A Small Victory for Dialogue Between Enemies

All eyes followed me in as I walked down the center aisle of the lecture hall. The members of the audience watched in absolute silence. They had no idea what would follow. Neither did I. She was near the door but was no longer about to leave. As I approached, she faced me. I came close and extended my hand toward her. She took hold of it and I held her hand in both of mine. I am listening, I said, and I feel your pain. Please stay. I promise not to disappoint you. She hesitated. I spoke again. Please listen to what I have to say and I will listen to what you have to say. She returned to her seat.

I returned to the front of the hall to resume my presentation. But I could not. The tears welled up and I stood there as I struggled to regain my composure. Only when I did, did I continue telling my story.

When I had arrived a few hours earlier at the University of New Mexico together with Antwan Saca, one of my Palestinian partners in Roots, we heard from the Jewish students about the problems they had been facing with campus supporters of the Palestinian cause and of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement. With great pain they told us of a complete lack of communication between them and the BDS supporters. They confided in us that they felt intimidated and unsafe on campus.

READ: BDS Spurs Growing Anti-Semitism on Campuses, Brandeis Report Finds

Antwan and I were brought to campus to talk about the work we have been doing in Roots, bringing together for dialogue Palestinians and Israelis living at the heart of the conflict. Our hosts told us that the entire student body had been invited to our presentation, and that hopefully some of the BDS people would come and hear our message of respect and reconciliation.

I did not get my hopes up. Our experience at other universities has always been that they never show up. They may stand at the door and demonstrate, but they never come in. They are never there to listen to us when we put forth our message of listening to the other.

This time was different. Three of them did show up, but I did not know that that were there until one of them got up to leave.

She was late and had not heard the introduction in which I explain that this is going to to be like a roller coaster ride with hairpin turns and unexpected surprises. The beginning of my presentation gives no hint of how it will develop.

She arrived as I talked about the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile, two thousand years of yearning and hope. I talked about the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies and of the exhilaration of re-establishing Jewish life in the land of our forefathers. I said that for me this is not the West Bank but rather the land of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Samaria.

And then in silence, she got up to leave. Half jokingly, I said to the audience that it looks like I offended someone. She stopped in her tracks, faced me and from the back of the room spoke of Palestinian grievances against the Israeli occupation. I said that I recognize Palestinian rights and suffering and would come to that. I was interrupted by another member of the audience who shouted angrily: “Let her speak!” I did let her speak. When she talked of injustice, I told her: “I agree.” When she talked of humiliation I told her: “I agree.” She was clearly taken aback. For a moment, she and I were silent, just looking at each other. Perhaps we were both wondering what would happen next. That is when I felt my feet carrying me towards her.

She sat through the whole presentation of myself and my Palestinian partner, but when she raised her hand during the Q and A at the end of the presentation, you could feel the tension in the air. I was ready for a confrontation. There was none. She expressed her appreciation for my words and told of being genuinely impressed and moved. Her words of appreciation were followed by a ‘but.’ She gave voice to certain reservations about my position. I listened while she spoke, and when I responded, she listened, and then I fielded another question.

Something extraordinary took place in that lecture hall. We had not come to agreement but we listened to each other. That is all too rare. The Israeli Palestinian conflict has been exported to the four corners of the globe. Each of us have told our supporters not to listen to the other side’s supporters.

We at Roots however, do ask you to listen to each other. Open your ears and your hearts to the humanity, to the identity and to the needs, aspirations and fears of the other. And then – be pro–Palestinian, be pro-Israeli, but please do not let it prevent you from being pro-solution!

Photo courtesy of Diane J. Schmidt

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