Messy Question

Reading The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan made a deep impact on me. Having visited the Land of the Holy One nearly two years ago, the story line was vivid as my own memories wove themselves through the scenes and situations chronicled in the book. Dalia Eshkenazi (now Landau) moved from Bulgaria to Israel as a baby with her Jewish parents. Bashir Al Khayri, a Palestinian national, was driven from the very home in Al-Ramla in which Dalia ends up living. The story of their unusual and fragile friendship is both tragic and cautiously hopeful.

The challenging story in The Lemon Tree reminded me of the political drama in our own country nearly one year ago between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould. All were asking: was there or wasn’t there inappropriate pressure by the PMO on the Attorney-General in the SNC-Lavalin case? No matter who is telling the truth, more than one commentator highlighted the presence of cultural and social chasms that can play a role when two or more parties report vastly different perceptions and understandings of the same situation, in this case Indigenous and white/settler. Add to this the possible differences in understanding between men and women on what is considered “undue pressure” and when it is acceptable, and we have a perfect recipe for disastrous misunderstanding.

An even greater chasm revealed itself in The Lemon Tree. Two people of good will and big hearts worked hard at making room for each other’s ethnic narrative, a narrative about the same land, the same political situation, yet a narrative that is diametrically opposed, depending on the Jewish or the Palestinian perspective. The tensions and dilemmas this making-room created is aptly and painfully described in their journey together over a span of sixty years. “I feel the whole land is in my heart,” says Dalia to Bashir, “and I know the whole land is also in your heart. (…) Yet we couldn’t find two people who could disagree more on how to visualize the viability of this land. And yet we are so deeply connected. And what connects us? The same thing that separates us. This land.” (p. 261-262)

Time and again Dalia and Bashir go to great lengths to put themselves in the place of the other, to feel the other’s frustration and pain, to grow affinity and empathy, and to see a way forward into a future of hope together through the thick mist of Israel’s political tactics of apartheid-style treatment of their Palestinian compatriots, leading to a humanitarian and a political crisis: I know that what we consider terror from your side, your people considers their heroic “armed struggle” with the means at their disposal. What we consider our right to self-defense, when we bomb Palestinian targets from the air and inevitably hit civilians, you consider mass terror from the air with advanced technology. Each side has an ingenuity for justifying its own position. How long shall we perpetuate this vicious circle? (from Dalia’s open letter to Bashir)
Bashir’s and Dalia’s attempts to make space for one another in their minds and hearts is a heroic act dared only by few courageous souls. But even they reach a boundary in their own self-understanding and that of his and her people, a Rubicon they could not, in good conscience, cross.

Could it be that political firestorms such as the one we witnessed between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould are fueled by similar cultural and social differences in perception as when white settlers and Indigenous parties signed the Treaties over 150 years ago? Each had a vastly different understanding of what exactly was being signed. Each attributed different values and applied different emphases. These vastly different interpretations only showed up over time, resulting in social and economic, cultural and political debris that is still affecting us today. Justin Trudeau may claim to be committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, but what he means by that and what the Indigenous peoples themselves understand and need could be two different things. It is not hard to see in the conflict between a Prime Minister, male and descendant from settlers, and a former Attorney-General, female and of Indigenous descent, all the misunderstandings and cultural gaps of the past 200 years triggered, if not upfront, at least as shadows in the mirrors of truth. Despite everyone’s best intentions, there are some chasms that seem impossible to overcome. There are some boundaries we cross only at great personal risk.

So here’s the messy question: How do we engage one another when boundaries and understandings are deeply conditioned, some considered non-negotiable even, turning into barriers and oppressive forces for others? This question doesn’t only play out in global or political arenas. I encounter it in my own circles — family and friends, church and ministry — often provoked by painful situations, dilemmas or confrontations. Sometimes life moves in a direction that is mighty difficult to understand, let alone trust. And I’m not referring to harmful or destructive choices such as addictions, abuse or other forms of behaviour that jeopardize health and safety.

No, I simply mean directions in life that feel completely out of sync with our own. Or interpretations and understandings of a particular situation that are so far apart, such as between Dalia and Bashir, or between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, that we wonder if we are even referring to the same event at all. When this occur once, okay, twice, okay. But when instances begin to accumulate and form a pattern determining our perception, then what? Like a thief in the night, common ground can erode, shared values begin to diminish, delight in one another give way to too many frowns and question marks, and finally trust diminished and betrayed. It requires a heroic act of the will to remain connected and committed, to maintain faith in one another. I admire Bashir and Dalia’s commitment to their friendship, however painful. And Dalia has found her own creative way to provide hope for future generations of Jewish and Palestinian women, youth and children in The Open House in Ramla. As far as our Prime Minister and the former Attorney-General is concerned, the jury is still out, even nearly a year later.

I have no neat answer, but I am curious if anyone else does. Does anyone even care about the question? This blog reflection feels more like rambling than others, but I’m not apologizing. It’s that way because it’s messy. Especially in this day as so many realities considered foundational in the past are melting away, posing and living with messy questions becomes crucial for reconciling and healing reasons in a shared future:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet”