My whole life, my parents and teachers taught me that the only way to know the truth, the only way to form a valid opinion, and the only way to gain enough authority to speak on an in issue is to hear multiple perspectives. My father, a staunch liberal, includes Fox News commentary in his weekly lineup of Sunday news programs in order to hear from “the other side.” One of my elementary school teachers’ go-to strategies in conflict resolution was to tell us to put ourselves in the shoes of the kid that pulled our hair throughout the entire kindergarten graduation or the girl who was the only one in the class not to get invited to Susie Smith’s 7th birthday blowout. Figuring out the big issues in life, whether they present themselves as juvenile social interactions or disagreements on abortion, must include exploring opposing arguments, external factors, and foreign angles. So that’s what I was doing—my duty as a supposedly educated, well-informed, opinionated young woman—when I went to the Hezbollah military museum which happens to be partially funded by the government of Iran… right?
If the rule is that I can’t have my own opinion or voice my thoughts on a topic without hearing every side of it, then of course it’s ok for me to pay money (technically I didn’t but someone did) to hear the perspective of a group often referred to as a terrorist organization by my government… I think. Pretty sure. Yeah, we’ll go with that. I’m 99.9% sure that my DukeEngage program’s collective curiosity is a completely justifiable, natural way of clarifying the details of history. I’m not as sure if the fact that I understood where the organizers of this museum were coming from is ok, though.
You read that correctly. Would I call what I felt “sympathy” for Hezbollah? Definitely not. Do I feel bad that Israel attacked Lebanon, inciting this group’s rage and violence in protection of their country and religious beliefs? Yeah. But wait—isn’t that the same thing? Now I’m confused, but the one thing I’m 100% positive that I feel is guilty. I feel guilty that I feel bad for those involved in this fight. I feel guilty that I’m justifying certain actions of a terrorist group in my mind. In doing so, I feel guilty for betraying what my country has taught me to believe. I feel guilty for not feeling bad for Israel (in this situation). I feel guilty for even having opinions or feelings in general because, after all, I’m a Catholic American who is half-European and half-Cuban with no real ties to these events/nations—genetic, religious, or otherwise.
The closest connection I have to this conflict, these issues, these clashes of divine claims to land, whatever you want to call them, is my humanity. In my naïve, cheesy mind, that should be enough. I, as a human being, know that if Canada invaded Buffalo, New York, claimed authority to control my city, and pointed scary tanks at me if I didn’t cooperate, I would not be ok with that. I would be so “not ok with that” that I might feel moved to take up arms, pray a little bit, and fight for my right to preserve the Buffalo that I know, love, and have called home for years. Is it so wrong or inappropriate for my heart to ache for the people in Lebanon, including members of Hezbollah and those who fought with them, who actually endured something as traumatizing and dehumanizing as this? Can I really blame them for fighting back? I conclude that the answer is no.
This jumbled synopsis of my emotions in response to my Mleeta experience reflects the bitter melting pot of conflicting thoughts that my brain became during our visit. My heart broke for Lebanon for two very different reasons. First, as I already said, I couldn’t help but feel horribly for those who felt the horrific realities of Israel’s offense. On the other hand, the tragedies that they endured did not leave marks solely on the physical appearance of Lebanon. They also left behind a sort of poison in the hearts of Hezbollah members and their supporters/sympathizers. The essence of hate was so thickly present in the air that I could cut it with a knife. I couldn’t help but feel sad that so many people went on living their lives with such crippling feelings of scorn.
I will never forget the image of small children scampering around the museum holding terrifyingly realistic toy machine guns, pretending to shoot their siblings and friends with gleeful looks on their little faces. Did their parents see this as any different than American parents see their children playing with water guns? In Lebanon, there are soldiers carrying machine guns everywhere. Were they simply pretending to be soldiers in good fun, or did the context of the Hezbollah museum change the context of the toy? I tend to agree with the latter, but do their parents? I could argue that the pain their parents felt in the wake of this war penetrated them so deeply that it was passed on to their offspring in the form of fake machine guns, but I’m not even sure if I have the right to do so. I have no idea what their parents felt/are still feeling and I can’t pretend that I do.
What I do know that I believe regardless of my background is that an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind. The organizers of this museum and Hezbollah do not agree with me. One of the biggest points made in the introduction video for the museum was if Israel drops a bomb on Lebanon, Hezbollah will drop a bomb on Israel. Of course this is how war works, but the tender ideology behind this philosophy felt and looked like nothing else I had ever experienced. The intensity in the voices of those we heard from and the mockery of Israeli symbols in the exhibits we saw echoed the almost offensive defense Hezbollah created with this museum. Our tour guide, ironically named “Jihad,” confidently told us his take on Israel: “Their regime is fragile. They can be broken by a stone.” As an American, I have been taught the opposite my entire life.
The important thing that I took from this experience was that we are all raised in our own unique context through which we opine on the events of history. My context is very different from a conservative Shi’a Lebanese context, which is different from an American Orthodox Jewish context, which is different from a Tibetan Buddhist monk’s context. This tour made me question everything I know and everything I felt, and I’m glad it did. I learned so much more about the world, its people, and the events they have incited by becoming confused in this new context than I ever will from a traditional classroom or news outlet. I guess that’s what the founders of DukeEngage meant when they included “challenge yourself” in the program’s motto.