Noa Baum’s Negative Capability

j_street_largeThe following is a guest post by Mark Snyderman.

Theater J and J Street organized several panels that examined the situation through film and performance. Israeli-born storyteller Noa Baum performed her show, A Land Twice Promised, a story of her friendship formed with a Palestinian woman in Davis, California. Their sons become fast friends; the women, more slowly, more deeply.

These mothers exchange their stories as they warm to one another: each coming of age in or near Jerusalem. Surviving the wars of their childhood. Each imbued with a deep fear and mistrust of the other. Their accounts give way to those of their mothers, and others. We heard the Old City fall twice, from different perspectives. (The pregnant implications: can it happen again? Will it?)

Noa is a force. I cannot better describe her. Her performance transports and transforms. After the show, there’s more: she shares her unscripted thoughts. The personal suffering on all sides is immense. It endures, and it shall continue. But it can also paralyze and poison: if the parties conceive of justice as a function of their personal suffering and the memory of their own collective pain, there is nothing for it but more of the same.

And the parties understand more than their own suffering: they also know their dance steps. Debating is necessary – indeed it can be fruitful – but it is not likely to change any minds. Or hearts. The list of atrocities on all sides is too dismal, too long. Quickly, the camps fall back upon their own histories, their own narratives, the deeply grooved tracks of strong arguments. To all this, Noa says enough. To bypass the debate model is to make progress. A competition of histories shall doom us to perpetual conflict, if not worse.

We need to know these histories, but more important, know each other, and to acknowledge the valid claims of the other. Not just at the leadership level, but at the grass roots. As Noa explains the foregoing, she models and masters the theory of negative capability espoused by Keats. Others write far more clearly on this, but bluntly put, Keats aspired not merely to ask questions, or build a strong case. He instead sought to fully engage all sides of an issue, and explore them, without an a priori commitment to one answer. It isn’t mere empathy, but a more radical form: to know and enter the perspective of others, keeping two or more opposing ideas in mind until a choice has to be made.

This negative capability might collide with some usual modes of conflict resolution: I’m guilty –- along with others, I suspect –- of thinking our task is to find the answer, to solve the puzzle, to proceed until the task is done. Noa’s lesson (and that of the smart short film Schnaim (“Two”), by Shimon Richik, also screened) is more compelling, and crystallizes the conference: the greater value is to stay intentionally open-minded, to live with contradiction, and to powerfully acknowledge our human brothers and sisters.

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik