21 On the advantages of being naive

At a seminar recently with a group of Israeli and Palestinian artists here on a Cultural Exchange, I was describing  our new program, New Story Leadership, and how unlike other leadership programs, we base our work around the power of stories.

I could see that some of the writers in the group were clearly getting it, how to apply a set of literary ideas and practices to peace building. But others were frowning with frustration, until one gentleman put up his hand to tell me that ‘These ideas are all very well but you are totally naive.”  I was curious to find out why he said that. He explained, “The Middle East is much more complicated.”  I wasn’t sure what to say except to acknowledge his opinions. But for the rest of the seminar, his comments acted as a mocking chorus, questioning  every statement I made.

I should be used to that by now, as I imagine most people are, who dare to do Middle East peace work. A year or so back when NSL was nothing more than an idea, there was a veritable chorus of folks who told us we were mad, that we had no idea of what we were doing, that we had no financial plan, (which was pretty much true then) that we would have to have a bus load of trauma counselors ready for anyone we brought to Washington from Gaza, that the people-to-people approach of other programs was a waste of time, that this other program was a disaster, that this newer program was trapped in funding politics, and on and on.  The coup de grace came from an activist in Jerusalem who got so furious with our idea of bringing young Israeli and Palestinian students to Washington to work together in internships, that she walked out on our coffee date screaming, “You are nothing but a revolutionary tourist!” I have been called many things before, but never that.  She was right about the tourist, it being my first visit to the region, but revolutionary was  way too flattering.

The New Story Leadership did get up and running and last summer, we had our first ten students, five Palestinians and five Israelis and they had an extraordinary experience, one that seems to have made a difference even at this early stage. But for us, even to have launched the program in the face of all these disqualifying narratives was in itself probably the greatest achievement.  They said we couldn’t do it.

The Middle East as a story system aggressively defends its territory-there are “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out Stories” told everywhere, and one begins to understand why the subject is so full of pessimism and frustration. But one suspects that these are often the voices of the many vested interests that profit from the conflict NOT being solved.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton keeps saying that ‘ the status quo is not sustainable’ but the point is that for 63 years, it has been quite sustainable. As I told the artists rather facetiously, if peace was declared tomorrow between Palestine and Israel, there would be 5 million peace workers out of a job. Including me. The Middle East seems to support the biggest Peace Industry in the world.

When I revisit that seminar conversation, I want to replay it so that next time when someone says that we are naive, I am going to own it with pride. The theologians call it a second naivete but it is the same idea, that someone coming new to a challenge has the advantage of a mature ignorance. Life teaches you that you don’t need to know half of what you think you do, and the real challenge is what you need to unlearn. When one is working with the younger generation, who would want to burden them with any more than what they already carry from their experiences of war and occupation? It is a crime to discount their hope by calling them naive-they are supposed to be! We have to discover our second naivete, and make sure they don’t  too quickly lose their first.

That is why we assert our three core ideas in a very naive and uncomplicated way,

  • first,  that stories matter
  • second, that the Middle East needs a new story if it is going to find a sustainable path to peace
  • third, that the young people whose future is most at stake need to be inspired to take the lead by creating that story together

David Grossman, the great Israeli novelist has a new book called “To the End of the Land.” In an interview recently, he said

” We need some naivete to continue to believe in the option to change things-even in order to believe in mankind.”

So, here’s to naivete.

Here’s to refusing to see things other than clearly and simply, no matter how complicated.

Of course it can be complicated, but the simplest things  mostly are, strangely enough. And its we who complicate them!