Monday, November 30, 2009

Sweet Potatoes for Peace

On Friday night, I had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. Then, on Saturday, I had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.

Thanksgiving seems to be the holiday that American immigrants to Israel hang on to most strongly, just as it’s a holiday that immigrants to America adopt so readily, tweaking it to their own culinary traditions but joining in with the turkey (usually), the story, and the arts and crafts projects that the kids bring home from elementary school.

A few years ago I had a Shabbat Thanksgiving dinner that was one of the most memorable evenings I’ve hosted, if I do say so myself. We had Muslims and Christians who had never been to a Shabbat dinner; Palestinians and Israelis who had never been to a Thanksgiving meal; and American-Jewish immigrants to Israel who had strong feelings about both.

The thing that everyone took to immediately was the generosity of spirit. It was pot-luck, and people put in the most amazing effort to creating their favorite stuffing, sweet potato, cranberry, or other traditional dishes, or making innovative contributions that fit right in, like the British-Israeli vegetarian who made a fried tofu dish that outshined the turkey. Friends lent tables and helped me carry them up two flights of stairs. By arranging them in a Z, I got more than 20 guests into my bachelor(ette?) apartment.

We blessed the food, told the story of Thanksgiving, and sang psalms and folk songs. For one evening, I felt that the coexistence and conflict resolution on which I spend so much of my professional energy was achieved in my own home. For many of the guests, it was a unique opportunity to break bread with people from backgrounds different from their own. People definitely came out of their comfort zones, whether it meant venturing into a Jerusalem neighborhood that was not their own or taking part in an unfamiliar ritual.

I believe in these kinds of encounters. I have seen and felt personally the transformative effect of face-to-face meetings. While I think they are necessary, I do not believe they are sufficient for creating change. It's easy to coexist for an evening, but real conflict resolution means tackling substantive problems and systemic inequities as well as making time and space for difficult conversations. I have become wary of the many programs that claim to be making peace in the region through various kinds of meetings, ranging from strawberries for peace to mountain-climbing for peace to, yes, basketweaving for peace.

I am pleased that the conflict resolution field has made it past its adolescent growth spurt of the 1990s and is now maturing to the point where funders and practitioners alike are thinking carefully about how to define success and measure results. I hope I have a chance to help advance this process.

1 comment:

John said...

Gayle, Your gathering of friends for Thanksgiving inspires me. I wish we could have been there. You are a blessing! JB2