Artists for Peace
I was born into an area in the world where peace does not prevail. Fear and hatred are eminent. As opinions are so extreme, people often disagree on small and large ideas. It is evident even in the name of this place. Some call it Israel, some call it Palestine.
Being born into this situation, I was raised to believe that it was an unchanging one. That though some hope to change it, the reality is very different. I was educated to trust only my own kind, to suspect the others. And this attitude that was passed to me by older and more experienced people around me, was meant to protect me. To keep me safe. It was important to be taught that.
What I was not taught was that the other side, the people that I fear, have similar emotions to mine, and that are altogether more similar to me than different. I realized it only in my teens, and since then I am realizing it more and more. Such was my reoccurring experience over the past few months, as a group of artists which I had the privilege to be a part of, made peace.
Words are an amazing tool for communicating ideas. They can inspire, and they can bring despair. The word peace evokes so many images and emotions within the person hearing it, especially in my region.
When I am writing that this group of artists made peace, I mean every word of it. Over the past few months peace was made. It was not the Peace that you might think of: shaking hands in front of flags and by moaned loans, it did not consist of breaking news, and no speeches were given. And yet, peace was made.
Peace was made in a humble way, almost silently. It was made between people, people like you, reading these words right now. It was made slowly. It was made abashedly. But it was made. Peace was made.
Let me share with you my awe, my excitement, and my enthusiasm about the way this peace was made. You will be moved, I promise.
Hi Jonathan, check this out. You might be interested, said the email. It was from a close friend of mine, and the title of the attached document was Artists required for a project of meeting fellow artists from the Palestinian side. I was intrigued. I kept on reading.
The brochure said that the project is managed by the Families Forum for Peace. This organization, sometimes called Parents circle, had attracted my attention years ago.
When I was seventeen and studied in Canada, I was asked to give a lecture about the Israeli- Palestinian situation to the fellow students. I was eager to do so, and at the same time feared the task. I was supposed to give the lecture with fellow Palestinian students.
For weeks and weeks we designed a lecture together. It was challenging. And yet, eventually we put a presentation together. The day before the lecture was scheduled, we reviewed it. The presentation was so filled with wars, blood and unfulfilled dreams. It was 2003, the peace accords seized, violence erupted in an even greater level than before, and hope seemed to have vanished.
Yet we could not end the lecture this way. I looked for a ray of hope to squeeze in. Researching the web I found the Bereaved Families for Peace. I was amazed. I immediately called my Palestinian and Israeli colleagues. Listen to this, I told them, some parents who lost their kids because of the conflict, whether in a suicide bombing or by soldiers or anyway because of the conflict, decided to meet together and say no more for the violence. They meet regularly, here, see, I said, and showed some pictures on the web. In a really touching on, a Palestinian mother with head-cover, and a European faced Israeli mother, were hugging one another with tears in their eyes. Those pictures were worth more than a thousand words. I kept on sharing with them my excitement to read that together they go to schools and meet children and share their stories with them. Imagine, I said, if children would experience that at an early age. A Palestinian child meeting an Israeli who is not a soldier, or an Israeli girl meeting a Palestinian who is not a suicide bomber... Imagine what that can do!
The pictures found their way to the presentation the next day. In many ways, it changed the presentation. It left us all with hope, if these people, the people that have suffered more than all other people, can be brave enough to be willing to meet the other side and conciliate, then there is hope. There is hope.
The forum kept being in my mind for years. I came back to Israel for the mandatory service in the Israeli Defence Forces. I fought to be stationed at a place in which I was supporting peace, somehow. Sharing this idea with friends at the time, I received faces filled with cynicism. And yet I was certain there must be a place within the army that somehow attempts to make the situation better. And miraculously I found the unit that is in charge of the humanitarian aspect of what is going on in the areas occupied by the army. The unit, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, also known as COGAT, became my home. For three years I worked alongside other Israeli soldiers and civilians committed to ensure that the Palestinians rights are being kept and respected. I was proud of my job, and often thought that parents from the Families Forum would approve of it and encourage me to give my best, knowing my work makes a positive impact.
Finishing the army I went on lecturing about the Israeli Palestinian situation at various forums. I gave lectures and wrote about the situation and the possibilities for peace. My lectures always included the Families Forum for Peace. Slowly other examples were added. One of my favorite ones was of some scholars that figured that the textbooks with which students study in schools in both sides of the conflict, actually strengthen the conflict rather than encourage understanding of the other side. Based on the model of the shared history books created after the Second World War in both Germany and France, these scholars and teachers set upon writing a history textbook for the Palestinian and Israeli children. These lectures always brought hope to people. In Germany, in which I gave several lectures, I was touched by a Palestinian descent young lady, who came to me after the lecture and told me that I am the first Israeli that she didn't hate.
The years passed, and I always remembered these moments. I remembered fondly the story of the Beavered Families Forum, and whenever I heard something about them in the news, or read an article about them, I always had a smile. And such a smile appeared on my face when I read the email from my friend telling me about this initiative of the families forum. I was a sold audience.
I read about the project thoroughly. The idea was to bring together people from specific disciplines, in order to share their points of view and their own narratives. Called the Narratives Project, this project led by the Forum brought together a group of social workers, a group of lawyers, a group of doctors, and now came the time for a group of artists. I was so excited.
I applied. Many did, which actually encouraged me. It meant that many people wanted to meet fellow artists from the other side. After submitting the application I received a telephone call, in which the coordinator of the group asked me several questions. She also said that they received many applications, and that they only have fifteen places available in the Israeli side and fifteen in the Palestinian side. I told her the truth, which is that I feel fortunate enough to have met fellow Palestinians from an early age, which shaped the person that I became. I told her about the peace initiatives I took part in, and even told her that I totally would understand if they would prefer to chose another artist who did not have such an experience before. After hanging up I thought, you shouldn't have told her that, you totally lost your space in the group. And yet, for some reason, few weeks later I received a personal email from her, stating that I was chosen for the group. I was mesmerized.
In Jaffa, a minute from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, we met one evening at the Hebrew-Arabic Center. It was only the Israeli group. A preparation meeting. We introduced ourselves, and shared why we applied. We were all eager to meet fellow artist from the other side. Amongst us were photographers, painters, musicians and sculptors. All leading in their fields. I felt honored to be included in the group. We met Anat, the Israeli facilitator. Anat lost both her brothers in the 1973 war, and basically her whole life were in the shade of that experience. Anat shared with us her story. Choosing to focus on the future rather than the past. Nothing can bring my brothers back, she said, and I looked at her deep eyes with respect. There was silence as she spoke, and I believe all of us felt an honor to have her as our leader. Coming from a background of dancing, Anat was fitting into the group of artists smoothly. We all felt like we were in good hands. We did some simulations in small groups, requiring us to put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. In one of these simulations my group was told that we were the Palestinian artists, and that the Israeli army was going to demolish our workshop the same day that we were to go to a meeting with the Israeli artists. Would we go? Would we not? Just speaking about this dilemma strengthens the notion that the situation was a complex one. In another simulation we were told that several of us Palestinians were denied a permit to enter Israel for a meeting in the Israeli side. Would we go only a few of us, or shall we protest by not going as a whole?
We did not reach a clear answer, yet we learnt of the difficulties the other side must experience. It was especially moving for me to know that at the same time, not all too far away, the Palestinian artists were meeting, discussing similar dilemmas representing the Israeli side. When Anat told us that, at the end, we all sighed a sigh of relief. You mean that they too do what we are doing now? we asked. Yes, was the answer. Anat told us that the Palestinians were simulating what they would do if a suicide bombing would take place, or a killing or anything of that sort. I personally felt at ease. That meant to me that the other side would be at least aware of some of the difficulties we are facing as Israelis.
We departed that same evening with mixed feelings of excitement and fear. We all didn't know what was awaiting us. One highly talented new media artist amongst us, Omer Golan, had special concerns. When he was a soldier he was attacked by a Palestinian suicide bomber, who practically exploded on him. Months in hospital rehabilitation had led him to be afraid of anything that had to do with Arabs, even hearing the Arabic language spoken. "Why are you here, then?" we all asked. "I want to go beyond it," he said. We nodded, yet were uncertain of what would happen.
The week passed quickly, and on the set time, a cold Friday morning in the beginning of winter in Tel Aviv, we all met. No one was late. I also believe some might have had some problems falling asleep. We were heading not for few hours, but for a whole weekend. The location chosen for the meeting was chosen so that both Israelis and Palestinians could attend without special permits. Though a seam zone, the area had a negative association in my mind. The city, Beit Jala, south to Jerusalem, made it to the Israeli news quite regularly because of firing towards the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo, in which I have family. Growing up hearing of this place in such a way does not make it a tourist attraction. And so, naturally, my parents and friends asked me if I went nuts, that is, more nuts than I already was. I answered that I needed to give it a chance. Fear would not stop me.
I wonder what the other Israelis might have felt as we were leaving the secure, familiar Tel Aviv, passing through Jerusalem, crossing a checkpoint, and finding ourselves amongst tall mosques winding up the road to a hotel with a beautiful view. On the other side you could see the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo.
Beit Jala was even colder than Tel Aviv, and the hotel, being placed on top of the hill, was called, unassumingly, the Everest hotel. We entered the warm and humble hotel, and within seconds met the Palestinian artists. One of them, Amir, was all smiling and encouraging. Even myself, who have met Palestinians before, never had such a warm welcoming. We placed ourselves in the rooms, and head to the saloon where we would spend most of the next two days. Chairs were spread in a circle. I took a seat at the corner, close to the window. Slowly we all sat down. The funny thing is that although Israelis and Palestinians have many differences, they are all equally relaxed about time. After being slightly late, we began.
We were given wirEless headphones. In it, we heard the voice of Ahmad, the talented translator, with perfect Hebrew, and what sounded to me like perfect Arabic. The leaders, Anat and her colleague Mohammad, in charge of the Palestinian group, began. Anat told her story in more depth. Mohammad told his own story. His brother being shot. He told of how once his father decided to join the Families Forum, he thought he was a traitor. He told of his slow transformation, and how going to a meeting of the Families Forum changed his perception. I was moved then, and I were to be moved again and again over that weekend. Mohammad and Anat instructed us of the rules. We were to go in a circle, and share our stories. Why we were there, who we are. No one is allowed to criticize the other. Each person is to be telling their own story, the way he or she knows it. No judging or correcting anyone about facts or figures. It is about each person's narratives.
Anat and Mohammad also said something that was to be proved wrong. We are not here to make peace. We are here to learn of the other, and share our own stories.
Yet months later and I feel that peace it was. We made peace, amongst ourselves and amongst each other.
And so, on top of the Everest hotel, in a room too small for one more person, yet comfortable and cosy, with stunning view in the window and heavy hearts we began. My cousin was killed. My best friend was shot. For that I sat for three years in the Israeli jail. My father was in that restaurant, and was killed immediately. We stood there in the cold, like animals, them pointing their guns towards us. I was afraid to take the bus, afraid I will not come back to my family. I woke up knowing that something was wrong, he did not answer his mobile. I had nightmares of being attacked. I can still hear the babies crying.
It was too much for me. I developed quite an impressive headache. I wanted to leave, but felt glued to the seat. One circle was over, everyone spoke. And then again, and again.
Memories of the Holocaust. Memories of the wars. Of fighting. Stories about the Arab grandmother that was forced to leave her home in Jaffa, and stories about the Jewish grandfather who was killed in the massacre in Hebron. Story after story, so much pain. So much pain.
And even me, that always tend to focus on the future, shared, perhaps for the first time in a group, the frightening feeling at the age of five having to go to the toilet and leave the secure room with all my family, the darkness in the hall in that cold evening in the Gulf war, when the sirens were heard over and over. Even me, always optimistic, shared the fear of going on a bus, seeing a friend's face from elementary school on the cover of the newspaper, and being so afraid to guard as part of the military service every few months along the borders. Even me, somewhat reluctant to look into the past, felt like I was listened to. And I saw compassion in the people's eyes. The more circles we did, the more the stories blended, the more we felt at ease. At home.
During the breaks we would eat. I shared my drawings with a Palestinian artist, Wafa, who was eager to draw as well. I gave her my black paper and gold pen, and she drew beautiful roses. Sharing with her my sketchbook was more than sharing food or water. Our eyes met and we felt bonded. And the same happened with the others. Often times not having a shared language, finding English all too difficult, our art was the bridge. As the evening came and we ate the sweets after dinner, one of the Israeli participants, an opera singer, began singing, and a singer from the Palestinian group joined her immediately. Then drums were brought, and songs were sung. It is amazing that even though the cultures are at animosity, sitll some songs percolate through the walls somehow. Some Palestinians knew all the lyrics of current Israeli pop music, and I myself found that I knew the melodies of most of the classic Arabic songs they sang. I danced, happily making a full of myself in the international language of fools, and soon was joined by others. Anat later said it had been years since she danced this way. It was true magic for me. I think it was for all of us.
The next day we met at breakfast as if we were old buddies. Dancing and singing really bonds, I guess. But it was matching a story to a pair of eyes, seeing deep into the person, that made the difference. That day passed quickly. We were divided to small groups and shared our artistic expression together. YouTube and Facebook proved to be a good source of reference for many. My small group had three Palestinians, all singers, and three Israelis, one singer, a photographer and myself. I was fascinated to hear from one of the singers, who also writes poetry, a translation of one of his love poems. Though much was probably lost in translation to English, as our translator Ahmad could not be with all groups at the same time, I nevertheless sensed that I was getting the jest of it, enjoying the metaphors. As I shared my paintings of Jerusalem and showed how I incorporate all three religions into the same painting as a sign of coexistence, I thought to myself that in an odd way these people, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, are becoming closer to me than many of my Israeli acquaintances. When was the last time I spoke about my paintings and my hidden messages in such details? And more so, being asked questions in such an eager manner? Not an often occurrence.
In that evening, before departing, we had time to create together. For me, the highlight of the weekend. Though my Palestinian new friends expected me to be orchestrating a large painting, I convinced Ali, a Palestinian artist that also dances the traditional Arabic Debka dance, to show me some moves outside. Ali told me what to google on my mobile, and soon Arabic music was heard from the small device, and his strong and rough hand guiding me in an imaginary circle, with the steps flowing fast through his feet. I caught up pretty fast, and he was pleased and continued to more elaborate steps routines. As the sun set above Beit Jala, Ali and I were dancing on the loan of the Everest. Vardi, a well known Israeli photographer, captured the moment with her relentless camera.
Hugs, real hugs, were our send away gifts from Beit Jala. And as the minibus drove through the Jerusalem mountains, we sighed a sigh of relief, that we are all safe. And yet, there was a feeling that it was all too short. We began talking about our next meeting, scheduled a month later. It seemed that though the weekend was overall friendly by nature, the next meeting will doubtfully be more charged. No more hotel and sweets, we were to go into the core, where it hurts the most.
Our next meeting was to be a tour. Sounding good, a tour, the subject of the tour was all too straining for us, Israelis. We did not know what to expect from our Palestinian colleagues. We were to visit a Palestinian village that was depopulated in 1948. The Palestinians call that year the great catastrophe, the Nakba. We, Israelis, call it the War of Independence. Some villages with Arab population were abandoned, some were forced to move out. History has told two different versions of that year, a year which collected the lives of many, from both sides of the conflict. Into that year we were to dive, now, in 2011. Who wants to go there?
The place: Lifta. A village that I knew not much of, placed at the entry to Jerusalem. We arrived there in our minibus, and had to wait a while until the Palestinians will arrive, being stuck in a slowly functioning checkpoint. Come on, I thought to myself, not only will I have to deal with their resentment regarding this abandoned village, but also hear their story of how they had to wait at the checkpoint? But once they arrived, they spoke nothing of the checkpoint, and were happy to see us. Few were not given permits to enter Israel, and their absence was felt. Nevertheless, we embarked on the dirt path, following our guide, who told the story from both angles as much as possible. No, the people were not deported from the village. Yet the horrors of what happened in a village not too far away, in which Palestinians were shot to death, had their impact and convinced most of the inhabitants to leave, until eventually the village, once prosperous, was depopulated.
I was antsy, unhappy, and overall, felt attacked. And no one was saying anything. It was me talking to myself. I said, hey, it was a war. I said, hey, about the same amount of Jews deported the Arab countries in the years following, some with great violence. I said, hey, we have a right to have a land of our own. I said, hey, and hey, and hey, and then decided to just say nothing and be present. We walked the silent pathways, into a village that was obviously rich and prosperous before the war. The houses were grand. We entered the abandoned mosque. We visited the spring. We entered an olive oil production house. What was most evident than anything was the absence of life.
My Palestinian fellows were taking pictures, many of them. And rather than frowning, most of them were happy to be there, excited. I drew some drawings, and tried to see the place through the eyes of my fellow Palestinian artists friends.
At the end of the day we all drove to a center not far away, and had a comforting meal, after which we sat down in a large room, and with the gentle facilitation of Anat and Mohammad, shared our feelings. I said that it was difficult for me. I said that I disrespect how the Arab countries did not enable the refugees to set their permanent homes and encouraged instead their ever temporary dwellings in refugee camps. I said that we cannot go as a group to Syria, where Jews were forced to leave Damascus. And I said few more things.
We all said things. I must admit that it was so difficult for me, to feel the sense of doing wrong as a nation. The difficulty arose as I sensed the Palestinian natural view, according to which the refugees should be given the right to return to their homes. Unfortunately, and I do mean it, as the situation is very unfortunate, I do not see this as a proper solution. I encourage return into future Palestine, yes, yet not into Israel. Perhaps in decades or centuries, but not now. Both nations will need to have many years of sovereignty to overcome their traumas. In those years security and self identity for both nations is of utmost importance. And for that to happen, majority of Jewish people is required in Israel, much like a majority of Arab population is required in Palestine. In the long term, in many years to come, I wish for the area to be without countries as political entities. And yet, now, with the situation as it is, both nations need to build up their mental immunity, to become sane again.
Why did I go into that? In order to share my thoughts, that were pounding in my head. I knew that the Palestinians new friends of mine must think that that is the solution. And so, I felt attacked.
It was when Mohammad and Anat said the next sentence, that I finally relaxed. They said, we are not here to offer solutions, nor we are here to compare the sufferings. We are here to learn of each other's narratives. Not to judge them or to compete with who has suffered more. We are here to hear. That's all.
And that's when I could hear. I heard the feeling of despair, the feeling of injustice, the feeling of loneliness in deportation, of not belonging. I could hear critique not only towards my nation, but towards fellow other nations, and towards humanity in general. Towards wars. My heart, stiffened by feeling attacked earlier, opened slowly, and I could feel the pain again. The pain to which we all can relate. The pain which makes us brothers, which enables us to empathized. I could have been in their shoes and they in mine.
Sharing our thoughts, feelings and memories, brought us closer together. Past the feelings of guilt, hate and blame. I sensed that the Palestinians were feeling respected by our interest to visit such a village, and hear their stories.
Earlier, at the tour, one Palestinian friend asked me to be photographed with him in a picture. We stood together, hugging, as a ruin of an old Arab house stood behind us, and the silent Jerusalem mountains, wars-savvy, stood behind us all. My friend was smiling to the camera, and I did not know if to smile or not. "Smile", he said, so I smiled.
Yet few weeks later, I could not smile. This time the visit was in my mental backyard. In some ways, visiting the Palestinian depopulated village was easier to me than visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. A must visit tourist site, I always chose, when friends and relatives from abroad came to visit Israel, to skip that part of the tour. Now, with Palestinians visiting there, I knew I could not skip it. For me, it is evoking all too familiar emotions, hurt, literally tearing my sole apart. For them, it is the first time into an almost unknown story. A story that at the end of that day would make one of them say in a silent voice and sad eyes, "I now understand Israelis much better."
We met early morning in Tel Aviv. I apologized to Anat, saying to her again, what I told her before, "I don't do Holocaust". It is the same Jonathan that does not watch sad movies, that still has sad memories from reading Les Miserables at the age of thirteen. "Do only what you can," she told me.
At the Yad Vashem Museum our group seemed all too foreign and strange. Our Palestinian counterparts, with head-cover and the such, might have felt awkward. I felt proud. At the end of the day many of us Israelis thanked them for being willing to listen. And they did listen.
We began the day by hugging each other, making hot tea and coffee. I noted that most artists are addicted to coffee. Mohammad and Anat again stressed the points of the project. Not comparing. Learning. With that we entered, myself for the first time in over a decade, into the Holocaust museum.
We were in two groups due to the two languages, and walked together, side by side. Entering the newly designed museum, seeing the work of my admired Michal Rovner, depicting life before the Holocaust. And then one by one, event after event, the world falling into chaos. As I am writing these words now I see the images I was hoping not to internalize. I am being photographed with a friend. I do not smile. I cannot, in front of me a picture of the Russian soldiers finding a small mount of human corpses. Made of men, made by men. The groups continue. Burning of the books. The 1930s. By the time tears start to glitter in my eyes I am running out, to the sun. Later I am coming back inside, my heart pounding at the Hall of Names, designed beautifully by Safdi. I go in and then again out, in and out. Then I wait outside. I am more than done. After a time that seemed like ever, in which I find condolence in an art exhibition made by Jews in the Holocaust, trying to avoid the notes by each painting stating in which camp the artist was killed, the group finally comes out. Some eyes are red. Some eyes are gazing. Cigarettes, silence.
On the way to the minibus one Palestinian friend comes to me, holds me in the shoulder and tells me, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry for what they have done to you." I don't know what to say. I don't feel like I deserve his apology. I laugh and my eyes water at the same time. We hug. Fuck it, I think, this situation is so absurd.
The minibus is heading to Beit Jala. There we will be joined again by the people who could not make it, were not granted the permits to enter. I ponder about my time in the army for a second. I remember how depressing it was to load a profile of a Palestinian on the computer, and then seeing that for security reasons he cannot enter Israel. Often times the restriction will be granted to a whole family at a time. As the minibus approaches the Everest, we come out to the cold and fresh air, inside awaits a warm Palestinian meal, and even better, some friends that could not be with us in the village visit and in the museum. We hug, eat, talk, laugh. Then we go to the room, heated with gas stoves.
"We want for you to share. What you felt, what you sensed today," say the facilitators. Soon we begin talking. I am specifically attentive, naturally, to the words of my Palestinian artists friends. Amazement, sadness, fear. Some pictures remind them of pictures from their day to day life. An argument begins. Clarifications are made by Israelis, fuelled by enormous pain. "That was a planned genocide," explain some, "even though some horrific things happen today in the conflict, it cannot be compared. There is no plan to extinct the Palestinians, nor mass killing taking place." The Palestinians understand, and soon say that the pictures, those of children, those of soldiers and guns, remind them, that's all. Photographer Vardi explains the power of pictures to tell a story, yet that the pictures, though can be identical, do not tell the same stories. Few of us in the group are children of Holocaust survivors. They share their experience. There is a sense of respect coming from the Palestinians, yet a volatile one. Once one says, "it seems to me that what the Germans did to you, you are doing to us," the conversation heats up, and only due to the respectful yet firm facilitation of Mohammad and Anat we get back on track. "Tell us what you feel, what you experience," they say, and the sharing continues.
During the break we discuss the fact that today is our last meeting. We can attend some events of the Forum, as well as begin a project done in a very small group, two Israelis and two Palestinians, in order to deepen our experience. Yet for the Forum as we know it, us artists, it is the last meeting. We cannot believe it. In just three meetings together we grew so much closer. At the last meeting, after visiting the village of Lifta, one of the Palestinians said that he is very excited, because due to the Forum he was granted the permit to enter Israel, and on the way back home he will stop in Jerusalem to see his sister, who since she married and moved to Jerusalem, he has not seen her. It has been five years. As we saw him at the morning before entering the Yad Vashem museum, many of us asked him how was the meeting. A sense of a family was created.
Being artists, we share much more than can be explained in words. I feel like we are all very sensitive, very eager to learn, excel and express ourselves. We want to create something, to give birth to new things that will communicate what words sometimes cannot. Whether it is with music, painting, sculpting, writing, dancing or any other form of creation, we sense that we are similar. And while emphasizing our similarities, our differences fall away.
Amidst the feeling of remorse, that this is our last meeting, we decide that it must not be that way. We must meet again, we decide. We can do it, we say. It's like climbing the Everest. Tough, but it can be done. And so, our small group is becoming the Artists for Peace group. Excitement is sensed in the air. It means that this may be not the end, but perhaps the beginning.
Jonathan Kis-Lev was born in 1985 in Israel. He is known for his colorful naive style of painting, which has granted him recognition in Israel and abroad. Apart from being an artist, Kis-Lev is the president of the Association of Young Esperanto Speakers in Israel, and a member in several peace organizations in the Middle East