A glimpse of peace: Learning to listen in a divided land

Every journey to Israel is extraordinary. Some journeys, even more than others, obligate the traveler to tell her stories to all who will listen.

I recently traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories with a delegation of The Compassionate Listening Project, a program that trains listeners in harnessing the transformative power of listening for the sake of peace. The project has for 20 years brought delegations to the Middle East to hear the stories of people on all sides of the conflict. Past delegations had listened to extremists on all sides — with settlers who advocate the “transfer” of all Arabs out of Israel, with members of Hamas still committed to violence, and with many in between.

Knowing that many of these positions would be abhorrent to us, we would be asked to listen deeply to our own internal reactions, and not to speak out of our own anger, horror or self-righteousness. As peacemakers, our task would be to refrain from attempting to debate or critique the speaker’s point of view, only to try to embrace the human being behind the sometimes-repugnant belief. We were to temporarily surrender our desire to persuade the other, knowing that we would strongly disagree with much of what we heard. The listening sessions were to have no other purpose than to help us recognize the humanity of people on all sides, and to find a place in ourselves where we know that there is only one side — the side of humanity, of life and of peace.

As much as I already knew about “our side” of the conflict, there was much for me to learn from some extraordinary encounters we had with Jews: with peace and human rights activists, with Shoah survivors and with university students who had sought to prevent the disengagement from Gaza.

But unquestionably, I had the most to learn from our encounters with Palestinians. I am not proud to say that I had never had a significant relationship with a Palestinian until I came to know Maha El-Taji, the co-leader of our trip. She told me of her own journey from a childhood of hating Jews, since her family had been evicted from their home in 1948, to her first friendship with an Israeli, to where she is today — a woman with an enormous capacity for love and a profound understanding of the Jewish sensibilities that must be attended to before peace can come.

We met with the leaders of a Palestinian village, Bil’in, which for the past nine months has conducted weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the encroachments on their lands for the sake of building new Jewish settlements. One of these men brought us to his spartan home for tea, where we met his family, listened to his poetry and exchanged prayers for peace.

We spent the night in Al Arub, a Palestinian refugee camp near Hebron, where we were hosted by Jamil Roshdy, one of the national leaders of a grassroots campaign called the Popular Campaign for Peace and Democracy. It has so far collected 500,000 signatures — on both sides — on a document outlining the contours of a final peace agreement.

I entered the camp frozen with fear, but left the next morning with a heart full of love for Jamil’s beautiful children, taking with me the gift of hearing Jamil ask me — the first rabbi he had ever met — to pray for his efforts.

In Ramallah, we met with Suleiman Al-Khatib, who had been a violent Fatah activist since the age of 12, but has turned his gifts for leadership in the direction of peace. Hosting us at the office of the Abu Sukkar Center for Peace and Dialogue, he told us of the Ex-Fighters Project, a collaboration of 25 Jews and 25 Palestinians, all of whom have chosen to reject the path of violence, committing instead to educate young people in both communities in nonviolence and mutual respect.

In a single week, we moved back and forth between two peoples with radically different life experiences and perspectives. What began to emerge was that “they” are not so different from “us” after all. We heard two very different narratives of suffering, and beneath these contrasting stories, much similarity. On both “sides” of the conflict, all of the people we met shared the same deep longing: to live in peace and security, freedom and dignity.

I found myself deeply encouraged by this perplexing commonality of experience. If peace-loving people could unite at the level of common yearning that lies beneath the past history of hate, violence and trauma, then things could begin to change.

This journey taught me much about my own capacity for fear and hate, and about the capacity for love and forgiveness on the part of those I have always regarded as “the other side.” In short, I had a glimpse of peace.

May it be that before long, all will begin to see this vision of peace, and may it become a reality.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Minnesotan who used to live in Palo Alto, is a former j. columnist.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.