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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Conflict and identity

Galilee Diary #402, August 10, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


Then Jacob said… Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.
-Genesis 32: 10, 12

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
-Genesis 33:4

I just returned from a visit with 12 members of the Galilee Circus Jewish-Arab youth circus in St. Louis, where we were hosted for an intensive two weeks of joint practice and performance, with a little fun and sightseeing on the side, by the St. Louis Arches performing troupe of Circus Harmony (Circus Day Foundation). As was the case last summer, when the Arches spent two weeks here, this was an amazing exercise in defining an identity that transcended the ethnic, religious, and racial identities that normally determine our perceptions of ourselves and each other. For two weeks, no one talked or thought about those identities (except the media people interviewing us). In the circus, what matters is the performance – of the individual and of the troupe – and not the color or background of the performers. For two weeks we warmed up and sweated, worked and played, ate and slept, travelled and shopped totally together – middle class Jewish kids, inner city Afro-American kids, Israeli Jewish and Arab kids. We did not discuss our identities, or conflicts, or social issues, or historical memories. We worked hard and well together, performing together a dozen times, and the crowds loved it. And when we parted there were a lot of tears.

There is an ongoing debate among "peace educators" in Israel as to the relevance of such programs. There is one school of thought (probably the dominant one) that argues that cultural interactions like this one merely plaster over the difficult reality, creating an illusion of "coexistence" which is just a cover-up of a deep and painful conflict. According to this view, such projects are even dangerous, for they lead to a false sense of security and reconciliation that will ultimately lead to bitter disillusionment when the underlying conflict erupts through the pretty plaster of personal friendship. What we need to do is to confront the conflict, to talk about it, to process it, to hold it up to the light. Only then do we have a chance of overcoming it. There are many programs that follow this approach, in which participants go through an often painful process of trying to listen (or trying not to listen) to the historical grievances and personal fears of the other, and through this to reach some kind of common ground.

Another perspective is this: Before we can have a serious and effective discussion of the historical and ideological conflicts that divide us, we have to have a common language, some kind of cultural common denominator, a joint loyalty, an awareness of the humanity of the other – otherwise, the other remains other to us, and his/her claims are the claims of a group, or a caricature, not of a person toward whom we feel any affection, responsibility, or commitment. If we really share nothing but the conflict itself, if we and our relationship are defined by the conflict, then maybe we almost have a perverse interest in its perpetuation.

While I have chosen the second position for my own work, I see the debate as a serious one without an obvious right answer. As long as there exist both present and past unresolved injustices, then swinging together on the trapeze, smiling, is a cop-out and a cover-up. On the other hand, if we don't know about, care about, and trust each other as persons, and if there is nothing we care about in common, then why make the effort to resolve the conflict - a resolution that will require, by definition, sacrifice by both sides?

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