This week I attended a Jewish-Arab dialog group that meets for a few days every few months. All ten or so participants are professionals in education and psychology. All are busy, involved people not looking for still another institution, but for a safe place to explore difficult questions honestly.
This session opened with the reading of poems by Mahmud Darwish, a Palestinian poet well-known for his nationalistic sentiment, and by Yehuda Amichai, probably the most popular Israeli poet of this generation (he died about a year ago). Darwish's poem was a nostalgic expression of longing for Mother and the simple earthy pleasures of warm bread and folk wisdom. It seemed fairly clear that for a Palestinian, the poem referred not only to Mother, but to Mother Earth, and to longing for the lost land. A., an educator from a village in the western Galilee and daughter of refugees from a village destroyed in 1948, described her attachment to this poem, which she learned by heart as a child and which still moves her powerfully.
I said that I have become increasingly alienated from the Jewish equivalents of Darwish's poem, like the schmaltzy nationalistic songs of Naomi Shemer, and was trying to wean myself from this kind of romantic sentimentality, as I think it stands in the way of rational discussion -- and of dialog. Therefore, I find that romantic nationalism arouses a negative reaction in me, whether it is German, Palestinian, American, or Jewish. The mystical belief in the link between blood and soil has caused the soil of most of Europe (and elsewhere) to be soaked with blood throughout the past 100 years; it seems to me we need to find a better basis for discussing political organization.
A. seemed personally hurt by my comments, as though I were trying to delegitimize her feelings. And others commented that my comment was controlling, an attempt to shut off the conversation. Easy for me, they said, to reject nationalistic sentiments -- after all, mine had already been fulfilled: my people has returned to its land and gained sovereignty, building a culture based on rootedness in the soil. Therefore, it is hypocritical and worse, unjust for me to now declare that such rootedness is unacceptable to me. Moreover, said M., a young Moslem informal educator, consider the relationship between us: the Jews have fulfilled their national aspirations at the expense of the Palestinians' -- how dare you now tell us that our expression of our aspirations -- or even of our sadness over their ailure -- give you a "bad feeling?"
I must have been naive, as this criticism really took me aback at first. I guess I had thought that my willingness to consider rejecting Jewish nationalism was a pretty big "concession," and a step toward finding a common ground. So I was shocked to find myself being told, like a middle class straight white male in American academic discourse, that I, the oppressor, could not speak without my words being tainted by my historical role. A frustrating position to be in; I was left with mixed feelings of resentment, and bewilderment as to how I need to re-understand my own identity in such a way as to be able to say anything in this conversation.
And yet, somehow, for once I felt that the conversation had gone beyond the usual slogans, and, like in a good therapy session, I had been enabled to see myself in a new way, and to ask new questions about myself -- and myself as perceived by others.
The time ran out before the talk did, and I am looking forward to our next session.