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Who is Willing to Destroy a Piece of Their Own Heart?

An excerpt from a talk given at Community Church of Durham, NH

by Joel Berman, Compassionate Listening Facilitator *


We humans have arrived at an unprecedented hinge of history. it’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic accretion of worldwide catastrophes.

There is so much woundedness crying out for the poultice of compassion. But today I am called to Israel-Palestine.

As a Jew, I’ve been to Israel 6 times. The last four were with an organization called The Compassionate Listening Project, which visits some of the world’s most contentious hot spots with the intention of creating safe spaces for people on all sides of the geopolitical divide to tell their stories.

In 2018, one of the people we listened to - Rabbi Shaul Judelman - told us that despite Israel’s overwhelming military and economic superiority, Israelis are as afraid of Palestinians as Palestinians are of Israelis. Fear in the Holy Land, he told us, competes on a level playing field. How can that be?

In 2016, we met with Anat Hoffman, the director of an Israeli NGO much like our ACLU, who asked our group:

How many of you have Holocaust moments? Israelis have Holocaust moments every day. When we go to the barber and see the shorn locks of our neighbors on the floor, when we drop off our kids at kindergarten and see the little shoes lined up outside the door.

These moments aren’t dying out with the passing of generations. They’re transmitted through shared memory, memorials, mandatory 7th grade visits to Auschwitz, and as we now know, epigenetics. Holocaust trauma is embedded not just in the minds of Israelis but in their bones. The rest of the world may see Israel as mighty Goliath, but Israel sees itself as little David armed only with a slingshot.

In 2019, we listened to Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad, who told us that the road to a Palestinian state must go through the hearts of the Jewish people, not their bodies. If they see me, he told us, if they know me, they will want for me what I want for myself.

Shaul and Anat and Ali are each saying that there will be peace and security in Israel and Palestine when each side can see the suffering of the other as their own. When a critical mass of Israelis and Palestinians want for the other what they want for themselves, their leaders will follow.

Beyond fear, what prevents Israelis and Palestinians from seeing each other's suffering?

What’s the antidote for this defensiveness?

Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote:

Most Israelis refuse to concede that Israel is built on the ruins of Palestinian society. There can be no hope of peace unless the stronger community, the Israeli Jews, acknowledges the most powerful memory for Palestinians - the dispossession of an entire people.”

Symmetrical fear. Holocaust defensiveness. Nakba denial. I’ve often wondered what role they play in the path by which at least some descendants of Holocaust victims have become victimizers.

The Holocaust was indeed a uniquely horrific manifestation of evil in our world. But the enduring message of the Holocaust, along with Never again!, must be the universality of the potential for evil. As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

What will it take for those of us in the American Jewish community and for the Jewish Israeli community to assuage our fear, defuse our defensiveness, and dismantle our denial?

Here are three more things I know:

1. Fear mobilizes us to enlist power for destruction rather than for connection.

2. Forgiveness has the power to wash away fear, as Jesus did when he forgave Peter.

3. Compassion has the power to dissolve decades of enmity and mistrust.

I’ve witnessed that last point many times over on my Compassionate Listening trips.

Here’s one example. In 2015, we listened to a young Palestinian woman named Shahad and her Israeli Jewish coworker, a young man named Elad, whose agency brings Palestinian and Jewish teens together to get to know each other. During the Q/A, I asked Shahad what we in Compassionate Listening call a deepening question:

Suppose if by magic the government of Israel acknowledged the forced Palestinian exodus from Israel and formally apologized. What would that mean to you?

She thought for a while before responding:

An apology - a simple "sorry" - would not mean much. But official recognition of the harm that Israel did to my family of origin and to my community, and formal acknowledgment by the Israeli government of their efforts to eradicate Palestinian history and culture - that would be very very meaningful. Visibly moved, she thanked me for the opportunity to answer the question.

Many subsequent questions brought us late into the evening. As we concluded the session and rose from our seats, her friend Elad interjected:

I need to say one more thing before we leave…that I've known for many years, but I've never said to anyone, not to Shahad, not to my friends or family...[turns and looks directly at his Palestinian friend]....Shahad, I do recognize the severe harm that my country did to your family and your village and the Palestinian people. I’ve never said this before, but I've known it for a while and now I need to say it to you and then to others...

Later that evening I wrote in my journal, No further words passed between them. None were needed. We sat in silence, witnessing the profound power of that extraordinary moment of grace and compassion and common humanity that moistened eyes, melted hearts, and rejuvenated spirits like a burst of fresh oxygen.....

Compassion - and for me, compassionate listening - is the secret sauce! But how to create ecosystems of compassion that extend beyond our micro-communities and our allies on our side of the ideological divide, all the way over to our opponents? Yes, including those who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen? Beyond their enmity and vitriol, supporters of Trumpism are as afraid of us as we progressives are afraid of them. I'm not suggesting they have their own holocaust moments, but each of them has his or her own deep truth that deserves our attention and our compassion.

How can we create a positive pandemic, one of compassion, mercy, apology, and forgiveness that will infect such broad swaths of our communities that our leaders will have no choice but to follow?

Here are seed thoughts to continue this conversation.

  • What might we learn from the rapidly growing stolen land acknowledgment movement that’s led by descendants of European settlers?

  • What might we learn by revisiting MLK’s six principles of the Beloved Community?

  • Bringing it back to the present moment, what can we do for the rest of today to actualize the Dalai Lama’s wonderful 2-sentence prescription for right relations?

Practice kindness whenever possible. It’s always possible.

Sustaining advocacy is hard work. It’s often enervating and depleting. It’s important for each of us to find that work that is our passion - to find that sweet spot that sustains us.

This poem by Martha Postlewaite suggests a pathway.

The Clearing:

Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life

and wait there patiently, until the song that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know how to give yourself

to this world so worthy of rescue.

If you’re wondering whether Compassionate Listening might be part of the song that is your life, The Compassionate Listening Project is visiting another of the world’s most contentious hot spots - Alabama - October 10th through the 18th.


Joel Berman is a facilitator with the Compassionate Listening project.

You can join Joel in Alabama for his profound Journey:


* Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Compassionate Listening Project. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

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