Peace Through Listening

Yoav Peck was born in the U.S. and grew up on the East Coast in a non-religious American Jewish family. His parents were very committed to supporting the new state of Israel as a home for refugees from the Holocaust. Yoav attended university at UC Berkeley and graduated with a BA in Sociology in 1971. During his time in Berkeley he was active in the peace movement to end the war in Vietnam. Later he received an MA in Organizational Psychology from Norwich University in Vermont. In 1973, Yoav emigrated to Israel and joined a kibbutz where he lived as an active member for fifteen years. Like most Israeli citizens, he served his time in the military and was with the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1982. After completing his active duty as a soldier who had experienced the reality of violent conflict he decided to become a different kind of warrior in the cause of peace. (Source: Daily Good)

What is the idea behind Sulha Peace Project?

“Sulha” is an Arabic word that describes a centuries-old tradition in Palestinian society of dispute resolution. It is also means “reconciliation” in Hebrew. At Sulha we believe that change will happen from top and from the bottom. At the top there are political leaders, the press and demonstrations. At the bottom, it’s the work from people to people. That’s our work. We feel that any solution for the future of the Middle East is going to require cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. But there is enormous mistrust on both sides. Our commitment is to close the gaps between people through a series of encounters at a person-to-person level. We want to build trust between people whose trust has been shaken by events.

How do you do that?

We discourage political arguments and encourage people to share from their experience of the conflict on a personal level. We bring up to 120 Palestinians and Israelis together every six weeks to spend some informal time together, get to know each other and sit in circles. We always share a meal together, we use prayer, music and drumming — whatever brings people closer together.

Each time we have a theme we focus on. One time we focused on fear and the experience of fear. Another time we worked on gender roles in Palestinian and Israeli society and broke the group into men’s and women’s groups.

In the listening circles people arrive with whatever reactions they have to what was happening that week and also with their long-time resignation about the way things are. We try to break through the resignation, to awaken hope and to enable people to carry on in their lives, working for peace, but with an experience of the other side being human just like they are. That’s the impact of the gatherings.

How can listening be a tool of change in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

Most of us don’t really listen to each other. Most of the time, what people call listening is just about sitting there, controlling yourself and thinking of the next clever thing you are going to say when the other one has finished talking. Rather than actually getting into the other’s skin and see what it’s like to be Mahmud, I am much busier thinking about how I am going to win this argument. That’s the way warriors listen to each other, but it’s not the way peace is made. Listening is really at the heart of our work. The deeper experience of listening is about fully being with people when they are talking. I might disagree with you very strongly and still respect you enough to let you complete what you want to say. When people truly listen to each other, it leads to intimacy and closeness between them. The job of the facilitators is to create a space where people feel safe enough to share from their personal experiences.

To what extent does politics play a role during those circles?

The political situation is mentioned endlessly during the circles. The Israeli occupation has been a reality for Palestinians throughout the last fifty years. But we steer our participants away from intellectualizing about the conflict and discussing possible solutions of the political situation. We really reserve the time for people-to-people connection. Sometimes Palestinian participants are frustrated that we are not talking about the political situation enough. But soon they learn what we are after. Everyone has a story and wants to tell their story if they can find someone to listen to them. The older I get the more clear it becomes to me that political argument, in the best case scenario, ends with one person feeling that he is the winner and the other person is the looser. It doesn’t change anything, it drives people apart and leaves people with resentment.

How do people come to know about the project?

It’s very much word-of-mouth. Each time people bring friends, neighbors or others from their environment who have never been exposed to this kind of work. We have a core group of people who come every time, but our purpose is to reach out to the people who are suspicious of this kind of work. If we can get them to come, we really have an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

How is this kind of transformation possible?

Let me share a story with you. Once I was hospitalized and the guy lying next to me in the hospital bed turned out to be a settler, Yossi. My automatic reaction was rejection. I thought we had nothing in common. Then Yossi started telling me about his life and it turned out he had lost his parents and siblings in a terrorist attack. He was on his way into the army. Then I told him about myself and about Sulha. To my amazement he asked ‘Why don’t you invite me to one of your gatherings?’ Finally he came. We asked one of the Palestinians, Ahmed, to spend some time with him one-on-one. Ahmed had spent some time in Israeli prisons and was still limping from the wounds he had suffered when he was arrested. He was very suspicious about talking to a settler and Yossi was also very reluctant. But he agreed. Within ten minutes they were in deep conversation with each other. They even refused our invitation to participate in the activities, because they were just talking, laughing and sharing cigarettes.

At the end of the evening we asked the Palestinians to get back on the bus because they had a deadline to be back at the roadblocks on the border. Ahmed hugged Yossi and said to him: ‘Listen, in a couple of months you will be a soldier and you will be standing at the roadblocks and I will be across the road throwing rocks at you guys. Please take care of yourself.’ It was so sad to see that they both felt locked into their roles, a future soldier and a potential rock-thrower. But a connection had happened between them and Ahmed was concerned that his new friend Yossi would be hurt. It was quite a magical moment.

Do you sometimes get frustrated that the human connections made in the circles might be crushed by the system?

The real frustration is about the people we don’t get to. People who have been to one of our gatherings take the message into their lives and share their experiences with their families. They are touched in a way most people are not. Of course, if we get a hundred people to a gathering every six weeks we are making a very small impact statistically. I’m frustrated about what is happening to the people who have never had an experience like this. Palestinians are becoming more and more embittered and full of hate. Israelis are becoming more and more frightened and alienated from the human beings who live just a few kilometres down the road.

We can just trust that the connections from the circles will ripple out in some way and slowly change something from within. Isn’t that the vision you’re holding?

Yes. Great satisfaction comes when, for instance, the father of someone who has been at a previous gathering shows up and wants to see it for himself. We can see the ripples spreading out. Just recently we went to one of the West Bank Palestinian villages where a group of women whose husbands are all in prison make jam and vegetable spreads. They are trying to make a living and we are finding ways to support them. It’s not just the listening circles and the gatherings. It’s all of our informal contacts with people. When someone is happy about an experience they had, they usually share it with the people close to them. No matter how small the impact, when it’s happening it is quite fulfilling.

Has your own perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed since you joined Sulha seven years ago?

There is a quote from Gandhi: ‘There is no way to peace, peace is the way.’ Before Sulha I was working for a hands-on peace organization that organizes mass demonstrations. In that organization there were a few people making decisions for a lot of other people. It wasn’t truly democratic and there were lots of expressions of hatred from the left. You can’t be a peace organization and make war to the members of your own organization and to people on the other side. To persuade the other side that peace is the way we have to be peaceful in the way we do that. I tried to change things but I was unsuccessful and left.

At Sulha I saw that people were extremely sensitive to the process of making decisions and to the way we treat each other in meetings. This includes the refusal to demonize even the most violent anti-peace forces on both sides of the border. When someone acts with hatred he is really covering some experience of pain. Our job is to be artful enough to get to the human being underneath all that hatred. That’s hard work. When Yossi, the settler, shared the trauma of loosing his parents to terrorists, the Palestinians listened to him with tears in their eyes. They felt deep shame that this could happen to anyone, even if the person was a settler.

Looking at the situation in the Near East, it really seems like it’s going to take a lot of time to transform things. Doesn’t that seem like a never-ending task to you?

Yes. It’s all about building trust. We have a technique we call the “friendly undermining of your assumptions.” If someone says, as people do very often ‘The Palestinians all want to drive us into the sea’; then people will repeat that in the course of their discussion. We might say to them ‘Do you think that’s true with every Palestinian? Do you think that every Palestinian including the people here at this gathering would like to throw you into the sea?’ Only after there is enough connection to the other person will they be prepared to consider the faulty logic of some of the things they say.

This is a long march. It might open a small crack in someone’s thinking. He might go home and tell his friends that he met a peace activist who was actually a nice person and that he would like to spend more time with him. Maybe the next time he will move another step further towards opening his perspective on things. One of the things I sometimes ask is ‘What do you want for your children? Do you just want to raise your children and send them off to the army into the next Gaza war? Or is there an alternative?’ When you talk to people about their children, they soften. They are willing to listen to your stories about your own children, how frightening it is to be parents of a combat soldier. So, one step at a time.

Photos: Sulha Peace Project / Cole Keister on Unsplash

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