‘The capability to see the other side doesn’t mean you are giving up on your own side,” says Asala Agbaria, winner of a short-story contest titled In the Shoes of the Other: Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel.
The writing competition, launched by the Swiss Metin Arditi Foundation for intercultural Dialogue and coordinated by Tel Aviv University, challenged 515 participating students from five Israeli universities to grapple with a central issue they face in Israeli society, in 2,500 words or less.
Agbaria is an Arab-Israeli psychologist from Nazareth who is getting her MA at the University of Haifa. She also works in Haifa as a lecturer at the Open University.
Her short story, “The Elephant in the Room,” is based on her own experiences working as an Arab psychologist in Israel, though she notes that she “played with the details.” Her story deals with an encounter between an Arab psychologist and a Jewish patient. The author represents the two sides using the colors blue and green. She says that when she started to write, she underwent many dilemmas about her message.
“I wanted to be genuine, and it wasn’t clear to me what I believe in because the issue is so complex,” she explains.
She says that the writing process helped her sharpen her beliefs.
“The process allowed me to be more comfortable with the complexity of the situation between Jews and Arabs,” she explains. “It’s a very fragile situation. You don’t have to resolve the whole picture in order to meet at different points,” which is the conclusion her story comes to.
Her main character faces her fears and treats a Jewish patient. The “elephant in the room,” which comprises issues pertaining to politics, war and occupation, does burst its way into her therapy session – as she had feared it would – when she discovers that her patient’s husband had been wounded in war. However, when she learns that he subsequently died, leaving behind a young daughter, the mother in her succeeds in seeing past the “colors,” to empathize and identify with her “blue” patient.
Agbaria stresses that the issues raised in the story, which also touch upon preconceptions, discrimination, Arab-Jewish relations and identity, are issues that have accompanied her through much of her life. She discusses the shallow nature of many of her own relationships with Jews, as they avoid real but explosive subjects.
“The sides meet, but they don’t really meet. They don’t enter difficult subjects.
They are formal, empty relationships,” she says.
She believes that the insight she gained through crafting her story may have a positive effect on relationships she forms in the future.
Adva Tal-Or, a Jewish literature student at Tel Aviv University, took a similar approach to her story, loosely basing it on her own experiences. Tal-Or, who came in the top five in the contest, grew up in Rosh Hanikra, a kibbutz on the border with Lebanon, and served in an intelligence unit in the IDF.
“I learned Arabic at school and in the army. I learned a lot about the culture, about the Arab world,” she says.
She adds that the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict particularly burdened her after she completed her military service.
“It’s very difficult and depressing – there is no magic solution. Neither side is 100 percent right, and it drives me crazy that there is no resolution,” she laments.
The main character in her story “Identification by Voice” is an Israeli saleswoman in a shop in the US who struggles with her former identity as an intelligence soldier during an encounter with a friendly Palestinian customer with whom she has an instant connection. The climax of the story is the revelation that her warm, familiar customer is the brother of a terrorist whom she had tracked and helped assassinate during her army service.
“It made me really enter the situation and consider its implications and the questions about how to justify things that you did in your past,” she reflects. “The character doesn’t regret her past, but the ramifications are heavy.”
She says that the story-writing process forced her to recognize and accept this burden.
“It helped me think about morality and how to act according to morality, and to realize that even morality isn’t absolute.
You can do something that is right from one point of view but hurts someone else,” she says.
Echoing a similar sentiment to that expressed by Agbaria, she concludes, “I learned that it’s okay that it’s hard and complex – at least we discuss it and see the other side.”
PROF. RA’ANAN Rein, vice president of TAU, who coordinated the competition and sat at the head of the judging panel, said the contest “manifests the pluralist nature of the university and the importance it gives to the need to recognize the ‘other.’” The prestigious international panel of judges included former Swiss president and former foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey; former Swiss president and former education minister Pascal Couchepin; and Mayor of Geneva Sandrine Salerno, all of whom are members of the board of the Arditi Foundation. The jury chair was Metin Arditi, chairman of the foundation’s board. Frederik Willem de Klerk, former president of South Africa, was an honorary member. One representative of each participating university – TAU, the University of Haifa, Bar-Ilan, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – also sat on the panel.
The top three winners from each university won cash prizes of varying amounts according to ranking, and the top five stories – one from each university – were translated into English. First place winner Agbaria received a prize of $10,000, and her story “The Elephant in the Room” will also be translated into French.
Swiss writer Arditi, founder of the Arditi Foundation and UNESCO special envoy for intercultural dialogue, says that when writing fiction, one must follow two rules: You must put yourself in the shoes of your characters, and you must not judge them – you listen to them.
“So I thought that through this competition, if a certain number of Israelis did that – put themselves in the shoes of the other, Jewish or Arab – that would be a step in the right direction. Small for sure, but the right direction,” he says.
“The thing I am happiest about is that through this competition, 515 young Israelis put themselves in the other’s shoes,” emphasizes the writer, who founded the Instruments of Peace Foundation, which offers musical education to Israeli and Palestinian children. “In the present situation, I am sure this was not an easy thing to do. Yet they did it. Hats off to them.”
Arditi cites a conversation he had with de Klerk, who was the seventh and last head of state of South Africa under the apartheid era.
“He said to me, ‘I think you are doing the very right thing. This is exactly what [Nelson] Mandela and I did. We put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was difficult, in regard to our communities; but had we not done it, we would not have succeeded,” he recounts.
Arditi adds hopefully that perhaps in the future, participants might be influenced by their experience of the competition.
“Maybe it will make one of those small differences on which history is based,” he says.