The strength of imperfection

Dan Bar-On was an extraordinary man who, together with Sami Adwan, conceived a powerful shared narrative project, where Israelis and Palestinians read about their and their counterparts’ historical narrative – helping them understand they don’t need to give up their patriotism to better understand the other side.  Bar-On, who gave his life to peace efforts and who was an inspiration to OneVoice, lost his battle to cancer last fall.  He once wrote:

"[Hope for achieving co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians may in the end depend on] giving up the romantic, monolithic desires of the idealized past in favor of a less perfect but more complex understanding of the world and ourselves, an understanding that can create new possibilities for dialogue within our selves, among ourselves within a collective, and with the Other."

From "Tell Your Life Story" by Dan Bar-On, as related by Dr. Saliba Sarsar

Overcoming our whirlwinds, Ha’aretz
By Saliba Sarsar 
     Dan Bar-On had a story about how he learned to see things through Palestinian eyes. An Israeli Jew, born in Haifa to refugees who had left Nazi Germany in 1933, Dan was a psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and he had long been interested in seeing his nation live in peace with its Palestinian neighbors. At a certain point back in the mid-1990s, however, he realized, as he told me in a formal interview I conducted with him last year, that "I could not live my life in this region without seeing Palestinians, without feeling their pain."
     Unable to tolerate such a situation, he began to watch the interactions of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli students as they participated in dialogue workshops under the auspices of BGU’s behavioral sciences department. Over a three-year period, Bar-On observed their encounters through a one-way mirror. "That was a painful study for me," he told me. But he felt compelled "to test my own stereotypes about Palestinians."
     Bar-On had already made a name for himself with his studies of the intergenerational after-effects of the Holocaust on the children and grandchildren of both survivors and Nazi perpetrators. Now, by watching the Jewish-Palestinian groups, he explained, he saw how it was easier to do Holocaust-related studies, "because I come from the victim side … the good side." When it came to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, "I was much more involved [and] under the pressure that I belong to the side that occupies the Palestinians, who prevents them from having their own state, and it was difficult morally for me to be in that role." While he had no doubt that the Jews had a right to their national home, he realized that it was essential to find a way to also "accept the Palestinian need for such a right, and it was not an easy task for me to understand."
     But Dan Bar-On, who died on September 4, at age 69, did not shrink from the task. And as a consequence of combining his professional pursuits with his political convictions, he was not only a psychologist but a peace builder, someone who used his voice and his touch to help change Israeli society in support of social justice, for both his own people and the Palestinians.
     I first met Dan in 1999, when I invited him to speak to a New Jersey group of Arab Americans and American Jews working for dialogue and peaceful coexistence. As a Jerusalemite raised in Palestinian culture, I was impressed by his empathy, his capacity to listen, and the depth of his knowledge, not only of history, but also of how to go beyond victimhood. He always maintained his professional composure, but, as he explained in his book "Tell Your Life Story," he sometimes felt "overpowered by unpredictable whirlwinds … [and had] to work my own way through in spite of them." In reality, Dan sometimes felt politically estranged in Israel, "due to the growing political animosity in Israel toward the Palestinians and toward my own work with them."
     Our relationship evolved into joint publications and co-teaching. In one of our articles, we suggested that, for Israeli Jews and Palestinians to conduct dialogue, "each national community must acknowledge and respect the other’s painful memory, whether or not it was party to its creation." Sometimes, in their pain, both peoples have a tendency to see only their own victimization, a blindness that only serves to perpetuate the conflict. But we were convinced that "an inclusive act of communication and faith [would] prepare the way for reconciling the past and for building a better future, one to which our children and grandchildren are entitled."
     To this end, Dan and Palestinian educator Sami Adwan, his co-director in the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), with the help of Israeli and Palestinian teachers, put together three sets of booklets in Arabic, Hebrew and English for high school students. The booklets, published between 2002 and 2007, presented the narratives of both sides, one next to the other, with a space in between the two narratives for students to write their own comments. In describing it to me, he observed that initially, students from one group, in encountering the story of the other, "usually see it as propaganda. They delegitimize it, they say that their narrative is morally superior." Being presented with both narratives at the same time, however, "they are faced with both narratives in a way where they can read both of them, can compare them, and have to learn to respect the narrative of the other side just as they respect their own."
     In the current political environment, where expediency, narrow self-interest, and cynicism reign, it behooves Israelis and Palestinians to find the inner strength, as Dan did, to cross the border and find a workable solution to what is ailing them. Like it or not, they are destined to be neighbors forever. The quicker they realize it, the better their relationship will become. Bottom-up peace builders, leading without power, are urged to maintain their struggle for peace and to synchronize their plans with top-down peacemakers. Toward that end, today, hope may mean, as Dan concluded in "Tell Your Life Story," "giving up the romantic, monolithic desires of the idealized past in favor of a less perfect but more complex understanding of the world and ourselves, an understanding that can create new possibilities for dialogue within our selves, among ourselves within a collective, and with the Other."
Dr. Saliba Sarsar is professor of political science and associate vice president for academic program initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

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