My Turn: Wrestling with biases

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, February 26, 2016 1:04am
  • Opinion

We sat around the table drenched in dueling biases. How else could it be for members of the Juneau People for Peace and Justice (JPPJ) and Sukkat Shalom congregation? We were discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just after the 51-day war in Gaza. One side ran a paid ad in the Empire condemning the Israeli government’s action. The other supported its right to defend itself.

Who in their right mind would want to be in the middle of that controversy?

Amazingly, “Wrestling Jerusalem” found its way to Juneau by bridging this entrenched political divide.

Together with Perseverance Theater and Northern Light United Church, Sukkat Shalom and JPPJ are sponsoring four performances of this play next week. We’re following San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis in encouraging a different kind of local conversation about the century-long conflict in the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” is a solo performance by playwright/actor Aaron Davidman in which he gives voice to over a dozen different characters. It’s billed as a “personal story that grapples with the complexities of identity, history, and social justice” to shed “light on one of the most entrenched conflicts of our time.”

I don’t know how the play accomplishes this because I haven’t read the script. I chose to avoid examining it for bias before deciding if I’d support the project. To do that would have made my bias a priority over the community-building spirit and trust offered to members of Sukkat Shalom after those first meetings.

Davidman readily admits his play is biased. When I spoke with him last week he said it’s nothing more than “this particular American-Jewish man’s perspective and journey into Israel and Palestine” after “meeting a whole range of different people and trying to understand where they’re coming from.” In other words, their individual stories are interpreted through his bias.

But it has to be that way. All personal experience is, by its very nature, a subjective understanding of reality. It’s not our religious belief or allegiance to political party that makes us biased. Those symptomatic outcomes originate in our individual, unscripted journey through life.

The challenge of all biases is to see through the eyes of other people. Not their philosophies which ground them to any institution. Nor their interpretation of history or current affairs. We have to drill down to that same level of humanity without our prejudicial chatter blocking the path.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” isn’t Davidman’s first attempt to tackle this highly contentious topic through personal stories. He co-wrote “Blood Relative” which premiered in San Francisco in 2005. Jewish-Israeli theater artist Meirav Kupperberg collaborated on that and said Davidman always worried about representing all sides correctly.

Such dedication to everyone else’s story is likely to produce disappointment for the strident defender on either side. Anyone looking for solutions to the conflict won’t be satisfied either.

But “the role of art isn’t to smooth out the issues so everyone feels good,” Davidman explained. It’s “to turn over the compost heap and let the fumes out … to move us from our fixed positions back into the unknown, which is really where we are, because we don’t know how to solve the problem.”

That’s exactly where Sukkat Shalom and JPPJ were when we first met in the fall of 2014. Of course we still can’t solve the problem. But to begin a meaningful conversation, we had to hear each other’s personal stories over the misunderstandings, mistrust and bitterness which had grown out of our publicly shared biases.

Davidman told me that “Wrestling Jerusalem” might be thought of as a play that protests the polemic by inviting nuance and complexity into the discussion. “It gives people from all over the political, religious, and cultural spectrum different points of entry” he said, adding that a prime objective is cultivating empathy.

Empathy is something we grant to people, not to points of view or beliefs. It has to come from our true self which is much deeper than our political, religious or cultural biases could ever reveal. That’s why the after-performance discussions are such an integral part of the play.

From this perspective, Davidman says, the play speaks to gun control, race relations, gay marriage and anywhere else that political polarization has infected the public dialogue.

Bringing both sides of any of these controversies into the same forum might seem like a risky work of art. But it may be that only after wrestling with our biases as Davidman has that we’ll be able to recognize the generous potential in each other’s humanity.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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