I traveled to Jerusalem this summer to spend a month living in Israel and to learn as much as I could about the on-the-ground realities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, I wanted to offer my support and resources to the co-counseling community in Israel.
Co-counseling is a process whereby people are trained to exchange counseling help with one another to free themselves from the negative effects of unhealed grief, rage, and fear. One of the goals of co-counseling work is to identify and heal from past experiences of trauma and group oppression to be able to think freshly about all current situations.
There are communities of people in all different parts of the world that do co-counseling with one another. Co-counselors in Israel are using the tools of co-counseling to heal from any feelings of powerlessness, discouragement, or isolation that can make it difficult to sustain leadership over time and with others on Israeli-Palestinian peace work and all social justice work.Upon arriving in Jerusalem, my husband and I settled into an apartment right next to the Machaneh Yehuda – an incredible open-air market with streets of stalls and all kinds of produce. Our apartment was on the 14th floor, giving us a panoramic view of the Old City from our window. Each morning we woke to a spectacular view of the Old City before us. After having been in Jerusalem for a week, I settled into the daily rhythms of life and led a gathering for the co-counseling community in Jerusalem.
I kept finding how eager people were for contact, for connection, and for breaking the isolation of being Israeli – with the current separation of Israel from so much of the rest of the world. For example, the husband of one of the co-counseling leaders who came to my gathering had just had a life-threatening stroke, soI gave her counseling time, including giving her the space to heal about her incredible grief at the very real possibility that he might not make it. A Mizrachi woman initially was furious with me, saying how dare I ask this woman to look for even one minute at giving up hope about her husband. The Mizrachi woman went on to say, “We here in Israel are the walking dead, and we can’t afford to allow one another one second even in a co-counseling session to feel any feelings of hopelessness.” After screaming at me, she fell into my arms sobbing, and afterwards everyone present said how helpful it is for allies to offer a place for Israelis to be able to express the deep feelings of hopelessness that sit right under the recordings of forced hopefulness.
Over the course of our visit, I continued to do counseling work on the direction of “Facing the Unfaceable,” particularly healing from the impact from a history of anti-Semitism that makes it hard to be fully alive in the present. I counseled two Israelis – a woman who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors worked on the despair in her family and a man who served in the Israeli army worked on the painful experiences of serving in the occupied territories. The strongest moment of the evening was with a mother who sobbed to me! “How do we protect our children?” Her son is about to enter the Israeli army this weekend. The terror of parenting under these harsh conditions was so apparent.
During our stay, the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers occurred followed by growing intervention by the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza, rounding up more and more Palestinians, with Netanyahu and company using the kidnappings for their own political ends of dismantling Hamas and seeking to divide the PA (Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) from Hamas. Three days before I was scheduled to do one of my tours to visit Palestinians on the West Bank, it was cancelled. With fears sky high, check points were closed; Palestinians couldn’t travel, and the tour organizers weren’t sure they could guarantee our safety. I wanted to get a full picture of on-the-ground realities, and the cancellation of the tour with the mounting fears all around us was all a part of my getting a fuller picture of how things are. Tensions were quite high. Many were worried.
It was ultimately painful to see the full picture of daily life for Palestinians – hours spent at checkpoints just to try and make a living – and with all the accompanying humiliation. I took two powerful tours. The first was with ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. The second was a personal tour with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the co-founder and director of special programs for Rabbis for Human Rights.
On the ICAHD tour, we spent the day touring the Jordan Valley, most of the time in the Occupied Territories. The Jordan Valley makes up about 28% of the West Bank.
We went through several checkpoints and then visited a number of Palestinian villages. It was painful to see first hand the huge differences between the resources the Israeli settler community gets in the Jewish settlements – much cheaper water, legal permission to build – and the very systematic way that Palestinian villages pay much more for water, are refused permits to build, and are often deemed illegal so that house demolitions can be justified (the destruction of their property by the Israeli government). According to our tour guide, only3 1/2percent of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are allowed permits for building. The majority of the Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley are secular, so they are not there as much for religious/ideological reasons. In one Palestinian village we visited, villagers only had 20 liters a day per person of water (100 liters a day per person is considered the minimum to sustain health by the UN).
We stopped at a Palestinian village where there had been house demolitions (the Israeli government claimed they needed the land to set up a military training site) and we met with several members of the village. Eighty five percent of the Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley need to work inside the Jewish settlements surrounding them to earn a living. The tour guide told us that in one settlement, Palestinian workers were supposed to be paid the Israeli minimum wage (200 shekels – about $58 per day). Instead, they were being paid 50 shekels ($14.70 per day). The statistics give just the beginning picture of the human suffering. It was painful to see the brutal realities of daily Palestinian life.
It was hard for other reasons to be on the ICAHD tour. I knew they were sharing facts on the ground – and I signed on to learn those facts and witness first hand the impact of the occupation. And yet, the guides didn’t have one positive word to say about Israel – or the Israeli people, which I found very disturbing. In an interaction with one of the guides, I asked why she thought Israel was engaged in house demolitions. Her answer was that Israel wanted to do ethnic cleansing and get rid of all Palestinians. I responded, “Do you think all Israelis want to get rid of Palestinians?” And she said, “Well, maybe not all Israelis, but the Israeli government, and Israelis elect that government.” Then I said, “Do you think there are parts of the Israeli government that don’t want to get rid of all the Palestinians?” She had no answer.
So I had two heartbreaks that day. One was facing the brutal conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The other was to see how divisive, politicized, and one-sided are the messages about Israel and the Occupation being put out by some groups to the public. Things were being portrayed as either Black or White, with all the complexities and broader systemic issues in the conflict ignored.
The other tour was a ten-hour personal guided tour by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights. Rabbis for Human Rights works on a two-prong strategy as Arik puts it – one foot in the grass roots and one foot in the structures of power (the courts). After the ICAHD tour, it was a welcome change to be with a Jewish Israeli activist who is not only outraged by the injustices towards Palestinians, putting his life on the line to fight the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, but also has compassion, love, and a balanced view about Israeli Jews.
We visited Sousya, a Palestinian village where 450 people live. There are current demolition orders for Sousya; again no building permits are allowed, and the Israeli government is making it as hard as possible for them, hoping that this hard treatment will make them want to leave. And some do leave.
We then drove to El Arakib In the Negev and met with the head of the village. The government has demolished homes in El Arakib 70 times. We attended a vigil with Bedouin men, women, and children who were chanting slogans as drivers passed by about saving their lands from demolition. It was particularly gratifying for me to see the women taking an active, upfront role in leading the chanters. While we were there, military police circled around with helicopters and jeeps – driving rapidly in the sand to stir up dust, mainly to intimidate the villagers. Here the villagers were – with no homes, sleeping outdoors – men, women, and children. These Bedouins live inside Israel (this is not Israeli Occupied Territories), and they stay and endure because this is their land. After spending the day touring the South Hebron Hills and the Negev with Arik, I came away with a new understanding of the intensity of people’s claims and attachment to the land. Palestinians are living in inconceivable circumstances, and yet they are on the land of their families. No matter how awful the treatment, they would still rather stay.
Everywhere we went, Palestinians or Bedouins, whether living in caves or out in the open because their houses have been demolished, offered us tea, kindness, and their hopes that we would get their message out. They have next to nothing and yet they still welcomed us offering us their precious drops of water. There are currently 200,000 Bedouins living in Israel, the fastest growing population. It was both amazing and heartbreaking to witness the attempts to crush the human spirit, and yet the human spirit rises.
One evening after I led a co- counseling gathering, I stayed at the home of an ultra Orthodox woman who is also involved in co-counseling. She is a psychologist wanting to figure out how to bring co-counseling into her practice. Three of her four children have had arranged marriages, and I got to learn a lot about how this is done in the ultra Orthodox community and what it means to her personally. When her family was upset that she was doing co-counseling, saying it was not allowed by their religious practice, she went to speak to her rabbi who gave her permission to continue to do co-counseling. What touched me the most was a short co-counseling session we did together. She had admitted to me earlier that she hated Arabs and wanted no contact with them, saying that they all want to kill us. So I asked her in her counseling session to consider seeing Arab people as deeply human and part of her larger community. She cried hard saying that she couldn’t get there, but then in the next minute, she said she appreciated me for pushing her to look there.
I couldn’t help but think when I left her house that within two days I had had such polar opposite experiences. One day I was with Palestinians and Bedouins who were dispossessed from their homes. One day later I was with an ultra Orthodox Jewish woman who was not able to consider having any contact with Arabs. There is still so much work to be done.
The contrasts here are astounding – incredible modern life side by side with centuries old antiquity. I continue to love staying in Jerusalem with all its beauty and contradictions. I am shaken to my core by all that is not right yet. I’ve been reaching to keep my heart open to everything I’ve experienced and trying to immerse myself in being here. It’s such a magical, wonderful, painful, loving, tragic, deeply human place. And I am deeply at peace walking amongst my people.
Cherie Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute. In addition, Cherie is the International Jewish Reference person for the Re- Evaluation Counseling (co-counseling) communities and she is an adjunct faculty at RRC (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.)