Like so many others, I spent September 11th thinking about where I was when I heard the news, and the terrified astonishment I felt as I watched the towers fall on live television. For me, more than anger, I remember being consumed with sadness and confusion; who could be so filled with hate?
Unfortunately, that was not the first or last terrorist attack. With sad frequency, I remember the car bombing I witnessed in 1994, in Afula, Israel. As I drove to work on September 11th last week, I heard about suicide bombs in Egypt and Iraq. Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching the slow-motion nightmare take place in Syria over the last two years. When I arrived at work, I spoke to my dear friend, a faculty member at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who told me how she’d been trapped in her building for more than an hour as students and teachers were tear-gassed outside.
The violence that pervades our world is breathtaking in its scope and its impersonality. People are killed or punished for being something: American, Israeli, Palestinian, Shi’ite, or Sunni, or some other ‘other.‘
As part of Building Bridges since 1995, I have spent a large portion of my life unlearning those labels. I can’t think of the people killed in the twin towers as solely American, because I know that ‘American’ has such limited meaning in terms of who they were. I think of them as people. People whose new puppies kept them up all night. People who always told their friends when they had poppy seeds stuck in their teeth. People who went digging in the bag for the black jelly beans. People who constantly lost their keys, and people who could speak of nothing but their adorable toddlers. I think this way because it’s what my experience with Building Bridges has taught me.
We bring four groups together in our Middle East/U.S. program, Palestinian, Palestinian who live in Israel, Israeli, and American. But even as we read the participants’ applications for the program, those terms become laughably inadequate to capture their incredible diversity. To define the young women who come to our program by those words glosses over who they are in the same way the word ‘flower’ doesn’t begin to capture the unique beauty of roses, lilacs, and daisies.
The basic horror of the violence that we bear witness to is the erasure of identity. It makes no sense to the child of the mother who smelled like warm bread and shampoo that she died because she was ‘American.’ She was his mother. Just as it’s utterly meaningless to think about my friend who loves white mochas and jigsaw puzzles being tear-gassed because she is ‘Palestinian.’ She’s my friend.
I don’t despair, though. I don’t despair because I am lucky enough to live the transformation that takes place when the labels can’t work for you anymore. After years and years of working to strip down and challenge assumptions and stereotypes, I take pleasure every day in the wonder of a world where I know nothing about anyone until they teach me. That the woman in hijab waiting on the bus stop might be a hip hop DJ. That the guy with bowlegs and a ten-gallon hat may have a PhD in philosophy. That I can take profound pride in working for an organization that stands against the violence by teaching individuals to see each other not as other, but as layered, complex and beautiful human beings.