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back issues

 

May 2004
Attending to Pain
The Satya Interview with Susan Heckler

 

July 1998
July 1998

A Brief History

The Compassionate Listening Project began in 1990 as MidEast Citizen Diplomacy, a project of The Earthstewards Network. Danaan Parry, co-founder of Earthstewards, had been an early pioneer in the citizen diplomacy movement, taking U.S. citizens to the former Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet empire, Danaan turned his attention to the Middle East. At the conclusion of the first Earthstewards delegation to Israel and Palestine in November of 1990, Leah Green established MidEast Citizen Diplomacy, and continued leading citizen delegations to Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, for many years.

At the heart of citizen diplomacy is the belief in the creative abilities of ordinary people to affect change at the global level. Seeking to play a greater role in Israeli-Palestinian peace-building and reconciliation, Leah adopted Compassionate Listening (based on the work of Gene Knudsen Hoffman) as an overarching framework for the delegations in 1996. In 1997, with the encouragement of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, the Compassionate Listening Project was founded as a nonprofit organization in the U.S., and Carol Hwoschinsky began training the delegation members. (Source: www.compassionate
listening.org)

Resources

 

The following were recommended by Susan Heckler for those interested in compassionate listening and Arab-Israeli coexistence.

The Yellow Wind by David Grossman (with new afterword: Picador USA, 2002): An Israeli writer travels and talks with Palestinians.

The Leader as Martial Artist: Techniques and Strategies for Resolving Conflict and Creating Community by Arnold Mindell (new edition: Lao Tse Press, 2000).

The following were produced by The Compassionate Listening Project and are available at www.compassionatelistening.org.

Listening with the Heart: A Guidebook for Compassionate Listening by Carol Hwoschinsky (2002).

Children of Abraham, video (2000).

Crossing The Lines: Palestinians and Israelis speak with the Compassionate Listening Listening Project, video (2003).

In January of 1998, Susan Heckler went on a two and a half week tour of Israel and the areas under the control of the Palestine Authority as part of the Compassionate Listening Project (CLP), which sponsors programs for people of all faiths working to foster peace in Israel/Palestine. CLP trips have also been made to Turkey and Syria, and there is a German-Jewish dialogue project as well. Heckler traveled with 15 other Jews, two trainers and a film crew making a documentary of their trip, entitled Children of Abraham. The following is an expanded version of the original interview published in July 1998.

Why did you want to do this?
I’d never been to Israel before, and I felt that was because I was very discouraged and unhappy about the situation. I didn’t want to go as a tourist and ignore this gaping wound in the psyche of the world and in the Jewish psyche. To me this trip presented a responsible way to go and thoughtfully and consciously look at the issue [of Jewish-Palestinian relations]. It was a fascinating and intense experience for me as a Jew to be in Israel. Israel is the most morally complex place I’ve ever been to.

What was the itinerary?
We were based in Jerusalem at a convent called Ecce Homo in the Arab quarter of the old city. Ecce Homo is on the Via Dolorosa [the ‘Way of Sorrows’] and is one of the Stations of the Cross. I began talking with the Christians who ran the convent, and who were curious about us. At one point, when I related some of the experiences we’d had with Palestinians, the sister in charge said to me, “It means a great deal to us that you’re staying here. We have a lot of Arab staff and we have developed a somewhat biased view. It’s very meaningful to us that you’re here, and to hear about the work you’re doing.” This dialogue also felt very important to me.

On the last day, I went with a volunteer to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [where Jesus is believed to have been buried], because my neighbors in Queens, two elderly ill women who are devout Catholics, asked me to go to the Church and pray for them. I knew they would never get to see it and that I was going in their place. Later I realized that many people, certainly Jews, might have found it difficult to accept that I prayed at a Christian church. I offered my own prayer and I offered a prayer that I thought they might say. It was again an experience of trying to be large enough to go beyond yourself, to enter into another’s perspective, to speak to God from beyond the identity you were born into.

You went to some of the most difficult places in the area: Hebron and Gaza. What was Hebron like?
In Hebron we did homestays with Palestinian families. I stayed in the home of an upper middle class Palestinian lawyer, with his sons, and his wife. While you see things being built, you also see the infrastructure crumbling. The streets, sidewalks, lampposts, sewers, and things we take for granted, were falling apart. The decline of services is a point of anger for Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority in Gaza was given $14 million by the Swedish government to create a sewage system that had been neglected by the Israelis, and the people are enraged that money has been squandered. It’s gone to pay for an insanely large police force. Meanwhile, there are open sewers in Gaza and the refugee camps throughout the Palestinian territories, with all the attendant illnesses. One of the people I spoke to said, “Before we had shit from the Israelis; now we have shit from the Palestinian Authority and shit from the Israelis.” Among the Palestinian cities, Hebron is uniquely troubled. Because of the way it has been split down the middle, this has enforced a perpetual state of warfare in the town.

Hebron felt terrible to me: pained, tense, and unhappy. Other people in our group seemed to have had very different kinds of stays with people, where everybody was calm and there was less tension. For my homestay partner and me, it was quite different. There was a barrage of anger. It began with, “Why do you do this; why do you do that?” We were synonymous with Israelis. When we went to Gaza there was a newspaper article about us that described us as “American Israelis.” We listened and tried to be respectful of people’s feelings without addressing the right or wrong of the issue.

How were you taught to listen compassionately?
The training was just to listen. If you had a reaction, you were to keep it to yourself and deal with it later. You could reflect back to the person and show that you were really listening, that you heard what they were saying. The key was that it was about them, not you. Compassionate listening is not a back and forth. Compassionate listening is where you attempt to enable the person to come to a deeper resolution; where they feel so listened to and safe enough with you that they no longer need to keep up the same degree of defense and can speak from a different level of understanding in themselves. We really found that to be true: there was a shift that could occur, even in a single conversation with someone, if you really showed that you heard who they were. For example, in the conversation that first evening, it slowly shifted from “Why do you do this?” to “Why do they do this?”—which is a little easier to take.

What else did they say?
They said to me, “I don’t know what you’ve heard about us in Hebron.” I asked them if they would like to know, and they said they would. I said, “I’ve heard that terrible things have happened here and that there’s a great deal of pain and that people hate each other.” I put this in a mutual way, and they said, “That’s right.” I would try to say things in as neutral a way as possible and so as to suggest a commonality of experience on both sides. During this conversation, the father in this family asked his grandchild who was about eight, what she knew about Jews. He would ask her in Arabic, and she would say something and he would translate it. He seemed to know what she would say. I wondered whether he was prompting her to say what she did.

What did she say?
She said things that one would expect. They lock up men, they put men in jail, or they shoot at people. But then she said something that was really more than I could bear, “They don’t believe in God, they take the name of God in vain.” This was too much for me, too painful to hear this child say. I started to cry and said, “I have to say something.” I said, “As a Jew, I need to bless this child. I bless this child that she should grow up and live in peace in the home that she wants to live in; that she has happiness, that she has the family she wants; and that she lives with peace, fullness and grace.” And we all said, “Inshallah” [God willing]. There was a slight shift, a release of tension.

What did the father say when he saw you crying?
When I first started to cry, he said, “We have been weeping for years,” as if to say, ‘Your tears are nothing.’ When someone is so full and so charged with their own emotion, there’s no room for anyone else’s feelings. The next day, our group was supposed to rendezvous at the mosque/synagogue known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is the tomb of Abraham and Sarah and Jacob and Leah. This is, of course, the place where in 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims at prayer. Jews, Muslims, and Christians must approach and enter the holy site through separate entrances and there are repeated checks for weapons in order to get in. The atmosphere was heavy and tense. Now this place is not only the grave of the ancestors, the patriarchs, it’s also supposed to be the grave of Adam and Eve—the ancestors of all people, the symbol of the unified source of all human beings. And nothing could feel more separate than the experience of going there. With both the Jews and the Arabs of Hebron, there is no middle ground. There’s really deep hatred. I cried in front of the tomb and asked, “What have we done, what have all of us done with this legacy?”

That night, when we were with the family sharing the Ramadan breaking of the fast, I told them about my visit. I think that because of what had gone on before, there wasn’t a venting, but a real conversation. We were able to actually exchange. There was room for me to speak and I was asked questions with openness to my responses. I told them that I went to the cave and that I cried. I said, “It hurts to be here. This place feels so terrible. How do people stand it?” And they nodded. I said, “Now I understand. After seeing your incredibly close family I see how that makes life bearable.”

In the people we met with, there was genuine interest in us, and a respectful attitude. But there were times when I had to practice detachment so that I didn’t take the anger personally. At another home in Hebron, at the end of a discussion which had seemed hopeless, my host said, “Thank you very much for listening.” I said something like, “It’s important for people to be honest.” He responded, “My sister Susan is always welcome in my home. Feel free to bring your group tomorrow for Ramadan break-fast.” For me, that really felt like a vindication. People need to know that you can really hear the most difficult things; that unless you’re able to sit and listen to what is between you they can’t talk to you at all. When I left the family we stayed with, one of them took a ring that said “Peace” off his hand and gave it to me as a gift. I said, “If someone asks me if the Palestinians want peace, I’ll show them this ring and I’ll say it was given to me by a Palestinian.” I had an occasion to say that when I left the project and stayed in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

What was Gaza like?
The Israelis have built a long narrow cement tunnel to control the flow of people at the border so you can’t get a riot and rush of people. It’s a security measure, which I can understand. However, there’s a very frightening, dark quality seeing people walk two at a time through a long cement tunnel. It’s depressing. When we were in Gaza there were reporters who wanted to interview us because of who we were. This was quite dangerous and the Palestinian Authority gave us an armed escort the entire time we were in Gaza. Before I went to Israel I don’t believe I’d seen an automatic weapon in my life. You walk around in Israel and there are soldiers everywhere wearing rifles and automatic weapons. You go into a pizza place and brush against someone’s weapon. At first this was horrifying to me. I thought, “What does this do to people? How does this affect you?” If nothing else it says “occupation”—an occupation under which both sides live in fear.

In Gaza, we met with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas, who is slowly dying of a degenerative illness. That was a fascinating trip. There was a line of men at the side of the room. There was a very intense quality—a quality of resolve. It was neither hopelessness nor anger alone, which was what I had been hearing from Palestinians before this. There was a quality of self-mastery and power that was fed by feelings of injustice and rage. Sheikh Yassin talked about his experiences in prison, about being tortured in prison. Despite knowing what he has done, I found it very sad and disturbing to hear about that. Several people in our group also felt enormous anger towards him.

I know many say that he has blood on his hands, and that he’s responsible for the death of many people. And he is. Someone asked me whether I would meet with Meir Kahane [founder of Israel’s extreme-right Kach party, who was murdered in New York City in 1990]. But there has to be some point at which no matter what has happened, you have to talk to people, that’s my belief and my experience. So I would have met with Meir Kahane—if he was alive—even though his views are as disturbing to me as those of Sheikh Yassin, and harder for me to face, because I share a Jewish identity with him. [Note: Sheikh Yassin was killed by the Israeli military earlier this year.]

What other groups did you meet with?
We met with Israeli peace activists, people who had spent time in prison for refusing to serve in the army, and people from Peace Now. We met with Yossi Klein, a writer for The Jerusalem Post, who is a crossover—he voted for Rabin then crossed over to Netanyahu. The group did a homestay with Jewish settlers as well. We met with a group called Besod Siach (which means “Across the Divide”) who are primarily right-wing settlers. They’re working to have dialogue with left-wing Israelis. They expressed willingness to speak with left-wing Israelis—which I think is an enormous stretch for them—because they had been horrified by what had happened to Yitzak Rabin. After the project, I stayed on for a month with Israelis, primarily religious Jews. We did visit an elderly Jewish couple in a farming community and that was one of the most difficult meetings for our group because they were angry, bitter and unapologetically racist.

What did they say?
What I’ve come to believe are myths: The land really didn’t belong to anyone. There wasn’t anyone there. They talked about how they bought the land from the person who actually owned it and those other people [who claimed it] didn’t really own it. They said, they work their land; not much was being done on the land. They also said, “I’m not sorry for this,” and “We’ve been through five wars, we won the wars. Other people win wars, they take territory; no one asks them to give it back. If England or France or America took territory and they won it in a war, would someone make them give it back? I don’t think so. Because we won it fair and square.”

When we were listening, I thought, “I don’t know what to do with this. How do I relate to this experience? How do I make a connection with these people?” The woman told a story about how her mother had been pregnant during the British mandate and had gone to a hospital which was attacked by Arabs. Everyone in the hospital—all the nurses, doctors and patients were massacred. They talked about the Jews who died in the Holocaust. I said, “I hear you saying, ‘People don’t care about Jews. The British said they would watch out for the Jews, and they didn’t.’ Your mother was murdered, all her doctors and nurses were murdered, people said they would watch out for Jews during the War and they didn’t, there was a terrible massacre and holocaust. ‘Non-Jews don’t care about Jews, only Jews do.’” And they said, “Yes, that’s right.” I said, “It must be very difficult to carry that feeling all the time.” They nodded. And as I said all these words to them I found a place in myself where I understood those feelings. I found those feelings in myself and I found that wound. As I talked, they jumped up and started talking anxiously about other things; the feelings were too overwhelming to address.

I don’t know if my saying that made any difference in their experience, if it clarified anything for them, or felt like any kind of comfort. I don’t think so; it was so painful and we didn’t have enough time together. But I changed. I learned something about compassionate listening. I felt that the very thing that had separated us was really the point of connection. I continued to experience that with other people. If I could listen and drop down inside to a quieter level of experience, I could find their wound inside me. I felt like we were part of something larger. Their lives were shaped by that experience, mine was not. While I don’t take on their beliefs, I understand what they are.

What larger lessons have you drawn from this experience?
In everyday life, when people are clearly polarized, active listening is therapeutic. We live in a time of so much noise and information. There are so many things we’re supposed to know, so many things going on. There’s also a lot of pain in our own culture about not being heard. The experience really brings up for me the notion of listening better. What does it mean to listen: to listen to your friends and lovers, to the earth, to God in this other way? What does it mean to listen and know that so much that is precious and important is neither listened to nor seen? I’ve noticed the difference between an argument or an unsatisfying exchange and a profoundly different kind of exchange in which people really meet each other. For me, it goes hand in hand with my meditation practice; to develop the quality of inner stillness that allows you to listen from another part of your being. That’s what I’m trying to look for now and I find that it requires work on my part, rather than having the stimulus of this highly charged situation and the project. I find myself moving to develop that quality of listening on a regular basis.

The Compassionate Listening Project
is sending a delegation to Israel/Palestine, October 4-17, led by Leah Green. To sign up or to learn more about this and other compassionate listening trips, as well as CLP training workshops given in the U.S., visit www.compassionatelistening.org or call (360) 297-2280.

 

 


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