by NAVA SONNENSCHEIN
‘The Power of Dialogue’ places the Israeli/Palestinian conflict squarely on the table. For many years Israeli Arab Palestinians and Israeli Jewish people have met in the School for Peace (SFP) at Wahat al Salam~Neve Shalom – the village in Israel where the two groups live together in a shared society. But this is the first time that that the SFP have surveyed participants attending courses in the last twenty years with in-depth interviews covering the issues faced at an every-day and existential level. The SFP, established in 1979, was one of the first educational institutions in Israel to work with both groups to bridge the divide and develop a healthy democratic state based on equality and equity for all its citizens. Tens of thousands have participated in dialogue courses – some on the SFP campus and others in Israeli universities and communities in Israel and Palestine and further afield in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, South Africa and Costa Rica.
The method for working with groups in conflict has evolved over the years under the guidance of Rabah Halabi and Nava Sonnenschein, the Director of the SFP and the author of this book. The focus is on how the two nationalities relate to each other rather than the interpersonal relations between individuals. The SFP sees the groups as a microcosm of the larger society. Through the group experience the participants learn of the existing dynamics of the relationship between the two sides in Israel/Palestine. Participants explore their national and ethnic group identity with awareness of how the outside world views that identity and with the realisation of how they are affected by the consequences of this reality.
The interviewees attended one or more SFP courses lasting between 42 and 140 hours over a one term or one year period. The courses included Facilitators for Groups in Conflict, University programmes integrating theoretical and experiential components and the Change Agent programme that promotes social change in the shared professional fields of citizens of Israel (Jews and Palestinians) and of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.
A carefully worked-out process with one Hebrew and one Arabic speaking facilitator encouraging dialogue focussing on the profound difficulties of two Peoples living in one land. For many Jews and Arabs the first time to meet as equals. Feelings of anger and resentment are freely unleashed as the Israeli Palestinians talk of the inequality and discrimination they face: ‘My experience of living in a country that defines itself as a Jewish state is that, while I have certain civil rights, I don’t have that feeling or that privilege that the state is there to protect me, that its institutions protect me. That’s the whole conflict between my being a Palestinian Arab living in Israel, and what I see when I look at a Jew. It doesn’t matter where he comes from, he has all the state institutions coming to help him and empower him’ .
A number of Israeli Jews spoke of their innate sense of superiority coming from a position of power due to the initial basis of Zionism: ‘ The deeper problem is about how we were born, how this place was born, how it came into being as a Jewish state. I understood that there is something distorted in the foundation that was created here. I understood that the exclusivist basis of Zionism holds that this place is only ours and the memory here is only ours and the language only ours and the land only ours, so this basic orientation of Zionism is the problem’.
Often the dialogue returned to memories of childhood as both groups recall listening to family members. Usually only one narrative – that the other side doesn’t want them here and of their own suffering, fear and hatred: ‘They think about what’s good for them and how to get rid of me as an Arab in this country. That’s what I understood, growing up’ and ’The Arabs want to slaughter us – to throw us into the sea. You turn your back and an Arab will stab you from behind ‘.
But things have changed since these feelings were expressed. There is real evidence that the SFP method works. The interviewees record a dramatic shift in their perception through learning the story of the ‘Other’: ‘Currently I am living in a neighbourhood where the majority is Jewish….I was the Arab woman who lives in the neighbourhood and I would go out to do errands and no one would see me.. But now everyone sees me….I post things in Arabic on the notice board….I have strong things to say and I’ll say them… I will speak Arabic with my children in the mall without giving a second thought, and in the park they will speak Arabic, and if some child says to them, “You’re an Arab”, they’ll say yes without adding any sort of justification as their mother used to back in the day, they’ll just say yes and go on running around as if it’s quite natural’.
‘Change must come from those of us who grew up within this reality, and I mean Israelis, Jews, “normal” people who were raised here, served in the army, are living here, do no deny that they are a part of this place. People like us are the ones who can take responsibility and try to think about creative ways to challenge these parts of ourselves’
All the interviewees refuse to see themselves as victims. Now they understand that both groups are the victim and the victimiser. They understand the racism that is within all of us and that as educators and activists they can influence and change reality.
I could say, all very well but obviously a self-selecting group from the start! That may be the case but with people like these who are prepared to listen and speak out there is more of a chance to change preconceived ideas and make Israel/Palestine a better place for all its citizens.
Length: 371 pages
Publisher: Rutgers University Press (8 Jan. 2019)
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