Stories from the Frontline
For the last month, Mosaic Theater has been joined by Sivan Atzmon, an incredible intern who joins us from Israel as a fellow through New Story Leadership (NSL). The organization has brought together a cohort of five Israeli and five Palestinian leaders for an intensive, extended stay in Washington D.C.
A CITY OF POSSIBILITY
This week the Mosaic team attended New Story Leadership's summit event at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, bringing the stories of the ten fellows together with a remarkable team of expert panelists to unpack the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, embrace the stories brought westward by these fellows, and galvanize the collective agency we hold to craft new narratives and control our own stories. "All of these people are agents of change," said NSL President Paul Costello. And all ten had brought their varied stories to us—stories of the hardships and the battles and the joys of life on the frontline of conflict, a half-a-world away.
It was Sivan who introduced the panel. "I believe in living social change through theater," she said. She introduced us then to Shay Ater, an NSL fellow and young filmmaker from Israel, who told us of his experience manufacturing propaganda for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), during his term of mandatory military service required of nearly all Israeli men and women. "It's like shooting arrows while covering your face with your hands," he said of making the films, "so you can't see what you hit."
Sivan Atzmon (far right), introducing the first group of panelist
A RIGHT TO DEFEND, AND A RIGHT TO RESIST
One of the themes most motivating to the Mosaic team was the notion of rightness and justness in the heart of conflict. American University's Dr. Boaz Atzili introduced the profound challenge of empathizing with two sides of a single conflict—especially so when we, ourselves, are players. We hear of Israel's sovereign right to defend itself, and so too of Palestine's right to resist the Occupation. And in the same way that Shay found himself caught up in the cycle of propaganda manufacturing, so do all of us trip into the infinite reverberation of our own self-selected stories. We live in an age where we can pick our media, our personalities, our news and our friends and the natures of our feeds, and in so doing we manufacture our own personal echo chambers that carry us off to the left or the right.
Stories are powerful, and the way we choose to share our own and listen to new ones plays a profound role in the way we view the world. Stories have the ability to trap us; to overwhelm and confuse us. To lock us inside false narratives and misconceived realities, and to keep us chained to pasts we may not like or push us forward into futures we'd rather resist.
Fr. Josh Thomas (center).
But in the heart of all this, we have the ability to overcome and rewrite our stories; to take agency over what's ours and control our own endings. Manana Gnolidze-Swanson of George Mason University noted the profound importance of engaging the narrative on both sides of conflict, as Fr. Josh Thomas of Kids4Peace reinforced our ability—as young people, as leaders, and as citizens of a world that's greater than our homelands—to define for ourselves what our future will be, and lay the bricks to build it up.
A TIDE FOR CHANGE
The second part of the morning was launched by George Mason University's Professor Marc Gopin, who began his remarks with a note of caution — that it's foolish for us to think we can jump in and save the world right away. That the full-bodied, headstrong energy of youth is something to be well-managed and mitigated to best serve the fight for peace. "It's better not to expect radical change and be pleasantly surprised," Professor Gopin noted, "than to expect it tomorrow and be radically depressed."
“It’s better not to expect radical change and be pleasantly surprised, than to expect it tomorrow and be radically depressed”
— Professor Marc Gopin
History is a long game. And as young person on the frontlines of conflict, we must consider well the ways in which we give ourselves to service. Will it be to the military, for just a few years? Or to our country, for the span of our lifetimes? "History is with you," Professor Gopin reminded us. "History is with democracy. History is with human rights."
These principles of democracy and justness are sort of unprecedented contemporary concepts, unheard of in the ancient world. It is remarkable, Professor Gopin noted, that we have a pope who advocates for compassion. Or a Germany, reborn from recent hell into one of the most powerful democracies in the world. We inch towards justness, Professor Gopin notes, but must have the stamina and self-control to march at pace with progress, and not attempt to sprint. We do more good when we allow ourselves a lifetime of service to our country, as opposed to a few brief months in battle.
This kind of slow and gradual change change is a tough pill to swallow — especially for people who are young, when the fires of injustice seem omnipresent. This conflict is echoed by our work in the theater: what, if anything, is the point of making the plays we've endeavored to produce? Are we doing good? Are we thinking we're doing good? Is there a measurable impact to this work, when the driving force for making art is something greater and more lofty than the sake of the art itself? We discussed this as a staff at length; it was a challenging conversation that ended on an unresolved note. We have coalesced at Mosaic for the sake of an undefined and greater good that we hope to bring about through plays that matter; through impactful conversation; and through the exchange of our stories both on stage and off.
What will come of this work remains to be seen. But we are hopeful and hungry for impact. And we must remember, both for our sake and for that of our theater, that progress is a slow and steady march.
"Our stories are waves," said Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui, towards the end of the day. "If they come together, they create a tide for change."
Mosaic Theater, to be successful, must be a source of continued waves. We may not break or bend the state of things with any single play. But by pushing ourselves and our audience; by rallying our community and our neighborhood; and by engaging the bravest, boldest artists of our time, we can seek a steady impact.
It's a slow process. It will require discipline and self-control from us, and our own continued belief in the good of this work. We must trust ourselves to be steadfast; we must trust our artists to be honest; and we must trust our audience to be open to these stories we've set out to share.