Citizen diplomats in Israel use active
listening to help build the foundation for
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 responde d 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 arrang ed 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 " 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 Israeli peace movement, Green developed the Compassionate Listening 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 Mideast Citizen Diplomacy 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.
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." 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 Mideast Citizen Diplomacy met with a left/right wing Israeli dialogue group that had prepared a very political presentation. Afterwards, the participants asked one of the women in the group why she came to want to live in the West Bank. 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 participants could relate to the woman's hope for her children. Once people ate 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 woman, 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 protecting herself, blocking her emotions from us," 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.
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 inability of the "paper peace processes" to address the concerns of 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 in 1967 -- the same land that her beautiful apartment complex rests on today. 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 con-sidered 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. These experiencess brought her to the Mideast Citizen Diplomacy Project, where she meets with participants and advocates for Palestinians.
To Green, the city planner exemplifies the power of understanding an adversary's experience with conflict. "She couldn't believe the difference. She has the vision and the courage to say that peace has to be for everybody -- you can't oppress withou t seeing the negative results."
These modest beginnings with individuals like Yehuda Wachsman and the
Jerusalem city planner who are willing to try out Compassionate
Listening can bring larger changes, Green says. "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."