On May 8 our young mother’s group met to discuss identity. Identity is one of the biggest topics we cover in Musalaha as it addresses how others see us, how we see ourselves, and how we need to respect each other’s self-definition.

 We began with some games that emphasized our many connections to one another through our commonalities. Afterward, we spent time in worship and one lady shared a short devotional, illustrating through pictures how we build walls between ourselves as Israelis and Palestinians, enemies and friends, and more. Yet the cross came to tear down those walls (Ephesians 2:14-22), and our primary identity is found at the foot of the cross, and this message flows outward to all areas of our lives.

 Hedva, Musalaha’s Women’s Director, came and facilitated an exercise on identity. She placed labels on chairs throughout the room, a mixture of national and religious terms we use for others and ourselves. First, she asked the Palestinian ladies to choose a chair that defined them and sits or stands next to it. All of the women chose a religious identity, either “Christian” or “believer.” Afterward, she asked them to pick the chair that best described their identity, without choosing labels related to their faith. Most of the ladies picked different chairs, ranging from “Israeli-Palestinian” to “Palestinian.” One lady chose two chairs – both “Palestinian and “Immigrant.” After each round, Hedva asked the ladies to explain their choices and to share with us why they see themselves in this particular way.

 Next, Hedva asked the Israeli ladies to choose any chair that best described them. Similar to the Palestinian ladies, all the Israeli ladies first chose their religious identity, ranging from “Messianic Jew” to “Christian” to “believer.” Then, Hedva asked the Israelis to choose an identity that is not religious. Most of the ladies chose “Israeli” and one chose “Immigrant.”

 After each round, Hedva asked if anyone heard something that surprised them. The Palestinians asked about the religious terms the Israelis chose – why “Messianic Jew” over “Hebrew Christian,” and why “believer” and not “Messianic Jew,” and so forth. The Israelis were most surprised to see two of the Palestinian ladies choose “Israeli-Palestinian” as opposed to “Israeli-Arab” or just “Palestinian.” The one lady who chose “Palestinian” and “Immigrant” explained that her family came from Jaffa before 1948, and when she married she moved from Ramallah to Beit Sahour.

 The exercise was a good example that the labels we might choose for others are often different from the labels they choose for themselves. During the discussions of why we chose a certain identity, one Israeli and one Palestinian in particular mentioned that they came to their conclusions to a large degree because of their interaction with others. 

The Israeli explained that her daughter studies with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and the easiest descriptor for them is Messianic Jew since they follow a mixture of both Christian and Jewish traditions.

The Palestinian explained that her father was Orthodox Christian, her husband is Assyrian Christian, and they attend an Evangelical church; the label all three hold in common is “Christian.”

It is important to let people choose their identities, and in the context of our relationships, we could discuss our choices. Later, the facilitator pointed out that the terms people might most often use to describe us (“Arab” and “Jew”) were not chosen by any of the participants.

While we sat together and discussed how our identities are formed (often in separation from each other), our children played together, running through the courtyard, and climbing the low-hanging branches on trees. They are effortlessly building an identity of ‘playmate’ that recognizes ethnic and linguistic differences and continues all the same. They find ways to have fun, playing in the dirt together, decorating balloons, negotiating sharing and taking turns. Our efforts to learn about identity spill over to them and they do so without thinking about it, communicating through cooperation, smiles, and respect.

By Musalaha Publications Department