...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Friday, December 8, 2006

Peace Building: Israel, Palestine, Antalya

I am full of stories from our November 2006 training delegation in Israel and Palestine, and the peace conference in Turkey that some of us attended afterwards. I watched our group of participants create beautiful containers over and over again for those we sat with, and hearts opened - ours and theirs. It was a privilege to sit with so many beautiful souls: a former celery farmer evicted from her Gaza home last year, a mayor elected on the Hamas slate, and the founder of the right-wing Jewish settlement next door to his village. We listened to a Jewish director of special education centers in the Galilee whose son was wounded in Lebanon last summer; and a Palestinian-Israeli mother grieving the loss of her 15-year old daughter and her home to a Hizbullah katusha rocket during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon last July. Seeing the group hold Israelis and Palestinians from such a wide political spectrum with such compassion was a sacred process that, once again, restored my hope and faith in humanity. Each participant stretched, and saw the benefits.

Education for Peace and Democracy Conference, Antalya Turkey, November 19th – 23rd, Sponsored by Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).

After the delegation ended, seven of us boarded a charter plane from Tel Aviv to Antalya, Turkey, along with 170 Israelis and Palestinians, to attend the conference. In Antalya, we met up with 100 other peace-builders from America, Europe and other countries. There were formal plenary sessions in the mornings and evenings, and eight concurrent sessions to choose from at all times during the day, including a film room.

We stayed in a 5+ star hotel across the street from the Mediterranean, but for the fist 3 days, I could have been anywhere – I did not even take one step out of the hotel to dip my foot in the water. The opportunity to meet peace-makers and educators from around the world (24 countries total) and learn from one another was a rare and precious opportunity. Every moment was a chance to connect, network and learn. Meal times were as important as any other, and when one didn’t feel like attending a session, people headed to the bar for free beverages of any variety. We sat in couches or around tables...playing backgammon, just talking or catching up with old friends/meeting new ones. Gershon Baskin, the conference organizer and co-founder of IPCRI, told us to in jest to “be generous – invite your friends for drinks!” as everything was free. The whole environment was meant to create a nurturing space to support peace-building.

Building peace in the heart of war
On the last day of the conference, we had open space sessions from 9:00 - 2:00. Well after the "marketplace" was created and people were scattered in sessions throughout the hotel, I decided at the last minutes to offer a Compassionate Listening experiential session from 12-1, and I put up a little sign. A small group convened, and after the briefest of introductions, I prepared to lead them in a guided meditation. But a film was playing in the conference hall next door, and the volume was so high that it overpowered our entire room. The film was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there were sirens, guns, yelling, screaming - all the chaos of the conflict. It felt as if the war was in the room with us.

I gave up...I told the group I didn’t see how I could lead them through this meditation – just hearing my voice was going to be a problem. We stood there, and finally an Israeli friend said, “Leah, perhaps this is a metaphor...that despite the war, we have to persevere with our work...” And so, we continued with the exercise. But I felt frustrated. I was certain that the participants were unable to really focus or bring their full attention to the exercise and to their partners, especially when they had to come face to face with one another in the exercise, in silence...

Afterwards, we formed a circle, and sat in silence for a few minutes, and then I offered a talking piece, asking people to speak from their heart, whatever was present for them in the moment. To my surprise, again and again, people reported that as soon as they came face to face with one another, the soundtrack of the film completely disappeared...they were unaware of anything else except the deep bonding they were experiencing with the others. I was amazed, and realized this was a huge lesson about trust...that no matter what was happening, our intention was all that mattered...we created peace in the midst of war!

During our talking circle, our group doubled in size, with many new people drawn to the peacefulness of our group, and the connection we were experiencing. The one Iranian man at the conference told us about the "oneness" he felt with the Israeli Jews he was partnered with during the exercise. There were tears and kisses. We stood up at the conclusion of our circle at 1:00, with our arms around each others shoulders, to say goodbye, but they would not let each other go. They continued standing like that and talking in our circle for another hour...quietly, from the heart, with so much depth and longing. One Israeli said, “everyone outside of this room is talking about how to achieve this, and here we are, experiencing it.”

My deepest thanks and gratitude to everyone who has participated in our Middle East work over the years, helping to build this beautiful body of work. Every delegation has built upon the others...each person has been a blessing...helping us to learn and grow.

I have been corresponding with the man from Tehran since the conference, who told me that this was the first opportunity he had to truly encounter Israeli Jews. He wrote: "For your information I could never forget the lady whom I concentrated on her eyes and I found a world of kindness and hope in her eyes as if I knew her my whole life." This meant a lot to me, especially considering that during my first conversation with him during the conference, he let me know that he was a strong supporter of Ahmedinejad, and, like his leader, felt that the numbers of Jews who were murdered in the holocaust were grossly inflated.

This is just one small vignette from a powerful four-day encounter, but to me it expresses the power of citizen diplomacy.