The Power of Narratives in Shaping Identity

Story and Photo by Olivia Sorenson, Dialogue of Civilizations

Over the past two years, I had the privilege to go abroad to the Middle East three times through Northeastern University. Each time I returned, I faced difficulty in processing my experiences, as I was confronted with a seemingly endless list of personal and political contradictions, conflicting narratives and truths, and so many questions. However, I have arrived at a place where I am comfortable with discomfort – the more I travel, the more thoughtful I can be and the more dimensions I add to my understanding of the Middle East, and specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Jewish student, the conflict touches the deepest fault lines of my community, inviting criticism from advocates across the political spectrum.

Traveling to Israel for the first time for a Dialogue, I wanted exposure to diverse narratives that were inclusive of both Palestinian and Jewish struggles, seeing as my personal background was very biased and lacked meaningful representation of the Palestinian experience. Fortunately, my Dialogue was unique in that we studied contemporary Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian narratives side by side, instead of isolating one perspective. During our six-week in-depth study of the conflict, I spoke directly to Palestinian bookstore owners, orthodox Rabbis, displaced Bedouins and conservative Jewish-Israeli settlers. Over the course of a day, we would hear vastly different viewpoints. I became intimately familiar with rhetorical differences and relationships to Israel, but above all I internalized an overwhelming sense of fear and deep mistrust that permeates every aspect of Iife in Israel and Palestine. I went abroad looking for answers, but I soon realized that no amount of academic analysis could convey the emotional salience of this conflict.

After returning home, I struggled to reconcile my Jewish identity with my feelings of alienation from the State of Israel. From childhood, I was always told that Israel was a place I belonged, yet the inhumane and unjust policies carried out against Palestinians under occupation directly contradict my personal values of justice, equality and freedom. Scrambling to reconnect with my Jewish heritage, I decided to go on Birthright: a free trip to Israel founded on the principle that I, as a Jew, had the birth right to return to Israel regardless of where my family origins are in the Jewish diaspora. When I arrived in Israel on Birthright, a pit grew in my stomach that told me something was amiss. For the entire trip, I felt as if someone was covering one of my eyes – and that they were refusing to let me (and all of us) see something that I knew was there. I felt like I was betraying myself and the Palestinians I knew by participating in a program that intrinsically invalidates the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland, and rejects the reality of the Occupation. As my trip progressed I started to feel more and more alienated from my Jewish community, as I realized that the program directly conflated my Judaism with a political agenda I aggressively opposed. Although a painful experience, Birthright helped me to carve out my own identity as a Jew – one that is separate from Israel, but equally valid. I will never forget the injustice I felt when we drove past the Separation Wall where it cuts through Jerusalem, and hearing silence throughout the bus.

Deciding to pursue Arabic and apply to the Dialogue in Jordan was one of the best decisions I have made, as it challenged me to further examine Israel/Palestine’s role in the region, and also allowed me to directly observe the Palestinian refugee community. What struck me most about meeting Palestinians in Jordan was that upon introducing themselves, they were first and foremost Palestinian – even if they had lived in Jordan their entire lives. Their connection to their land was so strong that when I asked where they were from, they would tell me the cities of their parents and grandparents in Palestine. I could feel the trauma that reverberated throughout generations of Palestinian families who were so painfully close to yet far from the epicenter of their culture and their history. Before going to Jordan, I had difficulty conceptualizing how many Palestinian refugees there still are yearning to return home with their families; that reality was, and is, overwhelming. Connecting with them through Arabic and being welcomed into their homes for Ramadan helped me see the joyous nature of Palestinian communities, and helped me feel less alone after feeling alienated from my Jewish community at home.

My experiences abroad humbled me, and helped me define the principles that matter most in my life. I learned that different and contrasting narratives can be simultaneously true, and the power that collective loss has in shaping culture. I learned that you can be entitled to a life that someone else deserves for arbitrary reasons, and most importantly, that I should try my best to be honest and enter spaces where very few people identify with my perspective. All my life, I felt a deeply rooted need to be agreeable and curtail my opinions if they contradicted those of my peers. After collecting such diverse and nuanced narratives through my studies in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, I realized that to give justice to the people I learned from, and also to myself, I need to use my energy to challenge the status quo, even if that entails loneliness at times. Through travel, I learned to respect my intuition and nurture my conceptions of social justice, which adds invaluable depth to my education, and allows me to empower others when they travel to the Middle East.