top of page

Listening With Compassion, ​ by Kari Thorene, Yes Magazine

When Nachson Wachsman was captured by Palestinian terrorists, his family was thrown into a storyline all too familiar to both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian families. Within one week, a botched rescue attempt startled the terrorists, who responded by shooting and killing young Nachson.


His father, Yehuda, was still mourning the loss of his son when the father of the man who shot Nachson called him; his son’s actions had convinced him that enough blood had been shed between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.Wachsman agreed. They arranged to meet in Jerusalem, and from that moment on the father of a son killed in conflict and the father of the killer joined together to work for peace and tolerance in Israel. More and more, people like these two parents are working together to build sustainable peace between Israeli Jews and Arabs – an understanding that goes beyond what Leah Green calls “a paper peace.”

But how do we create a sustainable peace, where people can share the same streets after long conflicts? The answer, Green says, is “through the hard work of meeting one’s enemy and coming to know the human being behind the stereotype … of acknowledging the suffering in each other’s hearts. Peace walks hand in hand with reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.”

And Green should know. A veteran of the Mid East peace movement, Green developed the Mid East Citizen Diplomacy project for the Earthstewards Network in 1990 and has led 13 citizen diplomacy expeditions to Israel since. This year, Green developed her own independent project called Compassionate Listening Project in Indianola, Washington; she has taken one group to Israel since its inception and has two more trips planned, one in November of this year and one in April 1999.

Listening to Enemies

Dialogue between groups divided by history and conflict can be nearly impossible, Green says. Without the necessary training, Israeli Jews and Palestinians would often sit together and yell at each other and think that they were engaging in healthy, positive work. That’s why Green integrated a precursor to dialogue called Compassionate Listening – to be practiced with both groups separately before they are brought together to talk.

Compassionate Listening is a process of respectful listening developed by pastoral counselor and Quaker Gene Knudson Hoffman in the 1980s. The method has since been picked up and used by projects like Green’s Mideast Citizen Diplomacy and the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s newly-founded Compassionate Listening Project. According to Green, the idea behind Compassionate Listening is to set judgment aside while listening to an adversary, and look for the values and reasons behind their behavior. Anybody can do it: Green calls it the “most simple human psychology.”

The answer comes through the hard work of meeting one’s enemy and coming to know the human being behind the stereotype.

In Green’s project, American Jews and others use Compassionate Listening skills in Israel. They meet with people – sometimes for two hours, sometimes for a whole day – to hear their stories and ask questions about their lives. Sometimes the people they meet prepare presentations, and other times the meetings act as interview sessions. Green says it really varies: politicians can tend to advocate a position while Palestinian families can be less formal.

It’s not always easy. Green says in the cases where people present canned speeches, delegates wait until they have a chance to ask questions about personal experiences with the conflict, so they can relate to the presenters as human beings instead of merely reacting to their politics.

For example, people from the Compassionate Listening Project met with a left/right wing Israeli dialogue group. Afterwards, the participants asked one of the Israeli settlers why she came to want to live in the West Bank (Israeli occupied territory). She told them about her mother, who survived the Holocaust and crossed several countries on foot to bring her children to Palestine. She considered it a blessing to raise her babies in the ancient Jewish homeland. The Biblical Jewish prophets, she said, lived in the West Bank, not Tel Aviv.

The participants could relate to the woman’s love for the land. Once people are exposed to the complexity behind their foe’s perspective, Green says, they can come to understand how, if put under the same pressures, they might have come to take the same position.

Once the connection is made, participants reflect back to the speaker what they have heard. “In the situation with the Israeli settler, you might say, ‘What is really significant for me in listening to you is that I hear your incredible love for this land. I can really understand your love for this land.'”

The willingness to hear the other person establishes a relationship that is trustworthy and safe from judgment – a place where the transformative potential in Compassionate Listening really lies. Without it, people can have difficulty making it to the next step of reconciliation after Compassionate Listening: dialogue.

In the case of the Israeli woman, Green says participants reflected back to her so well that she broke down and cried. “She had been cautious with us. Generally, Jewish ‘peace’ people are hostile towards Israeli settlers. We were not,” Green says. After the bond was created, the group invited her to meet with Palestinians who shared a similar love for the land.

Green calls it building a bridge, and she hopes Mideast Citizen Diplomacy will continue making breakthroughs and introducing Israelis to Palestinians. But it doesn’t always work so well. While Green says bonds are created in 95 percent of the meetings, sometimes participants struggle to find common ground to reflect. Later, participants debrief together and discuss ways that they can “reach down deeper inside of themselves” to make connections.

A Walk on the Other Side

The Mideast Citizen Diplomacy participants have their work cut out for them in Israel, where the peace process has brought few tangible results on the grassroots level, Green says. “If you were to walk in Jerusalem through a Jewish neighborhood, you would see schools, sidewalks, health clinics, grocery stores, banks. But if you were to walk across the street and down a hill to a Palestinian neighborhood, you would see no streetlights, probably sewage in the streets, overcrowding in the schools. The lack of equality is profound.”

The willingness to hear the other person establishes a relationship that is trustworthy and safe from judgment.

The inability of the “paper peace processes” to bring about independence for Palestinians and mutual security for both Israelis and Palestinians is creating a crisis in diplomacy between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, Green says. “There is a breakdown right now. Even the Palestinians who have been meeting for years with Israelis are saying, ‘we can’t continue.'”

During a 1996 trip to Israel, the Compassionate Listening Project delegation spoke to a former Jerusalem city planner who is a self-described “devoted Zionist and Jew.” Because of her work with the city, the planner found herself in Palestinian neighborhoods; for most Israeli Jews, just stepping foot into Palestinian territory puts their lives at risk. What she saw there changed her life.

She saw people whose ancestral land was confiscated and whose homes were bulldozed with only a few hours’ warning. Her own beautiful apartment complex in East Jerusalem was built on expropriated Palestinian property. She met Palestinians who relocated and rebuilt homes, only to have them confiscated and demolished again. She met natives to Jerusalem who had their identification cards revoked by government officials and were now considered illegal residents of their ancestral land.

Walking through Palestinian neighborhoods and meeting the people whose lives were reshaped permanently by land confiscations brought the city planner to see the Palestinians’ side of city policy.

To Green, the city planner exemplifies the power of understanding an adversary’s experience of the conflict. “She now has the vision and the courage to advocate for equality among the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.”

Taking control of conflict

Compassionate Listening can bring larger changes, Green say. “If it starts with just one person and it grows; that is how peace begins. It is eyeball to eyeball,” she says, telling of one Israeli woman who created a dialogue group between Israelis and neighboring Palestinians after meeting with Green and the Mideast Citizen Diplomacy participants and learning about Compassionate Listening. “She kept inviting more people from her circle to come. She had already built a trust with the Palestinians, so from that point the circle widened.”

Once the ball is rolling, reconciliation doesn’t take a long time, Green says. “We’ve had breakthroughs within an hour or an hour and a half. People let down their guards when they aren’t being judged.”

First published in YES! A Journal of Positive Futures #7, Fall ’98.
Reprinted with permission of publisher. © 1998 YES!

bottom of page