Listening for peace

Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project, an organisation that specialises in facilitating positive, peaceful encounters between Israelis and Palestinians where the focus is on listening – truly listening – to each other. Marian Brehmer spoke to him about the project

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Marian Brehmer

Mr Peck, what is the idea behind the Sulha Peace Project?

Yoav Peck: "Sulha" is an Arabic word that describes a centuries-old tradition of dispute resolution in Palestinian society. It also means "reconciliation" in Hebrew. At Sulha, we believe that change will happen from the top and from the bottom. At the top, there are political leaders, the press and demonstrations. At the bottom, it's the work from people to people. That's our work. We feel that any solution for the future of the Middle East is going to require co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians. But there is enormous mistrust on both sides. Our commitment is to close the gaps between people through a series of encounters at a person-to-person level. We want to build trust between people whose trust has been shaken by events.

How do you do that?

Peck: We discourage political arguments and encourage people to share their experience of the conflict on a personal level. We bring up to 120 Palestinians and Israelis together every six weeks to spend some informal time together, get to know each other and sit in circles. We always share a meal together, we use prayer, music and drumming – whatever brings people closer together. In the listening circles, people arrive with whatever reactions they have to what was happening that week and also with their long-term resignation about the way things are. We try to break through the resignation, to awaken hope and to enable people to carry on with their lives, working for peace, but with an experience of the other side being human – just like they are. That's the impact of the gatherings.

Yoav Peck (photo: Yoav Peck)
Yoav Peck: "Vor 'Sulha' habe ich für eine Friedensbewegung gearbeitet, die Massendemonstrationen organisiert. Dort gab es einige wenige Menschen, die für viele andere Menschen Entscheidungen getroffen haben. Bei 'Sulha' habe ich schließlich Menschen kennengelernt, die extrem sensibilisiert waren für den Prozess der Entscheidungsfindung und für die Art und Weise, wie wir in Meetings miteinander umgehen."

How can listening be a tool of change in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

Peck: Most of us don't really listen to each other. Most of the time, what people call listening is just about sitting there, controlling yourself and thinking of the next clever thing you are going to say when the other one has finished talking. Rather than actually getting into the other's skin and seeing what it's like to be Mahmud, I am much busier thinking about how I am going to win this argument. That's the way warriors listen to each other, but it's not the way peace is made. Listening is really at the heart of our work. The deeper experience of listening is about fully being with people when they are talking. I might disagree with you very strongly and still respect you enough to let you finish what you want to say. When people truly listen to each other, it leads to intimacy and closeness between them. The job of the facilitators is to create a space where people feel safe enough to share from their personal experiences.

Are these "listening circles" also political?

Peck: The political situation is mentioned endlessly during the circles, especially if there are events like the recent killings on the Gaza border. The occupation has been a reality for Palestinians for the last fifty years. But we steer our participants away from intellectualising about the conflict and discussing possible solutions for the political situation. We really reserve the time for people-to-people connection. Sometimes Palestinian participants are frustrated that we are not talking about the political situation enough. But soon they learn what we are after. Everyone has a story and wants to tell their story if they can find someone to listen to them. The older I get, the clearer it becomes that political argument, in the best case scenario, ends with one person feeling that he is the winner and the other person is the loser. It doesn't change anything, it drives people apart and leaves people with resentment.

How do people come to know about the project?

Peck: It's very much word-of-mouth. Each time, people bring friends, neighbours or others from their environment who have never been exposed to this kind of work. We have a core group of people who come every time, but our purpose is to reach out to the people who are suspicious of this kind of work. If we can get them to come, we really have an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

How is this kind of transformation possible?

Peck: Let me share a story with you. Once I was hospitalised, and the guy lying next to me in the hospital bed turned out to be a settler, Yossi. My automatic reaction was rejection. I thought we had nothing in common. Then Yossi started telling me about his life and it turned out he had lost his parents and siblings in a terrorist attack. He was on his way into the army. Then I told him about myself and about Sulha. To my amazement he asked "Why don't you invite me to one of your gatherings?" Finally he came. We asked one of the Palestinians, Ahmed, to spend some time with him one-on-one. Ahmed had spent some time in Israeli prisons and was still limping from the wounds he had suffered when he was arrested. He was very suspicious about talking to a settler; Yossi was also very reluctant. But he agreed. Within ten minutes they were in deep conversation with each other. They even refused our invitation to participate in the activities, because they were just talking, laughing and sharing cigarettes. At the end of the evening, we asked the Palestinians to get back on the bus because they had a deadline to be back at the roadblocks on the border. Ahmed hugged Yossi and said to him: "Listen, in a couple of months you will be a soldier, and you will be standing at the roadblocks, and I will be across the road throwing rocks at you guys. Please take care of yourself." It was so sad to see that they both felt locked into their roles, a future soldier and a potential rock-thrower. But a connection had been made between them and Ahmed was concerned that his new friend Yossi would be hurt. It was quite a magical moment.

Do you sometimes get frustrated that the human connections made in the circles might be crushed by the system?

Peck: The real frustration is about the people we don't get to. People who have been to one of our gatherings take the message into their lives and share their experiences with their families. They are touched in a way most people are not. Of course, if we get a hundred people to a gathering every six weeks we are making a very small impact statistically. I'm frustrated about what is happening to the people who have never had an experience like this. Palestinians are becoming more and more embittered and full of hate. Israelis are becoming more and more frightened and alienated from the human beings who live just a few kilometres down the road.

Has your own perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed since you joined Sulha seven years ago?

Peck: There is a quote from Gandhi: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way." Before Sulha I was working for a hands-on peace organisation that organises mass demonstrations. In that organisation, a few people were making decisions for a lot of other people. It wasn't truly democratic and there were lots of expressions of hatred from the left. You can't be a peace organisation and make war on the members of your own organisation and people on the other side. To persuade the other side that peace is the way, we have to be peaceful in the way we do that. I tried to change things, but I was unsuccessful and left. At Sulha I saw that people were extremely sensitive to the process of making decisions and to the way we treat each other in meetings. This includes the refusal to demonise even the most violent anti-peace forces on both sides of the border. When someone acts with hatred he is really covering some experience of pain. Our job is to be artful enough to get to the human being underneath all that hatred. That's hard work. When Yossi, the settler, shared the trauma of losing his parents to terrorists, the Palestinians listened to him with tears in their eyes. They felt deep shame that this could happen to anyone, even if the person was a settler.

Looking at recent events in Gaza, it really seems like it's going to take a long time to transform the situation. Doesn't that look like a never-ending task to you?

Peck: Yes. It's all about building trust. We have a technique we call the "friendly undermining of your assumptions". If someone says, as people very often do,  "The Palestinians all want to drive us into the sea"; then people will repeat that in the course of their discussion. We might say to them "Do you think that's true for every Palestinian? Do you think that every Palestinian – including the people here at this gathering – would like to throw you into the sea?" Only after there is enough connection to the other person will they be prepared to consider the faulty logic of some of the things they say. This is a long march. It might open a small crack in someone's thinking. He might go home and tell his friends that he met a peace activist who was actually a nice person and that he would like to spend more time with him. Maybe the next time he will move another step further towards opening his perspective on things. One of the things I sometimes ask is "What do you want for your children? Do you just want to raise your children and send them off to the army into the next Gaza war? Or is there an alternative?" When you talk to people about their children, they soften. They are willing to listen to your stories about your own children, how frightening it is to be parents of a combat soldier. So, one step at a time.

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

© 2018