If ye who enter here refuse to Abandon All Hope

by Lisa Ohayon

In my final year of undergraduate studies I found myself short of one credit to qualify. Faced with a dazzling array of options, everything from anthropology to zoology, I decided just for fun to enroll in Italian 101. It turned out to be a wonderful course, and I particularly enjoyed the literature component, which of course included Dante’s Divine Comedy with all of its symbolism and creepy characters. I attended a Jewish school for most of my formative years and had not learnt much about Christian concepts, and I remember that out of all the bizarre imagery in Dante’s work, the notion of ‘Purgatory’ stood out. Although I may not have grasped the concept exactly as it is intended in Catholicism, I have always found Purgatory to be an excellent metaphor for a place of waiting, of deep indecision. A state where one is not quite pure enough to enter heaven, not quite evil enough to be consigned to hell, and not quite resourceful enough to do anything about it. That suspended painful in-between state, strikes me even now as the most awful place to be.

In my many years of practice as a psychotherapist, and more recently as a conflict resolution specialist, I have repeatedly encountered both personally and through my clients the pain of being stuck. It is usually borne of fear. After all, no-one wants to mess with an outcome which, as Dante advertises over the gate to hell, involves ‘abandoning all hope’. It prevents us from being able to move on to something new. Even if the new place is going to be absolutely awful, even if it’s a bit like hell, I have always considered movement — which is the essence of life — preferable to stuckness. At least if one is to be in hell one can start to develop the skills for coping with it. The certainty that this is now one’s reality has always seemed preferable to living with perpetual uncertainty.

The last few years in Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly the period since the last election, has felt like the worst kind of purgatory. Many people on both the right and the left have given up on the Two State Solution. The extreme right-wing government has been strongly in favor of expanding settlements and have demolished a record number of Palestinians’ homes. The utter indifference on all sides to the suffering of the other, the pathetic attempts to dehumanize and denigrate those with opposing ideologies, the negation of all claims to the most basic of rights, all preclude any dialogue that may lead to change. There is no consensus, no strategy, no overarching vision and no direction. We are profoundly stuck and it is hellish.

This past week I was made aware of an initiative by a group of what I would call “settlers” that is designed to move the conversation on this issue out of this horrific stuckness and at the very least to highlight some fresh ways of thinking.

This year, 2017, commemorates two events that have had a profound impact on this tiny state. It marks one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration, and fifty years since the Six Day War and the occupation. Project Talk17 is a series of TED Style, eighteen minute talks that have been recorded in front of a live audience at the Ariel Center for the Performing Arts. It is an initiative funded by the American Friends of Ariel. The first talk by self-avowed “settler” Avi Zimmerman aims to redefine some terms and concepts with which we have become profoundly stuck over the course of trying to resolve the conflict.

While I am ambivalent to say the least about promoting projects that on the face of it may be seen to be normalizing or justifying the occupation, I am fervently in favor of anything that brings us out of our respective echo chambers, out of this specific purgatory that we find ourselves in, and encourages conversation between people with differing perspectives. The project aims to do just that, to bring disparate voices, both Israeli and Palestinian, to the table. Talk17 endeavors to make the voices of real people who actually live and/or work in these highly contested areas heard. The hope is that since our leaders have failed so dismally to move us in any meaningful direction, a grassroots attempt to redefine the terms of the conversation may lead to a different, less static outcome.

When I signed up for Italian 101 I happened into a new language and a world of alternate symbolism and imagery that I found surprisingly enriching. This time my eyes are wide open. While I strongly disagree with much of what Avi argues, I am more than willing to put aside ideological differences and to give this brave initiative a fair hearing. I don’t want to hear my own voice echoed back at me any longer. It is tiresome and futile. As Avi reminds us, this isn’t about how great Israeli start-ups are or how delicious the Hummus is, this is about people’s lives and their pursuit of freedom and justice. The least I can do is lend my participation to the generation of new meanings in a very stale arena. I invite you to do the same.

 

Originally published on the Times of Israel.

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