At the outset of this post, I feel the need to include a disclaimer. I in no way intend to draw perfect equivalences nor to offend what I readily acknowledge as very deeply painful memories for people. That said, I hope this post is received in the spirit in which it is written, in the desire for greater understanding and empathy.

One of the most interesting aspects of visiting a country other than your own is in the potential for breaking down preconceptions, those you hold about another culture (and by extension, those held by your friends and family through blogs and facebook), and those held about yours. That’s a challenging task, but I think an important one, particularly in this region. One of the fundamental problems faced by those who would seek to move this region toward a lasting peace is that understanding between people is tragically missing and very few people have a desire to correct that. This isn’t an indictment of just Arabs, but also of Israelis, the Western governments who have inserted themselves into this region, and most people who have a deeply held opinion on this monolith we call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Three days ago, my friends in the United States marked the tenth anniversary of a day that will live in our memory as a society for countless decades. The horror and the tragedy felt by the American people on September 11th changed us; it changed how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and by consequence, how we are seen. I can think of few things more offensive to an American than the dismissal of this event. I can’t imagine many Americans would respond positively to being approached by someone from another nation who argued that 9/11 didn’t occur, was unimportant, or was deserved. This event has become a part of our collective memory and because of this it has become sacred. It’s moved beyond a rationally viewed historical event, and it can’t be treated lightly. In the same way, telling a Jew that the Holocaust didn’t happen or wasn’t that bad, is staggeringly insensitive and unlikely to make you many friends in the Jewish community.

It is my assertion that a similar societal trauma exists among the Palestinian people and the societies of the Middle East who identify with them. Last week, I asked one of the members of my host family if I should visit Israel/Palestine before going home. I expected him to react strongly to the idea of visiting the Zionist regime, but his answer floored me. Without missing a beat, he replied, “You must go.” He told me Palestine was the most beautiful of places and that the land was holy and that all human beings should visit such a place. He then thought for a moment and told me he and his family would love to visit, and he felt a sadness at the impossibility of this occurring. “The border is less than 30 minutes from here, but I can’t cross it.”

A few days ago, I had another experience with this. One of my Arabic teachers, a young Palestinian woman, was asking us which countries we had visited. At the end of the exercise, we asked her to share the same information. She told us that she had not yet had an opportunity to visit another country but she loves cultures and badly wants to visit so many different places. When asked where she’d like to go, she listed Rome and Spain and then said with a quiet sadness in her voice, “and of course, Palestine. That is my homeland.”

For people in this part of the world, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is referred to as the nakba, translated as the disaster, the cataclysm, or the catastrophe. This was the time when hundreds of thousands were evicted from their homes and their land with precious few of their belongings. The vast majority of them have never been allowed to return, even to visit. Today, there are about 4.62 million people who were either displaced personally in 1948 or 1967 or are the descendants of those who were. For this community, a profound loss continues to reverberate. A sense of injustice, of a deep and abiding wound, lingers in their collective memory and psyche.

Recognizing this is vital to understanding the situation from this side of the Jordan river. Unfortunately, I fear we dismiss this trauma far too easily, maybe not by denying outright its existence, but by downplaying its significance or its legitimacy or, more often, being ignorant of it entirely. I don’t pretend to know how these wounds can be healed, or how they can be addressed in the broader context of a mutually fair settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I think increasing understanding and empathy on all sides is part of any desirable solution.

From the Palestinian perspective, Israel is the embodiment of this pain. Not only did they come into existence at the expense of others, their rockets and tanks continue to kill innocents and their government continues to oppress those living in Gaza and the West Bank. And that government, with its guns and its jets, is funded, maybe even propped up, by the U.S. Therein exists a fundamental problem for both nations. It absolutely must be acknowledged that this is only half of the story, but that doesn’t make it an unimportant half.

This issue is the fundamental cause of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. How can you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t accept the most painful part of your history? When the president of Iran denies the Holocaust, he is instantly relegated to the status of crackpot. His ideas are no longer legitimate to us on a very emotional level.

At very least, traumas must be acknowledged.

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