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Director’s Blog – Empathizing With The “Other”

Over the years, the turbulent political situation in the Middle East provides numerous opportunities for our multi-national group of students to exercise the listening and dialogue skills which they learn during the Peace-building Leadership Seminar (PLS). Even without a specific political or security event to trigger tension or confrontation, the yearly calendar provides spring semester students with the chance to test their commitment to honest and open cross-border cross-cultural dialogue due to the occurrence of the national memorial days and holiday which follows the spring break. This year, as is true every year, Holocaust Day, Israeli Memorial Day, Israeli Independence Day and Naqba (The Day of Disaster, marked by Palestinians on May 15th to commemorate the Palestinian national historical tragedy) are challenges which the diverse community of Palestinians, Jordanians, Israelis and international students must face together. While the wider Kibbutz Ketura community marks these days in traditional public ceremonies to which all students are invited, the Institute’s student body, under the guidance of Kate Cohen, the PLS  Coordinator and other members of the Campus Life Team, holds its own internal ceremonies or activities to mark these particularly complicated and emotionally loaded days. This year, two German students took a leading role in the Arava Institute’s commemoration of Holocaust Day which followed up on a recent trip to Jerusalem that included a visit to Yad Vashem. Because the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist narrative is so connected to the Holocaust, in an attempt to discredit this account, the Arab narrative often questions the accuracy of the historical events described or outright denies that the Holocaust even occurred. It would of course be much easier to ignore this dissonance within the daily student discourse or to shut down dialogue when statements are made which are difficult to hear but that is not the path the Institute has chosen. Therefore whether talking about the Holocaust, the Palestinian national tragedy or current political disagreements, the dialogue is open, sometimes painful but always respectful. During the Holocaust discussion, when one student raised doubts about the accuracy of the Jewish/Israeli narrative another student pointed out that the lack of the ability of one side to show empathy for the victimhood of the other reduces the other side’s ability to empathize with the victimhood of the first side. The Kibbuz Ketura community lowered the Israeli flag to half mast, this week, in memory of Israeli fallen soldiers and victims of terror, followed by a celebration of Israel’s 68th year of Independence. Next week, the Arava Institute’s student community will convene in order to mourn together the loss of life from war and violence on both sides, and to recognize the tragedy the Palestinian people have endured.

David Lehrer    

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