Building Peace Through Friendships

In a place where a shared future seems like a utopian dream, two women come together to lay the stepping stones for peace. In this article for Generation C, Areej Ali Yahya and Nurete Brenner reflect upon their experiences from facilitating a Peace Education course in Israel. 

These are the reflections of Areej and Nurete, two women – a Palestinian and a Jew – who co- facilitated a Continuing Education course for Arab and Jewish teachers in the north of Israel. The course spanned six months and included 25 teachers of whom 17 were Arabs and 8 Jews.

Nurete: Do you remember when we first met at the Aroma Café in Karkur1? Its hard to believe it was only six months ago. I feel as though Ive known you forever.

Areej: Yes absolutely, we had an instant connection. It resulted in our profound friendship and successful teamwork.

Nurete: Of course, at that first meeting we hadnt yet talked about politics or about our vision for the future of our two peoples. At that stage we made a personal connection and we knew we could work together facilitating the groups. Our first opportunity to work together came at the kick-off event in Akko. Do you know that some people there commented that we look alike? While its true, we are both of Semitic ancestry, I think what they really meant is that we have a similar energy, and I believe we both sensed that at our first meeting together.

Areej: What moved me was how we were able to work together without a sense of superiority or victimization. We gave each other space and we complemented each other. I tried perhaps to focus on helping the teachers transfer their new knowledge to the classroom, and your emphasis was on the dialogue in the room. But we managed to navigate that shift from one to another successfully and without tension, giving each the time and space it needed.

Nurete: I think it was interesting how we were both able to hold the conflicting narratives in our minds without privileging the one over the other. Weve each studied the conflict from the others perspective and it gives us an in-depth understanding of our shared history. I always felt that you respected my peoples traumatic past and I hope I was sensitive to the catastrophe of your people.

Areej: The question of past traumas came up powerfully when – early on in the life span of the group we invited filmmaker Susan Korda to show her film “One of Us” about her family and its Holocaust legacy.

The group hosted Filmmaker, Susan Korda, who also conducted a workshop on “personal heroes.” Her documentary film “One of Us” tells the story of Susans intimate and heart-wrenching journey to unveil the disturbing truths and mysteries in her family. She artfully weaves together images from family snapshots, 8mm film, and drawings, as well as WWII newsreel footage. Susan describes her parents Holocaust experiences and family life in America thereafter. She gradually reveals that she also has a sister with Down Syndrome and a brother suffering from mental illness.

Nurete: Viewing that film and the discussion it generated, was one of the highlights of our group. I think it was important for the Jewish participants to begin a discussion about competing narratives with the Holocaust. Our collective trauma needs to be acknowledged, otherwise it becomes that proverbial elephant in the room. I felt that once the Holocaust was recognized, the Jewish participants were better able to hear the Palestinian perspective.

Areej: I believe that the Palestinian participants were able to grasp it, but understanding the Holocaust and incorporating the history of it, meant translating it into their peoples’ doom. Perhaps they were more ambivalent about the film. After all, Arabs in Israel have been learning and hearing about the Holocaust for our entire lives. Many feel that we are paying the price for the Jewish collective trauma, that the Holocaust legitimizes the oppression that the Palestinian people experience a pattern that means we are becoming the victims of victims. I think it was important for the Palestinian participants to make that point as well.

Nurete: Once those discussions came into the room and were put on the table, so to speak, I think we were able to see the film also as a very powerful personal confession. It was after all about a family that was traumatized and which transferred that original trauma from one generation to the next.

Areej: Unfortunately, thats something that both Palestinians and Jews can relate to all too well. The dialogue among the women allowed us to look into the underlying issues of our conflicting realities, as well as the perception of “burying the past”. The dialogue fluctuated between the individual and the political, yet, as Susie remarked and demonstrated throughout this very soul-baring film “the more personal you get, the more universal it is.” Going into the intimate details of a difficult time, and contemplating the journey, somehow incited certain hope, because it suggested that we ought to avoid premature closure. That perhaps reconciling and recognizing each other’s claim and suffering is possible and vital to peace in this place! This might be the vision of coexistence, one that requires mutual recognition – no claim is superior to the other.

Nurete: The discussion around the film was not the only time conflict was aired in the group. The overnight seminar provided an opportunity to discuss some of the grievances that were simmering beneath the surface of the group.

The group spent an overnight together at the Nes Ammim Guest House in northern Israel. The intense time together allowed the group to delve deeper into the dialogue and to air some of the more troubling aspects of life in Israel as a Palestinian/Israeli-Arab and the fears that each group feels towards the other.

Areej: The time together at the seminar allowed us to discuss some painful issues. One of the questions asked by the Palestinian women was: why are there so many more Palestinian women than Jewish women in the group?

Nurete: Yes, I remember when that topic came up. It forced the Jewish women to confront the uncomfortable truth that we Jews in Israel can live in a bubble of our own making and choose to ignore the conflict that is at our doorstep. After all, we can avoid Arabs in our daily lives if we choose to, but the Arabs in Israel cannot avoid Jews. It makes for a very asymmetrical dynamic. Im always amazed at how many of my Jewish friends know no Arabs and have no Arab friends, and how we have managed almost to erase all traces of Arabs from our collective awareness rendering them invisible to the average Israeli.

Areej: There are many Arabs that have no Jewish friends also. But Arabs cannot avoid Jews. The struggle of members of a minority that is perceived as suspicious and as a perpetual national threat, is a hated struggle among Arabs living in Israel. We must speak the language of the majority and negate our mother tongue on a daily basis in all aspects of our lives. In addition to highlighting the daily difficulties and humiliations that living as second class citizen entail, the Palestinian participants also spoke rather openly about the problems they faced as a result of personal and social foibles, sharing personal anecdotes of cultural taboos and other issues that cleaved the Arab community issues that were sanctioned in their upbringings as Arab women.

Nurete: I think the stories the Arab women told of the humiliations at the security at Ben Gurion airport raised the awareness– for the Jewish women – of the very blatant imbalance of power that exists in this country. Of course, many Jews still dismiss such stories and say, well, its all in the name of security so its legitimate. But I think that by hearing the personal stories related by the Arab women about the indignities suffered when going through security at Ben Gurion airport made the Jewish women deeply uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I think that being made to feel uncomfortable is important to the dialogue.

Areej: The Jewish women also told stories about feeling threatened in Arab villages. There is hostility on both sides, clearly. But its a hostility that stems from unfamiliarity, not knowing the other, which is another reason why the seminar was so powerful. At a certain point we were all able to connect to each other as women. There was a moment, right after we finished the dance workshop, when so many of the women of the group began to cry and this was because we all shared the intimate experience of being a woman in a society that forces us so often to conform, to deny our bodies, to suppress our emotions, to smile when we really want to weep.

Nurete: Yes, that was an intensely emotional moment. When seen through that shared perspective, the conflict seems so insignificant, almost as though its been manufactured by the people in power and its fires stoked by fear, by segregation, by an unwillingness to look at ourselves in the mirror, by not knowing the other.

Areej: I agree. We spoke about that at the academic conference in Jerusalem where we presented our work.

Areej and Nurete presented some of their reflections at an academic conference at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Some of the discussion centered on the lack of significant contact between the communities and the reluctance of the current Israeli education system to discuss controversial issues such as racism, stereotypes, and prejudices.

Nurete: I was heartened by the feedback we got when we spoke at the conference in Jerusalem.

Areej: Yes, one of the professors at the conference mirrored back to us that we embodied what we were trying to convey. Meaning, we spoke about the possibility of shared life between Arabs and Jews, and we expressed it both in our words and in the style with which we delivered the joint presentation. This vision of co-existence was manifest also in our facilitation style. By being respectful to each other, listening to each other, learning from each others strengths and complementing each other, we were able to model and live out our shared vision. Though, I don’t know, I think the interaction itself and the contact may be interpreted in different ways by the participants, serving different purposes for them and hence yielding different effects.

Nurete: The situation in Gaza and the escalation of the discourse and rhetoric of hate and intolerance makes me feel that perhaps all our work is futile. But I cant help clinging to the belief that perhaps if more Jews and Arabs were to meet, tell each other their stories, embrace a dual perspective, show empathy for one another, it would allow us to move beyond the conflicting narratives to envision a possible shared future.

Areej: Yes, the war on Gaza conveyed a deep sense of despair and helplessness. The war broke the union – the bond – that our participants had previously experienced in our programme. The war illustrated that this union was temporary and fragile, and reflected a general lack of sentimentality towards peace in general. You see, we had previously been permitted to expect far more from the course experience; as facilitators we wanted to try all methods and approaches simultaneously to achieve the desired objectives of the programme. Later to know that this is hard work, and working toward peace is even harder!

This domain of peace education programmes obviously needs to grow itself into a player in the country and in the region, bringing about educators that are future oriented, and leading to change. Sadly, right now the shared future seems to be a utopian dream. I BELIEVE in our friendship, but the possibility of peace in the Middle East seems to be receding into an ever-more distant and unattainable place. Our groups give me some hope, though right now only on a personal level. But where else can you begin?

Nurete: Inshallah.

Areej: Amen.

Text: Areej Ali Yahya and Nurete Brenner
Photo: Course session at Nes Ammim Guesthouse in Nahareya, Israel.

The course that Areej and Nurete have facilitated is part of a Peace Building Education programme called Women Educators Build Bridges at the Center for Education Technology (CET). CET is an Israeli nonprofit organization established in 1971 with the social mission of promoting the advancement of the educational system in Israel. The project “Women Educators Build Bridges” aims to strengthen the capacity of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jewish women educators in the topics of reconciliation, negotiation, and mediation. Through this 12 months program, CET aims to strengthen democratic values of tolerance, acceptance of the other, respect, empathy, minority rights, and gender equality.