Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Therapy for the Whole World

I’m an American Jew, living in Israel.  In fact, I just became a dual citizen.  This is the only language I’m comfortable using when I tell anyone about my status change—a change I made for the spiritual purpose of being in one place at one time; to reflect the truth—that this is currently my home where I live, work, and pay taxes; and for the logistic purpose of allowing me to stay beyond the expiration of my visa—how much longer, I do not know.  The majority of Jews in the diaspora call this “making aliyah”—ascending, and moving one’s life to the Promised Land. I wasn’t raised with Zionist ideals or even Zionist awareness; moving here was never on my radar.  Even now, I don’t feel I’ve moved to the State of Israel, but rather to the Negev, a desert whose rocks and land called me to come, then called me to stay, and then to stay longer; a desert whose voice long precedes this State, but certainly holds the voices of my own ancestors, along with so many others’.  Nonetheless, I cannot pretend that having Israeli Citizenship—a controversial privilege as well as status—does not come with the responsibility of being a part, now, of the conflict, here. 

This land is full of such rich narratives, each of them carrying truth; what makes the news, by the time it’s boiled down to the jargon of good guys and bad guys, is not even the 10% of the visible iceberg.  As a writer, and a human being, I collect these narratives.  I absorb them.  I try to find a way to carry them all within me.  Even when some narratives don’t seem to include much objective truth, I listen with my heart to the person whose story has led them to their understanding.  There is always truth, there, and often it is more powerful than facts.

Because this is the way I experience the world, I am often accused by friends who are personally connected to this land of not seeing The Real Truth, and willfully not letting that Truth in.  They come at me armed with information—so much information!—about what really happened in 1948 and long before, or 1967, or about Hamas, or about the ethics of the Israeli Army, or etc.  As a writer, I understand that there is a way in which this very essay would be stronger if I were including more concrete examples, yet it is those very examples that lead us into the downward spiral of our own personal hell.  If I add any detail to these arguments, someone reading will need to respond with counter arguments, and we’ll all go home feeling sick and hopeless.    This is exactly why the current “Social Justice Revolution” in Israel is struggling with how to take on certain issues; they know where that snowball goes, and are enjoying an unprecedented moment of unified, if vague, activism. 

Recently, however, something happened, my reaction to which will, tragically, make some of my Jewish friends in the diaspora feel gratified.  I was talking to one of my dearest friends here—to protect her identity I’ll say only that she is Arab and Muslim—and she told me that it was obvious that Al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the September Eleventh attacks; after all, why had over 500 Jews known not to be in the Twin Towers that day?  How could some camel-riding men from Afghanistan have pulled off such a high tech operation without the help of the CIA?  And my heart sank.  I had seen this story floating around the web at some point, but I never expected to hear it from my friend.   

One of the many things my Jewish, Israel-loving friends have accused me of is not grasping the magnitude of brainwashing and revisionist history in the Arab world.  I tell them that I am aware of this (and, I am); it is simply not where I put my energy, nor where I want to put my energy.  I believe that we create each other, and our future, with how we see each other.  If we’re always reacting to the places that bring up pain for us, always feeling victimized and defending ourselves, we can never move forward, personally or collectively.  This is Family Therapy 101; also Couples Counseling 101.   If we spend our energy trying to Right ourselves and make the other side and/or the world see how We are right and They are wrong, we get stuck in our own personal hell.

Instead, I look for the equally true goodness, with empathy, as I find that not only is this better for me, but it actually brings out the true goodness and helps to create a better world.  I don't look at a rose-colored surface; I dig deep.  I meditate until I experience the ways in which we are all one, not a We and They.  And when I do break things down—I look to my own people, Jews and Israelis and Americans, for how we and I can do better.  There is, of course, a lot to look at, there.  I stand by this way of being. I find this layer of truth to be truer, and more heart-driven, than the reactive surface on which we usually operate.

But when one of my dearest friends, whom I respect tremendously, who is highly educated, has plenty of access to good journalism including English language journalism, and plenty of Jewish friends (Israeli and American alike)—so, plenty of access to the multi-layered tapestry of reality—tells me this Conspiracy Theory as if it is Fact, and tells me that I have bought into the American Story, I feel the weight of how far we have to go.

All you have to do is incite Jews in the Arab world—why did 500 Jews know to stay home that day?—and then you can add any other fiction you want, and it works.  Of course, Jews didn’t stay home that day and September Eleventh had exactly nothing to do with Jews, who died in the Twin Towers along with their fellow Arab Americans and everyone else—a demographic melting pot the scope of which is beyond the imagination of most people who have never lived in New York City, a city I resided in for ten years, which I often refer to as my true homeland; New Yorkers, My People.    

Here in my heart’s other homeland, the Negev, I just spent a day and night with my surrogate Bedouin family, fasting during Ramadan, praying, watching hundreds of thousands praying in Mecca via television, listening to televised sermons of Imams based on the Quran.  The values of the Quran are beautiful, and the content full of stories of Moses and Aaron resembling the Torah. 

When Islamic terrorist attacks are carried out throughout the world by a small yet organized percentage of Islam, why aren’t respected Islamic Leaders joining together and raising their voice against these attacks carried out in the name of the Quran?  Why aren’t they speaking to their own people about this problem in their world, rather than allowing the problem to be ignored, or worse, denied?   

There’s another lesson I learned in Family Therapy.  We can only take responsibility for ourselves, and our own reactions.  I will not allow the fact that my dear friend buys into this revisionist history to make me operate from a reactive place, trying to get the truth out.  Even here, I had written a paragraph about the September Eleventh hijackers, and then deleted it; this is a level on which I maintain I do not want to engage any more today than I did last week, when my friends accused me of not seeing The Truth. 

But I will ask my Arab, Muslim friends to join me in self-reflection, and to call upon their leaders to do the same. 

And I will call upon the readers of this entry who are satisfied to see me writing about this subject, in this way, to join me in feeling sad, not gratified.  Any response of gratification to this post is just as destructive as denial or reactive accusations against it.  If we really want to score any points, let’s feel something.      


  1. Peggy: I think this is beautifully put. I 100% agree that trying to prove the "absolute" truth - what really happened, what really is the way of things - is a futile endeavor, because people do make meaning of and create knowledge from the world out of their own interactions with it. This understanding/acceptance/shift from a very positivist approach (instilled in me through the path of schooling I chose) has been very tough for me personally, and I imagine for others as well. But I do agree with you that a way to move forward is to accept that people experience the "truth" of the world differently, acknowledge one's own biases (even if many remain unknown), and then try to move on.

  2. Thanks so much, Seetha. I'm writing about a scientist who comes to a less absolute way of experiencing things, and in fact i imagine she'll grow to see the poetry and the divine (if you will) in the science itself, rather than seeing these two modes as conflicting. you're so right about the work of acknowledging our own unconscious biases. even if we're aware of them -- our general worldview, let's say -- it's such hard work not to respond unconsciously, daily, and/or to own when we (inevitably) do.

  3. BONNA DEVORA HABERMAN said (reposted w/permission via fb):

    Thank you for this sensitive piece, Peggy. The balance between receptivity and responsibility is often discomforting. We can affirm a person who holds an "other" perspective. At the same time, we must also make ethical judgments. The view that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy is misguided and wrong, and likely to cause more violence.

    Aristotle was a fine person, and we have learned from him tremendously, but about slavery he was wrong. From our perspective we know with certainty that every person is fully human and none was born to serve others. This applies to color and gender.

    There is such a thing as ethical progress; the Arab world and Islam are in dire need of it. We can support and encourage open, critical civil society. We can help people grow into the dispositions that enable more responsibility, contributing, and caring for humanity.

    I share the url for the activist Israeli-Palestinian community theater project I am currently co-directing, YTheater:

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Bonna Devora Haberman