...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nostalia and thoughts from the bus

I have weeks of editing and writing from the delegation to catch up with for the blog. This, however, is a personal entry. I am sitting on an Israeli bus. My destination is the beautiful hills of Galilee, overlooking the Sea. I’m going north for an interlude with dear Israeli friends for a couple of days to visit and relax.
Without being too scientific about it, I figure this must be about my 30th trip to Israel. And, sitting on this bus, I’m nostalgic. On my first flight over at age 19, I was sitting towards the back of the plane, engaged in conversation with a group of young travelers like myself. I was the only “first-timer” to Israel among them, so I was eager to pick up any tips and insights I could. After several hours of conversation, one of the guys looked at me, shook his head sadly, and said, “Israel is going to eat you up. You’re too nice for this country.” That worried me.
But it turned out that he was wrong. Not that I wasn't nice, but I found myself in a nest of nice Israelis. I ended up on a small kibbutz in the Judean hills, with kind Europeans, and sweet Israelis who valued my presence and made my time there a memorable experience that I’ll be forever grateful for. One of my former bosses in the orchard became a friend, and I even bring delegations to the kibbutz every few years, to walk the ruins that date back 3,000 years, meet some kibbutzniks, walk in their beautiful, intentional community and gardens, and listen to their stories.
But everyone here knows that the kibbutzim are (were) a different and unique slice of Israeli life. Especially the small, less wealthy ones where you didn’t find snobbery and rank issues that persisted elsewhere. That was the first Israel that I came to know, and it was a fit. It was a very sheltered life with 250 people on a huge piece of land. My love for the ancient “bible” terraces, archeology, and the Jerusalem hills was born that year. 
When I returned to Jerusalem at age 22, I met a vastly more multidimensional Israel, and it was a shock. I can’t tell you how many buses I missed, on account of the Israeli habit of pushing and shoving themselves through the bus doors as if their lives depended on boarding. It was not uncommon to see buses drive off with limbs and body parts hanging out of the hydraulically controlled doors.
Boarding my bus today, at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, brought it all back. The fight to board is something that is hard for me to engage in. And the cost of not engaging is that you may be left behind. My tiny, even insignificant experience at the bus station today, is a part of daily life for many Israelis, who use the practical bus system extensively in their small country. I’m afraid I didn’t do any better today than I did all those decades ago. And I nearly got left behind.
As it turned out, I did discover at age 22 that I was too sensitive to live comfortably in Israel. Nothing in my younger years had hardened me for the daily realities here. That year, it was Israel’s first invasion into Lebanon, and all of the horrible events that followed. I remember bursting out in tears on buses frequently – usually on the hour when the news came on and had nothing positive to offer. One time, just after the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, an elderly Israeli man called out to the bus driver, “Turn down the news – it’s making this girl cry!”
Yelling seemed to be the national outlet – for everything. The wars, the holocaust, two thousand years of “issues.” I tried to stay emotionally stable despite the daily dose of yelling. Anyone who remembers life in Jerusalem 30 years ago may smile with a shared memory. I was yelled at in all the places where one engages in regular life – there was no way to avoid it…I was yelled at in the grocery store, at the bus stop, book stores, the clothing stores, in the streets, even in the library…
My own mother once broke off an engagement because her fiancé yelled at her. I managed better than she would have. But I won’t deny the toll it took. I never asked for, nor wanted, citizenship here, but the problem was well acknowledged among those who did. Many new immigrants from North America did not last more than a year here, because of the aggressiveness of society. Maybe some will remember the campaigns to help Israelis learn to treat others kindly. I remember a radio jingle from that campaign that ended with a melodic plea to “be pleasant!” But I had already purchased my exit ticket.
No need to go into all of the reasons why there is such aggression here – it’s been studied and explained for decades. People are much more courteous than 30 years ago. But it can still be hard for a softy like me. On this bus I’m riding on, half of the passengers are soldiers with their guns awkwardly tucked to their sides or between their legs. Israel is a militaristic environment, with more and more sophisticated weapons. Right now I’m surrounded by M-16s...

I’m now 45 minutes North of Jerusalem, and the highway is paralleling the “Security Barrier”. The earth is mounded up on this side of the highway about 20 feet high, to make the part of the Wall that’s showing look like a low fence with barbed wire and surveillance cameras on top. It’s even painted in places with pleasant scenes to help the drivers keep their anxiety levels down. But I am looking beyond the Wall (as I’m prone to doing), at the West Bank towns of Qalqiliya and Tulkarem, just meters away behind the Wall – crowded and poor. The Walls here don’t give me a feeling of security, and I’m always thinking about the people on the other side. As my friend Zoughbi likes to say, “Good neighbors make good fences,” and I wish this were the reality that both people could feel here.
Two days ago in the hair salon, cramped into a corner near the hair-washing basin, I got into a conversation with an Israeli woman as she was enjoying her shampoo and cream rinse. All of the talk is about the flotilla these days, and speculation about the Turkish and Iranian threat. At one point in the conversation, she said to me, “I’m so tired of Israel always having to apologize to the world for everything we do. No matter what, we always have to say ‘I’m sorry…I’m sorry – we’re sorry for our existence!'”  At that point she closed her eyes to enjoy a few pleasant moments of the hot water rinse.  
I know she speaks for the far majority of Israeli Jews. Israeli friends have spoken to me this week about the existential fear that the flotilla event triggered for them. Activist friends who have worked for years for Palestinian justice and a homeland, say that for the first time, they truly feel afraid that the world is so angry at Israel, that there will no longer be support for the Jewish right to a homeland. One friend, upon hearing an American journalist telling Israeli Jews this week to go back to Germany and Poland, said, “And where shall the Americans go back to? Wasn’t that a takeover too?”
I look around the bus, at all of the beautiful faces – black Ethiopian Jews, brown Jews from Middle Eastern countries, lighter-skinned Ashkenazi Jews, Jews from Russia, and dubious looking “Russian Jews” who may have used the "Jewish" card to escape their empty shelves, cold winters, and challenging economy. There are also Palestinian Israelis on this bus, who make up 20% of the citizens in Israel (I’m not talking about the 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, E. Jerusalem or Gaza).
What helps me to understand the societal aggression here is the comment spoken in the hair salon. Forget the wars, the militarism, the army. Just imagine how a whole people might behave if they feel that whatever they do, the world will not love them. Okay, forget love, that’s too idealistic. Let’s try “accept”.  I’ve heard it said here for decades by Israelis – that “it doesn’t matter what we do – whether we’re nice or not to the Palestinians and to our other Arab neighbors, the whole world hates us and will always hate us.” Put the long history of anti-Semitism in the mix and you can see the ramifications.

To top it off, Israelis and Palestinians are now in a permanent state of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some psychologists have made the connection between PTSD, and the “addiction” to the adrenaline state, thus concluding that both sides unconsciously perpetuate the high conflict state. And Israelis will be the first to admit that they shine during wartime – the tribe knows how to pull together for the sake of collective survival. Their endless factions and internal conflicts for the most part melt away during wartime, for the sake of the tribe. A cynical observer might conclude that Israeli leaders know it’s in their interest to hold the population on the brink of war. One of the Israelis we listened to last week told our group, “It’s much easier to control the general population when they are afraid.”

Another Israeli friend – an astute psychologist, warned me about discounting the scapegoat phenomenon…of course the occupation needs to end, as well as the siege of Gaza. And at the same time, how easy it is for Americans and other nationals to ignore their own countries’ violence and aggression, and look to Israel as the only violent country on the block.
Now, passing the sign for Jenin, (the northernmost Palestinian city in the West Bank), my battery is running out, and the hills of the Galilee are before me. It’s time for a mental vacation from “hamatzav” (the situation). So I’m going to relax for the rest of the ride, and be grateful that I won’t have to push to get off of the bus. I’ll happily wait, and will exit last. 

Bookmark and Share


John Shaffer said...

To all reading this blog, and, also, to Leah:

Here before us is the heart and soul of a beautiful teacher, a wonderful person, and a dear friend...to me, to you, to everyone who comes in contact with her.

And here, too, is an expression of some of the work that has been done over the recent days, weeks and years that are helping make the world we live in a truly better place.

I've just returned from the Compassionate Listening Delegation to Israel and Palestine, with some time off book ending the trip on either end with "family" in Belgium and Denmark. My time with family was enhanced by what I'd learned before I left and as I participated in the CLP training so filled with the magic of a middle way, a compassionate way of connecting with people from the heart.

Leah's work, and the work of the multiple of friends and supporters who help her, deserve our support. This is a life giving work bringing hope and inspiration to many, many people in very difficult places confronting seemingly insurmountable problems. It is also a work enabling each of us, and scores of others, to deepen in the process of becoming truly who we are and of who we are capable of becoming.

A responsive comment to Leah's posts, a word of encouragement here and there directly to her and the Project, and/or a tangible gift or contribution of time, energy, and dollars, will mean more than we can imagine.

This is not an easy Project, and there are strains and pains, along with the joy and comfort of discovery, love and growth. More than anything, I believe, we need to continue to learn how to work together in these challenging and opportunity providing times. For the cost of a few minutes of note writing, or the cost of a pizza or day pass at an amusement park, we can help drive this process forward.

We'd all be making a much needed contribution we can feel good about to a project that will continue to help those countless many who have benefited so far, and those the Project will touch in the future.

From me to you, and for Leah, staff and others who support her, I can't think of anything much better to be doing with my time and resources, or, I suspect, for yours.

With blessings for all,

John Shaffer, reachable at jcslaw1@aol.com

Yael Petretti said...

I deeply appreciate and identify with your experience here in Israel, Leah. Your description of navigating this society while still maintaining your sensitivity to people is "spot on" as my English friends here would say. The young man who told you that "Israel would eat you up" knew what he was talking about. And so, the emotional vacation from the stress and aggressivity is crucial to being able to survive and contribute to the greater good here. Love, Yael, Jerusalem

Leah Green said...

Thank you John - from your lips to the ears of God! Support is so deeply appreciated, in whatever form it comes in - beautiful words like yours; comments and conversation on the blog, financial support for our work (we're still not sure if we have all the funding we need for my training Wednesday - Friday with 35 Palestinian women in the West Bank.

Yael, it means a lot to hear your comments as an Israeli. Thank you sweet heart. I'm glad your tour-guiding gets you out to beautiful nature and ancient sites, frequently.

Much love to you both...

Catherine said...

Dear Leah,

Thank you so much for sharing these personal reflections with us. As a fellow sensitive soul, I can certainly identify with your experiences in Israel and Palestine. Please take excellent care of yourself and enjoy your time with friends while there. Thank you for all that you do!


Ilene Stark said...

Dear Leah,
Our hearts will be in the field with you at the opening circle in the West Bank. Thank you a million times over for being there and offering this opportunity for women to come together and share their hearts. I was so inspired by John's last letter that I hope you will let me assist and support you in doing one of these trainings in 2011 or even sooner. I am turning in my paperwork :) to make it official. Many blessings to you. love, Ilene