“The waiting is over,” declared Jonathan Jansen, University of Free State Vice Chancellor. “We are so excited.”
Jansen made these remarks in the auditorium of the Scanea building during his welcome to the third Engaging the Other conference in Bloemfontein.
The group of about 200 participants hails from two dozen countries and more than 50 different organizations, according to conference convener Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.
Conference attendees are heavy on the mental health fields and a relatively high proportion of people from South Africa, and Dunreith and I have already met literary scholars, priests, and the scion of a prominent wine producing company. (Pumla pointed out that Mark Solms, the vintner in question, has donated a delicious variety of reds and whites throughout the conference.)
All have come together to look at how to meaningfully reach across culture and race to find some sort of healing and to think about how to break intergenerational cycles of repetition.
Jansen made the point that it was particularly fitting that the conference take place in Bloemfontein, the Free State’s largest city. “
“The more I try to understand where I am, the more I realize a lot of South Africa’s traumatic history is buried here in the Free State,” he said, referring to the South African War that took place during the very end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. “You are in a place that has been hurt very deeply, but you are also in a place in which hope is more alive than in any place in the country.”
That blend of deep pain and abiding hope animated the work of Irris Singer, who presented clips in the premiere showing of Beyond Violence. The movie tells the story of Itamar Shapira and Bassam Aramin, an Israeli and Palestinian who moved beyond being combatants bent on killing their enemy to engage in dialogue and advance the peace process.
Singer said specifically that the film is a learning, not documentary, project. The work’s 10 chapters are interspersed with commentary from Jessica Benjamin, a psychoanalyst who has directed a project on inter-group dialogue in the Middle East for Palestinian and Israeli mental health professionals.
Benjamin has also written about the “Moral Third,” a place of dialogue “beyond the oppositions we tend to get stuck in.”
Both Shapira and Aramin were firmly entrenched in those opposing visions for years.
The signature strength of this work in progress lies in Singer’s ability to have forged sufficient trust for the two men during the seven years she has worked on the project to share their painful yet uplifting journeys in highly intimate and articulate fashion.
Shapira takes the viewer through his understanding of Israel being created out of the atrocities of the Holocaust, and his sense that defense of the nation was both moral and good.
He took murderous actions based on those beliefs, yet, through reflection, eventually came to the understanding that many Palestinians viewed him in the same way that Jews saw the Nazis who had sought to kill all of his people. Shapira explained that this change only came after he had left the army.
For his part, Aramin spoke about growing up under the occupation and his gradually emerging view of all Jews as people who needed to be eliminated. From this perspective, it was a relatively short path to acting violently against the oppressors.
These actions landed him in prison for seven years.
During that time, he began a dialogue with an Israeli prison guard about who was in fact a settler and who an occupier. After months and months of discussion, the men had forged a friendship.
The guard, who had initially been verbally aggressive, conceded that Aramin was indeed correct.
The experience taught Aramin that talking could change even the most extreme minds.
We didn’t see all of the film, and it traces Aramin and Shapira’s co-founding the organization Combatants For Peace.
The cause saw its ultimate test in 2007, when one of Aramin’s daughters was shot in the head by two bullets and killed. Her blood splattered over one of his other daughters.
Many within his circle wondered whether the former fighter would seek revenge.
He did not.
“This is our test,” he said, according to Singer. She explained that he did not want to sacrifice himself or his other children by moving back in his previous direction.
It’s decisions like Aramin’s and that of 140 other Israeli-Palestinian groups doing similar work that give Singer hope that the bloody conflict will one day be resolved.
The session ended and we all retreated to, in the words of Pumla, engage the other through food and drink.
In my experience, the value of conferences like these lie at least as much in the conversations outside of the sessions.
This one promises to be no different.
We met participants like Father Michael Lapsley, a Kiwi who first came to South Africa for nearly 40 years and survived a mail bombing that cost him the use of both of his arms. I had seen Father Michael years ago in the Bill Moyers video Facing the Truth and read about him in Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull.
We also spoke with humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse, a humanitarian from Burundi/Rwanda who survived the 1993 civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis. On one occasion, she witnessed 72 other people killed on the church grounds, but managed to negotiate for her life with a Hutu gang who had tied and beat her.
In short, it’s an enormously impressive group of people dedicated to bringing healing, as Father Michael said, to the world.
Like Vice Chancellor Jansen, I’m thrilled to be here, and doubly excited to be here with Dunreith.