PEOPLE LISTENING TO EACH OTHER FOR A CHANGE

8 03 2008

Most of the news we hear from the Middle East is horrendous. Wars, rumors of wars, airstrikes on civilian targets, cluster bombs, car bombs, suicide bombers. It makes this grown man cry, especially because there seems to be no way out of it through the political process.

We’re all told to be very afraid of Middle Eastern Terrorists and that Israel is the bulwark of Western Democracy and needs to be unconditionally supported, but this is the root contradiction on which the whole mess rests. Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, that some of Israel’s roots spring from the Jewish terrorist group the Irgun, which attacked and killed Arabs and British army personnel and even went so far as to blow up Britain’s headquarters in what was then called Palestine and the British embassy in Rome. And who was leading the Irgun? Menachem Begin, who later became Israel’s prime minister.

The situation was far from black and white. Beginning in the late twenties, Arabs increasingly resented and resisted the rising wave of European Jews who were trying to make room for more and more of themselves in the fragile, limited ecosystem of the western fertile crescent. Jews were desperate to escape from certain death in Europe, and felt they had a God-given “right of return,” which is just what the Arabs who are now refugees from their long-time homes in Palestine feel. It’s the same irresistible force meets immovable object story that fills the Old Testament, only with more people, better communications, and firepower and other technology that would have seemed absolutely miraculous in the days of Joshua and King David.

And what this has done is create suffering on a truly massive scale. About a million and a half very angry, desperate people are now confined in the Gaza strip, where a fearful Israeli army keeps ratcheting up the oppression because they’re afraid of what will happen if they stop. Conditions in Gaza are strangely parallel to those in the Warsaw Ghetto during WW II, except that Gaza has about four times as many people and has lasted for decades, while the Nazi concentration and persecution of Polish Jews was over and done with in four years. One difference, of course, is that the Nazis had a system of death camps to which they sent their Jewish victims, and the Israelis have no such outlet. Thank goodness.

As an aside, I have to say that I cannot consider Israel a “Jewish” state. Growing up Jewish, I was taught that the basis of Judaism is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and that doesn’t seem to me to be the principle on which the State of Israel is operating with its Muslim neighbors.

So, what can be done to defuse this ticking time bomb? Just as with the US defense budget, it’s another case in which the resources that could be used to make everybody’s lives better are all tied up in weaponry that seems to be necessary because everybody feels so deprived and threatened. The US political establishment is utterly clueless, with McCain chanting “Bomb, bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” and Obama and Hillary singing backup. The good news is, there is some under-the-radar citizen diplomacy going on.

I recently received a forwarded email from Jack Kornfield, the meditation teacher, about his experiences meeting with Muslims and Jews in Palestine and Israel, and it was some of the first good news I’d heard from that troubled land in a long, long time.

While the governments and the militias duke it out, a lot of people on both sides of the conflict are realizing that there can be no victory through violence, that there can only be finding a way to live with each other, which can only be found by Israelis and Palestinians not just talking to each other, but listening to each other.

Listening, really listening, to somebody you’ve been brought up to hate and fear is not easy, but what Jack Kornfield reports is that there are several techniques that have been developed through the years for use in far less charged settings that work very well to create frameworks for dialogue for these polarized people.

One of the techniques is called “Non-Violent Communication.” To quote from the Non-Violent Communication website,

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is sometimes referred to as compassionate communication. Its purpose is to strengthen our ability to inspire compassion from others and to respond compassionately to others and to ourselves. NVC guides us to reframe how we express ourselves and hear others by focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

We are trained to make careful observations free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others, and to identify and clearly articulate what we are wanting in a given moment. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed, rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.

I have been aware of Non-Violent Communication for some time and thought of it as one of those New-Agey feelgood thingies for rich white folks with too much time and money, but the news that it works in the fiery crucible of Israeli-Palestinian relationships has definitely upped my opinion of it.

Another technique that has worked very well to get both sides of this conflict together has been Compassionate Listening, which, according to its originators,

requires suspending our judgments and listening from an open heart. Through the skills of reflective listening and non-adversarial questioning the compassionate listener generates healing in the heart of the speaker. Once this healing has begun, the compassionate listener builds a bridge by the humanization of the other. When both sides understand the suffering of the other, reconciliation can begin.

Two of their favorite sayings are

“An enemy is someone, whose story we haven’t heard.” and “ Behind every act of violence is an unhealed wound.”

Gene Hoffman, one of the founders of the movement, has written,

Reconciliation is the most difficult of peace processes because it requires the resumption of relationship between those in conflict. It means the coming together in harmony of those who have been sundered.

My sense is that if we would reconcile, we must make radically new responses to the radically new situation in a world where violence is mindless, hopeless, meaningless and almost every nation has nuclear weapons — if they don’t now, they soon will. We must move beyond initiatives we formerly used, into realms we have not yet considered, not yet discovered, trusting that there are always open to us new divine possibilities.

We peace people have always listened to the oppressed and disenfranchised. That’s very important. One of the new steps I think we should take is to listen to those we consider ‘the enemy’ with the same openness, non-judgment, and compassion we bring to those with whom our sympathies lie.

Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern, acknowledge this partial truth in everyone – particularly those with whom we disagree.

This kind of approach, I think, is true radicalism, because it goes to the root of the problem. Jack Kornfield, in a talk on meditation that he gave during his visit to Israel and Palestine, said that people needed to

“drop below the levels of identity that we make, such as ‘I am a man,’ ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a Muslim,’ ‘I am a Jew.’ You feel the humanity… that we all share, and to recognize that in a deep way… changes the way you relate to everybody,”

He continued

“Here in Israel, there are so many differences [stemming from] identity. The question for us as human beings is how can we respect identity, but also see that it is not the whole truth, and that there is a deeper truth we all share.

The third technique that Kornfield reported on was Trauma Therapy–and, in a land where violence is pandemic, that makes sense even before you find out the details. Most Americans (except the ones who have been to Iraq) have not had to deal with having their homes bulldozed while they were still in them, or being at the mall when somebody blows herself up and takes fifty people with her. We lead such insulated lives. Our credit is drying up and our homes are losing value? Big deal! Nobody’s firing rockets at us or dropping cluster bombs in our yard or assassinating our family members while they’re driving down the road.

Here’s some of what Trauma Therapy does for those who have lived through, and are stuck in, that kind of hell:

Narrative trauma processing is the first of three basic tasks in trauma therapy …. In our approach the more conventional goal of dealing with the meaning of the trauma comes only after narrative closure is achieved and the traumatic dissociation is repaired. Only then do we expect the person to be able to gain a perspective that makes it possible to change one’s assumptive world and replace the mythology of being hopelessly vulnerable. The goal of narrative processing is for the patient to reconstruct a complete narrative of the traumatic experience. That is, we ask patients to tell the story of their traumas. The creation of a detailed coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end brings together the fragmented images of the trauma. Telling the story from start to finish, complete with all the details is crucial to helping patients reverse their dissociation.

The language is rather academic, but I think you get the point.

These are real things that really help real people with their real problems. They have nothing to do with bloviated peace conferences that are little more than photo ops for the pirate captains of the world.

They are far more effective than body armor, attack helicopters, high-tech surveillance, or car bombs. They are limited in that they have, as yet, no power to stop those who prefer the tools of destruction and domination, nor can they, at this point, change the horrific life conditions imposed by such oppressors, whether they be Israeli, Palestinian, Chinese, or American. But they provide a way to rehumanize those who are caught in the web of their own violence.

Accomplishing that task one person at a time seems agonizingly slow, but this movement is growing and gathering energy. It, just as assuredly as solar buildings and workplace democracy, is part of the technology we need to know and spread to create a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world.

And, by the way, I did, after some searching, find who had originated the email that tipped me off to this saintly reconciliation effort. It came from Ralph Metzner, famed for his early association with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert. Thank you Ralph, you done us proud.

music: Steve Earle, “Jerusalem”

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