By Altaf Mohammed Abid
WE WERE a few weeks into the conferences at Mountain House in Switzerland in July this year, as part of Initiatives of Changeâ€™s annual summer conferences. There was a general air of warmth and happiness to the place.
Yet, beyond the surface calm, one could sense the discomfort that a lot of people experienced. Cocooned in this tiny village in the Swiss Alps, they felt disconnected from the reality they had grown accustomed to.
During my stay in Switzerland, the world witnessed the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Every morning Robert Fisk in The Independent had a heart wrenching, blood-curdling report, which left you teary eyed reading the paper. These stories from Lebanon would make oneâ€™s blood boil at the destruction and the atrocities committed by governments under the guise of organised legally sanctioned terrorism, warped in the legalese of policies, contracts and collateral damage.
Consequently the aggression and oppression of Lebanon for us in Switzerland became a topic for tea-time conversations: a minute silence would be observed at the morning plenary. Some felt a collective global acknowledgement or condemnation of the violence was the need of the hour, especially at this place, where we had delegates from Congo to Malta.
The Egyptians in the conference felt like that.
The Lebanese were in pain.
The Tunisians were livid.
A lone Palestinian held her flag up high.
In our midst, were a young Israeli and two Jewish Americans. As participants in the conference and programs in the house, they still experienced certain amount alienation. Our trust levels werenâ€™t strong enough for us to have an honest conversation and dialogue, and so, the uneasiness just simmered. One of the Americans had to face this silent ostracism for the first time. He did not know why some people were avoiding him. He couldnâ€™t fathom why his being a Jew became an issue. He couldnâ€™t understand why his community didnâ€™t have the â€œright to defend the land, promised to us by Prophet Mosesâ€?
His presentation on the Caux Scholars Program was about the dehumanisation of the Jewish identity. I, like many others felt there was a clear disconnect between what he presented and the reality on the ground in Palestine. All that was needed was an acknowledgement of the sufferings and the pain of the civilians who had to endure this on both sides and the need to differentiate the government from the â€˜cultural identityâ€™ and a â€˜participantâ€™ of civil society. But that wasnâ€™t forthcoming and my reservations about him grew deeper, stronger. I wasnâ€™t comfortable with my response. However, after all, I was studying to be a peace builder. I had to get rid of my prejudices before I could heal others and understand their differences.
Conversations gathered momentum. Everyone wanted to know how they could make things better â€” whether we could build bridges from one individual to another. The Egyptian delegation, which included the Head of the Green Party, the Lebanese, which included a son of a former Christian militia, the young Druze from Lebanon and the Palestinian woman who managed to get out of Gaza with great difficulty, â€” felt they could do a presentation to portray reality of the oppression as it is, and the purpose of this presentation was not to emotionally milk peopleâ€™s sentiments dry, but to bring a realistic, unbiased picture of the oppression through the eyes of the people who had witnessed it. On the day of the presentation, the mini amphitheatre was packed to capacity.
The presentation began. Each of the members got up and spoke a little about the conflict. In Palestine. In Lebanon. And through it all, there was a clearly an effort to accept â€˜the enemyâ€™ because â€˜becoming friendsâ€™ takes a long time to build mutual trust. Acceptance is the first step in process of reconciliation. The Lebanese Christian guy got up and said how much the American Jewish guy had helped him during his stay in Caux. People had stories to share on how they had their own inner demons squashed. They spoke about how they were friends. A philosophical Lebanese guy, who was very articulate, said he had forgiven the oppressor a long time ago, because harbouring ill feelings didnâ€™t give him good night sleep. The Palestinian girl was still feeling traumatised and frustrated after being exposed to different types of collective punishment imposed on Palestinians; she had to leave home in order to regain her inner sense of peace and hope of a better future. There was genuine sincerity in peopleâ€™s voices and the inner surge to speak from the heart.
Some in the audience were openly crying, while others cried within. If an individual is ready to forgive, why canâ€™t nations do the same â€“ donâ€™t they after all, make up of people as a collective? A gentleman from the African delegation raised his hand and said, â€œWe have heard what you had to say, can we also hear what the other side has to say?â€ And suddenly, there was a deafening silence in that room. Suddenly something that shouldnâ€™t have been out in the open was unabashedly said. Everyone knew who this was directed at – The two Jewish American young men were in the audience and the onus lay on them to defend something they werenâ€™t a part of. But by their very identity they became spokespeople for â€˜the other sideâ€™.
The silence continued. Nobody knew what to say next. Everyone felt extremely uneasy that two individuals should be put in an awkward position. The young Jewish man who had earlier done the presentation on dehumanization, got up, and he said, he was ready talk. The attention shifted in the room to him. He could barely utter a word because he was teary-eyed. He didnâ€™t know what to say. He said that he didnâ€™t want these atrocities committed on any human being, but his people also had the right defend them. The question was, at what cost. He apologized, and he felt he wasnâ€™t informed enough on the subject and that he couldnâ€™t articulate his pain but he did feel for the people who had to suffer this immense loss. The other American concurred.
Soon, he burst into tears, and left the room crying because he felt he was a minority where everybody on the stage spoke about the brutal reality that was contrary to his beliefs. His companion rushed to hug him. The Palestinian girl instinctively walked out of the room to meet them out of a need for humanity and solidarity with a minority that had to be put in such a situation, as the question raised by the African gentleman was not programmed for the â€œthe other sideâ€ to speak . Everyone wept for what they were witness to. The Palestinian girl who was sitting at the podium had held a grudge against them because she had seen Israel commit atrocities in Palestine, where she worked with a human rights organization. She had personally told me, that she couldnâ€™t find the courage to confront a Jew because her pain was so deep. She went out to console them. She cried. They hugged. It washed the bitterness of the moment. A dawn of a new beginning was possible on the foundations of acknowledgement of pain.
Honestly, throughout this presentation, I was torn. On the one had, the Palestinian girl was my friend and I felt her pain. On the other hand, the Jewish guy was a participant on the academic program I was helping out with. There was a conflict of interest. But as a peace builder I fought my personal demons and look at both of them as two individuals in a shared humanity.
For a long time, during the programme, I had felt my prejudices against the Jewish Americans escalating. I went and confessed that I had harboured ill feelings against them. We hugged and cried. Deep down, we wanted to connect and ease this breach but we didnâ€™t know how to take the first step. After the presentation, though, the ice was broken. We were in the same room, sharing the same emotions we felt for something that was common to us
And as I write this, I feel emotionally overwhelmed. What I witnessed that evening will forever stay with me. Perhaps it has changed me for good. All it took was an acknowledgement of pain â€“ and â€˜the pain was transformed, not transferred.â€™