In October 2011, prize winner Rabbi Melissa Weintraub visited Grinnell
College to receive her 2011 Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize
award and share her experience with the Grinnell community and the other
>> SARAH PURCELL:
Melissa cofounded the group, Encounter, in 2005. Encounter is a group that engages Jewish diaspora leaders, particularly American Jewish leaders, from across the political spectrum in conversation and face-to-face discussion with Palestinians in Palestine.
>> RABBI MELISSA WEINTRAUB:
So when I went to the West Bank, I was pretty emotionally conditioned to distrust everything that I heard from Palestinians. But, my direct experience trumped all that emotional conditioning.
I believe that most peace activists, by withdrawing in upon themselves, had become completely ineffectual and irrelevant. I had been forced into greater complexity and balance and humbled by absorbing a greater multiplicity of voices and stories myself.
I was travelling uniquely between all these land-locked worlds and world views, and I saw the necessity of bringing them into conversation if we were going to ever have the collective intelligence we needed to resolve this conflict. And I believe that my fundamental values demanded it, so the path was paved.
It turns out, when you sincerely remove shame and coercion and attack and dismissal from the equation, the human curiosity to encounter the other is quite natural and powerful. We had created a model that could hold Palestinian and Jew, right and left, religious and secular in conversation with each other and with the support of our carefully crafted model our participants had confronted scary and de-stabilizing new perspectives. And, it turned out the sky didn’t fall, but the earth cracked open.
It’s coming to an understanding of other people and I totally agree with you, it’s the core of social justice because I think of social justice ultimately what are we after, right, we’re trying to make human potential possible, right, we’re trying to help realize the capacity of the human being to be all that we can be. We’re trying to affirm human dignity and a lot of social justice work, I think, actually ends up betraying that goal, in the name of serving it because we degrade or dehumanize our own ideological adversaries; the people that we perceive as oppressors, that we want to bring down. And Encounters work is all about saying the so called oppressor is perceived differently depending on which side of divide you sit on and our work is about trying to see the dignity and humanity of everybody and help them realize their potential whichever side of the conflict they’re on or you perceive them to be on.
I think recognition for the work and the tremendous sacrifice that is involved in starting an organization and doing really risk taking and in some cases, I think, for all of us, even life threatening work is something that, first of all, I think it will encourage other people to take those risks, it catapults our work forward by shining a light on it and raising the profile of it. I think it inspires students to start envisioning themselves being able to walk in these footsteps and I can’t thank Grinnell enough.