In our extremely polarized political environment, I’ve been thinking a lot these days, about changing views or perspectives. Is it at all possible?
Our belief systems are shaped by such powerful forces so deeply entrenched in childhood. Our social, religious and tribal affiliations, our upbringing and education, our emotional, psychological and genetic dispositions, our experiences – all combine to create and form our beliefs that are often intertwined with our identity.
It is never easy, but my work with story has made me a devoted believer in the possibility of change.
Most of the time it is only our own experience that can create any change in our world view. But besides a direct personal experience, the most powerful way I know to effect people’s views and change perspectives, is the experience of story. When we hear or read the experience of another through story, it activates our empathy, creating a “virtual experience”, as if it happened to us.
[Read more: 8 Facts About The Neuroscience Of Storytelling]
In my forthcoming memoir A Land Twice Promised – An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace, I try to give shape to the subtle and mysterious shifts in perception on my journey, from the secure black-and-white narratives of my childhood to the uneasy place of complexity, where multiple narratives, ambiguity, and contradictions reside. My encounter with a Palestinian woman and her story and the stories of our mothers, was a big part of this journey. Story and storytelling have not only changed my perspective, but also my ability to relate to those who’s world view is very different from mine, be it my mother or my “enemy”.
Recently I heard a story on NPR that resonated with my own experience. Noam Chayut, an activist with Breaking the Silence, was talking about how his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli army shaped his worldview.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of IDF veterans committed to telling their fellow Israelis about the burden of the occupation and what the military is doing in their name.
Like me, Noam Chayut was taught from a very young age about the horrors Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust – the concentration camps, the gas chambers. He grew up with a very definite world view of who are the good guys and who are the enemies. He served in the army in the West Bank where he imposed curfews on entire populations, stopped Palestinians from harvesting the olives, shut doors of shops and send people home daily during the second Intifada (which lasted 2000-2005).
No one likes doing any of it BUT we “have no choice”. We, our people, the Jewish Israeli people, were the good guys, victimized in the past but determined never to be victims again. We do it to survive.
This was my world too.
But one day Noam had an encounter with a little Palestinian girl. Here are his words: “So we were leaving the Jeep, running on a dirt road between the edge of a village and an olive orchard, entering the village. And just at the entrance, there she was, playing. And I smiled. And my soul expected a smile back. Instead, she froze, looked at me, terrified, became pale and turned around and ran away.”
That encounter confronted him with the difficult reality of how he is seen – the cruel frightening perpetrator. It planted the seed that disrupted the black and white narratives of his youth and eventually changed his perspective. After his army service he began a journey that led to a different place, where he could no longer abide by the old definitions of who “we” and “they” are. Noam has become an activist for human rights and peace and is now devoted to shedding light on the complex and disturbing reality of the occupation. Read the full NPR story HERE.
Breaking the Silence gives voice to the stories of soldiers, 18 – 24 year old kids, who are forced into impossible situations that have a lasting impact on their soul and the future of Israel as a democratic state. As Daniel Sokatch, CEO of The New Israel Fund, reminds us:
The occupied territories exist behind a wall, both physical and psychological, that hides its reality from most Israelis. The fate of the territories — so critical for Israel’s survival as a democracy — has all but disappeared from the political debate.
Recently, I have been following with growing alarm a witch-hunt against Breaking the Silence that is under way.
An Israeli TV station aired a segment falsely accusing Breaking the Silence of collecting state secrets. The fact is that all of their publications are cleared by Israel’s military censor to ensure that nothing harmful to Israel’s security is revealed. But the current Israeli government continues in its attempts to marginalize Israeli human right activists. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that they had “crossed a line.” Defense Minister Ya’alon demanded an investigation.
Again, Daniel Sokatch: Israel deserves better leadership than this. The Prime Minister and the Defense Minister should be working to defend Israel — not stoking greater divisions or inciting against a legitimate voice within Israeli society.
A hateful activist posted the phone numbers of Breaking the Silence staff members online – and he included the phone numbers of the Executive Director Yuli Novak and her grandparents. A few days ago, her elderly grandparents Savta Ronit and Saba Moshe were woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call saying, “your granddaughter is a whore.” Yuli’s grandparents have been harassed at all hours and have heard incredible insults about their beloved granddaughter.
The New Israel Fund and many Israelis are coming together to stand up to the witch hunt underway against Breaking the Silence. Click here for a video of Major General Amiram Levin refuting the accusations and warning the government not to shoot the messenger.
Change can have a chance only if we can listen to the stories.
Sometimes the most painful and difficult stories are the ones that we need the most. Embracing the difficult stories, the stories of young soldiers faced with the impossible reality of occupation, is not only the duty of a democracy but the duty of anyone who cares for the soul of Israel and the possibility of a future of peace.