When I was a child my aunt told me that there is a separate little compartment in our stomach that is specially designed for dessert. No matter how full you felt after a meal, there was, quite literally, always room for dessert. My little five-year-old self naturally believed her. It was years before I realized that this wasn’t exactly how our bodies are built—years where I happily indulged in dessert even after I had declared with the deepest conviction (to my exasperated mother) that I was too full to finish what was on my dinner plate. Believing there was room actually made room. It was as simple as that.
Several years ago, after a particularly fraught political upheaval in Israel, where racist and hate-filled propaganda had once again been the order of the day, I drove to the Palestinian school where I was working, feeling like I had hit rock bottom in terms of my belief that another narrative—a non-hateful narrative—was even remotely possible in this turbulent region of the world. Hopelessness permeated every part of my being as I slowly made my way from the car to the auditorium, where a few special guests were set to speak to the high school students in an event that had been scheduled weeks before. As I sat there waiting for things to start, I wondered about the value of my work with Peace Heroes: did telling people’s stories really make any difference at all?
Even as I mulled over this question, some of the people I’d written about were getting ready to address the students. At the front of the auditorium, facing the audience, sat three men—two Palestinians and a Jew. They were there to tell the students their stories: how it was that a Palestinian Christian, a Palestinian Muslim, and a Jewish settler had found a way not only to work together to promote peace and justice in the Bethlehem-Gush Etzion-Hebron area, but had also—almost inconceivably—become close friends. This trio was so unexpected, so startling, that the usually rowdy students were captivated in spite of themselves; you could have heard a pin drop.
Sitting there, listening to these three men speak, was exactly the antidote I needed for my deep despair, because it helped me remember that making room to hear other people’s stories can make all the difference in the world. Here was living proof that no matter what hate-filled and divisive narratives were being propagated by the powers that be, there were people on the ground who were willing to live out a counter-narrative, one that said collaboration and friendship can happen, even across the most seemingly impossible divides. When the students asked them how this kind of interaction was possible, I remember one of the men saying simply: “Because I made room in my own story for his story.”
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is an American religious Jew who has lived in settlements in the West Bank for nearly four decades. His story is one of the stories we tell because of the way he went from living exclusively in his own Jewish narrative to discovering that the Palestinian narrative is just as valid as his.
For thirty-four years, Schlesinger found it easier to remain solely in his Jewish story than admit that perhaps the truth he believed with such deep conviction was only a partial truth. This is what enabled Schlesinger to live deep in the West Bank without ever really seeing the Palestinians all around him or taking them into account. Schlesinger’s Palestinian neighbors were invisible to him because his own Jewish narrative had blinded him not only to the Palestinian narrative, but even to their presence.
All that changed, however, when Schlesinger was invited one day to join a Christian friend of his at the home of a Palestinian peace activist who lived only twenty minutes from his settlement. “I had no idea,” says Schlesinger, “that the day I met Ali Abu Awwad would signal a radical turning point in my life. Until that fateful juncture I had never ever met a Palestinian as an equal” (“Painful Hope”).
But that night, Schlesinger’s illusion of a single story shattered into a thousand pieces as he listened to Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian, tell his own story. Schlesinger would later refer to this experience as a conversion, a moment that “cracked open the hard shell that had surrounded [his] soul” and began a process of repentance in his life (“Painful Hope”). “I began to make room in my soul for another narrative,” he says, “and I began to feel empathy for those whom I had only seen previously as the gray, threatening mass of the enemy” (“I’m Too Broken”).
A few months ago I was invited to listen to Rabbi Schlesinger tell his story to a group of Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. It was not an easy encounter for the students, as they grappled (perhaps for the first time) with the reality of another narrative—a Jewish “story” that was standing before them in the form of a living, breathing human being. Perhaps it was because Schlesinger knew, from his own experience, how this kind of encounter can be life changing that he was so patient and empathetic when these teenagers expressed their anger, hurt, frustration, and even rage. But no matter how emotionally charged their comments and questions were, Rabbi Schlesinger never argued with them, or tried to get them to see things from his perspective. Instead, he listened, readily acknowledging and validating what they were feeling. He gave them the space to tell him their own story.
Little by little, Rabbi Schlesinger’s humble demeanor disarmed the students, as they began to realize that the person standing before them—Jewish settler though he may be—was in no way seeking to invalidate or devalue their Palestinian narrative. And little by little, they began to listen, however reluctantly, to a story they had never made room for before. What struck me about the encounter was how Rabbi Schlesinger did not have to devalue his own Jewish narrative in order to make room for the Palestinian students’ narrative. Somehow, both could exist together in that classroom that day, as they had in Ali Abu Awwad’s house so many years before, or in the school auditorium, where a Christian, Muslim, and Jew sat together as brothers, defying every expectation.
Turkish writer Elif Shafak says that “people often behave as if they have to choose one narrative and stick to it no matter what.” But the truth is that we do not have to let go of our stories, our identities, in order to make room for another’s story. This is the beauty of the tangle of narratives we live in—each is a thread weaving its way through the tapestry of our shared humanity. Each story helps us see the bigger picture more clearly, to appreciate the fullness of life on this earth.
“Stories,” says Chimamanda Adichie, “have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
The stories we tell ourselves matter. They have the potential to make or break our world. Whose story are we reluctant to hear? Whose story makes us angry or fearful? Whose story are we ready to contradict and argue with even before we’ve heard it? And whose story have we ignored completely, or erased, making invisible the people it belongs to? Listening to these stories—really listening—might be the most revolutionary thing we do in our effort to counter the predominant hate-filled and divisive narratives of our day. It is one of the most powerful ways for us to become true peacemakers in our broken world.
Schlesinger, Hanan .“I’m Too Broken to Write This Blog.” My Jewish Learning. 70/Faces Media, 12 Oct. 2015.
_____. “Painful Hope.” My Jewish Learning. 70/Faces Media, 26 June 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Mosaic by Sandy Arensen and students at Rosslyn Academy, Nairobi, Kenya.