My connection to the Jewish experience didn’t begin in our Dialogue. It started at birth.
As a Washington, D.C. native, born blond and “Barbra”-esque to Palestinian parents who fled West Jerusalem in 1948, I was strangely more mishpucha than habibi . My brother spent his afternoons spouting Mel Brooks-isms while I ran around the house belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
On family trips to the Occupied Territories, children in Ramallah or Silwan greeted me as “Yahoodiyeh!” — the Jewess. In Amman, Jordan, my cousins would flat-out say I was a spy.
During elementary school, I’d hang out at my best friend Susan’s house until she came home from Hebrew school. Though we were aware of our people’s enmity, it was never an obstacle to our constant companionship, even when we shot hoops to see who would win Jerusalem.
I began hearing the details of our Nakba (the catastrophe of 1948) around the same time as “The Holocaust” aired on TV, and the narratives echoed each other in a profoundly sad way. My parents had fled; Susan’s grandparents had fled. My people were butchered; her people had been gassed and butchered. Both were terrorized, despised and cast from their homes in fear and humiliation. Fortunately for Susan, her people resurrected themselves. Unfortunately for me, that occurred on the broken bones of my people who were now being oppressed by Susan’s survivors.
My growing awareness of this mindboggling transference of victimhood did not stop me from feeling compassion for Jewish suffering. However, what I grew to understand, I could not reconcile. How could Jews hide behind their tragedies and hardwired insecurities and deny or rationalize Israel’s crimes against Palestinians? How could they market Palestinian victims as aggressors and blame them for their own suffering? Why does the world stand idly by when Palestinians are brutally punished for daring to resist the stranglehold of Israeli occupation, losing more of their land each day?
Despite the Dialogue members’ shared commitment to a just peace and our growing affection for one another, painful questions continually arise in our meetings. I joined the group to understand Jewish fear in order to speak to it without becoming overwhelmed by anger. I also joined to see if blunt talk mixed with genuine empathy could translate into substantive action among Jewish opinion makers.
But it made my brain bleed to hear one of the Jews say that the Palestinians have the power to make Israelis feel secure enough to demand peace. How, I asked, can a systematically oppressed, impoverished, ghettoized and entirely insecure people make Israelis feel safe? Israel has the fourth most powerful army in the world, a thriving economy, control over roughly 86% of historic Palestine (including settlements), and the unconditional love of the world’s superpower. Of course, with occupation there can be no security, regardless of walls, checkpoints and prisons.
On that last point, all eight Dialogue members agree. And as we continue to grapple with these extremely difficult issues, I find that the deeper we go, the clearer our understanding of our parallel narratives, and the more imperative our need to find the most effective and human way to individually and collectively impact our shared futures.
Nadia Saah is a partner at BoomGen Studios, a film company that produces and markets entertainment content about the Greater Middle East, its people and cultures.