After graduating high school, I spent a year living in Jerusalem, the epicenter of many of the world’s religious conflicts. As a resident I was privy to the ways that misunderstanding and intolerance play out on a day-to-day level. From witnessing hateful graffiti and humor (on both sides) to hearing conflicting historical narratives, it was plain to see that the rift between the Jewish and Muslim communities there runs deep, and that much of the population accepts this state of affairs as the only way.
My intense sadness over the lack of visible dialogue or grassroots peace-building efforts brought me to an organization called Encounter. Their mission is to educate diaspora Jewish leaders about the realities of Palestinian plight under the occupation. Most of the participants in their educational trips have never met a Palestinian, and come to the experience with the straightforward Zionist narrative they were taught in synagogues and schools. As an intern with the organization, I was able to help organize and participate in one of their trips to Hebron. After a day of touring and learning about the history and political dynamics of that tragic city, the group arrived at a community center where we sat down with a room full of local people. Palestinian people. The tension was palpable. Most of us, Jewish and Palestinian alike, had never had the opportunity to be face-to-face with individuals of the other, “rival” group.
Each person went around the room and shared a bit about themselves and their story. Slowly, people began to laugh together and to listen to one other with focus and compassion. Some of the Palestinian residents shared objects that were meaningful to them, including one man who walked us through his different passports and the rights that each of them do and do not give him. While this may sound political, it felt completely personal and intimate, and those in the Encounter group were able to simply listen and empathize with the difficulties of life under occupation for this one, individual person. It was a relief for the Jewish participants to be heard and understood as well, and to be able to show that our people, too, are each different and unique and that most of us also constantly seek peace and understanding.
After breaking into small groups, eating, and continuing to get to know one another, the evening drew to a close. None of us wanted it to end, and by the time we said goodbye I felt a surge of emotion that I will never forget. On the one hand it was about having met these fantastic people and gained insight into their experience that I never could have otherwise, and on the other it was the realization of how rare these opportunities for face-to-face contact are between groups that are so thoroughly separated, by systems and by prejudice. That day taught me the transformative power of face-to-face understanding, and drew me to the work I am now doing as a Faiths Act Fellow at UNITED SIKHS combating intolerance by bringing the Sikh community together with other people of faith to share experiences, increase understanding of each other’s traditions, and listen to one another.
By Nomi Teutsch