Dialogue in Diaspora: Lure of Hope in Bicultural Village

By Al Jadid Staff

Al Jadid contributing Editor Doris Bittar interviewed Grace Feuerverger, author of “Oasis of Dreams.”

DB: Throughout “Oasis of Dreams” you allowed us to get to know your thoughts and your own personal narrative. Why was that important?

GF: My personal family situation was traumatic because my parents are Holocaust survivors. I wanted a way out of the bleakness of my family. I wanted the cycle to end, but I also could not ignore it. I could not have uncovered these stories if I had come as an “objective” researcher. I learned a great deal about myself during this research process that in a way was a search for “home.” I have always felt like a psychological orphan, and when I arrived at Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam so many of the people felt the same way I did that I did not feel so alone. That was one of the attractions of the people in the village. I was born in Canada – and I am Canadian – but the calamity and trauma of my parents’ lives were transferred to me even though I did not actually live it. My parents were from Poland. They survived the ghetto and then the forced labor/concentration camp. Stories about death and loss pervaded my entire family life. This situation in my own family did not give me the luxury of feeling Canadian in the same way as those whose families who had not suffered World War II in such a personal way. There were other children in my neighborhood, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were of immigrant parents in trauma and shock, and that saved me.

I was here and I was not here; I had no real sense of belonging. Growing up in Montreal I was fascinated by the French-Canadian language and culture, which in a way really saved my life. As an adult at university I studied linguistics because it was life-affirming and I could continue to discover other cultures and languages. It gave me a sense of vitality, so precious to me because of the sense of death that pervaded my own family. Studying language, culture, and identity opened up a whole new world, which helped me define an alternative vision for myself.

DB: The Holocaust narrative dominates in your book as important for both Jews and Palestinians to consider and reflect on. Al Nakba is hardly mentioned, only in passing. Do you have a visceral grasp of Al Nakba’s significance for the Palestinians?

GF: The Palestinians’ narrative is nascent. The Palestinian narrative is unfolding and eventually comes out in my dialogue with the village mayor, Rayek Rizek [who is Palestinian], which was the first time I “witnessed” it. That conversation with him was a human being telling me his story. It was a tender and beautiful conversation. I will never forget it. We touched each other’s hearts and got past all of those layers of masks, and we realized that both sides are victims. The Israelis are not comfortable with the label of “victim.” The whole mission of the state of Israel was to eradicate the sense of the weak Jew of the Diaspora who was slaughtered by the Nazis. Now when the suicide bombings occur they ask themselves “Are we still the same Jews of the past, who could be snuffed out at any moment?” The mayor said that he never spoke about this with an Israeli. He felt more comfortable with me because I shared my own story of suffering. There I see a parallel to the emerging Palestinian narrative, for the children of Holocaust survivors are beginning to share their stories, too. As time passes, the pain is still there but the passage of time has made it possible to distance oneself from the pain a little bit and eventually one can speak. It is difficult to engage on this level in Israel between Jews and Palestinians because it is not a neutral space.

DB: Do you feel that both sides need to recognize the limitations of this lack of a neutral space? Do you believe that the dominant Israeli culture will ultimately have to make a decision about this relationship? In other words, make a decision to make peace – or is it contingent on both people?

GF: The people of the region have to take matters into their own hands like they have done in this village. The leaders are certainly not doing a good job of it. Through the process of dialogue, everyday people become architects of their own destiny rather than pawns.

DB: What struck you most about your interaction with Mayor Riyad Rizek of Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam? What commonalties emerged?

GF: Guilt. Rayek Rizek understood the suffering and the guilt that comes out of victimization. The guilt of having survived trauma and yet not having solved anything around us. The guilt of wondering why you survived when others did not. It opened up a space of real dialogue between us. It helped me see past how the Israelis view the Palestinian.

DB: How do you define and envision the conflict?

GF: I see the huge complexity of it, the many layers of identity and perception that need to be acknowledged before real change can happen. In our conversation [with the mayor] those layers were defined and revealed.

DB: This complexity and the time that it takes may be viewed as a stall tactic, preventing real change. Dialogue could be perceived as: “Let us talk and talk endlessly, feel momentarily better and in the end nothing changes.” There is a sense among Palestinians in dialogue here in the U.S. that the Jewish community is more empowered to make changes. The Palestinians are disappointed and impatient when changes do not happen. What do you think?

GF: They may think that Jews are much stronger than they really are. One can understand that Jews actually feel very vulnerable because of the long history of anti-Semitism, persecution, and genocide. This is so much larger than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews are carrying thousands of years of anti-Semitism on their backs.

DB: When can action toward real justice occur?

GF: The conflicting issues need to be defined, and then a safe place for dialogue needs to be created. Acknowledgement of personal pain and victimization of each side can take place and that makes small, practical miracles possible.

DB: Although “Oasis of Dreams” is a relatively new publication, new tensions and facts on the ground have occurred in the past year and a half. I wonder if and how it has changed or shifted your perceptions? What has your continued relationship with the community been like?

GF: Well, this book and my connection to the village happened by accident while I spent a little bit of time at the Hebrew University more than a decade ago. After that I returned to the village many times. It kept pulling me back because it opened up a vision of hope. Their stories started to emerge and eventually I could really feel it the way they did. It truly felt like home. They were happy that I wanted to write a book about them and they understand the importance of sharing their story with larger audiences. This is a grass roots community, and they are in it for the long haul. It may be the only way to peace. 

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid


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