I’ve been passionately involved with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict for the past 22 years. I started leading citizen delegations to Israel the West Bank and Gaza in 1990 in order to bring Jews and Palestinians and others together to break stereotypes and work together for peace and justice. At some point, I made a clear decision to work for reconciliation, and the delegations evolved into the Compassionate Listening Project. We also hold Compassionate Listening workshops now for Israelis and Palestinians.
Our project is based on Gene Knudsen Hoffman’s pioneering work. She’s been working to bring Compassionate Listening into the peace movement for the last 20 years. One of the first things I read of Gene’s was:
“Sometime ago I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard and certainly never addressed. Later, I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded, and that at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound.”
Many Palestinians have asked me over the years, “How could the Jewish people, who have suffered so greatly, do such harm to another people?” The answer, of course, lies buried in the question-like the abused child who grows up to become an abusive parent. It’s hard to miss the wounding of the Jewish people. Collectively, Jews are still locked into the victim role. And when you’re a victim it’s hard to see how you could be oppressing another. It’s identical to the abusive parent who still identifies as the victim. We have to remember that all parties to a conflict are wounded.
Now, unfortunately, the Palestinians are undergoing the same cycle of victimization. Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a prominent psychologist in Gaza, told us a story last year. He was put in Palestinian prison for his open criticism of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority’s human rights record. The large, central prison used to be an Israeli prison, and his Palestinian interrogators had all once been prisoners there, themselves, in the Israeli prison. While sitting in his cell one day, Dr. Sarraj overheard another Palestinian being interrogated. The prisoner wasn’t answering and the interrogator became increasingly loud and angry, until he suddenly erupted, screaming and shouting in Hebrew, which of course was the language of his torturers. So again, at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound.
The first premise for Compassionate Listeners is that we must acknowledge that every party to a conflict is suffering. And that our job as peacemakers is to hear their grievances and find ways to tell each side about the humanity and the suffering of the other. We have to find ways to bring conflicting parties to listen to one another-not to dialogue at first, not to argue or debate. Just to listen. We must drop any arrogance of thinking that we know how it is for another.
You might think listening is an easy thing to do. It’s not! One of the most difficult listening sessions I’ve ever had was when 20 of us Compassionate Listeners presented our work to a large audience of Israelis at Jerusalem’s prestigious Van Leer Institute. The audience was completely mixed – from far right to far left. Audience members attacked each other viciously – us too – if they didn’t like what was being said. We were modeling Compassionate Listening really well – we had been practicing for 2-weeks at that point and we were getting pretty good at it. A woman stood up half way through and said, “You know, we Israelis have to admit that listening is a very radical concept in Israel, but I think these people are onto something.” And there was actually a great deal of transformation that evening.
Compassionate Listening is the first step of a peace-building process. I believe in it deeply. I know it works because it’s worked for me and those who’ve participated in the project. I have found compassion for some Israeli and Palestinian extremists. It doesn’t mean I condone their actions, but the point is: How can we sit in judgement of someone whose life we have not lived?
There are critical ways in which Israelis and Palestinians don’t see one another. While Israelis find it difficult to see Palestinians as victims, Palestinians find it hard to see Israelis’ sense of vulnerability and fear. They see Israeli tanks, helicopters, missiles. They know Israel is the 4th largest military power. But if they had the opportunity to listen to Israelis as we have they’d experience their incredible sense of powerlessness and fear.
Israelis have failed to grasp how patient Palestinians have been with the Oslo peace process. Palestinians bought into Oslo with the goal of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of a 5-year interim period. Here it is seven years later, and they’ve watched each year as more and more of their lands have been confiscated to expand Israelis settlements. The new Palestinian Intifadah (uprising) is a revolt against Israeli occupation, against settlements. We were all predicting it 3 years ago. You could see it coming. They are enraged and feel they have nothing more to lose.
Peace-building is one person, one heart at a time. It’s a slow process. And it’s the only way. A paper piece – an agreement between governments for example, can happen literally overnight. But peace between people comes slowly, from relationship building.
It’s no coincidence that the Israelis and Palestinians whose relationships have remained strong through this crisis are the ones who have worked to build relationships. I’ve read articles in the press these past months quoting both Israelis and Palestinians who are bitter that business associates they thought were friends haven’t called to check in and make sure they are safe. They feel disappointed and betrayed.
But groups like Yitzhak Frankenthal’s, whose remarkable Family Forum brings together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost their children to this conflict, are stronger than ever- even today. What’s the difference? Groups like Frankenthal’s have sat in each others homes. They’ve met each others children, and they’ve shared and acknowledged each other’s pain. They’ve reversed the process of dehumanization.
I would like to see us create places here in the U.S. where Jews and Palestinians could come together to learn from one another while making a public statement for peaceS like the peace tents that sprung up around Israel. We need to hear each others’ stories. There are successful dialogue groups across the country that are changing the human relationship and we need these in every city.
I have a vision: that one day, Palestinians will come by the thousands to the checkpoints, not with rocks but with candles or even flowers. And the international media will broadcast the mass nonviolent movement of the Palestinians and it will capture the imagination of the entire world. And Israelis will see that they don’t have to be afraid.
Jews and Palestinians are cousins – we’re Children of Abraham, and I believe we’ll find our way back to one another. Some of us already have. We have to be willing to listen, to know that our truth is not the truth. We have to be willing to say I’m sorry. And if we want to work for peace and justice, we need to work with compassion.
Leah Green is the founder of the Compassionate Listening Project which leads citizen delegations to the Middle East.