These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Dancing with the Enemy

Posted on May 27, 2013 by Joseph Shamash

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On my second Encounter trip, as we listened to various Palestinian speakers share their personal stories in a conference room in a Bethlehem hotel, I decided to take a stretch in the back of the room. At that point in the day, we had already listened to a number of speakers and I remember thinking to myself how completely different Jewish and Palestinian narrative is. That we each can look at the same set of facts and yet see two completely different stories. It reminded me of the quote by Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

As I stood in the back shaking my head after disagreeing with the speaker’s “perspective”, I joked to a staff member that there is only ONE THING that can EVER solve this conflict… Moshiach!

I am not a believer and I’ve never believed in the messiah. In fact, I’m more inclined to agree with my friend’s father who survived Auschwitz and fought in the war of independence who calls Moshiach, “Bubbe myseh” (Yiddish for “nonsense” or “old wive’s tales”).

In that moment however, something changed… I began to hope for it.

In retelling this story to a friend, she half-heartedly mentioned that Encounter is actually a Chabad organization in disguise. She might have been joking but I do believe there is an element of truth to her words. In a conflict that seems so hopeless and tragic…what can we do but ultimately rely on some superhuman individual who will one day come and lead us and the rest of the world to peace?

But hope and faith are not enough. And hope without action is foolish and doomed for failure.

Later that evening as we ate dinner with groups of Palestinians who would house many of us in their homes that night, I struggled to balance the conflicting aspects of my own identity and some of the stories I had heard. While my mind was playing mental ping pong, some Arabic music began to play and many of the Palestinians started dancing in the open space of the restaurant.

Finally, my Persian background and all the dance skills I learned at all our family functions came into play. I quickly jumped into the center of the circle and let out some traditional Persian moves… the “twisting of the lightbulbs” with your hands, the patent “shoulder and hip shake” and even the world renowned “Baba-joon dance” that caught my fellow dancers by surprise. (For those who have witnessed the Baba-joon dance, you know exactly what I’m talking about).

Again, perceptions began to shift…

For about 30 minutes, Jews and Palestinians danced, laughed and relieved some of the enormous tension that hanged over all of us who are invested in peace and coexistence. For those moments, we were not enemies, we were friends. We were not waiting for a messiah to come save us, we were all taking tangible steps to humanize each other and build a relationship based on mutual respect and dignity.

A little glimmer of hope sparkled…

But after the trip, I did not know how to sustain that moment and what next step I could possibly take to make even a small difference.

Fast forward a few months later and I’m out interviewing people in front of Damascus Gate for a film project I created called One Wish Jerusalem. We asked everyone who walked by us a simple question…”If you could have one wish fulfilled by the end of the day, what would it be?”

We received all types of answers, from the profound to the mundane. From wishes of a liberated Palestine and an entirely Jewish marketplace to finding love, health and peace. In just one day of filming, I was filled with a great sense of hope in our shared humanity and the similarities of our most basic desires but also reminded of a hopeless reality that exists on both sides of the conflict.

Whenever I’m caught up with the harsh truths of the conflict and feel like there is nothing positive to hold onto, I remember those moments we shared on the dance floor in Bethlehem. We don’t need the Messiah, we just need to have the willpower, desire and compassion to do it ourselves one step at a time.

I still don’t believe in the Messiah but I pray for Him/Her to come everyday. More importantly, I think it’s important for all of us to act as if it’s “Bubbe myseh” and take the appropriate actions ourselves to make real, long-lasting peace.

Thank you Encounter for teaching me that incredibly valuable lesson!