over dinner was especially helpful for them to get to know people from different backgrounds and with different ideologies. Personally, I left the event with a greater understanding about how dialogue can be effective: although talking about things won’t solve all problems and conflicts, it does open up an understanding of and a tolerance for what other people think, making it much easier to come to a compromise that is mutually beneficial!
Breanne is a new student intern with ICCI. She received her BA from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah with degrees in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and English, and is currently working on graduate studies in Arabic and Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her graduate research is focused on the role of women in creating and sustaining peaceful societies in the Middle East.