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Bridging the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Helen Engelhardt
December 18, 2017


by Helen Engelhardt

Discussed in this essay: A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace, a theater performance and a book by Noa Baum. Familius, 2016, 264 pages.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

A VIVACIOUS woman with dark, curly hair and a warm smile on her expressive face stands alone on the stage and invites us to join her. In a low, compelling voice she begins her performance: “Jumana and I met on the green grass of America. It was a family potluck . . .”

She was holding her baby boy, and I was holding mine. She had a dark beauty that I recognized immediately from home. Something about her eyes reminded me of a shy gazelle, so I walked up to her. “What’s his name?”

“Tammer. And yours?”

“Ittai. Where are you from?”

“Jerusalem. Near Ramallah, actually.”

“Ah. I’m from Jerusalem too.”

Her American husband stepped right in. “My wife is a Palestinian, you know.”

As if I didn’t know. But I didn’t know if she’d want to talk to me. She didn’t know if I’d want to talk to her.

In the next hour, altering her accent and body language, Noa Baum becomes four characters: herself as a little girl living through the Six Day War in June,1967; Jumana’s mother in 1967 protecting her three young children from the bombs falling on Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem; Jumana as a teenager in 1974 and a young woman 1981, being frightened by Israeli soldiers in the Old City; and Noa’s mother as a young woman serving as a nurse in the Old City when it fell to the Arabs in May 1948 during Israel’s war of independence.

I have seen Baum perform her unique and powerful theatrical piece a half dozen times before different audiences across our country. Her show is a challenging and potentially life-changing experience, as audience members in post-performance discussions always say. Now she has published an insightful, courageous, beautifully written memoir in which she tells why and when she became a storyteller and a peace activist, and about the detailed process of creating her show, “A Land Twice Promised.”

The book, she writes, is her attempt “to shed light on how people experience and remember history — just me and one Palestinian woman . . . and our families . . . from the secure black and white narratives of my childhood to the uneasy place of complexity, where multiple narratives, ambiguity, and contradictions reside.” Every chapter begins with a wise epigraph, and notes provide further information on the complex political history of Israel and Palestine. The book provides names and contact information for readers interested in working with peace organizations, and a full transcript of “A Land” is included at the end.

Baum was raised in a secular home by parents whose families fled Europe for British Mandate Palestine. Her uncle was killed defending the fledgling state in 1948. “The Nazis hated and killed us,” she writes, “and the Arabs hate us and want to throw us into the sea.”

After she was admitted to the theater department of Tel Aviv University, she became a member of a group of leftwing Jewish and Israeli Arab students who organized against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for full citizenship for Israeli Arabs. By the time she met and married an American botanist, she was eager to remove herself from “The Situation” and go with him to the University of California-Davis in August 1990. Two years later, Baum and her family went to the Sierra Storytelling Festival, and she was smitten. “Here are my people!” she writes, “defined by . . . the deepest connections of soul and passion and artistic expression. . . . Storytelling is the integration of the physical and the vocal with the content. How I say is as important as what I have to say. The relationship I create with my audience is part of the meaning of the story.”

ON HER 35TH birthday, September 13, 1993, while pregnant with her second child, she watched the historic handshake on TV between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat. It was at this momentous time that Baum met Jumana at a mother’s babysitting coop.

Rabin would be assassinated on November 4, 1995 by Yigal Amir, a Jewish ultranationalist terrorist. “When we go back home,” Baum writes, “my grown son will check IDs at roadblocks and her son will throw stones at him.”

In the summer of 2000 she attended a workshop on “difficult stories” led by Loren Niemi, a professional storyteller. When he told Baum that her childhood memories of the 1967 war were an important story to tell, she began writing down the most vivid and visceral memories of her entire childhood. She found herself wondering, Where was Jumana during that war? The woman she had now known for seven years had grown up in the same city as she, not even five miles away, yet Noa had no idea what the Six Day War had been like for her.

“I didn’t think my story would be interesting to anyone at all,” she writes of her process, “but I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. What if Jumana and I could tell our stories side by side and create some spoken word event at the university . . . ?”

Jumana laughed at the idea. “I’m an engineer, I don’t perform,” she said. “That’s your job. I don’t have any stories. I grew up under Israeli Occupation. All I remember is fear. . .

“I never met an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier or a settler until I met you. I don’t have any stories to tell. I’m not a typical Palestinian. Our house wasn’t demolished. I didn’t grow up in a refugee camp. No one in my family was ever killed. I left in 1990 and it’s so much worse now. My people are being killed and denied every basic human right every single day and I’m here in my sheltered life. Why would you want to hear my story?”

“I never had a friend who was a Palestinian. I guess I just want to know.” We started to talk and once we started, we just couldn’t stop.

I had to admit I never knew anything at all. This was not a history book interpreting the events; this was my friend telling me about her fears, her pain, her life . . . And coursing in and out through all this was a strong, uncontrollable current — the urge to explain, defend my people, my nation, my country. When we talked about our history, what we know from home and school, Jumana and I found ourselves arguing.

“The British were so pro-Israeli. They promised the Palestinians a state, but the Israelis got it.”

“The British were antisemitic. They promised us a state, but then prevented immigration of the survivors after World War II.”

We were telling our stories and something about that made all the difference. Even when it was difficult, the stories enabled us to find compassion. It allowed our minds to embrace the story of the other so that even when we reached those threatening places where our national narratives contradicted each other, we could still continue to talk.

I thought, If only everyone could do this, we would have peace.

But how dare Noa give voice to the stories of her enemy? How could she tell a story about the terrifying soldiers and the occupying army when these were her people? The harpies of doubt perched heavily on her shoulders. Was she a condescending monster? A traitor to her people?

She retreated into the safe shield of cynicism: There was nothing she could do, the situation was hopeless. Yet she was tired of feeling helpless. There were embers of hope to reignite.

A story is a reimagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listener’s imaginations to experience it as real. To cope with her abundance of detail, she asked Loren Niemi for help. “Creating these stories and shaping them into a theatrical oral performance was a journey through chaos,” Baum writes. “Telling my mother’s story was the most difficult of all. I had stopped listening to her pontifications and lectures many years ago . . . like many who have suffered trauma, she shielded the place of authentic pain by telling her stories in a very set, repetitive, highly dramatized fashion. Any attempt to . . . get the details . . . was met with irritation.”

I had to imagine the emotional core —the pain that she only ever expressed as anger or blame — so I put myself in her shoes and I found myself crying. For the first time in my life I touched the surface of that dark, bottomless pit of her unprocessed pain (of losing her beloved brother in 1948). For the first time in my life I was able to feel genuine compassion for my mother.

Getting under the skin of the other, telling stories from inside of who they were . . . revealed how infinitely vast and deep the world of any human being is.

THE FIRST PUBLIC performance of her theater work-in-progress took place at the Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2002. She developed an audience response form to help her to continue to shape the work. She initially believed that it would only be performed for a year or two, because there was a roadmap for peace on the negotiating table that envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state by 2003.

Instead, Baum has by now performed “A Land Twice Promised” over 130 times in the U. S., Europe, and Israel. The invitation to bring it to Israel in 2005 terrified her. She hadn’t performed any stories in Hebrew for over fifteen years, and now she was going to talk about The Situation to Israelis who live it 24/7. But the entire audience breathed along with her throughout her performance. “We were soaring together through our shared reality . . .
I remember thinking , so this is what it feels like to tell a story in your own cultural context!”

For me, performing these stories over the years continues to be a gift . . . [but] for Jumana, the stories . . . are not a source of comfort. They . . . only intensify the pain of loss, reminding her of everything she left behind and what her family and her people can no longer return to.

“I don’t know how you can go on still believing in peace.”

I can feel the pull of despair. Teetering on the edge, I peer into the vortex of escalating events . . . If I lean in a fraction more, it will pull me down into the bottomless darkness.

I wobble on the edge of that abyss, but I turn my head in another direction. I’m not alone in this strange insistence that there must be another way.

She turns towards the Women in Black, towards the Israeli and Palestinian history teachers of the PRIME Dual Narrative Project, to the Parents Circle/Bereaved Families Forum. She turns towards work of Amos Oz and the words of David Grossman spoken at the 2014 Israel Conference on Peace: “We cannot afford the luxury and indulgence of despair. The situation is too desperate to be left to the despairing, for accepting despair amounts to an admission that we’ve been defeated . . . not on the battlefield, but as human beings.”

Noa Baum has no illusions. “Storytelling is not the answer. . . . Nor is it inherently good. Stories can expand our minds and hearts or . . . fortify our singular view . . . and stoke up our fear of ‘the other.’”

I had to make a choice. Do I stay safe in my known shelter of US versus THEM or do I venture into the uneasy territory of paradoxes? “A Land Twice Promised” is an offering of my choice.

Helen Engelhardt, a member of our editorial board, last appeared here with a profile of Rosa Luxemburg and her Jewish identity. Engelhardt’s audio drama, “No More War: The Sacrifice of Käthe Kollwitz,” which aired on National Public Radio, has been awarded a Gracie by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation. She is also the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103. The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010.