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The Ramallah Crew

I was nervous before the class started. I did not know what to expect. I hadn't seen the women in months.

I was teaching a class for a small group of foreign women from the U.S., Canada, England, and Germany. These women live and work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They see first-hand the harassment of Palestinians by soldiers. They are affected on a daily basis by the closure of the territories. They see Jews as their oppressors, their enemies. In many ways, they have taken on the Palestinian identity.

They had started a support group for themselves and realized that they were lacking tools to make it work. They had asked me to come and teach them a series of classes in which they would learn basic counseling skills that they could use both in their support group and in their daily work.

A few days after our initial meeting, Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahim Mosque and opened fire on Moslem worshipers. The next week I went to Ramallah to teach the class. As one would expect, the class was very intense. At the next class after that, they told me: "We like you. We think that you are a good teacher. However, the fact that you are Jewish forces us to see the humanness of Jews, and we are just not sure we are ready for that." How to answer such a comment? Think fast.

"My guess is that you are eager to see our humanness," I responded with a smile. I paused and then added: "If you are as committed to Palestinian liberation as you say you are and I believe you to be, you also need to be committed to Jewish liberation. At this point they are intertwined." I talked slowly so the words would sink in.

"I want to know about the struggles of the Palestinians. I want to know anything you want to tell me, to meet with anyone you want, to read whatever you think I need to read. And I will expect the same from you-that you will be interested to learn more about the Jews, about our history, about why Israel is so important to us, about our hopes and our fears. You may not feel ready to start this today, but eventually I will expect this from you."

They shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Then an awkward silence. "Well, since we are here today," Anna offered, "we might as well go ahead. But we're not sure if we'll continue after this."

I taught them basic Co-Counseling skills-how to listen, how to identify the key issues coming up for another person, and how to give the person a hand in those difficult places.

I wanted it to work. I wanted them to stay. I spoke from my heart and hoped that something would touch them along the way. I also kept reminding myself to be willing to let them go.

At the end of the class, they tentatively agreed to meet again to see-just once. One time. Then another time. And another until we had met for eight classes. During the first few classes, they kept saying that they weren't sure if they wanted to continue. But slowly, I noticed something start to shift. They began telling me about conversations that they were having with Israelis, how they were able to listen in a new way. I saw the excitement in their eyes, heard it in their voices. They were proud of themselves. They reached deep inside and found more compassion and openness than they knew was there. At the end of the series, one of the women gave me a beautiful postcard with etched figures-white and black-with stick-drawn hands reaching out for each other. The caption underneath it was: "Hope and optimism in spite of current challenges."

Months passed. I had returned to the United States for an extended visit. A few weeks after I came back to Israel, I nervously picked up the phone and called one of them.

"Hello."

"Hi, it's Karen Abrams calling. I just got back from the U.S. and wanted to get in touch with you."

"Oh, we are so thrilled! We have been waiting for you to come back. When can we see you?" So we set a date for the class. I actually hoped that they wouldn't show up. That's not really true, but that is how it felt. Days before the class there was the explosion at Bet Lid in which a Palestinian planted two bombs. When they exploded, nineteen people were killed, and many others were wounded. I had driven past that junction less than eight hours before the explosion. I was still in shock.

Only minutes after they arrived and when we all had a cup of tea in our hands, the women told me how they had a list of fourteen women-both Palestinians and foreigners-who were eager to learn Co-Counseling skills. I asked the women to be my assistants in teaching the class. They smiled and panicked and then agreed.

During each class, I would counsel one of the women and then set aside time for each of them to practice their counseling skills. Each woman took turns being "counselor" while another was "client." They counseled one another and knew that I was there as a resource if they needed a hand or felt stuck. Sometimes they would stop in the middle and ask a question or for help. Then they would return to counseling. They also wanted me to take a "turn" with the group. This way they could practice their counseling skills with me and also give me a chance to share my feelings with them. Not just to teach, but to participate.

I was counseling Tina, the German woman.

"I can't do this. I can't client when you are my counselor."

"Why?" I asked her.

"Because I cannot work with you on how I am feeling. I don't think you will be able to counsel me."

"Why?" I asked with a warm smile.

"Because you are Jewish. It'll be too hard for you to listen."

"Oh," I said and smiled again. "I'm willing to try to counsel you about whatever is going on for you, and if it gets too hard for me, I'll ask for the other women to help me."

"Hmm," she said, while looking at me closely.

"Tina, I'm willing to risk getting uncomfortable to be close to you."

"All right then," she said apprehensively and then jumped right in.

"So . . . nineteen people are dead now. Why? Every time I tried to talk with someone about it in Ramallah, they just waved their hand and said it was a 'military operation.' Yes, they were Jews. Does that make it okay? Don't you see? Nineteen people are dead now." Her voice choked and her eyes started filling with tears.

"Abdula is six-years-old. He was watching TV after the explosion and he saw a soldier crying. He started crying, too. It didn't matter to him that the soldier was Jewish. He just saw a person crying and got sad for him. What is happening to the rest of us that we can become so numb?"

I reached out and held her hand. "You are right. Abdula understands. He gets it."

"And my daughter came home the other day singing the numbers in Hebrew. Saying shalom to everyone," Tina laughed.

"Your daughter gets it, too."

"And, on TV when I saw the group of religious men . . . the . . . the . . .

"The chevri kadisha . . . [the Jewish burial society]"

"Yes . . . and I saw them carrying plastic bags which they used to gather the pieces of fingers and other body parts that flew all over the place, so they could bury them . . ." She started sobbing. "It just makes me sick. When will this stop?" She asked like a little girl who really wanted an answer.

"Go ahead and ask me that again. Just like that, like you really want an answer."

"When will it stop?" she pleaded.

I held her in my arms for several minutes. Then she looked at me straight in the eye and said: "And then my daughter got sick, and I took her to the Jewish Medical Center. We had to sit in the waiting room for a little while before the doctor saw us. I had brought a book and asked her if she wanted me to read it to her in English or German. She said German. So there I was in the Jewish Medical Center speaking in German with everyone watching me, glaring at me. I felt so awful and uncomfortable."

Tina looked up every few minutes to make sure I was still with her, still listening. "Then the doctor called us into his office. He had heard me speaking German and told me that he used to speak German until he was four . . . he was a survivor. I am so embarrassed . . . I am so embarrassed." Still sobbing, she said, "The doctor asked if my daughter spoke any Hebrew. 'Just a few numbers really. She speaks Arabic beautifully.' The least that I could do is have her learn Hebrew. Don't you think . . ." More tears. "I never realized how ashamed I am to be German."

I asked the other women to join me in making a commitment to Tina, to support her in being able to be 100% proud to be German.

"Are you crazy? How can you, a Jew, possibly tell me that and mean it after everything we . . ." She couldn't finish her sentence. Words returned to sobs.

I said, "What the German people did was unacceptable, and there are things within the German culture that led to the Holocaust. Those attitudes must be dealt with, looked at, changed. But every person who is born German is a human being and deserves to be cherished as a human being."

Tina: "I can't believe you can actually believe this."

I explained the difference between a person and a pattern. "The person is inherently good, kind, generous, eager to be close, zestful. Patterns are the way that we have learned, by being hurt, to respond to the world. Sometimes those patterns cause us to act cruelly or harshly because of similar ways that we ourselves have been hurt, or because of lies or misinformation we have been told about each other. We can change the patterns, the ways we act, but through it all-underneath everything-is a human being longing to be seen, to be loved. Yes, you have to reckon with your German past, to insure that nothing like that ever happens again. At the same time, you get to know that you are a good person. That you can cherish your people. We can do horrible things, and people have done horrible things. We need to take responsibility for those actions. At the same time, we get to remember that we are still lovable-problems and struggles included." I saw a brightness in her eyes.

"You really believe that? Really?"

"Yes."

We continued from there, and the more we worked, the more light came back into her eyes, followed by a lightness and joy about life that seemed to spread across her whole face. Minutes later, it was my "turn" to client. One of the women was counseling me. I wanted to work on my feelings about the explosion but thought it was better to wait. Not with them. It wasn't safe enough, could lead to our own "explosion." I could feel the way I was walking on eggshells. I started my turn by making some side comment about wanting to talk about the explosion but waiting to do it with one of my Jewish counselors.

"Go ahead. You can tell us about it!" Anna said cheerfully.

I felt like Tina. I understood her hesitancy. Would they really be able to counsel me here? What if they couldn't? Wouldn't it feel worse to start and then not have them be able to be there with me? I had encouraged Tina to take that risk. I knew it was important that I take it, too. I decided to give it a try. As I talked about the explosion, I started to cry. I looked over and saw that Tina was crying, too. She was crying with me. Just like Abdula, the six-year-old.

"We are grieving with you," Julia whispered sweetly. To hear that these women-who only months earlier didn't want to see the humanness of Jews-were grieving with me touched me so deeply that I began crying again, but this time out of joy.

Perhaps that is the greatest gift the class has given to each of us: knowing that each of us is putting ourselves completely behind one another. Stretching ourselves beyond where it might be comfortable in order to be close, to see one another's humanness. The postcard they had given me was true: "Hope and optimism in spite of current challenges."

Karen Abrams
Jerusalem, Israel



Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00