Over these past summer weeks, I have invited admired friends from around the world to teach on KIVUNIM’s online program. All of these people fall under the title “agents of social change.”
One of them, Said Abu Shakrah, is the founder of the Umm El-Fahm Gallery in Wadi Ara, Israel. In introducing himself to the class, he told a deeply moving story of his own background. Said’s mother was married in 1946 at age 12—his older brother Walid was born two years later. About 20 years ago she finally, maybe even reluctantly, began to tell Said the story of 1948. She was a teenager with a husband and a baby when word began to spread through their village that Jewish soldiers were coming. Everyone gathered whatever belongings they could hold to run away toward the North. Her neighbors urged her to leave, but she was cooking lunch for her very hard-working husband and initially refused. Finally, she took the pot of stew, covered it with bed sheets and placed it carefully in the corner—she planned to return to get it in a few hours when all the commotion was over. When they returned two days later, the house and the village were no more.
Said described his mother’s eyes as she spoke, so many years later, as filled with fear and tears. At that moment, he realized that if he wanted to change the look in the eyes of his mother and the other older neighbors, he had to collect these stories and give them honor. He understood then, and understands even more powerfully now, that his people’s history is part of the history of the land of Israel and the people of Israel. Without their story, the tale is incomplete—with knowledge and recognition will ultimately come empathy and respect. With empathy and respect will come mutual understanding, and slow but steady diminution of fear and tears…on both sides.
When the news broke of the historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel I felt good, but I had some reservations. I was of course glad that the plan of annexation of major portions of the West Bank had been deferred—maybe forever, maybe not. But I felt something was missing.
I began to wonder about Said’s story and his archive. I realized that what is missing from the political achievement is memory. We sit around our Shabbat tables every week and recite the words “in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt.” Just as Said said, that memory—including the years of being enslaved—gives us self respect and dignity. We remember in order to become empathic.
Then I had the following Shabbat-inspired thought: What if the Arab states that will slowly but surely make peace with Israel conditioned their offer on the establishment of Said’s gallery as a national museum of the Palestinian people? A museum of memory. What if they required all visiting Israelis to have completed a basic course in Arabic and Islamic culture before getting a tourist visa to their country? What if peace was contingent not only on trade and tourism, but on the development of institutions that will build empathy and respect between Arabs and Jews in both countries? What if they conditioned tourism on the emergence of cultural institutions that tell the painful yet true story of the history of the Palestinian people, also indigenous people of the land of Israel/Palestine in the Jewish state of Israel.
After these many months of communal and personal isolation, we will soon greet a new Jewish year. These weeks before the High Holy Days are set aside for deep personal reflection. I think the time has come for us to engage in some deep communal reflection as well. Of course we are doing so about the racism that surrounds us as American citizens. Of course we are doing so recognizing the glaring inequality of our economic system. Of course we are doing so aghast at the blasphemy at the top of our political structure. But the collective Jewish people also need to develop a voice to help sooth the wounds of the “Middle East conflict”—the human tragedy that lies just below the surface. Maybe the example of more recent decades in the United States (that have seen us build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and then finally the National Museum of African American History and Culture in our nation’s capital) will serve as a model for the State of Israel to encourage and even sanctify the creation of an inclusive collective memory.