‘Together Beyond Words’ opens dialogue for Jews and Arabs

The relationship led to the founding of Together Beyond Words, a non-profit that serves as a talking space for Jews and Arabs all over Israel.

 an exercise that has to do with the development of trust and the creation of a safe container that can hold the deep feelings that come up later on in the workshop. (photo credit: NITSAN GORDON)
an exercise that has to do with the development of trust and the creation of a safe container that can hold the deep feelings that come up later on in the workshop.
(photo credit: NITSAN GORDON)
When Nitsan Gordon moved with her family at age 10 from Kibbutz Magal to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, she was in for a rude awakening. Kids threw rocks at her because she was Jewish. When her class learned about the Holocaust, two kids whispered to her that it was wonderful all the Jews were killed but unfortunate she wasn’t among them.
A dance therapist, Gordon returned to Israel for the second time in 1989 in the middle of the First Intifada after completing her master’s degree, wanting to do something for coexistence.
At the Arab Pedagogical Center in Acre, where she did dance therapy with Arab kindergarten teachers, the director of the center, a Muslim woman, asked her if she was interested in raising funds for a coexistence program. Gordon identified and recruited Jewish and Arab kindergarten teachers, hoping the kids could be reached while they were still too young to develop prejudice.
In 2002 Silvia Marjeyeh, a Palestinian, was studying for her master’s degree when a friend told her about a group of Arab and Jewish women meeting in Rosh Pina. There, she met Gordon.
The relationship led to the founding of Together Beyond Words, a non-profit that serves as a talking space for Jews and Arabs all over Israel.
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Since its establishment as a non-profit in 2003 (similar groups have met since the mid-90s), the organization has worked with social workers, educators, principals, activists, therapists and other leaders in cities throughout the country – Jerusalem, Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Safed, to name a few. There’s also a course at Tel Hai College.
About 10 years ago, Gordon met American Ann Bradney, a self-proclaimed “deep emotional healing teacher” at the Esalen Institute, a humanistic retreat center in Big Sur, California, and asked Bradney to come work with her and Marjeyeh.
Bradney said she never set out to work with Jews and Palestinians. In fact, she said she thinks the fact she’s neither a Jew nor a Muslim and somewhat of an outsider helped people feel more comfortable with her.
“It was like here’s an opportunity for me, I am being called to do something in relationship to the world,” she said. “I just took a risk and the rest was kind of a love affair.”
Marjeyeh mentioned the “significant gift” Bradney has via WhatsApp. Gordon called her work “amazing... because she can work with a whole group, not just one person at a time.”
About a year ago, Marjeyeh and Gordon told Bradney that she had to come back to Israel to continue their work together.
IN JULY, Bradney led a one-day and a five-day workshop in deep emotional healing, or “saying ‘yes’ to emotions.” In these workshops she, Marjeyeh and Gordon wanted to work specifically with Jewish and Arab group leaders and facilitators willing to work with those different perspectives.
After the longer workshop, “I felt strongly that we should let go of the old-fashioned view that we think that the [things] that changed the world are the big things like politicians, wars, bombs, big things,” Marjeyeh said. “Things that change our world are tiny things.”
For Majed Abu Balal, a Bedouin from Rahat, the five-day workshop was his first experience with Together Beyond Words. Recent “tough times” made him want to participate.
“Changing something for the benefit of the community... that was my motivation and that actually drove me to... take responsibility for changing something and spreading the message,” he said. “Because I believe in change from bottom up, not the opposite, and if we don’t take the lead, no one else will do it.”
As a group therapist-in-training, Emanuel Kandel, a Jewish Israeli from Tel Aviv who grew up in Jerusalem, was enthralled by Bradney’s workshop and the techniques she used, which were similar to some he has learned. 
“This connection of doing a workshop with Palestinians, with Arabs, is to see the humanity in them, see the similarities we have, feel the emotion, allow myself to feel their pain, allow myself to show my pain and even a personal level, just meeting amazing people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said.
Kandel’s experience in Together Beyond Words has been one of “dissolving the walls that I had inside me,” especially in light of his childhood in Jerusalem, he said.
Though he had an Arab friend, he had a general fear of Arabs because he grew up during a time of frequent attacks and bombings. He said he remembers the Arabs who lived near him and that he got “hassled” by Arabs in a nearby village.
“Just the sight of an Arab man going into a bus was something that was frightening for me as a child,” he said.
Part of the work Bradney does is called “radical aliveness,” which is about cultivating a space where everyone is welcome, regardless of his or her perspective. This allows group members’ stories to humanize each other.
“When I’m standing in the world with open mind and heart and I’m listening to the story of the other person,” Marjeyeh said, “my willingness to be touched deeply by his story make[s] the transformation that is so needed in our world, not only in order to end this conflict, [but] I believe to end all separation that is existing.”
And the group doesn’t only discuss personal issues arising from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; group members also discuss more universal issues like their relationships with their partners and families.
“Once you’re in a room with someone who’s coming from the ‘enemy camp’ and you see them... and you hear them and you cry with them and you hear their story, you cannot go back out in the world and buy into a story of demonization,” Bradney said.
Discussions like these are essential to moving forward, said Antwan Saca, a Palestinian Christian interested in personal and collective trauma and its effect on policy, because he feels dialogue is essential for making peace.
“But is it... sufficient enough to solve the conflict? If it was, we wouldn’t be having this phone call because we’ve had 20 years of dialogue,” he said.
It’s that dialogue that made Michal Guterman, a Jew, want to participate in Together Beyond Words. She said she was looking for a way to promote peace other than going to demonstrations or trying to influence from the outside.
“I’d rather put my efforts inside of me and in meetings with other hearts of people because I think... the heart is what’s common, it’s something that unite[s] all of us because deep down we’re all the same,” she said.