My friend Yael Luttwak, a film maker, undertook a brilliant project in Palestine (now comprising Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) in 2007 to improve relations between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian women. In her own words she “filmed A Slim Peace, documenting what happened when women who were secular Israeli Jews, Jewish settlers, West Bank Muslims, and Bedouin came together in a health and nutrition group run by a Jewish and a Muslim woman. Most had never met the likes of their counterparts before, and most never would have. But in that setting, they connected and empathy and understanding grew.” These women met in Gush Etzion, outside Jerusalem, not for the ostensible purpose of improving Israeli Palestinian relations, but to explore how to improve their diets and lose weight. That is the brilliance of the project. Improved understanding of each other as people was a by-product rather than the main focus. It is worth reading Yael’s full account of the project: “About A Slim Peace”
With Yael’s project in mind, I read with some dismay the experience of white and black fraternity and sorority students at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga with what seemed a similar project. In the 1990s well meaning white students joined receptive and welcoming black students in learning the African American “step” routines that back students had performed annually for many years. But in October 2016 “black fraternities and sororities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga had decided to [step] on their own. They took the show off campus, abandoning a glitzy annual homecoming event that had long included black and white students — and produced a program they felt was a more authentic reflection of stepping’s African American origins.” What was going on? “The-show-was-supposed-to-bring-black-and-white-students-together-it-almost-tore-them-apart”.
It is important to understand the profound difference between Yael’s Palestinian project and what happened at the University of Tennessee. The gatherings of Israeli and Palestinian women did not result in merging and blending, melting pot style, their respective cultures. Rather it resulted in improved understanding and cross-cultural bonding.
According one black student at the U of Tennessee: “The show no longer felt like a sharing of tradition but, rather, was one more element of black culture and identity that had been usurped…. This isn’t just entertainment for us,… When white students performed, it was just a performance. It had no greater meaning, or a sense of why. We don’t step without a ‘why.’ It connects us to something bigger.’”
“’Stepping isn’t yours,’ Hicks recalled responding. ‘This experience was so essential, and it’s so tied to the history of [black Greeks], and I think it just became something you have stolen and you are using it as your own’…. Kaitibi [a black student] told the audience that the black Greeks wanted to do something to ‘preserve our heritage and honor our traditions.’ It wouldn’t necessarily be bad if a white group wanted to do the same, ‘but we have to wonder: What traditions are you honoring?’”
“Black students [explained that] they were trying to find a balance between self-affirmation and racial reconciliation.”
In other words, the goal of racial and religious harmony and equal treatment under the law is not best served be attempting to obliterate or denying cultural/racial/religious differences. It is better served by developing and strengthening cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.