Today’s participant blog post comes from Lauren Kerner, a participant in the Onward Israel Diversity & Pluralism Program. Lauren's group is living, learning and interning in Jaffa, Israel for 8 weeks this summer. Lauren is interning at YaLa Young Leaders in Jaffa. Her original post can be found here.
"Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken."
I cannot tow a line in fear of not offending someone, so I write this piece with the utmost honesty and respect, acknowledging that my perspective is limited and yet, that my personal narrative has value.
“Palestinian.” I am ashamed to say that once the word gave me chills. Growing up Jewish in California, thousands and thousands of miles away from the Arab-Israeli conflict, I developed my own misunderstanding of the Middle East. In my mind, Palestinians were terrorists and the Israelis were under constant threat of violence and I needed to undisputedly support the Jewish state. Although I am a supporter of Israel and the right of Jewish self-determination in our historic homeland, I have found disturbing flaws within the state that I consider a Jewish obligation to repair.
On July 26, 2016 I travelled from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem for a storytelling and compassionate listening workshop organized by YaLa Young Leaders for Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank and, perhaps most significantly, Gaza. My whole life I was told that these people were not my people; some had even gone so far to say that they were my enemy. This was not the case. These were people, young professionals and students, just like me with hopes and aspirations and sharp wits and favorite foods and boy problems.
Mainstream media perverts reality. With radical left and radical right agendas, the truth is seldom told. There was no headline reading “Young Israelis and Palestinians Meet in East Jerusalem For Peace-Building Dialogue” from any Associated Press or Reuters sources. If blood had been spilt, if the status quo of violence had been perpetuated, the world would have known. Instead, the almost impossible happened: no weapons, no screaming, no violence, just meaningful, constructive dialogue between the young people of two enemy nations.
The most significant lessons I learned were that our stories make us who we are and everyone’s story is worth being listened to; hearing is different than listening; hearing is the biological process of absorbing sound, listening is a process of understanding, humility, and feeling that absorbs more than sounds – it embraces words, language of all transmissions, and experience; and that shouting is not sustainable; dialogue, however, is.
The summer of 2016 has been a life-changing one, particularly in regard to my perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I applied for an internship through Onward Israel and found my place with Yahel Israel Service Learning who then placed me with a full-time internship with YaLa Young Leaders, a cooperative NGO birthed by the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine. YaLa was founded in May 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring by Uri Savir, the Chief Negotiator of the Oslo Accords, to ride the wave of social network activism and storytelling that was being cultivated across the Middle East. During my time working for YaLa, my preconceived notions of the reality of life and peace-construction in the Middle East have been tried, marched through the streets of Israel, crucified, destroyed, and reborn.
YaLa Young Leaders is a near 1,000,000 member strong online, Facebook-based movement of young people from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Qatar. The vision of YaLa is to provide a platform for engaging dialogue to secure an authentic and sustainable peace using the most influential tool of the 21st century: social networking, media, and technology.
A verse from Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, that I have carried with me throughout this experience of working for a peace organization in the Middle East is Micah 4:4. The verse reads:
Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
This verse was one of President George Washington’s most cherished and utilized; he referenced it almost fifty times in his recorded personal and professional history, according to the digital encyclopedia of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In a letter written to the Jewish Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, Washington wrote, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
How apt it is to bless the children of the stock of Abraham, the sons and daughters of Isaac and Ishmael, in this land, the land of Israel and Palestine, with the hope to dwell peacefully and without fear. This is the blessing President Washington had for the Jews within the fledgling years of the United States and today this is the blessing I have for all of the people of Israel and Palestine, to sit under their own vines and fig trees, to listen actively and compassionately to the narratives of their neighbors, and to cultivate a real, enduring peace by building bridges based on hope instead of firing weapons out of fear.