Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME)
Topics: Israel - Palestine conflict, trust
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics
- To Reflect and Trust (TRT)
- Palestinian and Israeli Textbook Project
- Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian Refugees and Their Histories
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of you work?
A: I'm a social psychologist, and I work in qualitative research methods, which means in-depth research, as opposed to quantitative (statistical) research. Mostly I work with life stories and narratives, and my work has two main foci, and they're connected. I began about 13-14 years ago working on the long-term psycho-social effects of the Holocaust on survivors, their children and their grandchildren, so multi-generational and intergenerational effects of the Holocaust. I'm working taking groups of Jewish Israelis to Germany and having exchanges between Germans and Jews, that kind of work. I work with people, whether they you're connected to a family or not, because the Holocaust is a part of collective Jewish history, it's part of Israeli history whether you're connected or not.
Q: By connected, do you mean a direct victim of the Holocaust?
A: Many people believe that the state of Israel was going to be established at some point, but what made it actually happen was the Holocaust. Because of the Holocaust and because you had so many refugees and these people had no place where they could go back to because their homes and communities had been destroyed completely, so they had to find a solution. And the solution was to create the state of Israel. By creating the state of Israel, that caused a lot more conflict between the Arabs and the Jews and between the Palestinians and the Jews. So therefore, the Holocaust becomes part of not only Jewish collective history, but also Israeli collective history, and triggered the war, which ensued in 1948. What happened is that approximatelyof the Palestinians were displaced and during those years after they were displaced, approximately the same number of Jews were absorbed. Most of them came from the Holocaust, or from Northern Africa or Asia where they had often been persecuted. The Palestinians often see the Holocaust as if the Europeans and the Americans had a problem and they solved it by displacing the Palestinians. So that's how it gets connected, and it also gets connected in that the Holocaust remains such a traumatic experience even for people.
I was born after the war, and people say from my children's' generation even, that it's always there. There's a fear that there will be another Holocaust. So therefore there has to be a state, and there has to be a strong state, which also leads to militarism and things like that. So, in my private life I was always a peace activist and I always wanted to somehow get involved in making that into some of my work also. So a few years ago I got involved in peace research by working through PRIME, which is the Peace Research Institute of the Middle East, a jointly run Palestinian-Israeli NGO. There are, I think, three Palestinian-Israeli NGOs. There's PRIME; there's IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information; and there's Friends of the Earth, which is Palestinian-Israeli, but it is also Jordanian, Egyptian, and so forth. Most NGOs that work together are not jointly run, so there will be a Israeli NGO and there will be a Palestinian NGO. That's the second part of my research, which is a joint Palestinian-Israeli social science research. It can be a combination of psychological, educational, and sociological. We pick projects that have meaning and importance for both peoples. We work totally equally and together and all decisions are made jointly.
Q: Describe to me, if you would, the project with TRT?
A: That's not a project. First, I'll mention a psychology professor whose name is Dan Bar-on. He and I are professors at Ben-Gurin University. He went to Germany in the mid-80s and he decided to interview children of Holocaust perpetrators. That research led eventually to the establishment of a self-help group of second-generation Holocaust perpetrators. At the time there was no such group in Germany, there might have been one group in Holland, but in Europe there wasn't. People got to know one another through his research. They formed a network and a self-help group. Here in the US, there are a number of groups of second generation Holocaust survivors I think one is called One Generation After, it's located in Boston and New York.
After these groups had been meeting for a while separately, he had this idea. He thought that it might be worthwhile to bring them together so that the children of survivors and the children of perpetrators could be together. He established this program in 1992. There were about 16-18 people from the US, from Germany, and from Israel who would meet for about a week. Now these are all professionals and multipliers. They're social workers, psychologists, researchers, doctors, community workers, teachers, educators, etc. There's no outside facilitation. They facilitated it themselves. Through this context of either being a child of a survivor or being a child of a perpetrator they started telling each other their life stories. The whole week they just spent time with each other and their life stories. They decided afterward to meet each year, so each year they get together in Germany or in the US or in Israel. After they did this for about 6 years, they decided to pick a name. They decided they couldn't talk about reconciliation. They didn't have the authority to reconciliate, but they could reflect on what their life experiences had been and they could hopefully try to trust one another. This group became very cohesive and very strong.
They thought that maybe what they had was something good that could work in present-day conflict areas, since the Holocaust, with all of its pain is over. You have to learn how to live with that and deal with that, but it's not something that's currently on going. Don thought about bringing together people from different areas. At the time they thought about S. Africa, which was at the end of its conflict.
Q: The end of apartheid?
A: Yes. In addition Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants and of course Israelis and Palestinians. Now, Israelis and Palestinians aren't that simple, because we're talking about Palestinians from the territories, from the West Bank and Gaza. We're talking about Israelis who are Jewish Israelis and also Palestinian-Israelis, meaning citizens of Israel who are Arab but who are also Palestinians. Everything's always much more complicated with these three. So in 1998 the people from the TRT went to these different places and found participants. They met together in Hamburg for the first time. Every time people get together they decide what they're going to do. Are we going to have mixed groups? Are we going to have separate groups? How often are we going to meet together? Whatever.
Q: So this structure is very loose?
A: The structure is very loose.
Q: ...I mean in terms of what you lay out as guidelines for what the process is going to be are very open.
A: It's very open, except that there are a few guidelines. One is that we work by telling our life stories. It's difficult, very difficult. We try very hard not to get onto attitudes and political stances that lead nowhere. It can't always be helped, because people have feelings about these things. Sometimes you meet more together with your own group and sometimes you meet more mixed groups, and you always have some kind of number of plenuries and you meet other people from outside the US. It's loose so that you can decide something in the morning and in the afternoon you want to change it. I wasn't a member, I knew a number of the people from other things. Then in 1998-99, they met in Bethlehem, Israel, and the Palestinian authority. I joined in 2000 and we met at Stockton College in New Jersey, and in 2001 we didn't have money to meet. In 2002 we met in August in Northern Ireland.
Q: When you say, "we met" these are members from all of these different groups?
A: Right, everybody who's a member of the TRT...
Q: People there from Northern Ireland, South Africa... It's like a world conference.
A: Right, right. If it began with say 16 or 18 people, I would say that now the list is about 100 people. Not everybody participates each time. For instance, the last meeting we had about 40-45 participants and we broke up into 4 groups. So we were 10-11 in each group each time.
Q: So when you say group, you don't divide necessarily by geography?
A: In 2000 we met in Stockton in July. We met exactly when Camp David was going on. In September 2000, the Intifada started. When we met in July we knew that there were all kinds of problems, but we really thought that peace was right there.
Q: You're talking about the Middle East?
A: The Middle East, right. We met then more in our national groups: Israelis and Palestinians, Blacks and Whites from S. Africa, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland. We of course had a lot of opportunities to get to know almost everybody. You start officially at 8 o'clock in the morning and you finish officially at 8 o'clock at night, but you become like teenagers. You get very little sleep during these things. A lot of what happens, the important stuff, is not what's happening in the room. It's always the small discussions here and there, such as sitting on the curbside at 3 am in the morning. For example I was talking to the Palestinian woman who was in jail at 3 o'clock in the morning. I skipped two years to 2002 then we're in the middle of the Intifada but there was much more willingness and openness in 2000. Both sides were very nervous about how we were going to be able to talk to one another.
Q: More willingness and openness in 2002 than in 2000?
A: No, in 2000 it was easier for us to sit together and talk. In 2002 I know a lot of us were sitting on the plank, kind of thinking, "Why am I doing this?" We all felt that no good was going to come of this. Just hopeless, totally the atmosphere of hate. The problem was solved because we did have a meeting the first night with just the Palestinians and Israelis. This is where the concept of different groups turns out to be very helpful.. When we sat together in the first plenary, one of the German participants said, (we were talking about how to do it), "Why don't we sit in mixed groups?"
Q: For the first time ever?
A: They might have done it before, but I don't think they did it quite this way. She said, "Why don't we have, you know, two or three from here, two or three from here, two or three from here?"
Q: Talking about the Middle East?
A: No. Everybody with their life story, in the context of their conflict. It wouldn't be that Israelis and Palestinians would sit in a room and nothing would be able to come out of it because there is too much hate, fear, and distress. It was a brilliant idea, but I don't think an Israeli or a Palestinian could have come up with it. So we sat in mixed groups mostly this time, and it made it much more possible to communicate. I was in a group with two Israelis and two Jewish Israelis and two Palestinians from the West Bank.
Q: And Catholics and Protestants?
A: Catholics and Protestants. There were very few S. Africans there but we had one White man from S. Africa. There were 11 or 12 in our group. I think two Catholics, two Protestants, two Israelis, two Palestinians, and I think one or two Germans and one or two children of survivors.
Q: How did it go?
A: I think it went very well. It was very emotional.
Q: It was easier to talk than it would have been. Had you been in a group with only Palestinians?
A: I think so, yeah. It was easier to talk, and it was easier to listen because it would have been very difficult for me to sit in a room and hear all of the Palestinians' stories I also know that the Palestinians would have been incapable of listening to the Israeli stories. For instance, when I told my story one of the Palestinians semi-attacked some things I had said. There was a German participant, a child of Holocaust survivors, and there was a Catholic from Northern Ireland who could step in and say, "I heard this, I didn't hear what you heard. Why don't you try thinking about it in this way?" I don't have any traumatic life story, thank heavens, so I was just talking about how I'm originally from the US and how my decision to emigrate was based on ideological reasons. Israel is a Jewish state, and I, as a Jew, should live there.
I talked about my decision to live there and my life there, again, in the context of the conflict. I continued on about how my identity has been affected and the way I've changed over the years, the way I look at things differently. I've been in Israel over 30 years, so I look at things differently now then when I first came. I more or less ended with the fact that my youngest son, at the time he was 17, now he's eighteen, is going into the army soon. We have a lot of discussions at home, and he wants to go into a fighting unit. He wants to be a combat soldier. He's 18 years old and has got raging hormones. All of his role models, all of his friends, and the people he looks up to are combat soldiers. Among 18-year-old boys, that's what's discussed. I keep trying to tell him, "Daniel, I don't want you to go into something where you're going to be, say, in the West Bank, pointing a gun at a Palestinian citizen." It always ends with, "Oy mom, give me a break." He's going to decide what he's going to decide. He's 18 years old. He's an adult. It's his decision. I was talking about how I'm torn because I love and care about him, he's my son. Whatever he does I have to support because how can he go into the army for at least three years and me not support him? Then he's going to be doing things that are against my morals, against things that I believe in. One of the Palestinians said to me, "Well, you just have to forbid him." And I said, "I can't, what do you mean I have to forbid him, sit on him? I mean what am I supposed to do?" And he said, "No, if you really meant it, then you would forbid him." And I said, "You know, I really mean it and I can't forbid him, he's going to do it."
Then either one of the Germans or someone else from outside the Israeli-Palestinian group said, "Look, what if your son came to you and said, 'I'm going to go be a suicide bomber?' What would you do?" Cause this is also a man of peace, this Palestinian, and he said, "Well, I would forbid him." And I said, "How would you forbid him? What would you do?" He said, "He wouldn't do it." I said, "What would you do? Would you lock him in the house? What would you do?" I could tell that he didn't accept it. He kept asserting, "No, I would forbid him." The other said, "Okay, I believe that you would like to forbid him just like Joy would like to forbid her son, but in the end, your son will choose whatever path he chooses, just like her son will choose whatever path he chooses, and that's one of the tragedies. I mean, hopefully, neither son will choose one of these paths, but the fact is that you live within societies where there's also great pressure on Palestinian youth to become suicide bombers, just like there's great pressure on Israeli youth to go into these fighting units." So, I think if we'd just been the Israelis and Palestinians, that whole thing would have really blown up.. So I'm not saying we have gotten to any happy end, but on the other hand, things could be brought up and then they were much more diffused because it wasn't me saying it, it was somebody from the outside.
Q: And there were people who weren't going to be defensive about the things you said who were also hearing your story?
Q: When you said that Don Baron thought that it would do good to have Holocaust survivors and children of perpetrators meet, what do you mean by good? I presume that that would extend to these meetings that you have now between the Catholics and the Protestants, and Black S. Africans and White S. Africans, what do you mean by good? What good does it do?
A: Good in that people carry with them a lot of traumas of the past, whether or not they actually experienced them. My parents are not Holocaust survivors, but I've been a researcher of the Holocaust for a long time, so I've heard hundreds and hundreds of stories. People carry with them all kinds of things, all kinds of attitudes and fears and stereotypes of the other, and a lot of this gets passed on to their own children, to the third generation. Good in that a lot of these issues could be opened up and not only opened up amongst second-generation people, but with people from the other side. Of course these are Children of Holocaust survivors who are willing to meet with children of perpetrators, it's not an easy thing. Can you imagine Martin Bormann telling his story, and someone sitting in the room is talking about their parents who'd been in Auschwitz? You can imagine the tension and emotions that were in that room. We call it "working through".
"Working through" means not to overcome the past, not to put it behind you, but to learn to live with it. "Working through" is a process, and it's a lifelong process, because you have to learn to live with it when you're, say 10, and when you're 18 you have to learn how to live with it, and if you get married and you have kids, and then things come up you have learn how to live with it. As you pass through different developmental stages in life, these things come back to influence you, and you have to continue to learn to live with it. A good way to learn to live with it is by facing that other, who's willing to face you also, and to enter into dialogue and to talk about these things.
Q: So, the goal is to allow the people who are participating to live with the trauma, whether they've experienced it or inherited it from their parents?
A: That's one of the goals.
Q: There are others?
A: Once a year we go and have some kind of catharsis by working with other people. I haven't done it in recent years. Last time I did it was in '97, mostly because of money problems because we couldn't get grants. If I want to bring again together, say, Israelis and Germans, so again not to bring them together on the level of "I'll tell you what my opinions are" and "I'll tell you what my attitudes are", but in order to also choose this life-story method of group work and facilitation as a way to really understand yourself better. As you tell your story, you reflect on your story to help others as they listen to your story help you reflect on your story, listening to other stories, giving you also a broader perspective and when you listen to other stories of course you reflect again on also your story.
Q: So, by learning to live with that stuff you are, in a sense, capacitating yourself to help others deal with their trauma?
A: Yeah, that's the idea.
Q: Is it a growing circle? I mean, do you get different people every year, or is it the same people every year?
A: It's a growing circle. We've used life story methodologies and research, people who do oral histories, but also the kind of things we do for a number of years, for about 20 years or so. It's been done before, but it's been done massively more in sociology and psychology for about the last 20 years.
People love telling their life stories, whether they're old or they're younger, when they have the real opportunity, the time and it's open. It's become extremely popular in Northern Ireland and it's become extremely popular in Germany. Also maybe the THC, Toward Health and Conciliation, has many groups. A lot of people know TRT because Don Baron has a number of contacts in Northern Ireland, so he's been at a number of, they call them "residentials", like overnight conferences. A lot of self-help groups have adopted this way of working. In Northern Ireland the last day of the conference was an open conference, and there were hundreds of people there. It was really amazing.
Q: People like telling their stories, but do they like listening to other people's stories?
A: It's very difficult to tell your life story, but it's much, much harder to listen. You have to really listen, and you have to not be judgmental or not think about what you would have done. It's easier for me to listen to a Catholic tell his story of how he was shot between the eyes when he was ten years old and has been blinded since then, than it is for me to listen to the life story of a woman from Jenin. This Catholic from Northern Ireland isn't' a threat. So, I can listen to his story, and we can all cry with the story and see what a wonderful person he is, because I'm not a Protestant from Northern Ireland. I have to work much harder to really listen when the woman from Jenin tells her story.
Q: Without reacting, and saying, "No, you're telling it wrong?"
A: I'm good at that because I do a lot of interviewing, so I can do that, but without feeling containment inside. How much can you contain? How much pain can you contain and when you're trying to contain the pain of another who is telling you that you, the Israelis, are the source of their problems. So you have to be able to listen to that for an hour, for two hours, for however long her story takes. It's very difficult.
Q: The work with PRIME, with the textbooks and the refugees. This work is through PRIME, I mean you're a researcher for PRIME?
Q: So tell me about the textbooks.
A: First, let me just go back to one word about PRIME. PRIME was established in 1999 and there are two co-directors. Dan Bar-on is the Israeli co-director, and the Palestinian co-director is Professor Sami Adwan, he's from education in Bethlehem University. These are the two co-directors. All the projects that we do will always have an equal staff between Palestinians and Israelis. Everything is jointly decided from inception to writing the proposal to when we get the money, how we're going to carry it out and everything.
Q: So what project's going to be worked on, what we're going to say about it, how we're going to look at it...
A: ...How we're going to do it. Our first project that we worked on was we looked at environmental NGOs, Israelis and Palestinians that had worked together on the environment. We looked at ones that had worked together and we went and interviewed people. I interviewed Israelis and Palestinians interviewed Palestinians. We came up with an interview guide and everything. We began that in April 2000, but then remember in September 2000 the Intifada broke out, so that project came to an end. So, for instance on that project, we couldn't collect any more data, and even if we could, nobody was interested in collecting any more data. We did eventually write the report, it was for German donors, and we did manage to meet a few times. Our offices are located in T ???, it's a school and a church in Bachalla. Bachalla is right outside of Bethlehem. It's right across from Jerusalem. So, before the Intifada began, I would drive there and it felt very safe to cross over from Israel to the West Bank, but since the Intifada, we haven't been there. We don't go there because it's dangerous because people are killed on that road. Palestinians have a problem with movement because of all the curfews and closures and blockades. So we met a few times in Jerusalem, facing the old wall. For instance, on that project, when we did the analysis, we just worked separately.
In the end we brought it together somehow, but we couldn't meet to decide how we were going to analyze and everything. We wrote proposals, we got a nice grant from the Y-River People to People Fund, from the US State Department, to do two projects. One is called the Writing the Shared History, and the other is the Oral History Refugee Project. In Writing the Shared History, there are six Palestinian teachers, geography and history teachers, and six Jewish-Israeli history teachers. They met together a number of times. They meet every three or four months in East Jerusalem. Initially they took a day or two of getting to know one another. There's a Palestinian historian and an Israeli historian also that works with them. They chose a number of historical events to write about. For instance, they chose the Belfour Declaration of 1917, of course they chose the War of 1948, I think they chose the first Intifada. They've decided that the Palestinians will write a textbook. It's not really a text book, it's a booklet for 10th and 11th grade students. There, for instance the Palestinians will write their narrative of the 1948 War. We Israelis call it the "War of Independence" and the Palestinians call it nachba, "the Catastrophe." So, the Israeli teachers will write the Jewish-Israeli narrative of the '48 War, and the Palestinians write their narrative. These are translated into Hebrew and Arabic so each side can read it, and they have discussions about it. They're short narratives.
There's often disagreement about what's written in the other narrative, but the idea is to come up with two narratives that both sides feel could be printed in a book that would then be given to Israeli and Palestinian students. They'd have the Palestinian narrative, the Israeli narrative, and they have empty pages to write down their feelings, thoughts about it, , and do class activities. They've met, I think, three or four times. It's always difficult to meet because it's very hard to get Palestinians travel permits. There's always something terrible that's happened, and always somebody knows somebody who's been killed or wounded or whatever. Also on the Israeli side there are often suicide bombers, things like that, but they meet together every three or four months for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday in a hotel in East Jerusalem.
Q: These people, they are....
A: They're teachers. They just look for teachers that would be willing to work on the project. They put out their first booklet and they've tried it. They're working now on refining it and they're working on more narratives. I think they have three that they've written so far.
Q: Are these books given the kind of situation that nobody wants to read. Do the Israelis not want to read something that gives Palestinians a certain amount of voice from their perspective, and vice versa?
A: Pretty much. The idea is this: neither side is very happy with what the other side has written, but we look at it this way: it's important that people meet. At this point in the conflict, it's very important that people have contact with one another. So if there are six Palestinian and six Israeli teachers that are willing to meet with one another every few months, that in itself is very important. They're working on this now and hopefully somewhere down the road not in the too far distant future, these will be booklets that, yes, the children will be more willing to read and to think about, and that both sides again will also be able to change more the narratives that they're writing. They are trying to write narratives that, on the one hand, reflect their narrative, but on the other hand wouldn't scare off the other side. They're very different narratives.
Q: And they're targeted at what age?
A: 10th and 11th grade.
Q: What do you think is the importance of texts like these for students in the 10th and the 11th grades?
A: What I've learned is that the Israelis do not know the Palestinian stories, and the Palestinians do not know the Israeli stories. Both peoples have kind of a feeling that the other people just dropped down from Mars in a way. They don't know the history, they don't know the family history, and they don't know the collective history So it's very important to know what people have been through and how they see something before you start trying to understand it. It's important for high school students because this is usually the age where young people are open to ideas, and because Israelis will be going into the army in a few years time. It's important for them to be able to see also the Palestinian side of it, to understand that there is a Palestinian side, to see the Palestinian people as Palestinian people. It's important for Palestinian who are also at that impressionable age, a lot of suicide bombers are young people these ages, to also see that there's Israeli side of it to have both stories legitimated. It's very difficult because they're very different stories. It's important to know, even if it's something you don't want to know, it's important to know, not knowing it doesn't make go away. So that's why it's important.
Q: What lessons have you learned from both the "To Reflect in Trust" group and also from your work with the teachers writing the texts?
A: It's a little bit hard for me to say because they're two different things. TRT is people sitting together in a room talking to one another, so even if a Palestinian is saying something that is making my blood boil and getting me very upset, I still see the person as a person. I sit with them at dinner, I'll sit with them in the evening, and we'll have a drink together in the evening. It's a much different kind of thing. You can't help but see the person as a person. A lot of it is people I work with also. Some of these people are also involved in PRIME, so it's people you get to know.The textbook situation is different. These teachers are coming together, so they are getting to know one another on some kind of limited basis, because they see each other a few days every number of months. Most of the work is done in parallel. Usually the Israeli teachers sit together and write their narratives; and the Palestinians sit together and write their narratives. What's important for both groups is that they're ongoing. They don't come together once and say that's it. You come together, and then you come together again and you come together again. The ideas, yes of course, the interpersonal connection is important, but it isn't just the interpersonal connection. It's very important to see that there are real people on the other side and to keep on seeing a real person on the other side. Do we have time for the other project because the other project is the one that I'm running, so the one I know about more?
Q: Absolutely. The refugee project?
A: Okay, I told you a little bit that the Palestinians are interviewing Palestinian refugees from '48 who are still refugees.
Q: This is also a PRIME project?
A: This is PRIME. This is one of the two projects that got funded. Basically it's Professor Sami's students. He's got students who are interviewing people in the camps in Bethlehem who are refugees. They've done about 70 interviews so far, all videoed. On our side, I told you we're doing Jewish-Israelis who were survivors. First they started interviewing Palestinians and I tried to find Israelis who were living in places that once had been these villages. It turned out to be very impossible. In the end what I decided to do was just to concentrate more in my area and to look for???, that had been established by these former refugees and that had once been either on Arab villages or on Arab land or right next to Arab land. There's many of those places around Israel, so I'm doing it mostly in what's called the??? area. It's about halfway between ??? and Jerusalem So we've done less because basically we've had a hard trouble finding other interviewees. We've done about 20 interviews. I go to people's homes, they tell me their life story.
Q: These are people who are Israeli?
A: Jewish-Israelis who were refugees, either from the Holocaust or from Northern Africa and Asia.
Q: And who settled...?
A: Who settled Moshav or Kibbutz places that were once Arab villages or lands. They know the project is a joint Palestinian-Israeli project. They know how I've gotten to them. I tell them exactly what I'm going to ask them. I'm very honest and open with them so they can accept or refuse to participate, because you have to respect people. I tell them what I'm going to do because it's their story. So I bring a videographer with me. They start by telling their life story, which is usually an hour, an hour and a half, with very few questions from me. I just try to keep it in chronological order. If there's some detail that's unclear or something, then they can speak without me interrupting them, that's the best. Then I ask them three questions: Do you know what was on this land before 1948? If a Palestinian was to come and say, I'm from here originally, would you like to meet him or her and what would you like to say to him or her? And, how do you see the solution or how do you see the Palestinian-Iraeli conflict and a possible solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Those are the three questions that I ask at the end. The answers to those questions can take 5 minutes, they can take a half an hour, they can take 45 minutes. Sometimes they just lead into one another.
Sometimes I have to ask all three. Somebody will say, there was a village here, it was called Jesir, and once a family came and said this is my house. They just told the story without me having to ask the question. Many of them have had actual experience. Then they show photographs or documents that are important to them. We videograph them also. I ask each person to take me to a place in their community that has special significance for them and we go outside. Usually it can be sometimes just their farm. One man showed me all around his farm, and he also took me to the older village that they destroyed. The Arabs had gone, the Palestinians had left, but when they settled they left in '48, they settled in '53. But they took down all the buildings and he told me where everything was, because he had been in charge of taking down all the buildings.
I made a 12-minute film about one of these families, for instance. This was a family from Kurdistan, Kurdistan Jews. So, these are very parallel projects, but the idea again is to hear what the life experiences are, to document them. We want to put them on a computer. We want to make movies, because it's very visual, very rich stuff, and not only just to see, but also for researchers and educators. We want to bring some of these people together because we believe that the crux of the problem is the '48 War, is the '48 refugee problem, is right around '48 the creation of the state, the fact that the Palestinians fled, were thrown out, expelled, and all the absorption of all the Jewish refugees. So we think that those years are very important to understanding and working through the conflict. So at the end of the interviews I also ask people if we were to have some kind of dialogue group and counter group, would you be interested? And most people would be interested.
Q: In terms of people in general understanding the conflict, and as you say, the crux of the conflict, do you think that if people were to understand more about that period in history from '47 to '51, during the out flux and influx of refugees, that people could have an understanding of the conflict. That would some how allow them to move forward in their positions and reach a place where they can speak more, or, I don't want to say resolution, but that's sort of what I'm getting at.
A: Yeah, we don't use the word resolution. As I said, the Israelis don't know the Palestinian stories and the Palestinians don't know the Israeli stories. Israelis tend to think not so much the '48 generation, not so much the people who came themselves. Some are more aware and some are less aware. The Palestinians lived there for hundreds of years, some of them, that these villages existed, and they were there, and then they fled and then they were no longer there. Some 400, approximately 420 villages were destroyed, emptied, razed, whatever. The Palestinians do have a legitimate claim to the land, it wasn't that they showed up in 1940 and said this is ours. Some Israelis may not know that the Palestinians had lived there, their parents had lived there, their grandparents, their great grandparents, and the fact that they just hadn't lived there for 5 years, and we just kind of moved them to somewhere else. It is also important for Israeli-Jews to understand why they left and how they left, and what's happened to them since.
On the other side, many Palestinians have no clue why these Jews came. As I sort of said sarcastically, from Mars, but the fact that they might not be aware of the Jewish connection to the land, the history, the religious connection to the land. Hopefully they'll hear people who say, for instance, from Kurdistan, that's what they were taught from age zero, that this was Jewish land. They were taught it was just a matter of when we can go back. We've lived in Kurdistan for centuries, but it's not our home. We're in exile. We're in exile from Israel. So as soon as there was a state, they emigrated. It's not colonialism, it's not Western powers moving them here, it's this deep, religious, historical belief that this is my land, and as soon as I can go back, I'm going back. How do you reconciliate those two? I'm not saying you can, but what we say at PRIME is that there are two peoples that have legitimate claims to the land and we have to find ways of somehow living with one another and coming to terms with that. Figuring out how to do that, so that's a big part of what we're trying to do.
Q: Are there a lot of lessons learned from that project? Things you didn't expect? Surprises?
A: I've interviewed more what we call Misrachim, people who come from northern Africa and Asia, more than Holocaust survivors. Basically what I've learned so far from my interviews is the basic line is, "God gave us this land, so this is ours". I would say that's what I've heard because the Misrachim are religious, are very, very religious. "So God gave us this land, this is our land, and we can live in peace with the Palestinians, but the Palestinians have to understand that this is our land, you're not going to get it back. It's not yours. God gave it to us, not to you." I've heard more from Holocaust survivors, "Why did we come? We were murdered everywhere else, we came here so we wouldn't be murdered anymore." What's been most interesting for me is the religious Jews the Misrachim, who have said, "God gave us this land, this is ours, we're not giving it back, there's no discussion here." Yes, they would like to meet with Palestinians, yes, they would like to live in peace with Palestinians. They speak Arabic, and they come from the same culture. They have a lot more in common than they do with the Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, from Germany, from Russia. So we think that one of the bridges could be these Misrachim Jews, who know much more the Arab culture. It's much easier for both these sides we think.
Also the same thing with Palestinians, because they're religious people, the ones who are more religious understand that. For someone like me, it's great because I'm exposed to so many things I've never heard before, but for a white, Ashkenazi, secular woman, speaking to a Misrachim religious man from Kurdistan, I'm seeing it in a whole different way. It's much easier, I think, for the Palestinians and people like this to get together and actually talk. I think they have a much more common language. So that's kind of our saying is that it could be that the Misrachim people, not only the first generation, second generation, might be a better bridge. A lot of people call them in Hebrew ???. They're sort of like these liberals that are disregarded because their stands are very clear; but on the other hand, for many years they did live with people like that.
Q: And they're willing to talk?
A: And they're willing to talk. So we're thinking it'd be great to get these people... We're talking about people who are in their 70s and 80s, but with them maybe some of their kids.
Q: Sure, and they probably carry a lot of status in the whole community?
A: Yeah. So that's an idea we have.
Q: Status, I presume, because they're so seemingly hard-line, they would carry a lot of weight if they were the ones to go in and talk.
Q: Well thank you, Julia.