It's always a thrill to find something unfamiliar when you're in an unfamiliar place. I get really excited when I am traveling and I meet people from Ohio. People who understand my context of growing up on the edge of the midwest, who were shaped by economic stagnation of the rust belt and hold hold self-evident the truth that cookie tables (including buckeye candies) are an integral part of any celebratory gathering (this also applies to some extent to people from Detroit and Pittsburgh). In my life in New York, I've met fellow Ohioans while working at Trader Joe's, Amnesty International and the Dramatists Guild of America.
The last place I didn't expect to meet an Ohioan was on a tour of West Bank.
To back up: I just got back from a tour of the West Bank town of Bethlehem with an organization called Encounter. Over two days we met with various individuals active in Palestinian society, from filmmakers, to educators, to two young women who started the first yoga studio in the West Bank that gives classes to people with special needs. In our last session, we met with a guy named Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American working to develop the high-tech industry in Ramallah.
"I was born in Youngstown, Ohio," he began and I squealed in delight.
After the discussion, he told me he grew up in Liberty, only a few minutes from the Jewish Community Center where learned to swim and attended Hebrew school. One of the things that often makes me hesitate in approaching intercultural work is the fear of fetishizing the Other. What is the line between reaching out to people from different backgrounds because you are generally interested in their stories or because you just want to feel special as a white person? Essentially: how do you avoid being completely awkward? Meeting a Palestinian who happened to be from my hometown went a long way to overcoming some of that awkwardness, giving me a personal way into the conversation. Now whenever I am able to take a day and go to Ramallah, I will actually have someone specific to talk to and visit.
Sam Bahour and Me
I'm not totally proud of feeling comfortable just because I met someone who dresses and talks like me. In an ideal world, I'd like to think I should feel comfortable to talk with Bahour as I would with any of the people in the Palestinian villages we visited that lies sandwiched between two Israeli settlements.
And yet it's easy to avoid people because of these differences in education, class, and cultural background--I feel like the dehumanization of the poor is a big reason for cultural divides not only among communities here in Israel, but in the U.S. as well. When systematic problems of poverty feel too overwhelming to solve, it's easy to isolate in settlements or suburbs with people just like you and rationalizing that people in Palestinian refugee camps or violent neighborhoods in Chicago simply haven't pulled up their bootstraps hard enough to make something of themselves.
I'd like to think it wasn't just seeing a Westernized Palestinian that made me feel at ease. On a deeper level I'd like that finding out Bahour was from Youngstown touched something deeper. To know there was someone active in the Palestinian society who also understands my particular Jewish milieu. That not all Jewish communities in America are as large and powerful as those in major cities. That in some parts of America, Jews are outsiders as much as any other minority. Growing up, my rabbi used to run the Jewish-Christian dialogue and hold joint events with African American churches on Martin Luther King Day. Because the Jewish day school in my town was tiny, my parents thought I would get a more well-rounded experience attending public school and getting my Jewish education on nights and weekends. When your community is small, you don't have the luxury of only surrounding yourself with people just like you; in order to succeed, you have to learn to form social and ideological connections with others. And that's why I don't think I would have felt the same sense of connection if Bahour had been a Palestinian-American from an area of the US with a large Arab community like New York. While Bahour's father is Palestinian, his mother is from Lebanon, and I imagine they are only a few degrees removed from the owners of my favorite Lebanese restaurant back home that featured the best vegetarian options in town and where I got my first job at in high school.
I haven't researched Bahour's writings in depth yet if to see his specific political beliefs and actions to be able to decide whether or not out we share the same positions on the causes and solutions for the conflict in the region--for instance, he supports the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement as a form of protest against Israel, which is very controversial in many of my circles. But while we may not entirely hold the same views, as another Ohioan I like knowing on some level we are looking through a common lens.
And I'll take that as a start.