Israelis, Palestinians tell their stories to Bethesda audience

Israeli and Palestinian participants in the New Story Leadership program tell their stories on Sunday at Bethesda Jewish Congregation. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

When Matan Zur’s brother, a soldier with the Israel Defense Forces, returned from war in Gaza in 2015, he relived the pain day after day with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Marwa Odeh was 9, her family moved from the United States to Gaza, from a suburban life to a war-torn one.

When George Mattan, an Arab Christian Israeli, was 10, several members of his family were injured in the suicide bombing of a restaurant.

These were some of the stories shared Sunday by the eight Israelis and Palestinians at Bethesda Jewish Congregation. The eight are members of New Story Leadership, which brings together Palestinians and Israelis in their 20s and 30s to break down barriers between the peoples.

The eight spoke briefly about their backgrounds to the audience of about 70. But it was audience questions that brought out more details and made connections to the current political climate.

They didn’t say much about President Donald Trump, although Aaron Benderski, an Israeli, quipped, “We learned that nothing brings people together more than mocking a third person.”

An audience member asked the speakers how their friends and family reacted to their participation in the program, which includes an internship with a member of Congress.

Benderski said his family was excited he would be interning in Congress — in the office of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — but also scared because he would be living and working with Palestinians.

Noa Lazimi, a fellow Israeli, said her family and friends were excited for her, but also skeptical of what her participation would achieve.

This is the eighth year that New Story Leadership has brought a group to Washington. An audience member asked whether previous participants met up when they’re back home.

Rawan Odeh, a member of last year’s group who is working for New Story Leadership this summer, said that members of her group have met up in the United States or other countries. But it is difficult, and in some cases illegal, for them to meet at home.

Zur stressed that while they are eager to be friends, it’s not why they are there.

“We’re not here to make friendships — although that’s happening — but we’re here to become agents of change,” she said.

But how did you get past your baggage, they were asked. “We all do come with often very heavy baggage,” said Asala Mahajna, an Israeli Arab, who grew up with an atheist father and Muslim mother in a village near Nazareth. “There is frustration and anger,” she said, “but then to have your colleagues reach out with compassion and a desire for understanding starts to break down those walls.”

“We all come with heavy baggage, but I think we want to get rid of that baggage so we can breathe,” added Mattan. “We all want to look for hope.”

With their internships in Congress just beginning, they said they hoped to put human faces to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and offer personal expertise on the region.

Each member of the group also has an “impact project” to work on when they return home. They include brining Israeli and Palestinian students together for service projects, developing better conflict studies curricula in schools, and developing an app to connect diaspora Palestinians to their families and geographical roots.

Audience member Elana Kravitz said she appreciated the event was an opportunity to hear Palestinian points of view.

“In Jewish spaces you hear Israelis speak all the time,” said Kravitz, a student at Columbia University. “So it was nice to hear Palestinians speak here.”

“We want to hear what they have to say,” said Lorrie van Akkeren, a Bethesda Jewish Congregation member. “What’s the truth? What is the media not reporting?”

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