Why Ramallah?

from Stephen Stern…

Ari’s posting on our day in Ramallah is a heartfelt, mind-engaged entry into the passions and chasms of separation at the heart of the entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians.  Two peoples, whose aspirations have been so out of joint for 100 years or more — and yet each has proven what they will endure to stay in their homeland.  So I spent months incrementally brokering the possibility of discussions with Palestinian artists on the context of their work, after the fabulous opportunity to explore our deep-rooted Israel connectedness at IsraDrama.

Just a bit of back story to add.  It was clear from the beginnings of setting this up that the winds of “anti-normalcy” were blowing very stiffly indeed among Palestinian artists and intellectuals, even more strongly than when I was last there 8 months ago.  Theaters were telephoned by cultural boycott proponents and told not to meet with the delegation of American theater professionals –  presumably for links with Israel which we did not hide.  We came to learn from the conditions in which these important artists work — and I think the level of exchange on matters of theatrical creation was very high.  But for them they all see the conditions of their work through a lens of 20 years of increasing despair over negotiations they see as not having brought their freedom, coupled with an increasing sophistication and desire to tell their theatrical stories.  We needed to hear them and respond to them walking the walk of free expression, and respond to the difficult talk of their lack of interest in hearing from or sharing this with Israelis.

There are layers of irony involved.  I would most likely not have come anywhere near this encounter without the years of Theater J work with Israeli artists with whom almost all of our Palestinian interlocutors had worked in the past.  Quietly behind the scenes (with support to our fabulous local organizer Manal and phone calls to reluctant theaters), a Palestinian official encouraged all to engage in talks and expressed willingness to engage in meetings with Israeli artists, and also including Palestinian artists where possible.  Done with caution, but firmly rooted in other conditions on the ground.  Despite all winds, neither people is going away and the urgency to know more and more about each other grows.

Ari talked about the “World Bank” language of my introductory note to set up these meetings. I think my years of brokering between disadvantaged communities, NGOs and governments in Asia gives me lessons for my American Jewish outreach — to share the narratives of both peoples in a context that starts with Israel connection to be informed and deepened by taking real measure of the other people that shares the land between the river and the sea.  So here’s that language.

Theater Delegation: A small international group of theater professionals is seeking meetings to learn from Palestinian theater artists.  We wish to engage with Palestinians on how they share their artistic work and point of view in Palestine, with neighbors in the Region, and internationally.  Our group of Americans, American Jews, and Israelis have worked in our own artistic environments to present Palestinian narratives to mixed audiences.  From each of our differing cultural and national situations, we seek to understand what we might do to help present authentic Palestinian voices, assist Palestinian artists wherever they wish to work and — where possible — engage in exchange with Palestinian artists.”

I think it’s counter-productive for Palestinians not to work with, or even engage, with Israeli artists that they have worked with in the past — or be interested in hearing from or sharing stories with the Israeli public.  Whether or not Palestinians will or won’t work with Israelis they have worked with in the past is a matter of their personal decision and sense of identity and integrity.  To see some of the conditions of occupation, one understands; yet one also understands that conditions of occupation will not end without the most fundamental sharing of each other’s realities.  Even in all these tough conversations, that day and elsewhere I have had in Palestine,  the winds of acknowledging and hearing from the Other still blow at official and civil society levels.  To hear stories of anger, to stoke some embers of hope between peoples, to hear the reality of life as they see it across that line is a key American Jewish, Israeli and artistic interest.   It’s fitting that I go from posting this to meet (here in Berkeley) with Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufmann, estimable film-makers of “Between Two Worlds”.   We will wrestle a little bit together with Jewish identity, telling multiple narratives, and parse through connection to Israel and its neighbors.  May all of us go ever deeper, engaging respectfully but firmly with our critics, into such conversations.

Photo credits © Mara Isaacs