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There’s no monopoly on Mideast emotion
Student group to host I-House event devoted to ‘compassionate listening’

| 30 April 2003

 

tikkun group

Wrapped in (but not trapped by) the Israeli and Palestinian flags, Berkeley Tikkun members gathered on Sproul Plaza in anticipation of this weekend’s Day of Mutual Recognition event. Pictured from left to right are Ana Villa-Lobos, Debra Berliner, David Solomon, Mehammed Mack, and Lauren Chamberlain.
Photo courtesy of Berkeley Tikkun

If the organizers and supporters of May 4’s “Day of Mutual Recognition” at International House are as influential as they are united, peace in the Middle East will occur once the antagonists stop yelling and start listening. Making less noise and paying more attention are key to any workable peace plan, they believe — and they’ve arranged the day’s events to ensure that participants can do both.

Designed “to give campus and community Arabs and Jews a chance to listen to each other’s stories,” the symposium (which runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) will include monologues and dialogues by and among students, activists, artists, and members of the public — all of whom recognize (in the words of co-organizer Ofer Sharone) “that the campus politics on this issue are extremely polarized and virulent. It’s not a healthy environment for people to understand each other and the situation.” Central to all the day’s events, therefore, will be a number of individual perspectives, expressed by Arabs and Jews alike, not on the political challenges of a Mideast peace, but on the personal stories that they choose to share. The emotional reactions those stories engender, these activists believe, must underlie any such peace.

Sharone is a member Berkeley Tikkun, a recently formed campus student group that is the event’s primary organizer. He and co-organizer Ana Villa-Lobos, both graduate students in sociology, became acquainted as congregants of Rabbi Michael Lerner, whose Oakland-based Tikkun is a national group interested in the spiritual dimensions of progressive social change. The two students found they shared a desire to form a campus group that would “bring a more nuanced perspective on the Middle East issue, a less polarized view,” says Sharone. “We saw at campus rallies that both the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinan groups were too one-dimensional and one-sided ... just two sides caught in a cycle of blame, with extremists on both sides dictating the agendas. We wanted to try to remedy that with a group that would be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.”

Partisan polemics vs. empathic listening: a classroom experiment

For all its apparent novelty, the Day of Mutual Recognition won’t be entirely without precedent here. Last fall, Professor Jerry Sanders organized a pair of lectures for his introductory course in peace and conflict studies — dramatically contrasting the effect of a strident, political “story” versus “individually told and empathically received” narratives. In one two-hour session, he first brought in a student from the Israeli Action Committee to speak on Middle East politics, and then a Palestinian student from the SJP.

“ Both speakers predictably described themselves as the victims and the other side as the aggressors,” Sanders recalls. “Each claimed they wanted peace,” but said that peace couldn’t happen until the other side stopped what it was doing. “The Palestinian said the Israelis had to end the occupation; the Israeli said the key would be an end to terrorism by the Palestinians. Once what they insisted had to happen had happened, each maintained, everything would fall into place.”

As a case study, he says, it was effective: “Students could see, in this very simple demonstration, the problem that exists in the dynamic of the conflict, and how it escalates.” The subjective impact was even stronger. Some students were very upset, while others, who had held strong opinions previously, felt their views had been confirmed. “Nobody,” Sanders says, “had their mind changed, and most people were highly demoralized.”

He told his students that this classroom experience “basically reflects the way the real world operates. Consequently, what’s important is some way of getting to a dialogue between the parties, so that they can communicate not just by speaking, but by listening — not so much to reach common agreement, but rather some understanding of what they disagree about, and why.”

‘Parallel suffering
Two days later, in a followup session, Sanders organized a “living room”-type session between two adult participants, an American Jew and a Palestinian living in the United States. Each told his own story; then the two compared those aspects of their stories that they experienced as common. “What the students were able to see,” says Sanders, “was that there’s a ‘parallel suffering’ that takes place in these conflicts, and how each side learns from the story of the other.”

Conflict resolution often focuses on political interests and concrete things, “with a lot of reluctance to get into people’s feelings,” Sanders says. “‘Conflict transformation’ is certainly the most exciting, groundbreaking, leading edge of conflict resolution... It’s a deeper approach, one that’s satisfying to people who are unhappy with diplomats who sign agreements, but don’t consider that it takes people to carry out those agreements.”

In conflict transformation, he explains, “ you have to focus on relationships, identify emotional issues: the idea of humiliation, and ... how that shapes people. And you have to be willing to listen to other people describe their stories. You can’t be starry-eyed about this, but the key point is that nothing can get done until people are willing to talk to, listen to, and recognize each other. Nothing.” — J.K.

In planning the May 4 event, the Tikkun organizers were drawn to work done by the San Mateo-based Living Room Dialogue Group, coordinated by activists Len Traubman and his wife, Libby, who work tirelessly to bring Jews and Arabs together, in both private and public forums. There, Len says, they “tell their authentic stories, hear each other’s stories, and so begin to see each other as human and equal.” The Day of Mutual Recognition at Berkeley has precursors in similar events previously held at Georgetown, Brandeis, and Rice Universities, the University of Washington, and elsewhere. Each has had its own structure and flavor, and each has had an apparently lasting impact on its participants.

Restored optimism
The Traubmans will facilitate a panel of Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis/Jews at the I-House event. Lara Haddad, a second-year undergraduate, is one of three scheduled participants with Arab affiliations. Born in this country to a Palestinian father and Lebanese/Welsh mother, she has traveled widely, spending periods of time in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Haddad began to lose faith in the power of dialogue to affect the peace process as relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated severely during 2002. But contact with the Traubmans helped restore her willingness to pursue empathic listening as a means of promoting understanding among political opponents. She will take part in the May 4 Living Room Dialogue panel with a restored, albeit somewhat guarded optimism.

Another panel participant is second-year philosophy major Mohammed Mack, an active member of both Berkeley Tikkun and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and a co-organizer of the May 4 event. Half-Saudi, with work experience at the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., in his background, Mack has shifted in his beliefs about the Middle East conflict over time. Until relatively recently he saw Israel as the aggressor in the conflict, he says. That viewpoint, to some extent, stimulated his decision to join SJP at the start of the fall 2002 semester, though it didn’t keep him from attending a Berkeley Tikkun meeting some months later as well.

Was that a whim? No, insists Mack. “I was interested in learning about Israeli/Jewish anti-occupation movements. I’ve always been of the mind that this is not an existential conflict, but one that can be solved through sensible cooperation.” That conviction undergirds his insistence on remaining a member of both SJP and (now) Berkeley Tikkun. Of the SJP, some of whose members have been involved in controversial campus protests, Mack says: “Despite the stereotype on campus that they’re a bunch of hooligans, SJP is a very principled, nonviolent group. Its members, for the most part, are calm individuals who are willing to talk, not just scream at you. I maintain my membership in both groups to show that things are not irreconcilable between them It doesn’t bother me that the exact political ideologies of SJP and Tikkun don’t align; I’m more interested in doing joint teamwork in the areas where they do align.”

Emphasizing cultural connections
That said, Mack — like most of the May 4 event’s organizers and scheduled particpants — is at pains to make clear that it will not be, on any overt level, a political undertaking. “Certainly not one aimed at ‘reconciliation’ – that would turn off the Arab and Palestinian audience for sure,” he insists, “and simplify the issue in an unproductive way. In any case, it’s a little naïve to think that something really stupendous can come out of this. I see it more as an opportunity to talk among ourselves, to emphasize our cultural connections — and to be in contact with the people you are supposedly separate from.”

Such contact, and the understanding it promotes, is an essential precondition to any successful Middle East peace settlement, says Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, one of two featured speakers at the event. (The other is Mohammed Al-Atar, a Palestinian/American activist who directs a group called Palestinians for Peace and Democracy.)

“What’s happening at Berkeley is extremely important,” says Lerner. “If the Tikkun campus group is successful in transforming and challenging the two extreme discourses, and building this progressive, middle path, then once people get beyond this discourse of blame, and of demeaning the other, they’ll find they can actually agree on an awful lot. Once they’re willing to recognize the humanity of the other, it’s not so hard to figure out what a peace agreement would look like that would satisfy the needs of both sides.”