Gaining mutual understanding and finding ways to work together professionally.This past June, I attended a workshop for Palestinian and Israeli journalists in Amman. For four days, 15 Israelis – including two Arabs – and 15 Palestinians from the West Bank sat in the conference rooms of a five-star hotel and participated in group discussions that were meant to help us gain mutual understanding and find ways to work together professionally.
During the day we argued, and at night we went out to eat at restaurants, or to cafes where we listened to live performances of traditional Arab music, smoked nargilehs, sang and danced the debka.
After the setting of the sun, we were suddenly able to see each other as individuals, instead of political symbols. Did darkness soften the lines of conflict? Or did daylight allow us to see more clearly?
Whatever the reason, the tension that permeated many of the workshops and discussion groups melted away at night, and many of us discovered that we had a lot in common, beyond the conflict. We talked about movies, books, travels and family. The Palestinians – who knew Amman well – made an enormous effort to show the Israelis a good time.
After our nights out on the town, we returned to the hotel and sat in the lobby to talk and argue until four or five o’clock in the morning. We were curious about each other, and often eager to explain our narratives, to make sure that “the other side” understood us. At night, we somehow found ourselves able to criticize each other less aggressively, with more compassion. Given that most of us live less than one hours? drive from one another, the gaps in understanding were quite astonishing at times.
Despite all the misunderstandings and arguments, quite a few of us became friends.
It was a paradox that so many of us commented on – that we liked each other as individuals, but during the workshop sessions, we could not transcend the burden of our historical narratives. The past was the stumbling block that prevented us from gaining true understanding.
One of the Israeli participants summed up my feelings when he said, “Guys, can’t we just agree that the situation sucks for both sides and move on?”
But we never really did move on. The Palestinians understood that the Israelis didn’t want to talk about the history of the creation of the state, so by the third day they stopped bringing it up. But outside the group discussions, quite a few said they were insulted by our unwillingness to listen to their stories. And we were all aware of the unspoken words; they permeated the hotel conference rooms in which the workshops took place.
The bottom line was, each side wanted the other to state, clearly and unambiguously, that they understood the deepest traumas of the other – for the Palestinians, the “Naqba” – the creation of the state of Israel, and for the Israelis, the Holocaust. But we couldn’t, because expressing true sympathy for each other’s pain seemed to require giving up a little part of our own identity. And this was too difficult for most of us.
Maybe it was because of this impasse we felt in the daylight that I believed that the Palestinian-Israeli friendships, which had flowered in the hothouse atmosphere of Amman, would fade quickly. But they didn’t. Our late-night sessions seem to have put down some real – if delicate – roots.
I often speak on the phone with several of the Palestinians. We share information about developing news stories, and we help each other gain insight into the viewpoint of the man on the street. I have visited Ramallah twice, and so have a few of the other Israeli journalists. The first time I visited, the cameraman from Deheishe hugged me. The second time, while a group of us was sitting at a local restaurant, he invited me to his son’s wedding.
Recently, I spoke by phone with one of the Palestinian women. She was at work in Ramallah, I had a deadline, and both of us kept claiming that we?re not really into long phone conversations, but we ended up chatting for nearly two hours. We talked about family, boyfriends and our careers. We talked about India, which we had both visited and loved. We did not discuss politics.