By Leo Lou
At a recent workshop I attended for young West Bank Palestinian students and activists, a leader told the story of “The Bear that Wasn’t,” using some beautiful illustrations. A bear woke up after the winter, came out of his cave, and found a giant factory where the forests used to be. The foreman saw him, mistaken him for a worker and told him to get to work. He replied: “But I’m not a man, I’m a bear.”
The foreman dismissed him with laughter and sent him to the general manager, who sent him to first, second, third vice president and then president. “You are not a bear,” Every single one of them said, “You are just a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.” The president also decided that he couldn’t be a bear because “all bears live in the zoo.
They went to the zoo. There, the bears in the zoo said the bear was not a bear, because if he were “he would be behind bars like us.” Then they took the bear to a circus. The bears in the circus didn’t think he was a bear because if he were “he would be riding unicycles like us.”
The bear eventually thought that he must be a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat if everyone told him so. So he worked at the factory till the next winter came. The bear felt really, really cold in the snow. He wished he were a bear. He was almost frozen to death when he found a cave and fell asleep. Soon he was dreaming sweet dreams, just like all bears do, when they hibernate.
So even though the FOREMAN and the GENERAL MANAGER and the THIRD VICE PRESIDENT and the SECOND VICE PRESIDENT and the FIRST VICE PRESIDENT and the PRESIDENT and the ZOO BEARS and the CIRCUS BEARS had said, he was a silly man who needed a shave and wore a fur coat, I don’t think he really believed it. Do you? No indeed, he knew he wasn’t a silly man, and he wasn’t a silly Bear either.”
Doc Miller, a veteran educator, regards this story as one of the most emotionally appealing children’s tales he’s ever encountered. We bring thirty copies of the story wherever we host workshops. I’ve sat in dozens of circles with Palestinians, Israelis, and people from so many other countries. I’ve seen people with tears in their eyes as they listen.
A seventy-year-old Palestinian schoolteacher sobbed from beginning to end. “I’m the bear!” he said. “They told me I’m an Israeli now. They taught me Hebrew. They asked me to stand under the Israeli flag and sing their national anthem. They repeated over and over and never asked me how I feel and what I think I am. But I’m an Arab. I’m a ’48 refugee. I speak Arabic and my hometown village is Beit Ummar. I’m the bear.”
Another woman also said she was the bear. “Everyone told me you are a woman and there is no way you can be a lawyer. I was told this everyday by everyone, so often that I didn’t think I could do it. But the truth is, I would have lost my soul and my future if I didn’t become a lawyer. I’m a woman, a veiled Muslim woman. And I’m an excellent lawyer.”
The mere words “I’m the bear” make me tear up every time.
In June, the Israeli Defense Force was carrying out raids all over the West Bank, especially around Hebron. I remember trying and failing to find any news coverage of the unrest and civil casualties from any major US news outlets. The New York Times front page had nothing. Neither did CNN. For three days in a row, I woke up in my comfortable home in the German Colony in Jerusalem and checked the news only to find that the number of Palestinian death increased. I’ve gotten used to checking first Ma’an News Agency and then Times of Israel the first thing after I wake up, even though the perspectives on the same event were so different they might as well have been talking about two completely different occurrences.
I’ve gotten used to checking my friend Hashem’s Facebook page next, because it would be an unconventionally peaceful day if nothing tragic happened to his family, or neighbors, or someone in the Al-Arroub refugee camp overnight.
Heavy-hearted, I couldn’t hide my frustration from my parents during Skype calls. “Terrible things have been happening in the West Bank, have you heard?” Ten minutes later, my mom replied with links to two articles about Iraq and the ISIS: “Are these what you’re talking about? But nothing seems to be related to Israel.” She couldn’t even find news coverage even if she tried.
I woke up two weeks ago with an anxious Skype message from my mom—the most anxious she’s been since I arrived. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated! Have you heard? Are you safe?” Yes, mom, indeed I’ve heard, I smiled and replied. For the past two weeks days, I have been receiving on average five inquiries or concerns daily about my safety from loving family and friends. Reporting of the clashes and riots has risen to the front page of so many major news outlets that it was hard for even my non-news-reader parents to miss.
Somehow, the retaliation killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian tipped the scale and the media reached a tipping point.All of a sudden I’m living in this state-department-warned-against “war zone.”