by Gefen Shammah, Face to Face / Faith to Faith 2012 Participant
I came to Face to Face in order to listen.
A close friend’s mother told me about the program, and thought I might be interested in applying. At first, I hesitated. I asked myself: what’s in it for me? Do I even have the time for this? But I decided to try. I sent in a long essay about myself, was invited to an interview, and after that to a preliminary meeting that would determine whether or not I would continue to take part in the program. There were about 30 boys and girls of my age there, Israelis and Palestinians, of all religions. It was the first time in my life that I sat in one circle with Palestinians, the people on the other side of the conflict, on the other side of the barrier, and certainly the first time that I talked with, actually had a conversation with, Palestinians of my own age. Even then I understood how much I don’t know, how superficial and limited is my knowledge about the conflict and the other side.
After the meeting, I no longer deliberated. I wanted to take part in the program and understood how necessary it was for me – how can someone living at the heart of this conflict not know or understand anything about the other side? How is it possible for me to “know” and determine things about the other side, if not based on truly knowing them?
The need for dialogue became clearer and clearer to me during the program. As the year passed and we got to know each other more friendships were formed, the group consolidated, personal barriers were lowered, and I learned to get to know people who are different from me, each with his or her own opinions, wishes, dreams and ambitions. The more personal, caring and honest our relationships got, the more we opened up to each other, unafraid to share, express ourselves, and yes, even fight sometimes. Along with the pleasant, special atmosphere, more and more difficult, painful issues began to arise, for both the Jewish and the Palestinian sides, and turbulent arguments and penetrating discussions developed. At first I was worried about the disagreements, but I learned that they were important, necessary and even vital. The atmosphere in the group is warm and accepting, everyone can talk and express an opinion, even on difficult issues, in the spirit of sharing, inclusion and mutual respect.
The joint flight to the international summer intensive camp in the U.S. was meaningful for the group in general and for me in particular. We flew as one group, Israelis and Palestinians, got to know other conflicts, and learned about change, about peace, about accepting the Other.
I’ve been asked many times what the most significant experience was for me throughout my participation in Face to Face. It’s always difficult for me to find an answer, to decide which of the countless wonderful experiences I’ve had was the most important and meaningful. Usually I choose to talk about the “open space” unit that took place at the summer intensive, in which we discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though the participants were of all the groups—from Ireland, South Africa and the U.S.—the most difficult claims came from the Israeli and the Palestinian sides, against one another. It was a very difficult discussion for me, mentally and emotionally. I stood my ground and persisted with my opinions, representing my side against that of my Palestinian friends. At the end of the discussion, despite how difficult and turbulent it was, we all got up together, regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality, hugged one another and went for lunch together, as friends.
I talk about this experience because it was what taught me the most important lesson: you can disagree, and you can fight. You can wholeheartedly believe in your opinions, remain uncompromised and uncompromising, and that doesn’t mean you can’t also be open and accepting, that you can truly listen to, respect and accept even opinions that are that different and opposed to yours. How many problems would be solved if we could all fight to high heaven and later sit down and eat together? How many wars would be prevented if we knew how to put aside all the ideologies, attitudes and disagreements and just look at the person standing in front of us?
The summer intensive was a deeply moving experience that completely changed my worldview. For the first time, I believed that I too have the ability to make a difference, have an impact, and not just on myself or my friends in the group. I realized that I had real power, the power to facilitate a conceptual change in other people, to lead more people into experiencing what I had experienced, to find a solution. Landing back in Israel was difficult and painful, both because of missing [the people we were at the summer camp with] and being sad that such an amazing experience had to end, and because of returning to the bitter reality, a reality of conflict, of hatred, of lack of understanding and lack of acceptance between the two sides. Such a different reality than the optimistic, peaceful “bubble” of Face to Face, a reality in which tolerance, listening and respect aren’t a matter of course. A reality that needs to be changed.
A couple of weeks ago, we held a day of dialogue that the entire group organized together. The participants were our friends, people we know that we wanted to give the opportunity to experience in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, to listen and to be listened to, in accordance with the values of respect and listening that we learned in Face to Face. I felt immense pride about what we managed to do together as a group, about achieving our goal of spreading the message of Face to Face, a message of understanding and listening, despite and perhaps because of the differences of opinions.
I came to Face to Face in order to listen, and today I know how. I’m thankful for each and every moment I had in Face to Face, and for the change I have undergone, and the change I believe I can continue to make.
Gefen Shammah is a participant in the ‘Face to Face / Faith to Faith’ 2012 group in Jerusalem, an inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue and social change program by Auburn Theological Seminary in partnership with ICCI.