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Encounter: Bringing More Into View

by Bruce Shaffer
Published on March 12, 2012 in Boulder Jewish News

Zoomed in tight, images from the West Bank of Leila’s eyes flash anger. Shireen’s hold sadness. Sami’s seek possi­bil­i­ties. Ali – who could’ve given up – still looks for under­standing. But at my Limmud Colorado 2011 photo show, it was the viewers’ expres­sions that inter­ested me. There was disso­nance, between perceived on-screen faces and on-the-ground facts presumed. Surprise, that I could enter Palestinian Authority admin­is­tered towns such as Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. And getting a bit personal… curiosity about my friend­ships on the other side.

Got me wondering, too. Our American Jewish commu­nity is focused on the multi­fac­eted picture called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet most of us – and those who inform us – have never met a Palestinian, nor come face-to-face with Palestinian perspec­tives. Wouldn’t that expe­ri­ence, provided capably and cred­ibly, comple­ment our advo­cates’ and policy-makers’ under­standing of and rela­tion­ship with the situ­a­tion? My viewers seemed to think so, and some wanted to know how-to.

For the most wide-angle, honest and educa­tional look at West Bank Palestinian life you’re likely to get, I recom­mend Encounter, an “educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion that culti­vates informed Jewish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict….[and that does] not take specific posi­tions regarding the outcome of the conflict.” Yes, that’s my expe­ri­ence from eight programs: an open, supportive educa­tional setting that doesn’t push a partisan agenda or partic­ular polit­ical solu­tions. Instead, Encounter delivers close-ups that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere:

–Presentations by locally respected Palestinian leaders about personal and polit­ical issues related to Palestinian life.
–Meetings with promi­nent Palestinian activists dedi­cated to non-violence, and lesser-known main­stream leaders.
–Walking tours of impor­tant geographic areas.
–Optional home stays with local families.
–Confidential, facil­i­tated discus­sion within the Jewish group.
–Informal social gath­er­ings with Palestinians

These programs – no two are the same — have improved my depth of field. I can be up-front, hang in the scene, look through many lenses. Random inci­dents and events, improve­ments, setbacks, family stuff – dramat­i­cally alter my subjects’ p.o.v. And even after eight programs, the same is true for me. Jammed up against the sepa­ra­tion fence, I just might distort this short concrete section into endless­ness, plant thoughts in the Palestinian construc­tion workers below, read minds of the uniformed Israelis above. Reluctantly, I’ve had to face it: subjec­tivity, narra­tive and impres­sion are big players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Go on Encounter and see for your­self. Then re-compose, process and develop your own picture.

Encounter encour­ages partic­i­pants to listen to and absorb Palestinian narra­tives and claims without disre­garding what they already know and believe to be true. ….Underlying all of Encounter’s work is the core belief that inno­v­a­tive strate­gies for peace will be created only when influ­en­tial stake­holders in a conflict have oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet one another, to open them­selves to previ­ously disre­garded points-of-view, and to develop rela­tion­ships across polit­ical and ideo­log­ical divides.”

Those divides include the wide ones within American Jewry, too. “The trip is not a left wing trip. The trip is not a right wing trip. The trip is for everyone at every place on the polit­ical spec­trum. Call it Responsible Zionism.” (Rabbi Michael Goldstein) Indeed, Encounter activ­i­ties include voices from from AIPAC to ZOA. Colorado partic­i­pants have included Rabbis Deborah Rappaport and Marc Soloway, Margery Goldman, Matthew Markman, and Judge Murray Richtel. Next week, Boulderites Shari Edelstein and Julie Shaffer* will join rabbis, phil­an­thropists, and members of the Jewish Funders Network for a program in Bethlehem.

I dream not that Encounter is going to resolve the conflict. But it is surely chal­lenging the array of voices that are heard in that endeavor. As Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, President of the Wexner Foundation and Encounter alum has written:

I imag­ined an after­noon of sweet tea, hot pita and conver­sa­tion about path­ways to recon­cil­i­a­tion through personal connec­tion. Though too rational and likely too old for such naïve visions, my head blos­somed with summer of love cele­bra­tion spirit, when peace would guide the planets and love would rule the stars. Those dreams hit the wall. The roots of this conflict are deep and twisting and after a day exploring the reality on the ground, finding reso­lu­tion felt as insur­mount­able as the cement fence that sepa­rates, defines, contains and protects — all at the same time.”

I’ve owned that feeling of insur­mount­ability, so why do I stick with Encounter and encourage your partic­i­pa­tion? Because in this same week that I have booked flights for my 13th visit in Israel, found an apart­ment for another extended stay, enrolled in a Tel Aviv ulpan and a Jerusalem Jewish studies insti­tute, and filed my appli­ca­tion for Israeli citi­zen­ship, I remind myself that I want to be a “respon­sible Zionist.” And because it’s all part of the same package called the pursuit of justice for all, to which we, as Jews, are called.

May every Jew and those concerned about the Jewish future fully engage with Israel…our home­land, our sacred land. May you be among those with the courage and tenacity to turn this seam [between peace and war] into a junc­ture of healing. Let us vigor­ously support Israel in its pursuit of justice and peace, and never give up on the quest for leaders with the wisdom, tenacity and guts to resolve differ­ences. It is the back­breaking oblig­a­tion of being Yisrael…which means the ones who struggle. Please God, may we live up to our name.”

Amen v’amen.
The author partic­i­pated in Encounter programs during 2008 – 2011, including as trips photog­ra­pher. He has made several other visits to Palestinian and Israeli admin­is­tered areas in the West Bank, and also recom­mends educa­tional visits to Jewish villages there.

Coloradoans may apply to Encounter for a program fee reduc­tion, made possible by a grant from the Oreg Foundation. If you’re plan­ning to be in Israel, contact info@​encounterprograms.​org about upcoming oppor­tu­ni­ties to participate.

*JS is the author’s wife, and the director of the Oreg Foundation.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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