On October 22nd and October 23rd, Noa Baum, an Israeli-Jewish storyteller, and Lehigh’s Mohsen Mahdawi, a third-generation Palestinian refugee, hosted three events on the power of storytelling as a means to building peace. During the first event, Baum presented her show titled ‘A Land Twice Promised’ to the Lehigh community. In her performance, she shared the experiences of people close to her who the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deeply impacted. Afterward, Mahdawi gave a powerful account of his experiences growing up in the West Bank of Palestine as a refugee.
The event was incredibly important for various reasons. First, because we are at an age and time where the world is divided, Baum and Mahdawi brought a voice of unity to Lehigh students. Moreover, the event offered information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Lehigh students and community members of all backgrounds. Mahdawi’s perspective as a Palestinian refugee has helped to build bridges between Palestinians and Jews on Lehigh’s campus and in the local community. One of Mahdawi’s key partners is Rabbi Steve Nathan, Director of the Jewish Center on campus and Vice Chaplain. Mahdawi seeks to build connections in the community that have never existed before. For instance, before Mahdawi, Lehigh had never had a Palestinian attend Shabbat or go to Chabad before. Mahdawi started his efforts for peace on the small scale of Lehigh’s campus but views the campus as a prototype for other universities invested in building peace. Mahdawi states, “If we are able to make peace here, we can make it elsewhere on a much larger level.”
For 16 years, Baum has been advocating for the power of storytelling to promote peace. Learning about Baum’s efforts was very meaningful to Mahdawi because just 10-12 years ago he never thought that there were members of the Jewish faith also trying to achieve peace and to address the bloodshed. The images and sounds of explosions will forever be seared into Mahdawi’s mind, as the immense fear he felt and the conflicts he experienced have shaped every atom of his being. Mahdawi vividly remembered the image of his stepmother and siblings hiding in the bathroom at the recent event. He also discussed how violence and war evoke incredible fear and anger. When Mahdawi met Baum through Rabbi Steve Nathan, he realized something remarkable: after years of loathing those on the other side of the war, he had forgotten to tell Baum that he was sorry. “I did not think that there were people like you fighting to end this misery,” he said.
For Mahdawi, one triggering image that connected him to Baum was when Baum told the audience during the event about her grandmother and mother during the 1967 war. She mentioned that during the bombings, the mothers placed their children underneath them, selflessly protecting them from the violence like a mother duck nestling her ducklings. Mahdawi remembered this exact image with the mothers in his family. It brought him back to what he had experienced in Palestine. Mahdawi stated, “No matter what the situation, civilians are victims of wars. We all seek love and protection for those we love. We have so much in common: the tears, the pain. They all taste the same. Love will always be at the core of human existence. Everyone wants to protect their family.”
The second event was a lunch dialogue on October 23rd in which Baum and Mahdawi shared their experiences and answered questions from an audience of Lehigh students, professors, faculty, and community members. Having two perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was very powerful for members of the audience to hear, especially for many of the Jewish students that never heard a Palestinian perspective before or interacted with someone from a Palestinian refugee camp. During this event, Mahdawi shared how he lost his best friend, his uncle, and his two cousins from the violence. He had witnessed war firsthand as a child. He brought vivid images to the audience in order for them to feel the trauma of war. Mahdawi used the power of storytelling to connect deeply with the audience. It allowed him to convey his emotions and perspective in an unthreatening way. The purpose of storytelling is to make others see and empathize. For Mahdawi, when offering different perspectives about war, it is important to him to tell others that he is not angry at civilians across the border and in other nations, but instead considers their story from a lens of empathy and understanding.
Mahdawi states, “Colleges have taught us a one-way method of debate. We can’t see perspectives through this method. With debate, there is only one truth. Through a dialogue of storytelling, we practice the ability to hear each other and to feel each others’ experiences. Storytelling allows us to acknowledge and expand our own understanding. This is unlike one-sided storytelling that happens in movies and documentaries. Listening to the narratives of others is an experience you cannot doubt. I cannot doubt Noa’s experience. I believe her experience is true. I thought that this event was a great way for us to have a dialogue that was positive, optimistic, and promising. I saw the feelings around the room. People were inspired by this energy. We were encouraging people to open up, to connect, and to change in a peaceful way.”
Lastly, the third event took place on the evening of October 23rd with Baum hosting a workshop aimed at bridging differences through storytelling. Those who attended started out the workshop as strangers, but by the end, everyone felt deeply connected to each other. At the workshop, Noa guided the attendees through various exercises aimed at improving their ability to connect with and listen to others. The participants shared treasured memories from their lives, many drawing upon past experiences from their childhood. Noa encouraged the participants to listen to each other without interruptions. After listening to each other’s stories, Noa instructed the listeners to share appreciation regarding what they liked about each of the stories they heard. Noa instructed the receivers of the appreciation to open themselves up to accept the truth of the listeners’ responses and reactions. The event demonstrated that although there are constructed barriers, we often forget that we are all human beings that connect on shared experiences, emphasizing the importance of the ability to trust and open up to others without fear of judgment.
While the presence of many community members at the events excited Mahdawi, he hopes to integrate the South Bethlehem community even more in his efforts for peace. He feels very connected to the community and believes that spaces that connect Lehigh students and community members are imperative to fostering strong connections and expanding voices beyond Lehigh’s walls. Events that connect people of different backgrounds and bring people together are very valuable because they encourage us to open our minds and hearts to the humanity of others and to build communities where differences do not lead to violent conflict.