I met Gene Knudsen Hoffman, the originator of Compassionate Listening, in 1995.
During her long and active life, Gene was a Quaker, writer, poet, actress and
international peace-maker. Gene became my mentor for the last years of her active
life. One of the first quotes that I recall being moved by and challenged by is this
“For most of my forty years with the peace movement, I felt that something was
missing, something was out of harmony. Somehow, we peace people, who wanted
no enemy, always seemed to have one.”
Gene tells of an experience she had in 1980 in London at a Quaker conference. She
saw a notice posted that read, “1:00 worship for the tortured and the torturer.”
Previously she had only thought about the oppressed – never the oppressor. Now
she began to explore the idea that the oppressor in any given situation was
wounded and was worthy of and in need of compassion. Gene wrote, “Perhaps
every act of violence comes from an unhealed wound.”
Gene went on to pioneer what she called "Compassionate Listening", a reconciliation concept that she learned from Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was one of her teachers. After meeting Gene, I brought Compassionate Listening to the delegations I was leading in Israel and Palestine, and it had a powerful effect. (It was so powerful that we changed the name of our non-profit from Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy to the Compassionate Listening Project!)
We asked the participants to make an agreement: to attempt to reach the humanity of every Israeli and Palestinian that we came in contact with. We defined our role as being to hear the grievances of all sides and find ways to tell each side about the humanity and the suffering of the other. If you look closely into just about every spiritual tradition, you find this same wisdom. – and it’s all about healing polarization.
Many of my most powerful teachers live in Israel and Palestine, where I led 26 delegations.
Living in the fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any deep conflict can either open the heart, or shut it down. I have been privileged to learn from many people whose hearts have been cracked open by the conflict.
One of my teachers was Sheikh Talal Sidr, one of the founders of HAMAS. Sitting in
his living room years ago in Hebron, he told us a bit of his story. He was imprisoned
3 times, and then in 1991 he was deported by the Israeli military along with 400
men from the Islamic movements to a barren, snowy hillside in Southern Lebanon,
in no-man’s land in the dead of winter. He told us that he had a lot of time that year
to read his Qur’an in his Red Cross tent, and it was there in his holy book that he
found the inspiration to break the cycle of vengeance and revenge that he was born
into. He returned home after one year in Lebanese no-man’s land and began what
he called his “jihad for peace”. We asked him: how do you engage now with Hamas
members who promote violence? His reply was: “How do you take anger and hatred
out of the hearts of people? You must love them, you must rally around them and
become their family.”
This is the essence of our work in the Compassionate Listening Project. Our premise
is that compassion is perhaps the most powerful and largely overlooked tool for
conflict transformation. Neuroscience is backing this up with study after study on
compassion and the role of the heart.
I started out as an activist, from the time I was 17 years old and began speaking
out against U.S. intervention in Central America. I called myself a peace activist,
and I had big hatreds. One group I felt immensely angry with from the time I was
19 years old and first lived in Israel, was the Israeli settlers. After adopting Gene’s Compassionate Listening framework and making a clear intention to work for reconciliation. I began contacting Israeli settlers and including them on our itinerary.
Those first years I had to sit at the back of the room and keep my mouth shut. Over
the years, I stopped seeing through my black/white lenses and began to see settlers
as the diverse human beings that they are. One year the settlers we were visiting organized a program for us one evening – a panel with 3 speakers – a left-wing settler, a right-wing settler, and a middle of the road settler. We watched with amazement as they argued their positions with one another and dealt with their own strong conflicts openly in front of us.
I held such anger for the settlers that it took me years to understand a
settler named Rabbi Menachem Froman, one of the founders of the Religious
Settlers Movement called Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful). Rabbi
Froman sent a letter to Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas, the
Palestinian Islamic party that is in power in Gaza. He wrote to Sheikh Yassin
that perhaps they should get together and try to dialogue and find a solution
to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on their shared love of God/Allah.
And the Rabbi went to Gaza and met the Sheikh in prison, and then went in
1997 when Yassin was released from prison and met him in his home.
Rabbi Froman told us that when he gets together with Muslim
leaders, the first hour is for praising God; the next 5 hours are for
studying and comparing Torah to Qur'an, and the final 5 minutes
are agreeing where to draw the borders and where to put the
Later, Rabbi Froman negotiated the basis of a cease fire agreement with
Hamas and delivered it to the Israeli Prime Minister and to then President
Bush. I remain convinced that religious leaders in Israel and Palestine could
end the conflict if given a chance.
Another teacher was Father Emile Shoufani, a Palestinian Christian from
Nazareth who won the UNESCO peace prize in 2003 because he woke up one
day and said things will never change until Palestinians understand the
Holocaust and understand the suffering of the Israeli Jews, and he organized
a trip where he took 300 Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to Auschwitz.
They walked through Auschwitz together, holding hands and crying.
Compassionate Listening is an embodied practice that answers the biblical
call to “love your neighbor as yourself,” whoever that “other” is in any
moment. Sometimes the other is our children or our parents, or our
We call CL a spiritual practice and a tool for spiritual activism because it changes us
from the inside out. Each person who makes the decision to learn to “be peace” in
their daily life, moves us all one more step closer. We need to drop any illusion that
we are small or insignificant. Each one of us can make a profound difference. Each
one of us matters, and we are a teacher for others every time we practice. The
ripples continue in ways we cannot imagine.
I end all of my trainings with a challenge. I ask participants to think about the
challenging relationships in their lives - broken relationships, former partners,
family members you may not have spoken to in years, friends, children, parents,
neighbors. And don’t stop there. Think about the people you may dehumanize – if
only “they” (fill in the blank) didn’t exist – my family, office, community, nation,
would be great. Who do you blame? Who do you fear? Who are the marginalized voices in your community – the ones we may not want to hear or don’t have the time to hear?
These are the doors through which some of our most powerful peace-making
lies waiting for us. In the words of Sheikh Talal Sidr: “There are those who like
peace and those who have a passion for peace. The difference is, those who have
a passion for peace want it not just for themselves, but also for their enemies.”