I imagine it’s not just me; that visiting a country we’ve left would be a complex mix for anyone, regardless of reason for leaving, assuming we had leaving as an option. I am writing this piece on the airplane, going home, to where I live, from the place that still feels like home, the home I still wouldn’t wish to go back to. And I’ve been writing this piece, and the next one, inside me, in small increments, some of which I’ve already forgotten, since the day I landed, on December 11.
Putting Meaningful Drops in a Vast Bucket
Shadow in Baghdad, a documentary movie I saw while in Israel, taught me much that I didn’t know about the life of Iraq’s Jews until the 1950s. The protagonist is looking to uncover what happened to her father who disappeared in Baghdad one day after the rest of the family fled and he chose to stay behind, trusting that the growing persecution and violence against Jews was only a temporary crisis. At one point she is talking with a contemporary of her father, who says to her that she is trying to empty a bathtub with a spoon, and yet she must, that we all must use what we have to do the work we do.
This is how I feel about the 4-day Convergent Facilitation training I led in Beit Jala. Beit Jala is one of the few places that both Israeli citizens and Palestinians can legally come to, which is why I chose it as the site. It worked. We had people from Europe, North America, and even Thailand who came and studied alongside the locals. The group also included Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Moslems, secular and religious. If I had any doubt left we are all kin, it is now gone, as so many in the room could “pass” as any of the others.
After thirty years, I finally came back to this land with something I know to do about the horrors. Like the woman in the movie, I have only a dropper, and the bucket is bigger by the day. I have no illusion I can personally create the change I want to see. Still, one of the many reasons I was crying at the closing circle was because finally I have something I know to do to contribute.
Experiments in Coexistence
For years now, Hagit Lifshitz, an Israeli trainer in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), has been bringing together Israelis and Palestinians to learn NVC together and to engage in dialogue with each other. At one point, she, my sister Arnina, and I co-authored a chapter based, in large part, on her work. Quite a number of other groups, both in the region and beyond, have brought together Israelis and Palestinians to engage in dialogue with each other. The stories I hear about such efforts reliably move me to hope and anguish. As people get to know each other, to hear the specific stories of pain, hope, defiance, and loss, they lose some of their capacity to see each other as “other.” The common humanity begins to shine through, unmistakable. Going back stops being an option.
A few years ago, Roberta Wall, a Jewish woman from the US, started coming to the Middle East and expanding on the work of Hagit. Each year, she comes to the area for a few months, the centerpiece of which is a 9-day intensive training led by a team of international NVC trainers in EcoME. It took her all of two seconds to say “yes” to my idea of doing a training in facilitating group decision-making for Israeli and Palestinian organizations. She found the host, activated all her networks, and brought to bear her unwavering faith that all will work out. Which it did.
Part of what felt to us so unique about this training was precisely the intention to focus elsewhere than dialogue about the conflict. It took most of the first day to quiet the inevitable and wrenching conversation down, and it kept bursting through the seams even afterwards. Still, I managed to coax people into letting it go. Not because it’s not important; only because of how transformative it is to be able to focus on something else, on just learning together. For the most part, we managed to do that, and people mostly put their attention on doing just that, on learning – how to listen to what is the non-controversial essence behind people’s positions, opinions, and suggestions; how to create one list of all the needs in a situation to help depolarize a situation; how to put together a sub-committee to take all the needs and come up with proposals that will attend to as many of them as possible; how to select one proposal among several to be the basis for an attempted decision; and how to support the group in finding sufficient trust and common ground to be able to land on a decision. My favorite moment, in that regard, was when an Israeli and Palestinian were practicing as co-facilitators. In that moment, and in many before it, especially in small group activities, there was nothing different about this training than many others I’ve led, except the languages. Despite Hebrew being my first and beloved language, I spoke English, which most people understood, and Sami Awad, founder and director of Holy Land Trust, translated into Arabic. When any of the Hebrew speakers got lost, Arnina translated into Hebrew. When we divided into two groups, one group worked in English with Arabic translation, and one group was in Hebrew without translation. I asked Israelis who spoke English to go to the first group, and Arabs who spoke Hebrew to go to the Hebrew group. It was the only way I could figure out two groups that would have both groups represented.
Scratching the Surface of Intensity
I am sure the potential applications of the process I was teaching to solving the dilemmas of the conflict were not lost on anyone. Between this hovering clarity, and the human presence of so much pain in the room, Roberta, Arnina, and I decided to dedicate an evening to watching this application; to seeing if we could have a different kind of conversation if we focused in this way, if we always listened to the non-controversial, passionate essence and dream of what people wanted that led to their stories, opinions, ideas, suggestions, and judgments.
A smaller group came together, about fifteen, and we began the evening. Our first challenge was translation. Sami, who translated by day, was not available. No one could translate from English to Arabic. How could we do it, then? Then Iyad, who lives in Bet Safafa, a village that was divided within itself for 30 years and was reunited after the occupation of the West Bank, said he could translate from Hebrew to Arabic, not from English, which he doesn’t know very well. And so we did a three-way translation, starting with a spontaneous prayer, created by an Israeli participant, to support us in staying connected, loving, and peaceful while traversing any part of the stormy waters ahead. Sacredness was in the air, palpable, as each short phrase was said in Hebrew, then Arabic, then English.
We didn’t solve the conflict. We didn’t get very far. What we did manage to do, under Arnina’s leadership, was to see how much care and patience is required to find something that resonates with the speaker, is sufficiently separated from the content to prevent polarization, and is also specific enough that it can move a conversation forward. The one-word needs so many people who study NVC are familiar with don’t usually carry sufficient force and information to do that. We tried, we all tried, to come up with this or that word as we were listening to a man speak about his experiences and concerns. In the end, what did the job was the phrase “connection with people where there is hope for transformation.” We all understood then why this man was so adamant about having dialogue only with liberal, secular people and avoiding the extremists on both sides. We all could see how, had we been a group put together to attend to some complex decisions, such phrases could help us in defining and converging on a path. Some part of me believes if I could gain access to the people who actually make the decisions to persist in war and opposition, I might help them find a way to collaborate on a way forward. Some other part of me believes I am delusional, or insane, or both. I know if someone gave me the access, I would go and give it my all, come what may.
The intensity and immediacy of everything, the temperamental similarities of interaction, meant that people started speaking before the translation happened, and we were hopelessly struggling to catch up all evening. At one point laughter spread in the room, intense, delicious, cutting through all remaining barriers. We were laughing together at the absurdity of what was happening. From that moment on, laughter remained within easy access. I would not have predicted that level of ease and flow in a room full of people who respective governments train to be suspicious of each other, to mistrust, to seek protection from. No one can take that away from anyone who was there.
There are more snippets than I could possibly ever tell. A Palestinian, physically scarred from decades of confrontation, having been to Israeli prison, startled us all with talking, the evening we looked at the conflict, about his pain at seeing Palestinians be so accustomed to dumping their pain on Israelis whenever they come together. A young man living in a refugee camp told me that he understood one day that sitting together and blaming the Israelis doesn’t make anything happen, and so he took on to make contact with Israelis. One woman admitted to never having met Palestinians before, and told how a trip with some of the participants to buy some small things in Bethlehem suddenly brought to her with utter clarity the reality of everyone being people. A woman told me she no longer talks with a translator, because she cannot bear the friendships that are born and cannot be sustained; she used to call people she met in gatherings with Israelis, and all they could say to each other was “hi, how are you?” She chose to sit quietly the entire time, yet her smile remains etched in my heart.
For four days the unbelievable became the ordinary as we sat together at meals, laughed together, practiced together. Not to mention the dramatic challenges of the physical conditions, as no amount of heating ever got the rooms warm enough in the bitter cold of the storm and its aftermath. All of it united us.
A Closing without an Ending
I started crying at the closing circle when the person who created the spontaneous prayer said, while motioning to the Separation Wall visible from the window of the room we were sitting in, that it feels to him like the wall had disappeared while we were there together. I knew exactly what he meant, the magic that was created in the room. I knew without any doubt that what we were doing was eminently possible on a much much larger scale, I knew that we had created magic together, and that more will happen and be possible as a result. We had just also reached and exceeded our goal for the fundraising campaign we created for this training, seeing clearly that the support is there for such events to happen. I cried because of how simple and how rare this is.
More than that, however, I cried because although the Internationals and the Israelis could go home and leave the wall behind, the Palestinians stay within it, day in and day out, and that tears my heart. Again and again, just like with the refugee issue, I cannot fathom how Jews can do this given our own history. What have we not learned? What can be done to recover and regain our humanity in its fullness?
At the end of the movie I mentioned earlier, the protagonist quotes a saying, I don’t know from which culture, that goes something like this: “At the end of a day, don’t judge yourself by what you have harvested. Instead, judge yourself by the seeds you have planted.” By this measure, we have done a lot in those four days. Many people spoke of renewed hope, growing trust, new friendships, and intense curiosity about applying what they learned. Some future projects are being hatched already. The sowing is done.