My Journey to Contradiction:
Opening the Heart Amidst the Fire
Israel/Palestine: Land of Contradiction: Compassionate Listening Project Trip March-April, 2011
Contradiction: def; Opposite in nature
Israel/Palestine, a land of opposite poles; beautiful and terrible
Opposites in tension:
Israelis / Palestinians
Modern / Historical
Impoverished / Wealthy
Peaceful / Violent
Religious / Non-Believers
Orthodox / Reform
Clarity / Confusion
Head / Heart
Democracy / Dictatorship
Progressive / Regressive
Militaristic / Prayers for Peace
Oppressor / Oppressed/Victim
Deep Sadness-Grief / Peaks of Joy
Mountainous / Lowest Points on Earth
Spiritual Heights / Earthly Awareness
Occupation / Freedom for Jewish People
Boundaries and Restriction Walls / Holy Places
Right Wing Politics / Left Wing Politics
Politics-As-Usual / New Paradigm in the Mid East
The conundrum that is now Israel/Palestine in all its facets is like a deeply felt intimate relationship which flashes back and forth between love and hate, between a shared past more than 2500 years old, and ongoing struggles and suffering seemingly without an end in sight. We experienced a beautiful land with some of the world’s deepest and most important history. While Israel/Palestine represents a relatively small amount of land, it is rich in both heritage and passion. Just the city of Jerusalem alone has more cultural mix and story, than many large countries.
While both parties profess concern for each other and a desire for mutual acceptance, many strong emotions lie just below the surface and, like with an abused child, boil over with the smallest provocation. Both parties feel their trust has been broken, so that they hesitate to take risks to change the status quo. Neither is willing to risk significant vulnerability needed for a new connection. Both parties have had their hopes of a lasting peace dashed by both their opposing partner, and internal rebellions. (Sadat assassination, Intifada 1 and 2, Rabin assassination, Hamas election)
The Compassionate Listening Project:
Compassionate Listening in conflict and post-conflict zones is based on a simple yet profound formula for the resolution of conflict: adversaries giving the gift of listening. To help reconcile conflicting parties, we must have the ability to understand the suffering of all sides. Our group received training and education to help enable our meetings with key stakeholders on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine to feel that they were deeply heard and appreciated.
Both parties have suffered historical traumas, large and small; the Jewish Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Palestinian Nakba, threats against the Israeli people from Arab neighbors, occupation and loss of land and freedom of movement for Palestinians. Both interpret the biblical language as giving them exclusive rights to Jerusalem and in some cases, the whole state of Israel. Each also has related groups such as Christians, Druze, and Bahai who also have claims to the Holy Land. We witnessed on our journey, instances of courageous principled actions by many parties, but also results of some repeated and violent abuses including, border checkpoints, settler-related violence, rocket attacks from Gaza, the recent murder of Jewish settlers, Israeli government destruction of Palestinian and Bedouin land and livelihood. I wonder if this collective post traumatic stress has so disconnected the population from its deeper sense of security and safety, that neither party is able to step forward for peace and reconciliation at this point.
The first event came before the trip even began, at 3pm on our first day when a bomb went off at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, killing one woman and injuring approximately 30 others. It was the first bomb to explode in Jerusalem in almost seven years and, although it has not been claimed by any particular group, it is believed to have been set by a Palestinian. (Excerpt from CLP website)
After more than 20 Compassionate Listening interviews and numerous training sessions, we can see that there is little sense that one party is right and the other one wrong, or that anyone has the universal ability to define what the truth is in Israel/Palestine. Rather I have come to the conclusion, that much like a divorce proceeding, one’s experience in this relationship is relative to their point of reference and there is a need for an outside party to bring both sides to the mediation table. In the usual divorce hearing process both parties present their cases and the judge ultimately rules on the claims and counterclaims, usually trying to find a fair and balanced settlement.
We have learned of many wonderful organizations and initiatives in the region working for the betterment of conditions for many different groups in many places. We witnessed some truly astonishing individual acts of courage and perseverance, as well as some hurtful ones that are simply beyond our understanding. We are not so naïve to think there are any easy solutions, or that years of trauma can be healed without much deep soul searching.
There also seems to be a need on both sides of the debate for further internal cooperation between differing parties. On the part of Palestinians, the political parties of Fatah and Hamas must come to some agreement on the governing of the West Bank and Gaza and take steps to convince the world they are serious about their desire for peace, by curbing radical violence and offering some compromise. On the part of the Israeli’s, the ultraconservative right wing must be reigned in so that settlements beyond the agreed upon 1967 boundaries are limited, and the public pushing for peace is heard by the government. There must be a change of intent on both sides in order to make communication more feasible.
Yet there was a deeply abiding passion in all of our interviews and meetings that left many of our CLP group wondering if there was not something we might contribute to the desire to see movement towards peace in Israel/Palestine in our lifetimes. Is it the nature of the human condition, the history of this region, or just the depth of religious and political passion that drives nearly all of us to have concern for this region of the world? After all, this is the cradle of Western civilization, despite the turmoil.
In order to translate a bit of our experience to black and white, I will provide some examples of the “compassion” we were listening for and the sense we got from our gracious CLP partners in Israel/Palestine. Space does not allow for all of our reactions, but I can say we were thankful to all who opened their hearts for us and gave us their time on our recent journey. It was a deep joy to be part of the group privileged to “listen” to so many different, passionate, and moving commentaries. I left Israel/Palestine guardedly hopeful that improved relations were possible. Nearly everyone we met wants peace and the right to care for families and loved ones in an environment of safety and potential right livelihood.
· Sheikh Jarrah: This is a neighborhood of East Jerusalem in which the Israeli government has recently taken to evicting Palestinians from their homes. We witnessed a local protest march and spoke to some of the members of the Solidarity group made up of both Palestinians and Israelis. The local community of East Jerusalem continues to be a spot of contention between resident Arabs and the Israeli military.
· Hebron, West Bank: In one of the most contested cities in Israel, we saw the military checkpoints which severely limit Palestinians access to the city, the barrier walls, and the historical Ibrahimi mosque and synagogue, holy burial spot of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Leah. Walking through the commercial district of the city, one sees a wire screen overhead to prevent trash and other objects being thrown at the Palestinians by Jewish settlers. We visited a Palestinian family who showed us video footage of these abuses related to Israeli occupation. These attacks have had a very detrimental impact on many of the Palestinians from health effects to commercial limitation. The Ibrahimi Mosque is the site where a Jewish fanatic killed 29 Muslims in 1994. The site itself is divided in half to allow both Jews and Muslims to worship at separate parts of the building.
· Rabbis for Human Rights: Rabbi Arik Ascherman gave us a moving presentation of the challenges of bringing both sides together for peace and reconciliation, from his tireless efforts to help Palestinian children avoid violence from Jewish settlers, to working in the Israeli Jewish Community to educate Israelis on what seems to be the mostly reasonable needs of the Palestinians to make a livelihood and have their own security. He has stood in front of Israeli government bulldozers intent on demolishing Palestinian homes. Rabbi Ascherman has been arrested by the Israeli military at least three times for trying to protect innocent Palestinian victims. RHR continues to work in both Israel and the US to increase awareness of the plight of many who are without adequate representation in Israel.
· Going from our very stirring meeting with Rabbi Ascherman to Yad Vashem was a challenging shift of emotion. Yad Vashem is the very beautiful, but horrible site of the Holocaust Memorial. Yad Vashem must be digested in portions as its impact can easily be overwhelming in its intensity. The Holocaust History Museum is about one and one half football fields long with exhaustive history of what happened in Eastern Europe between 1935 and the end of World War II. The Hall of Names lists more than 3 million victims of Hitler’s effort to eradicate the Jews from Europe. The Hall of Remembrance is a stark and dramatic structure that allows visitors to pay their respects to the memories of the martyred dead from 22 murder sites and concentration camps. A continuously burning flame burns next to a crypt containing ashes of some of the victims. The Children’s Memorial and sculpture garden further bring out the beauty and sad reality of this Memorial and drive home the often repeated Jewish mantra “Never Again”. Yet learning that this site was built by the City of Jerusalem, upon what was once a Palestinian village, only adds to the larger contradiction that we witnessed over and over on our journey.
· Beit Ummar, West Bank Village: We were graciously welcomed for lunch with the extended Palestinian family of Jamal and Sadiyye Maqbel with two Israeli peace activists who were not officially allowed into the West Bank while this village was under curfew from the Israeli military. We had a rousing discussion and debate about what could be done to change the culture of fear and violence. These Palestinians have had friends and family members jailed or killed by settlers or Israeli military forces. The Israeli peace activists spoke of the peace movement in Israel and how both sides could work together to change the current culture, yet acknowledged the distrust that must be worked through on all sides.
· Shifra Blass, Jewish settler from Neve Tsur near where a Jewish settler family was recently murdered in Itamar. Shifra told the heart wrenching story of how she and her husband, a rabbi, were asked to inform the family members about the murder. Though we might not agree with the settler’s political stance, we had to fully honor her story and courage to pursue what she feels is her god-given dream to the development of Zionist state of Israel and specifically her settlement.
· Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust, is a Palestinian Christian who has dedicated his life’s work to training Palestinian leaders who work for peace and reconciliation in Israel and the West Bank. Sami told us of both harrowing and humorous efforts to protest the occupation, as well as moving stories of bringing Palestinians to Nazi death camps in Europe to educate them about Jewish history. Sami was also involved in making the very moving film “Little Town of Bethlehem” to promote interfaith understanding.
· Al Arakib is a unrecognized Bedouin village about 40 miles south of Jerusalem which has systematically been destroyed many many times by the Israeli military in order supposedly, to plant trees for the Jewish National Fund. Our tour guide here was Aziz Abu Mudegem. We were given a tour and treated to fresh flatbread by women baking by hand. The only structures left standing from the most recent demolition were the village’s cemetery of more than 150 years, and two warehouse buildings. It was not hard to feel the pain of these residents as they try to understand how to save their homes and location of their ancestors. When we asked some why the Israeli government continues to destroy this village, most seem to have no good answers.
Yehuda Shaul is a twenty-eight year old, former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officer who was so upset by his experience when stationed in Hebron during the occupation, that he helped to form a support group called “Breaking the Silence” for IDF officers who feel their Jewish values have been compromised. He tells a story of going into the IDF for patriotic reasons, but coming out resentful that his services was not done in the defense of the State of Israel or to protect its citizens, but to systematically abuse the Palestinian residents of Hebron. Yehuda described the painful yet courageous decision he had to make and the impact that it has had on close family and friends.
· We met Asher, 22 year old spokesperson for the ultraorthodox Jerusalem yeshiva, Ramat Shlomo. He was very personable in describing his education, orthodox heritage and values. He told the story of the efforts of the settlers to “go forth and multiply” in order to maintain the majority of the Jewish population and how he feels the Torah instructs students to support Zionism at all costs. His parents were both from the US, but came to Israel on Aliyah (a return to the promised land) when they were young with a deep commitment to Israel.
· We spent a morning with Lubna Alzaroo, the niece of our Hebron tour guide, Hisham, and a 22yr. old student activist at Bethlehem University. She is a Muslim supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel and she gave us a tour of the Aida Refugee Camp. Lubna was very well spoken and passionate about the Palestinian circumstances and generally skeptical of efforts by peace groups to placate the Palestinian community.
· Our CLP group drove to the Southern Negev town of Sderot, where we met with Shimona Grodzin-Ceasary, a school psychologist who gave a harrowing description of what life is like in a town near the Gaza Strip that has been receiving sporadic Hamas rocket barrages for a number of years since Israeli forces left Gaza. The PTSD that her students and friends experience seems like a cloud that hangs over all ages from small children to adults. Two other Israeli peace activists joined our visit and added their experiences in discussing this situation with their Palestinian friends. Our entire group sensed the fear and sadness of life in this war-zone.
· One of the most dramatic moments of the whole trip for me came outside the CLP sessions, during a visit with a 75 year old woman I was referred to by my Israeli cousin. This woman, Hanna Barag, had worked at a high level for the Israeli Government a number of years ago and demonstrated a profound commitment to the idea of a Zionist state. However, much like Rabbi Ascherman, her view of this form of Zionism was that Israel must be a democratic state, recognizing equal rights for ALL its citizens. Hanna described the formation of an agency called “MachsomWatch” in which courageous older Jewish women go out to the checkpoints at 6:00 a.m., between Israel proper and the West Bank, to observe how the IDF treats Palestinians. These observers are committed to justice and rights for Israel’s minorities and document abuses and file complaints with the IDF and the Courts. Ms. Barag also has helped form Yesh Din, a local non-profit that helps Palestinians and other minorities on legal aid concerns.
Summary and Moving Forward
One of the settlers we met with objected to our use of the word “occupation” to describe the situation in terms of how the Israeli military forcefully controls the West Bank, and Palestinians in specific. She felt that a better description was “disputed territory. ” This is hard to come to terms with because it’s quite clear that the major restrictions, such as checkpoints, restricted movement, harassment, and ID requirements are imposed upon the Palestinians, by the Israeli military with only a very limited impact on Israelis. Except for the military, most Israelis are barred from the West Bank and Gaza without special travel permits. Palestinians often have extended waits to get to work each day, or take children to school, or access medical care in Israel. For many, their ability to earn a living has been substantially disrupted. Land rights have been disputed even though some Palestinian families have lived on their land for generations. Oftentimes, settlers have moved into land that was previously occupied by Palestinians and the IDF and Government seem look the other way. A number of our speakers documented abuses by Israeli settlers and the military. Some Israelis spoke of violence and terror threats on the part of Palestinians including recent rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank settler murders.
When people who disagree can, through practicing CL, come to find the human being beyond the stereotype, reconciliation becomes possible. So it has been with our friends, Sulaiman Khatib, Gadi Kenny, and Jamal Muqbel, who shared with our group that they have been working together for the past several years through “Wounded Crossing Borders,” an organization – co-founded by Sulaiman and Gadi – that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have been physically injured in the conflict but wish to reach out to the other side to reconnect with them as fellow human beings. At first, many of the participants who came to their meetings were angry and wanted to blame the other group for much of the conflict. But as time went on and they got to know one other better, they started opening up and beginning to listen to the pain and arguments expressed by the other side, such that they could start to see where their own views and actions had helped contribute to the fighting. Now, although they still disagree on many things, their friendship has changed their lives forever and they are committed to working together in the future. For this reason, Gadi and Jamal often travel to highly tense areas together – places such as Hebron and Sderot – to speak to the people on both sides and apologize for the violence committed by their own group. This process of rehumanization and teaching others to see one another as people, rather than faceless enemies, is the main goal of CL.
(Excerpt from CLP website)
As Cathy Keene describes on the CLP website description of our trip, the goal of CLP is not to have everyone naively stay objective, or somehow come to agreement, but to approach these opportunities to meet the people daily involved in this difficult dance with openness, and to honor them by fully listening with our whole being in order to validate their humanity. This journey was a profoundly connecting experience that will likely stay with me for years to come.
At the end of my journey, I asked Rabbi Ascherman if he would be willing to mail me a packet of information I had collected on the trip. This included information from Ms. Barag and Breaking the Silence, testimonials from Israeli military officers unhappy with their assignments. Unfortunately the materials never arrived; but I received the postmarked envelope, which was stamped “Received Without Contents”, and “Received in Damaged Condition”; yet the package seal was untouched. This would seem to indicate that the package was opened purposefully, and the contents confiscated. So the question remains; is this a country with a democratic plurality with respect for ALL its citizens, or just those that agree with the current regime in control of the government? Does this controlling government have a sincere interest in achieving peace with its neighbors and equal rights for minority populations? We certainly hope this is so.
As an American Jew, I had many feelings of identification with Israelis and certainly with the profound history of the Holy Land, but the sense that a people, like the Jews who were subject to such a horror as the Holocaust, could perpetrate the injustices we witnessed on another people was hard to experience. There is plenty of blame on both sides, but not enough resolute commitment to recognizing the common humanity of all the peoples of the Middle East. It is a dramatic contradiction that these different peoples could live cooperatively so closely together for so long, and yet find reason to inflict violence, injustice, and ignorance on each other in the name of a peace-loving God.
One of the great ironies of my experience was the result of my fundraising efforts in planning the costs of the trip. It is with deep gratitude that I want to thank my friends in the US Muslim community for their help in raising a significant amount of money to send an American Jew to Israel.
In between and following our CLP sessions we had a chance to see some of Israel, the wonderfully colorful city of Jerusalem, and all the food and artifacts that this amazing place has to offer. Some of our group had the dramatic opportunity to take a three day tour of the North of Israel and the beautiful Galilee region. We visited many historical sites, many ones where Jesus was to have taught his disciples, and some well known Roman ruins.
The shadow that history has cast over the Holy Land is palpable at all times. That same history has left a huge imprint on our Western civilization.
I was and still am deeply moved by so much of what I experienced on this journey into the Heart of Israel/Palestine. I offer my thanks to all those who opened their hearts and minds to me and our CLP group. I am struck by how differently the US media presents the situation, in contrast to the complexity which I experienced. In my opinion, there are few “good guys” and “bad guys,” but many who are struggling to live full lives in a complex situation that is begging for a new vision for all the people of the region.
Perhaps by helping educate Americans; Muslims, Christians, and Jews, we can impact the current status quo. Even here in the US, many of the parties in the discussion appear intransigent, insisting that one side is right and the other wrong. Meanwhile the winds of change are blowing through the Arab world and this has created the possibility for new cooperation. Certainly, many would agree that the US can have a profound impact on the peace process by bringing pressure to bear on its ally, Israel as well as radical factions in Palestine.
I hope to find the purpose and passion to continue seeking opportunities to contribute to the peace process and the recognition and justice for ALL people in the region. I remain convinced that there is hope for transformation towards peace and the recognition that we are all more alike than we are different. There remain many opportunities to contribute to an improved awareness of the issues on both sides and hopefully the movement towards peaceful reconciliation. Please contact me if you would like to contribute to this process.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.