Peace is Catching: Dialogue in Your Community

Having recently returned to Israel after spending nearly a decade in the U.S. , I find that my observations of the country reflect both its changes and my own. My awareness has grown, but so too has my perplexity. The paradoxes and complexities of Israel are what I notice now more than ever. Although these may have always existed, they are in sharper relief against today’s pessimistic political reality – a far cry from the heady days of optimism created by the Oslo peace process of ten years ago. But also the paradoxes are sharper for me because of my own growing awareness in light of my doctoral research on Arab-Jewish dialogue groups in the United States. Despite some of the issues I discuss here I want to begin and end on an optimistic note that the reality calls out for opening channels of communication and promoting dialogue between Jews and Arabs in the United States and all over the world.

Of the many social incongruities causing dissonance in Israel, relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel is a troubling case in point. On the one hand a significant majority of Israel’s Arab citizens live in villages (some say 85%) but those who leave the villages to become educated at Israel’s universities often become integrated and play an important role in a multi-cultural Israeli society. There are Arab doctors in hospitals who are heads of departments, there are Arab psychologists, Arab professors at the institutions of higher learning and many have attained respected positions in Israeli society. And yet despite some of these impressive gains, racism against Arabs in Israel is explicit, blatant and unabashed.

Many who follow the Middle East on the nightly news have an image in their heads of the Palestinian villager oppressed by settlers and this image is unspeakably appalling. But it is not the whole picture. A drive through for example the Israeli-Arab village of Kfar Yasif in the Gallilee reveals other layers and nuances. There the houses inhabited by Arab citizens are large and impressive mansions. But scratch the surface and you realize that here too contradictions abound. Sometimes three generations live in the spacious home (not so spacious when you consider how many live under the same roof) . Also, basic infrastructure provided by the authorities is often scanty or lacking in these villages. Is the lack of civic services a result of discrimination and persecution and the specter of second class citizenship as the Arabs claim or is it because of the difficulty of collecting taxes in these villages as claim the Israelis? Why wouldn’t anyone refuse to pay taxes though to a state that discriminates against them – isn’t that civil disobedience as celebrated by our Henry D. Thoreau? So the argument goes around in circles.

Of course most Israeli Jews don’t drive through these Arab villages. Most don’t even know they exist, or seem to have sprouted blinders when driving past. When asking the typical Israeli what population centers he would pass on a drive from, say, Netanya to Nahariya, he would certainly mention Hadera and Caesarea and Zichron Yaakov to the east of the Coastal Road, but would he mention Faradis which has a population about the size of Zichron? Haifa is impossible to miss, but what about Shfar’am with a population of 35,000?  If they were to take Road number 70 which avoids the traffic of Haifa and the Krayot, they would certainly mention Yokneam and Akko but screen out Tamra and B’ilin. How has a society so successfully managed to hide 20% of its population in plain sight? Poe’s story re-written as the “Purloined People.”

The reality is that prejudice against Arabs is blatant, flagrant and unconcealed by veils of political correctness. There’s no attempt even to hide this ugliness. A prominent Arab psychologist recently related how, returning to Israel from an overseas conference , he hailed a taxi back home from the airport. He reports that the taxi driver told him he refuses to pick up drunks and Arabs in his cab. When my friend observed with barely concealed irony that a drunk might be easy enough to recognize but how does the driver distinguish an Arab from a Jew, the driver replied, “I can smell them.” Needless to say, the taxi driver’s olfactory sense must have been malfunctioning that day because he never suspected the psychologist was Arab.

Several months ago I sat at a Shabat dinner table with a childhood friend who claimed stridently that that Avigdor Lieberman is the only honest politician in Israel. Such a statement is shocking considering not least the corruption charges that have been leveled against him and his indictment for fraud. But this statement is even more deplorable considering Lieberman’s virulent anti-Arab rhetoric. Is it better to have racism out in the open rather than swept under the rug of political correctness as some claim occurs in the United State? Personally, I think that the attempt to hide racism is an acknowledgement that it is a shameful thing or at the very least indicates an awareness that it is wrong, which is the first step toward rooting it out.

I’ve also had dinner this year – the Pesach Seder at my home in Karkur  – year with a genuinely lovely Arab family from Akko whose daughters have grown up in the Israeli Jewish school system. My friend’s 12-year-old was excited to come to our Seder because – as she told her mother – this is the first time she would get to see what a real home Seder looks like and not just the ones they do at school. Should I be shocked to learn that despite her 29 Jewish classmates and myriad Jewish neighbors she had never before been invited to anyone’s family Seder? Most of my Jewish Israeli friends were not surprised by this.

Despite the accusations out of Europe these days, Israelis are not Nazis and Israel is not an apartheid state. I know we are a people which generally cares about tikkun olam and doing right in the world. It is time to ignore the stalled out top-down peace process and start making peace for ourselves. If we have learned anything from this past year’s social protest movements both in the Arab world, in Israel and now in the U.S. it is that we do not need to wait for government to make the changes we want to see.

In this season of soul searching as we approach the High Holy Days, I urge every one of you to join the social movement toward peace. This movement is already growing strong with countless organizations striving for peace and social justice in Israel, with innumerable Arab–Jewish dialogue groups in the US and in Israel. I encourage Jews everywhere in Israel and in the US  to join the movement by taking the time this upcoming Sukkot holiday to invite an Arab friend or an Arab family  into your Sukkah or to your Passover Sdarim in the spring and to open a dialogue: one on one, family to family, and in small groups. Reach out, listen to the other’s stories, make a friend. Peace is catching. Pass it on.

The Magic of a Dialogue Group

Dialogue -when truly practiced – is a powerful activity in which the very nature of consciousness is touched. When the energy found in this new consciousness is linked directly to any change agenda, transformations never thought possible are suddenly evident. The many Arab-Jewish dialogue groups that have sprung up  throughout the United States are testament to the power of dialogue. The personal experience of dialogue is often described using words like “profound,” “mysterious,” “peak experience.” For a dialogic experience to feel complete, it must be both an ending and a beginning, it must reframe our past and precipitate a new opening, a profound connection, a shift.

Many would like to experience this new consciousness created by dialogue but are nonplussed by how to create it. The successful Arab-Jewish dialogue groups follow an arc of progression that unfolds as follows:  At the first point of the arc, the action is sitting with the “enemy” and listening to and telling personal stories. At this stage, the dialogue group itself is the action and it is exciting just to be meeting. The next stage is the development of trust and the sense of what psychologists would call safety in the group. At this stage, the intimacy and ability to share deepens. Then come perception changes – or the shift – that occurs within the group and for each member as an individual. And finally, the group begins to look outside itself, taking in the community and involving new people. Thus there’s a natural progression to the activism stage. Not that activism is the ultimate goal of these groups, but community outreach is often the natural outgrowth of a successful group.

This arc of progression is an organic process; the stages cannot be rushed. Groups that begin by trying to write manifestos, make public statements or turn to political action too soon are usually doomed to failure. A group that follows the progressive arc and is sustained over time is a successful group. There are examples of such successful groups going on to found organizations devoted to peacebuilding activities.

To achieve success, there are certain rules and guidelines which most dialogue groups follow that include the following dimensions: active listening; a focus on personal storytelling; suspension of assumptions; establishing psychological safety; embracing ambiguity and finding shared meaning. In order to achieve these dimensions, it is important to have good facilitation and process (as is true for all groups). The groups that don’t follow these rules often find the interaction within the group devolving into argument, debate, bickering and acrimony. These groups generally disband within a short amount of time and leave the participants feeling hopeless and despair of ever being able to overcome differences and build peace.

What can be done to encourage and promote the successful groups into a matrix, a nexus, a grassroots movement? In Ireland, during the years leading up the Belfast Agreement, the Irish government established the Central Community Relations Unit to encompass peacebuilding and to embrace reconciliation groups as well as groups and sectors of society which had not been part of peacebuilding previously, including businesses, religious groups, sports groups, and even health and education boards. Perhaps a similar initiative can be created in Israel. A critical mass of these groups and organizations organized together to has the potential to create a trickle-up, tipping point for peace.

It is the network and nexus of dialogue groups, grassroots organizations, not-for-profits – in the US, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere – whose missions are designed to advance equality, promote relationships and lay the groundwork for peace, that has the potential to become a grassroots movement. Such a movement is necessary to stem the tide of negativity and the ideology of racism and hate that is so pervasive in the current political climate. Therefore, these groups and organizations should be encouraged, supported, financed and promoted by everyone who still has faith, because they are – for now – the only viable source of peacebuilding between Arabs and Jews.