Students discover a third narrative in Israel and Palestine

My husband and I led a three-month abroad in 2011 to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, with an intrepid group of students in partnership with the Center for Ecological Living and Learning. It was a poignant time to be in the region during the massive uprisings of the Arab Spring. (I recall us all incredulously watching the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from a cafe in Jerusalem's Old City.)It was my first time leading a group to these places although I'd lived and visited many times, and it was my husband's first time to the region. I was teaching the full semester's worth of courses; he was handling all of the logistics and group dynamics. We had only been married a few months--so in many ways, it had the makings of a true adventure. A common and affectionate mantra among the group whenever there was some unexpected event or plan was to yell out, "It's okay. It's a pilot!"The amazing students you see in the video came from a variety of universities, Principia College, Tufts University, Northland College, and others, to focus on the theme of peace and sustainability--understanding how those two ideas were inextricably connected. For example, if people are fighting each other, they are not going to be able to cooperate and figure out vital shared resources. And if there are few environmental resources, (water, anyone?) then you're going to have people fighting each other.IMG_7131Our home base was Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories with a dear and welcoming Palestinian family, who quickly made the group feel right at ease. Our chief partner was Holy Land Trust, a groundbreaking organization of Christian and Muslim Palestinian peace builders, who approach peace with Israelis through a lens of unparalleled forgiveness, brotherliness, kindness, and Oneness.IMG_8233From Bethlehem, there's little in Israel and the Territories that we did not see. From the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, from the stifling heat of the Negev desert on the southern tip of Israel, to the snow in the Druze village on Israel's northern border with Syria. From the border with Gaza to the Jewish kibbutz on the border of Lebanon. The trip was one extreme after another, with students regularly complaining of "whiplash", especially from the conflicting and confusing opposite Jewish and Arab "narratives," (in other words, versions of history), they were getting.IMG_7682Perhaps the most illustrative of this concept was the week we spent in Hebron, one of the largest cities in the Palestinian West Bank, and yet it has a hard-core and heavily armed and protected Jewish enclave in the heart of its Old City. Hebron abides by its own security protocols and is a regular flashpoint for skirmishes and violence. (Just yesterday, three Palestinians were killed and five Israeli soldiers injured in the latest violence.)We spent the first few days in Hebron on the Palestinian side of the divide, hearing their experiences of being harassed, beaten, imprisoned, and living in fear of the Israeli soldiers and settlers just a stone's throw away. During a tour of the mosque, they described the massacre in 1994 of 29 Muslims gunned down while praying by Baruch Goldstein, an American Jew. Since then, the tomb has been divided into a Muslim section and a Jewish section. While we were visiting the local office of B'tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, we saw some young Jewish boys from a nearby settlement approach. They started taunting and harassing the Arabs who were with us, yelling "Pig! Muhammad is a pig!" in Hebrew. I told the students we should get inside so as not to provoke any altercation, but our hosts said this was a regular occurrence.IMG_4265The very next day we found ourselves on the other side of the divide with our Jewish hosts inside the settlement. They gave us a tour of their area and told us their side of the story--how they were expanding, yet felt hemmed in and targeted by the Arab majority of the city. We heard several times about the Hebron massacre in 1929 in which 67 Jews were killed as a reason why the two could never have positive relations. We never heard from them about the 1994 incident, just as we had never heard about the 1929 massacre from the Palestinians.IMG_3642 IMG_3762 IMG_3434This is why the idea of "narrative" is so critical when it comes to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of these incidents--the massacres of 1929 and 1994--are historically true and did happen in the way they described. Yet, each side only dwells on the one against them and omits the one their side committed. The community focuses on events that fit into their narrative and leave out the others, not even consciously, but because that's the story they grew up with and that their society emphasizes. The result is a skewed version of history that is self-justifying.What we soon realized is that these two sides don't know each other's narratives. It's much too painful for them to listen to the other side because it breaks down the entire sense of identity and "rightness" that both Israelis and Palestinians have built up around their narrative. The peace building groups on the ground there who ARE doing this work of listening to the other sides' narratives are, to my mind, doing the most important work of peace in this conflict. If you actually listen to the other side, they in turn feel heard, acknowledged. Maybe they even start to feel safe, like they have a place. They start to work through their own trauma, their own fears. They react less violently, more inclusively. Listening is the building block of peace. As Robi Damelin of the Parent's Circle--Bereaved Families Forum told us, "It's a whole country of traumatized people on both sides."IMG_8488Our students came up with an insightful concept of a "third narrative", which you'll see emphasized in the video, that is not taking one side or the other, but deriving a narrative that is inclusive of everyone on the basis of their common humanity. It remains in my mind a beautiful and healing concept.IMG_8418As someone whole-heartedly interested in and committed to transformation and inspiring it in the Middle East and in our relations with the Middle East, it was fascinating to watch the arc of progression and transformation in the students. From one of intense, well-intentioned do-gooderism, "I'm an idealist and I'm going to go in and fix this problem!" to one of despair and helplessness--"Who am I to help this conflict? What could I possibly do that hasn't been done before? There's absolutely nothing I can do!" And then finally to one of self-realization and empowerment, "I can change myself--my actions, my community, and that can have an impact on this larger issue, i.e. the world." This sense is the opposite of apathy; it's what we need today in our young people.There's a prevailing sense that the world's problems are too big for one person to take on, so why even care, why even bother. This widespread feeling of apathy is so incapacitating and ultimately detrimental to any changes being done on the global front. We have to first be informed and directly involved in something and see its relevance and impact on our own lives. But we can't stop there--we must be inspired by examples of hope and how to be engaged in a way that contributes and makes a difference. Then, we are transformed into effective global citizens and change makers--in our individual lives and on the global scale, concurrently.This is the Euphrates model: Inform, Inspire, Transform. I feel privileged and honored to have walked with this intrepid group of explorers who tested out this theory, (as of yet, unknowingly), and embarked on this wild adventure of a "pilot" the likes of which I'll never see again. Thank you for being the change we wish to see in the world.For more information on Euphrates trips, visit