Mohammed Abu-Nimer + Sami Adwan
Two Narratives, Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present (part 2)
Mohammed Abu-Nimer is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and executive director of the Salaam Institute for Peace & Justice.
Sami Adwan is an associate professor in the faculty of Education at Bethlehem University.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, the second part of “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present.” We continue listening to experiences and perceptions that divide Israelis and Palestinians even as they share a land they both consider holy. This hour, the intersection of the spiritual and the political in the lives of two Palestinians. As Hamas forms a Cabinet and Israel approaches a critical election, we probe their stories and their sources of despair and of hope.
PROFESSOR SAMI ADWAN: I think we need to touch the conflict at the human level. If we still view the conflict at the political level, the official level, we really become faceless in this history, and we become just objects, numbers, etc.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, the intersection of the spiritual and the political in the lives of two Muslim Palestinians. These men are deeply rooted in the suffering of their people. They’ve also sought to understand the conflict in their land from both sides. They describe their fears and hopes as Israel builds a barrier of separation and Hamas assumes power.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, the conclusion of our series, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present.”
MS. TIPPETT: Life in the Holy Land is imprinted with 3,000 years of sacred and secular history. The distinct narratives we now know as Israeli and Palestinian began in 1948. The state of Israel was created in that year in the aftermath of war. For Israeli Jews, 1948 is known as the year of independence, a return to sacred ancestral homeland after centuries of exile and the trauma of the Holocaust. But in the Arabic of Palestinians, 1948 is the nakba or catastrophe. Half of the previous Arab population of the former British Palestine fled or was expelled — 600,000 to 900,000 men, women and children. What we today know as the Palestinian territories came under the control of Jordanian and Egyptian and, eventually, Israeli forces. The Oslo peace process of the 1990s initiated a gradual transition towards Palestinian autonomy in portions of the long-contested West Bank and Gaza Strip. The failure of the Oslo process has left bitterness and uncertainty on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Last week we explored this history through the eyes of Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli journalist. My first guest this hour, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, is an American citizen and a scholar of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. He is also a Palestinian citizen of Israel. In 1948, his family remained in the land that became Israel. Today, some 20 percent of the Israeli population is Arab, mostly Palestinian.
PROFESSOR MOHAMMED ABU-NIMER: I come from a village in the north of the Galilee, near the Tiberias region. The village is mixed Muslim, Christians and the Druze, which is another sect of Islam. At least that’s how it is defined in the Muslim world or the Arab world. My house, my family, has always been in the border between the Christian and the Druze — our lands, our houses. And that’s, I think, influenced a great deal of my upbringing of finding myself always standing in the middle.
MS. TIPPETT: Mohammed Abu-Nimer’s family straddled other divisions of modern Palestinian Muslim culture. His grandfather, who shared their family home, was devout. He made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1915 as he was coming back from fighting the British with the Ottoman Empire in Yemen. He became a spiritual leader of the village, representing their Muslim community with new Israeli leaders after 1948. But Abu-Nimer’s father was a more secular Palestinian, devoted to the nationalist cause. Mohammed Abu-Nimer himself became a leader of the Palestinian student union when he attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He led protests and advocated for Palestinian rights. A turning point for his future work of conflict resolution came one day in his sophomore year. He was having trouble following a sociology lecture at the university.
MR. ABU-NIMER: I couldn’t write fast enough in Hebrew, and I went ahead and asked the man who was sitting in front of me, and the moment he turned his face towards me, I knew I’d made a mistake because I recognized him as one of the leaders of the right-wing student group on campus that we usually fight with them.
MS. TIPPETT: One of the right-wing Jewish groups?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah, Israeli Jewish right-wing. And he give me the look, and he said, “If you cannot read Hebrew, you should go to the Arab countries where you belong.” And you know, I was boiling angry. There’s a group of about 120 students in the room, and sort of a softer hand touch my shoulder and a student, she said, “Take my notes.” And I looked at her and, you know…
MS. TIPPETT: And she was Jewish, also?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah. Contained my anger. And this was my first one-on-one human face of that. But that woman, she basically began talking, she invited me to her house with her family and her husband and children and even dog, and I sat there in the Passover. It was the first Passover I had in a Jewish house. And we spoke, not about politics, but mostly about relationships, family and so forth. And our relationship developed. I invited her to my family, and they hosted her and her children and husband; and they still call her “the Jewish woman with the dog.” That was the first time that they would allow something like that down in the house. And then we became facilitators. We decided to lead…
MS. TIPPETT: You and she together?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah. We began leading the Arab-Jewish dialogue group on the Hebrew University campus. And then by 1989, when I left Israel, Palestine, I’d worked for about 10 years in bringing Arabs and Jews inside Israel together for dialogue and coexistence. And by 1989, I realized that, you know, I got tired, burned out, and there was very little support during the Intifada.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s what I was going to say, in that time, in 1987, the First Intifada began.
MR. ABU-NIMER: Intifada, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Which I guess we translate as uprising, often, but is it true that the translation really would be more like a shaking off? Is that…
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah, shaking off something off your shoulder or like holding you back or holding you down.
MS. TIPPETT: How did that affect the work you were doing of bringing Jews and Palestinians together?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Up to then, December ’87, we managed to get participants, Arabs and Jews, and the political context was hard, but the violence, the tension, the resistance, at that time, wasn’t on a daily basis in a very mobilized way. Once the Intifada started, the Israeli schools began expressing more fears and more suspicion of attending these meetings. The Arab kids and the Arab participants, also, and their teachers, began voicing more and more the question of, you know, why we do this? Is this really helpful? Now it is time to express more solidarity with the Palestinians who are being oppressed and killed on daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza. And, really, you had to fight three battles: one with the Jewish community, one with the Arab community, and the third one within yourself. Every day I go back to my home in East Jerusalem with my wife, and we both go through checkpoints, humiliated by the Israeli army and Israeli security. We see our Palestinian neighbors also being subject to really collectively punishment, as well as ourself.
MS. TIPPETT: And even as Israeli citizens?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah, yeah. You know, really, the lines between the consequences and manifestation of the conflict in Israel, Palestine, especially in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Israeli citizenship did not give you lots of privileges or protection. You basically always been treated like second-class citizen. And, during the Intifada, that, I think, was manifested and expressed more and more in that sense.
MS. TIPPETT: Palestinian-American scholar Mohammed Abu-Nimer.
The first Palestinian Intifada started in 1987. It began as a broad-based, populist movement for self-rule, and it generally took the form of civil disobedience — strikes, boycotts, graffiti and barricades. But stone-throwing demonstrations against heavily armed Israeli troops captured international attention. Israeli military forces responded brutally at times, killing and maiming unarmed or lesser-armed demonstrators. This spiral of events led many Israelis to re-examine their attitudes and government policies towards Palestinians. The First Intifada strongly contributed to the momentum that led to the Oslo peace process in 1993.
By contrast, the Second Intifada targeted civilians inside Israel, and its tactics included suicide bombs. The Islamist movement, Hamas, which won a government majority in recent Palestinian elections, was a key architect of that campaign, which began in the year 2000. A controversial visit by former hard-line General Ariel Sharon to a Muslim holy site fueled the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and the suicide bombings that followed helped catapult him to power. All of this brought the already beleaguered Oslo peace process to a bitter end.
But my guest, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, suggests that the Oslo peace process also failed, in part, because it never addressed the range of religious instincts that define Palestinian and Israeli identities. In attempting to impose a secular peace, he believes, Oslo instead handed the future over to extremists on both sides.
MR. ABU-NIMER: You have a secular peace process that’s negotiating the fate of the Holy Land without input from the religious community. And the only input that they receive in their negotiation is either from Hamas or Jihad or from the Israeli-Jewish far religious right. But the input of, I think, mainstream or even religious Muslim and Christians and Jews who work on peace have always been excluded from the negotiation table. And to some extent, it’s an irony and it’s kind of a paradox where you cannot negotiate the fate of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the holy site in Jerusalem without the input of the Muslim clergy and Muslim community and constituency.
I, myself, have treated this conflict as a pure secular up to the early ’90s. And, gradually, I think more in the U.S. here, actually, I have realized that really, among the Palestinian, like the Egyptian and other Muslim countries, Arab Muslim countries, even if you’re secular or so-called nonreligious, you still hold all of your values, all of the ideas that you hold, then, are rooted in an Islamic culture. And that Islamic culture, to a great extent, is really influenced, affected by the religion of Islam. So we expect, Muslim in general in the Arab world, to strip away from their self, their identity, their collective identity, this dimension of religion, and separate it, when it is really the container of their entire identity. And the religious right on both sides have managed very successfully to mobilize it in a way to encourage and escalate violence and justify oppression and violence toward the other side.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s a really important observation that while, officially, religious dynamics are bracketed out of the secular peace processes time after time, the right wing, Hamas on one side and religious right in Israel, inject themselves into the dynamics anyway. But you’re saying that sort of ordinary people, people who might be moderate, who might even be secular but still for whom that religious identity and culture is very important, that, in fact, is what gets left out.
MR. ABU-NIMER: Absolutely. And this is the majority we’re talking about, you know. Over 60, 70 percent of the people, you know, walk around, not necessarily praying five times. It’s interesting. I was in Egypt three weeks ago doing some work on interfaith relation, and I interviewed one of the ex-Islamic Brotherhood leaders who formed his own political party called Al-Wasat or “the middle.” And I asked him about that. I said, you know, “How important is religion,” and he said, “Religion is the key to unlock social and political changes in the Muslim world.” Therefore, I think the election of Hamas can be explained easily in that context. And I think the grave mistake that we’ve been committing is this artificial separation between religion and the state that we have here or that Europe have developed back…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. That can’t be imposed on other cultures.
MR. ABU-NIMER: Precisely. And the outcome become democracies secular, and democracy and Islam become really, really confrontational.
MS. TIPPETT: Mohammed Abu-Nimer. An expert in international conflict resolution, he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and also an American citizen.
I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, the second in a series, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present.”
The governments of Israel and the United States are currently deciding how to respond to the victory of the radical Islamist party Hamas in Palestinian elections. My guest, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, argues, as other analysts have, that Palestinian Muslims and Christians elected Hamas despite their declared commitment to the destruction of Israel. He says Palestinians voted against the corruption of the Fatah party of the late Yasser Arafat and they voted for Hamas’ commitment to basic social infrastructure, including the need to control paramilitary violence within Palestinian society.
Mohammed Abu-Nimer has also written that from the point of view of the average Palestinian, Israel has been under right-wing control since the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001. Before Sharon was removed from power by illness earlier this year, he did break from the conservative Likud Party and he evacuated right-wing settlers from the Gaza Strip. But Abu-Nimer points out that settlers remain in the West Bank, and Sharon also initiated the construction of an elaborate security barrier — in places, a wall over 20 feet high — that is being built along contested borders on the West Bank. Nevertheless, Mohammed Abu-Nimer suggests that this could be a moment of new opportunity. The leadership on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide has transitioned away from the forces who oversaw the Oslo peace process. These parties now in place are farther apart from each other, he says, but more effective at mobilizing their own populations.
MR. ABU-NIMER: From 1948 till 1993, the Israeli government did not recognize the Palestinian people for right for self-determination or for statehood. And they said, “We will only work with you if you give up terrorism, if you recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist.” And the Palestinians said, “We will only recognize you if you recognize our right for a state.” They reached that historical compromise in 1993, but the difference, those who reached it were the Labor Party and the Arafati group. Now those two groups are out of power, and now we have two players who are more radical in power, Sharon government, or Ehud government…
MS. TIPPETT: But Sharon has recognized — I mean, there was quite an evolution of his position.
MR. ABU-NIMER: Indeed, indeed. When? I mean, in 2000. So how do you know that Hamas leadership is not going to work, negotiate and make that?
MS. TIPPETT: To make that same evolution.
MR. ABU-NIMER: When we corner any human, or even animals, when we corner them, they will get more defensive. And when we put condition and ultimates, nobody’s going to recognize that, especially an injured community like the Palestinian people, fighting for its dignity. I think the best remedy is to provide it with this type of security and this type of assurances that if you negotiate in good faith, there will be a Palestinian viable state, which I think what Hamas is very anxious to mobilize. And there have been, by the way, in the last three weeks, some Israeli Jewish rabbis who met with Hamas and who actually made a statement, and Hamas is exploring, exactly like Fatah did in the mid-’80s, communication with segments of the Israeli Jewish society, which, I think, it’s a very good indicator of Hamas is willing to talk to some Jewish rabbis and Israel peace groups.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I’m not sure we’re hearing those stories, either, over here.
I want to ask how you’ll respond to something that was said to me by Yossi Klein Halevi. He’s an Israeli journalist, a Jewish journalist, and son of a Holocaust survivor. He also was a Jewish extremist at a young age and has said that part of his turning away from that was deciding to no longer be a victim but to be a survivor. And he feels that something that happened among, not all Israelis but a majority of Israelis in the ’90s, you know, with the Oslo process, was deciding that they weren’t victims but would be survivors, and that also meant seeing the rightness of the Palestinian cause. And he has said that he has felt that that’s a move that many Palestinians have not made. I mean, how do you respond to that analysis?
MR. ABU-NIMER: In terms of my work in reconciliation and peace-building and justice issues, I think that’s an inevitable psychological shift from that many Israelis, especially as you indicated, the religious, spiritual colleagues I work with throughout these 25 years, I have really sensed that among the individual who’s deeply committed to the peace process, deeply committed to working with Palestinian and expressing their solidarity and, most important, committed to confront the evil or the wrongdoing in their own community, I think this type of transformation is very essential. In the Palestinian side, there are individuals, there are a number of people, and those groups, I think, who have made that shift, who have experienced such transformation, and they have, as a result, consistently, for the last 35, 40 years, have been working with Israelis.
The difference, as most of us who work in this field know, for a Palestinian to make such a shift is really quite a challenge and really require to face and confront many evil forces within the Palestinian community, evil in the sense of wrongdoing, and also be able to explain how could you reach out to the Israeli despite the wall that’s in your backyard? And I think, you know, finding the internal strength and the spiritual guiding to answer that question in an empowered way, I’ve seen it about 200 Palestinians who attended a nonviolence conference resistance in December 25th, 2005. Now, I’ve seen it with many Palestinian who do work with Israeli peace groups, Israeli solidarity groups. I think both Israeli and Palestinian society deeply need to do such transformation. Yet, from the study of reconciliation, we know that such a transformation from victim to survivor come in a massive, mobilized way after, unfortunately, a political agreement. And I think that dimension, that part of the puzzle, is still missing between the Israeli and the Palestinian.
We’ve seen gestures indicative of that in the years between ’93 and ’95 where I think…
MS. TIPPETT: You mean the Oslo process?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinian engaged in a massive people-to-people project. And, unfortunately, the peace process got derailed and also prevented further development of this transformation.
MS. TIPPETT: Palestinian-American scholar of international relations Mohammed Abu-Nimer.
This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation with him on suicide bombings and internal Palestinian reflection. Also, Palestinian educator Sami Adwan, who’s bringing contrasting Israeli and Palestinian narratives of history side by side to schoolchildren.
This exploration continues at speakingoffaith.org. This week you can read Mohammed Abu-Nimer’s analysis of the electoral victory of Hamas and listen to the first part of this series with Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. While you’re there, subscribe to our free weekly podcasts. Listen on demand at any time, at any place. Also, find my journal on this week’s topic and sign up for our e-mail newsletter. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present.”
Any discussion, any study of the history and present of this region reveals irreconcilable narratives of the same lived events. We’re listening this hour to Palestinian experiences and perspectives, seeking to understand the difficulty of peace in a land that its inhabitants, on both sides of conflict, consider holy.
I’m in conversation with Mohammed Abu-Nimer. A Palestinian born in Israel and once a nationalist activist, he’s been working now for many years to develop Palestinian knowledge of Islamic traditions of nonviolence. The challenge in this, he says, is in convincing Palestinians that nonviolent resistance is not the same as passivity.
MR. ABU-NIMER: So I want to say that, you know, what we expect also, and we work with, that within the Israeli society with the Jewish rabbis we work with or Israeli peace groups, even with American Jewish rabbis we work with, when they say, “What do you expect us to do,” and I said, “Just to go back to your community and precisely preach the message that the violence that the government policy is taking into the West Bank and Gaza is morally wrong. And it will not achieve security to the Israeli; it will not achieve security to Palestinian.” And some of the peace groups, unfortunately, I work with, they continue to speak in those two languages — Palestinian to be nonviolent, but the Israeli government and society have the right to defend itself. So I think we need to be here on the same level. There are numbers of Palestinian…(unintelligible)…number of Palestinian individual who constantly have been talking about the need to negotiate, the need to practice and use that methods of fair dialogue, and also calling for even direct, nonviolent action. And just, if — you covered the wall. Right? The wall? You spoke of the wall…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. The wall that Israel’s building, yes.
MR. ABU-NIMER: …they erected there. Just if you go for the last three years and just trace how did the Palestinian villages resist the wall, and you will find just an incredible amount of stories of nonviolent resistance, both including foreign as well as local Palestinian committees who have been fighting the wall in a nonviolent resistance way. And in, amazingly, in some villages, really, really it work. In both sides, I should say, though, the Palestinian and the Israeli, the nonviolent resistance movement in both of them I think need to be empowered and supported by outsider as well as insider.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s probably an important point to make, isn’t it? But even as you expect Israelis to be talking about what may be morally wrong about Israeli actions with Palestinians, I mean, are there Palestinians who are talking about the morality of suicide bombings?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah. Signatures were gathered, I think in 2002, 2003, against the suicide bombing. And, again, this information is out there. Not only myself but hundreds of other Palestinians spoke against it. And I know that there were several articles and petitions that were put in the newspaper, Palestinian newspaper, calling against the suicide bombing. And, incidentally, not only because it’s political, strategically wrong, because morally, I think it affects damage the Palestinian internal society even, to some extent, more than the Israeli society, because in 10, 15 years, or five years, I don’t know when, but a Palestinian state will be created. But then how do you deal with all the left over of the means in which we arrived at a Palestinian state? A smaller group, yet it is consistently making their voice. And as I said earlier, it’s the same message that we need, also, to hear on the Israeli side from the average Israeli or the peace groups to say occupation is illegal and immoral. And I think that’s what we need to empower those two camps and the two sides who, hopefully, you know, will gain more power and more influence internally.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, what is so hard about talking about this or reading about it, trying to understand it from a distance, I’m quite aware that it’s harder to live it, but is that there are, as I’ve heard you say and I’ve heard many people say as I’ve been thinking about this recently, there are two narratives and they often are not telling the same story. And I’d like to ask you, and this will be my last question, as someone who’s living in this country, living in Washington, what could you explain that would help Americans understand or, you know, think about this more intelligently, perhaps more helpfully, even for people there?
MR. ABU-NIMER: Thank you for the question. I mean, I myself, as a — sort of an Arab-American, Muslim-American, whatever, you know, but basically as an American citizen also, sort of added another dimension to my identity, as if it’s not enough. It’s really very difficult as an Arab-American, also, to constantly be on the defensive part in explaining that our historical views of that region, of that conflict, has been tainted to some extent, a very, sort of imbalanced, biased way, and both not only media, the typical one, but also policywise, to the extent that you find yourself constantly needing to carry on books, articles, information, pictures to show people that a conflict like this will always have two narratives, two stories. And the first thing to do that I tell my students, also, before you pass a judgment, you have to learn the two narratives. If you read an Israeli newspaper, you have to look at an Arabi newspaper. If you look at pictures at the movie, you always have to seek the narrative of the other side. The second point is not really to look at these people as crazy.
MS. TIPPETT: People you don’t understand.
MR. ABU-NIMER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this notion that — many people ask me, “Oh, when are these people going to stop fighting?” You know, as if you lived there, then there is 100 percent of the two communities are fighting. So the third point is that in any given conflict, even the Israeli-Palestinian, you always will find groups and individuals who confronted, resisted the violence. And it’s very important to tap and connect with these groups in your attempt to understand the conflict. I think it will give you a hope; it will give you a sense that things can change. And things have changed, you know, tremendously since I was a kid, you know, in the ’80s or ’70s. They’ve moved, you know, a long way in terms of community relation and political possibilities. The fourth thing is that it really matters what we do here. Whatever we do here, whatever we decide to believe and say have a great manifestation and impact and influence on the fate and the future of Palestinians and Israelis.
MS. TIPPETT: Mohammed Abu-Nimer is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, D.C. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Two Narratives: Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present.”
My final guest, Sami Adwan, is an educator in the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem where he spoke to me. From childhood, he inhabited a distinctly Palestinian narrative of restricted movement within his own land.
MR. ADWAN: Well, I was born in small town northwest of Hebron to a farmer’s family. After I finished my ninth grade, I had to go to Halhol — it’s a nearby school — commuting by bus, and on the way to school or to home, we used to be stopped by Israeli military soldiers, detained, beaten, searched, our books thrown away. So we lived very difficult life in this moment. And all my suffering, all my, you know, trauma make me very upset and very, you know, demonized in my way of thinking and working. And for me, it was the Israeli occupation are my major source of troubles and difficulties and trauma. And I couldn’t see the Israelis as except one face, the soldiers, you know, all Jews are the same.
MS. TIPPETT: At college, Sami Adwan was an activist and leader in Fatah, and he was imprisoned for six months by Israeli forces because of that association. But, in prison, he experienced a turning point in his approach to Israelis. Sami Adwan faced no specific charges, yet he was asked to sign a document written in Hebrew that he could not read. He refused and watched while one Israeli soldier defended him in an argument with others. Suddenly, he says, Israel had more than one face. Sami Adwan became an educator.
In the early 1990s, as grassroots encounters of all kinds flourished between Israeli and Palestinian people, he became a co-director of PRIME, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Sami Adwan and an Israeli colleague, Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University, began working with teams of teachers from six Israeli schools and six Palestinian schools. They are collaboratively developing parallel Israeli and Palestinian narratives of their shared controversial history and teaching these side by side in classrooms. They decided to continue this project after the onset of the Second Intifada and the breakdown of the Oslo process when many collaborative projects faltered.
MR. ADWAN: In the year 2000, we have discussed this issue: Should we continue taking into consideration all the reality and the difficulties on the ground or should we stop our cooperation? We used to meet at checkpoints because he couldn’t come to me, I couldn’t come to him, so we used to meet and run administrative things at the checkpoints.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re talking about your colleague, Dan Bar-On, with whom you work on this project PRIME, and this is a project for Palestinians to write their own textbooks for the first time and, you know, correct me if I’m not saying this precisely, and write them kind of side by side with an Israeli telling of that same history.
MR. ADWAN: Mm-hmm. We want to deal with, in our project, with history, because we think part of the continuation of the conflicts is situated in how we perceive history, how we relate to history. It’s unique because, first of all, we use teachers to write the histories in both sides. They feel empowered, they feel they own the process and own the product. So these six Palestinian history teachers, six Israeli teachers, have been working together in groups and meetings where the Palestinian write their narrative of history and the Israeli write their narrative of the history.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And also, you don’t reconcile those narratives.
MR. ADWAN: It’s not up to us to reconcile the narrative. It’s up to the children and the teachers and whoever would like to read it on both sides to make his initial considerations. That’s one thing. The other thing, also, it takes time to reconcile narratives because we are in the middle of a conflict. So in its time, maybe 10 years, five years, six years, it could be a generation. And the issue is not a matter of reconciling the narrative. The issue is for the first time in history that the Palestinian are able to read the Israeli narrative as they would like to narrate it in their society. Vice versa, it’s the first time that for the Israelis to read the Palestinian narrative as it is narrated in the Palestinian society. Actually, we intended that this project will be for a post-conflict situation.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’re kind of building on something that will be there as a resource when there’s some kind of political reconciliation?
MR. ADWAN: Yes. Each side will keep his own narrative, his own perceptions, and we know it’s going to take time. In the light of a potential peace agreement, this could change.
MS. TIPPETT: In the parallel but contradictory Israeli and Palestinian narrativesthat Sami Adwan’s team is compiling, he says, one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero. One man’s immigrant is another man’s refugee. And contrasting Israeli and Palestinian narratives continue to be written into the present. Ariel Sharon ordered the construction of the elaborate security barrier, in places a wall, to safeguard his citizens during one of the most violent phases of the suicide bombing campaign of the Second Intifada. But Sami Adwan calls this an apartheid wall. In places, it runs between farms and farmhouses, between small business and their former customers. Like the checkpoints, it also stands between many Palestinians and their jobs. Sami Adwan was unable to get a permit to travel to Jerusalem for this interview and another meeting to which he’d been invited.
As an educator, Sami Adwan says he’s observed that religion is most aggressively invoked in Palestinian and Israeli narratives as a resource to justify further separation and conflict. I wondered if his work also suggests a constructive role for the three monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — that share holy land.
MR. ADWAN: Religious people in the three faiths can have a strong role in how to present the others and the self. And also, it comes to us here, as Palestinian Israelis. Would a Palestinian try to live for a moment in the Israeli’s shoes, and would the Israeli try a moment to live in the Palestinian’s shoes? And there’s an Israeli guy, he was a reporter, and he went to Gaza. He played the Palestinian, you know, as a Palestinian worker, and he wrote a very nice book, The Enemy Is Myself, he wrote. And it shows how we are locked in a dogmatic situation, and we are afraid to get out of it. And we need these people to get out of their own box and try to live for a moment in the other’s. We know the Israeli need security but also, we, as Palestinian, we need our humanity and our dignity. We need to feel human. We want to touch ourself and see we are human. We want to live. I live very close to the wall, the apartheid wall, the separation wall.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, the wall.
MR. ADWAN: And I can’t see through it. My eyesight is limited to a wall of eight to 12 meters high, ugly as it is. From the other side, this wall start to take in piece by piece my own property, my own house. So I’m losing the space, I’m losing the sight. So I need the Israeli to come and look with me to the situation.
MS. TIPPETT: You have written, and I think this is very kind of courageous and must have been a difficult sentence to write, that many Palestinians feel that sympathizing too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation, and, you know, that it’s hard for Palestinians to dwell on the vast suffering of the Holocaust because does that overpower or undermine the validity of the Palestinians’ own suffering? And I wonder if your work with schools, with these textbooks and the narratives, I wonder if you’ve come to a better sense of the religious and human drama that is behind Israeli fears and actions? You know, how does that affect your sense of what it is to be Palestinian and to live with that suffering?
MR. ADWAN: That’s not only through work, and, you know, that’s also through relationship because the project I’ve been on has done a lot of issues on the Holocaust.
MS. TIPPETT: This is your Israeli counterpart in this project.
MR. ADWAN: And I got, yeah, it’s part of that. It is a very paradox, and it’s very difficult issues. I think we need to touch the conflict at the human level. I think if we still deal with the conflict at the political level, official level, we really become faceless in this history, and we become just objects, numbers, people, etc. Maybe the suffering of the others make me feel more passion and more compassion at the emotional level.
Now, if you talk about it at cognitive level, look, the Holocaust is part of me, also. The Holocaust is part of my problem. The Holocaust played so much role in my suffering. So are we both victims of that Holocaust? And that’s a way, at least you have part of yourself while they suffer. But another part of you, but I am suffering because of their suffering. So where do you end this conditions?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You can get locked in that. Yes.
MR. ADWAN: You got locked on it, and my position is like this. It’s not going to help denying other suffering. It’s not going to help at all. What can help is try to relate the suffering, even if they’re not at the same level of suffering. But when you put it down at the individual level, a mother who lost her child, either it be a Jew or a Muslim or Christian, it’s suffering for the mother because she lost a child.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s a picture in an American magazine recently, The Atlantic Monthly, about checkpoints between Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories, and there’s a picture of a young Palestinian who’s being frisked by a Israeli guard, and you really see the humiliation that’s involved in that. And then you also see guards encountering, you know, having rocks thrown at them and Molotov cocktails, and also you get a sense that here are people who are trying to protect their people and secure their land. And it seems that in these pictures you kind of get a sense of this, again, another — you and I keep talking about things that get locked in, this knot that’s very hard to untangle, of safeguarding, of this feeling that both sides have that they have to keep safe from the other while also longing for peace. I hear that in your stories. I know that there are many, many more expressions of it, both among Palestinians and Israelis. Can you see beyond this situation?
MR. ADWAN: If I don’t see beyond this immediate situation, I wouldn’t be working in this particular time on these long-term, hopefully peace-building projects. If I am locked in my immediate reality, I will lose my sense of humanity as a person and I will feel impotent doing anything. And I see that the strength coming out because I would try in my heart to keep myself being able to see beyond these immediate incidents myself. It’s all the Palestinians, actually, not myself.
When I traveled from Bethlehem to Ramallah, I, myself, being humiliated, I wasn’t beaten, but I was asked to stay in the car for one hour 15 minutes, 20 minutes. I was asked to leave the car, stand in the sun or the rain. So it’s a whole population there. Not that many people see beyond this immediate reality. But I would say this scenario is that you put this difference among them. Here, I am on my land, going from Ramallah to Bethlehem. I am here in the occupied territories of ’67. I am here. The Israeli soldiers came to me. People sometimes think about the symptoms of the situation, but the causes of the situation is very important. Still, you know, there’s the settlements there, taking the lands, harassing the people, taking the waters, having special growth for settlers on my land, on my Palestinian people land, and I’m not allowed to travel on a road that was built by Israeli on my land. These are killing points moment in myself, and I see how much I can resist this influence and how much I can sustain energy to go beyond that.
When I see digging now a tunnel so I cannot travel on earth, I have to travel in tunnels because I’m not allowed to use Highway 64 Islam. But there’s a moment of silence and despair comes back and forth. How to keep this strength? It’s my children, the Palestinian children, the children of the Israelis, everybody’s children. Neighborhood is one of the basic teaching in Islam to protect your neighbors. If the integrity of my neighbor is being threatened, this mean my integrity’s being threatened. Even if he’s not a Muslim. If he’s a Jew, he’s a Christian, if he’s so on, so on. So that sometimes give me sense why Israelis are our neighbors, Jews are our neighbors. So if they have their state, you know, I should respect that state. But would that also give me the right to my own state? Wouldn’t that give me really a space to have my own state?
MS. TIPPETT: Sami Adwan is an associate professor in the faculty of education at Bethlehem University.
The shared Holy Land of Jews, Muslims and Christians, it seems, is the extreme intersection we seek to trace each week on this program. The intersection of religious ideas, responsive and, at times, captive to human and political realities. My Palestinian and Israeli guests have made one striking suggestion in tandem, that Western analyses and negotiations fail when they bracket out the religious instincts that define these peoples and their tie to this land. It is intriguing that of all the spiritual values these people share, Sami Adwan emphasizes the critical role religious people might play on both sides of the conflict by simply humanizing the face of the other. His educational project drawing out the contrasting Israeli-Palestinian narratives and holding them in tension might present a model for our further reflection as this history continues to unfold.
Continue this conversation at speakingoffaith.org. Contact us with your thoughts. This week visit our audio gallery of a Palestinian view of checkpoints and the security barrier being erected in the West Bank. View a chapter from Sami Adwan’s textbooks with Israeli and Palestinian narratives and hear the first program in this series with Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. Now you can listen on demand for no charge to this and previous programs in our archives. Or subscribe to our free weekly podcast. Listen whenever and wherever you want. You can also sign up for our e-mail newsletter, which includes my journal on each topic and a preview of upcoming shows. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
This program was produced by Kate Moos, Mitch Hanley, Colleen Scheck, and Jody Abramson with editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss with assistance from Ilona Piotrowska. Many thanks this week to Professor Ronald Krebs of the University of Minnesota. The executive producer of Speaking of Faith is Bill Buzenberg. And I’m Krista Tippett.