Twenty-one years ago, a pivotal moment occurred for two members of the healing for peace group that my organization, Together Beyond Words (TBW) runs for Israeli Jewish and Arab Palestinian educators. The 14-year-old son of Eti, a Jewish woman in the group, had walked to the gate of the northern Israeli kibbutz where they lived to wait for his girlfriend, who lived on another kibbutz.
The girlfriend’s mother was driving her over to visit him. But the girlfriend never showed up, and Eti’s son soon learned that both his girlfriend and her mother had been shot and killed, while driving, by two men from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad who had infiltrated into Israel through the fence from Lebanon.
Eti did not show up at the next meeting, so along with the other Arab Palestinian and Jewish facilitators of the group, I visited her at her kibbutz. We sat together on her front porch overlooking the surrounding hills that seemed so green, so innocent and beautiful in the setting sun. Eti cried and shared the pain her son was going through and what she felt. We held her and listened. Our visit encouraged her to return to the group the following week.
During that next meeting, she spoke about what it felt like to have a 14-year-old son who just lost the girl he loved. “I want to comfort him, but do not know how. He often tells me, ‘Mother don’t get too close to me, because you may lose me too,’ which is so awful to hear.
“He visits the graveyard every week and stands by her tombstone, talking to the young woman he loved, still loves, while I stand at the gate, not sure what to do. Sometimes I just cry.” By the time she finished her story, all of us were weeping with her.
Holding her close, with tears running down her face, was another member of our group – an Arab teacher from Acre who had spoken in a previous meeting of how scared the Arab children in her kindergarten are because of the riots of Jews and Arabs in Acre. I write about this, and many other similar stories, in my new book Together Beyond Words: Women on a Quest for Peace in the Middle East.
How had these two women – an Arab Palestinian and a Jew – who have both experienced enough past trauma to hate the “other” come to open their hearts, share what hurts and learn to support one another?
In the wake of yet another round of devastating violence, it is more urgent than ever for all of us to know this is possible, and learn how.
IN MY 28 years of work helping Israeli and Palestinian individuals find peace together, I have seen the possibility become a reality, time and again. The first, crucial step is to understand that conflict stems from unhealed trauma and the emotional pain it causes. And that the only way to sustainably mitigate conflict and ultimately find peace is to heal those wounds. As Richard Rhor has said, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”
Once pain and legacy burdens are transformed into understanding and empathy, a desire to work together for change emerges. A number of simple but powerful tools can help this process. At TBW, we implement these by bringing together people from opposite sides of a conflict and creating spaces – safe havens of sorts – where they can feel and heal, listen and connect.
Conflict resolution requires far more than speeches, conversations, shouting matches, debates, and even dialogue. Rather, something is needed that brings to the forefront the power of emotions to destroy and to connect, and the need to transform pain so it is not transmitted. Forms of nonverbal communication we use at TBW gatherings include dance, movement, games and playback theater.
Typically, we begin with an opening circle followed by dancing to music and movement games. The opening circle is designed to welcome participants to the group while enabling the facilitators to verbally and kinesthetically gauge the mood of the group and become aware of relevant issues group members are dealing with.
The dance/movement section helps increase body awareness and uncover old wounds stored within the body so we can begin to release them.
Listening partnerships introduce a new level of listening that is helpful in transforming our own and others’ emotional pain related to past and present hurts and traumas. Participants may cry, laugh, express anger or shake with fear while talking with a partner about their life experiences.
By doing so, they are reminded once again how to use these natural healing mechanisms they were born with, and had when they were very young, which they have been alienated from due to the conditioning of society. The emotional release that occurs in the listening partnerships opens hearts and minds, and helps us feel compassion toward ourselves and others.
Healing touch assists in the integration of the emotional work and enhances the listening capacity while encouraging a sense of intimacy and closeness. We ask the women to divide into pairs, and while one of them lies on the mat, the other is guided to gently massage her back, shoulders, hands, feet or forehead. Then they switch.
We find that this type of touch helps us relax and feel good. The relaxation of our bodies affects our minds, and afterward, we tend to be more open to seeing our problems in new ways. In addition, touching another person helps develop nonverbal listening skills.
At the end of each TBW meeting is a closing circle, which is a time of cognitive assimilation of the insights acquired during the meeting. Participants are invited to talk about which parts of the meeting were meaningful for their daily lives and why. Finding the words to explain the felt sense of what happened to them during the meeting, and hearing the experience of others, helps them better understand what has occurred and take their new insights back into their lives.
Through 28 years of work, I have seen that despite the media narratives, most Israelis and Palestinians are longing to find a way to end the pain and live together. Given the opportunity to meet, connect and listen to one another, there is such willingness and courage in the hearts of so many people to heal this rift.
Time and again, my colleagues and I have seen the results ripple out into communities, helping spread the healing. We’ve seen an increase in the ability to listen compassionately to the narrative of the other, a drive to work together on peace-building campaigns, and a capability to create safe spaces where anger and pain related to the conflict can be transformed into understanding and empathy.
The tools exist. What are we waiting for?
The writer is the author of Together Beyond Words: Women on a Quest for Peace in the Middle East. A therapist, she is co-founder of the non-profit organization Together Beyond Words (TBW), a peace-building organization that brings Muslim, Jewish, Bedouin, Druze and Christian women together in a dynamic process, to heal ancient wounds, recover hidden strengths, and promote emotional understanding.