Socially Engaged Dharma in Israel & Palestine

Recently I returned from a Journey to Israel, the West Bank and Palestine. I met with many wonderful people doing projects and volunteer work in Social Engagement.

Aviv Tatarsky of the Israel Engaged Dharma Group gave me the following article he wrote on compassion. Rabbi Bob Carroll who works in the Interfaith Encounter Association, an Israeli NGO, dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East through interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural study sent me his comments on Aviv’s article. Aviv then responded to Bob’s comments. I am posting the article and comments here hoping they will serve to start a dialog on the Israeli/Palestine issues. Please post your comments. Thanking you in advance, Bernie.

Aviv’s Article

Engaged Dharma in Israel – 2011 (2nd half) activity and learning report

During the 2nd half 0f 2011 our group initiated a variety of actions and projects as part of our ongoing
peace work. These included campaigns, solidarity actions with Palestinian partners, uncovering
information about the realities of the occupation, petitioning authorities regarding violations of
human rights, and laying the ground for educational work within the Israeli-Jewish society. Rather
than giving a full report of our activities during this period, we will highlight here the meaningful
lessons learnt during these months: Sangha as an invaluable resource for supporting activism and
peace work, the power of compassion and openness for turning confrontation into dialogue, and the
deep relevance that our spiritual insights have when facing the challenges of peace work. Most of
the examples we will bring concern our relationship with the village of Deir Istiya which has been
developing over the last two years.
Sangha as a vital Resource
One of our main missions is to raise awareness within the Dharma community to the meaning of
living under occupation, and to create opportunities for Sangha members to get involved in peace
and human rights work. A good starting point is what can be considered “soft” humanitarian action.
Recently, for example, we organized for Sangha members to collectively buy a significant amount of
olive oil from a few poor families in the village of Deir Istiya. It is important to note that even this
simple action (an action very significant for the farmers) could not have happened had we not the
support of a large “non-activist” Sangha. From this soft starting point there are many ways to go
deeper: We used this opportunity in order to inform the Sangha how Israeli policies and economic interests create a situation where Palestinian farmers find it increasingly more difficult to sell their oil. Olive agriculture being such a major part of Palestinian economy and culture, the implications of this situation can be very dramatic. Now we are working together with Deir Istiya farmers to create a channel for exporting their olive oil to both Israeli and foreign markets. This entails connecting potential customers on the one hand and assisting the village to develop quality assurance and other mechanisms that are needed. All this requires
knowledge and expertise and here again the Sangha offers indispensible resources in the form of
practitioners who are professionals in the fields of food industry, trading etc. Many times, these
professionals – who offer their knowledge and assistance wholeheartedly – have not previously
engaged in Jewish-Palestinian cooperation, so they too find the experience unique and are excited by
how they can put their skills for this cause.
Stability and Whole Heartedness
Crossing the unseen but very real borders that separate Jews and Palestinians generates much hope
and intimacy and can be very healing and transformative. These hope and intimacy run so contrary
to the mainstream beliefs around the Jewish-Palestinian conflict that sooner or later challenges and
conflicts arise as well. There have been many instances where group members had to face
confrontations and attacks from various sources:
A physiotherapist and Sangha member came with us to Deir Istiya to treat a handicapped
woman. Later, when telling friends about her deeply touching experience in the village, she
was aggressively criticized and condemned by one of them….
Walking with the mayor of Deir Istiya to see contaminated sewage flowing from a nearby
settlement to the olive groves of the village we are stopped by soldiers who demand that we
turn away. The soldiers take it for granted that they can give orders to civilians, completely
disregarding the fact that we are walking on land privately owned by these civilians.…
Together with Palestinians and other activists we are demonstrating in the village Al-Wallaja
in protest of the separation wall being built on its lands, several meters away from the
houses. The demonstration is nonviolent but the soldiers declare it illegal. They shout abuse
and throw scores of stun grenades directly at us…
A representative of ours phones the mayor of Revava, the settlement from which the above
mentioned sewage is flowing. The mayor refuses to speak with the “Arab lover” and after a
few hostile sentences, hangs up the phone…

These kinds of occurrences are the all too common experience of peace activists in Israel. It is very
painful to be considered “public enemy” and this pain gives rise to many challenges: Inwardly it is
difficult not to feel resentment and anger towards people who attack you so vehemently. Outwardly,
expressing this anger unskillfully only adds to the cycle of hate and violence. On the other hand, if
wishing not to take part in these kinds of violent exchanges you step back and cease to be involved,
then you give up on the commitment to work for changing the troubled reality which our lives are
part of.
We feel very privileged to be able to engage in such confrontations while being supported by
Dharma practice and the wisdom and compassion it cultivates. Responding skillfully in these
situations is an ongoing learning process and one of the deepest practices that activism offers us.
Through this practice we learn to open to the feeling of Dukha and find in it a refuge from the danger
of breeding our inner ill-will. We learn how big our capacity for listening can be and how much our
adversaries need that we listen to them. Hopefully this listening also helps us to better understand
them. We learn how to state our case clearly, directly and non-aggressively. We learn the power of a
heart and mind that are well tuned. And we learn simultaneously of our own fragility and power.
The Physiotherapist absorbed her friend’s abuse and had enough inner freedom to be aware of the
needs of that friend and the other people who witnessed the exchange. The group near the sewage
refused politely but firmly to obey the unjust orders. In Al-Wallaja, instead of adding to the mayhem,
our activists helped a few frightened and angry partners to relax. Our representative kept on phoning
and listening to the Mayor of Revava who became very curious about him, put down some of his
defenses and finally invited the representative to visit him at the settlement so that they could
discuss things thoroughly. When, despite this show of good-will, no progress was made for fixing the
sewage we petitioned the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment which is now charging the
settlement with contamination of agriculture and water resources.

Raising Awareness and Creating Transformation
Another major part of our mission is transforming the existing prejudices and psychological obstacles
for peace in the Jewish-Israeli society. In the last few months we held a weekend retreat of Engaged
Dharma and spoke about our work in a conference that was dedicated to “Trends in Buddhism in the
West”. In the next two months we are scheduled to hold another retreat and are organizing together
with the different Israeli Sanghas a conference on “Dharma inspired Political and Social Struggles”.
Through such activities we aim to raise political awareness within the general Dharma community in
Israel and encourage more practitioners to become socially engaged. During the first four months of
2012 we will hold three workshops titled “The Conflict (not) On Automatic Pilot” for students in prearmy
gap year programs. The workshops are designed to help participants discover their automatic
responses when dealing with different aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, inquire into the
roots of these responses and see if other, more helpful approaches, can be taken. Finally, we were
asked by Combatants for Peace, a major Israeli-Palestinian peace group to facilitate for them a
workshop on nonviolent struggle.
We intend to continue this outreach work and hope to hold many more workshops for these three
target groups during 2012.

Rabbi Bob Carroll’s Comment

As you know, of course, everyone in this part of the world is awfully hypersensitive, and will read your words through a microscope. Speaking personally, I completely trust your instincts and methodologies and think that your work has tremendous potential to really have an impact here (FWIW I would not say this about all that many NGO’s that do peace work here, in fact the first thing I learned in this business was that everybody claims to be working for peace but many really are not.) So as an ally, but also as an Israeli, I wanted to share with you how I reacted to your message. Basically what I saw was that you do solidarity actions with the Palestinians, and acted against various abuses by individual Israelis and the government. (I am 1000% behind you on both of these!)  But when it came to working with the Israeli Jewish community, you were laying the ground for educational work.  Speaking for myself, I see two things missing here:  One, you did not speak about solidarity with Israelis, either as a people or as individuals, many of whom (virtually all of whom, in fact) have paid a terrible price because of the conflict.  But the ability to effectively reach Israelis and convince them to trust depends on being perceived as offering solidarity and support and empathy in addition to the actions you mentioned.  In short,  your message seemed to reflect a bifurcated approach which I found troubling – Palestinians need solidarity, Israelis (apparently) don’t. Israelis need to be educated, Palestinians (apparently) do not.  It may well be that I am reading too much into perfectly innocent wording, in fact I assume that this is so!  But I would urge you to consider that if the language struck me as being a little tendentious, it will have the same effect among others, in fact among precisely those Israelis that you most need to reach out to, and will cause them to think of you as yet another politicized NGO from abroad, and in consequence my fear is that they will close their minds to your message. Which would be truly tragic, IMHO. Part of this is ‘our’ baggage – we are inundated with, for example, foreign Christian groups which bring centuries of their own judgmentalism and sense of religious superiority to how they approach the situation here and which has done so much to alienate the Jewish community from hearing them, even when they’re right. But this is the atmosphere that you’re working in.  In no way do I compare your approach to theirs – on the contrary, it is because I know it to be so different that I want to make sure that the Jewish Israeli community doesn’t put you into that same box in their minds.

I hope these thoughts are in some way helpful to you.. as always, reflections/rebuttals/reframings and anything which helps me realize where I may have missed the mark are always welcomed and appreciated!!

Aviv’s Comment on Bob’s Comment

I think Bob’s feedback can (and needs to be) answered from a variety of angles. The simplest of which is the fact that he perceived the text to be about your involvement. Assuming you – as a supposedly “outsider” – would choose to be in solidarity with Palestinians and educate Israelis that would be one thing. When we, as Israeli Jews choose to do the same it is a different matter altogether. As Israeli Jews we are part of the Israeli-Jewish society and belonging to this society is an inseparable part of who we are. For us to be in solidarity with Palestinians is not to pick a side but to make ends and means one – we make peace here and now and not only work towards some political solution.

Having said that, I am aware that many mainstream Israeli Jews (sorry, but I feel uneasy using the word “Israelis” as if 20% of Israeli citizens are not Palestinian) perceive local peace activists as one-sided, sympathizing with Palestinians and claiming that the side that has to change is the Israeli side. I think it is relevant and helpful to see the difference between two types of peace work, which are both important and needed. People who work towards reconciliation often look for symmetry (both sides are suffering, both need to change). However, from a political-change point of view one can say that the wish for symmetry is a very problematic one, as it is blind to the realities of the conflict. It is blind to the imbalance in power and it is blind to the tremendous suffering that Israeli government, military and civilians have and are inflicting on Palestinians.
And, Israeli Jews are so (bloody) sensitive to any sort of criticism or unfairness that comes their way. Many Israelis find it incomprehensible why when someone sees a fully geared Israeli soldier beating up a small unarmed Palestinian child that person judges  Israel to be an occupying country and does not “acknowledge the full complexity of the situation”.

I feel that Israeli Jews must acknowledge the above. But it is not the whole picture and in any case “musts” are a very poor strategy when setting out to influence society. So now we come to the heart of our group’s vision and understanding.

We wish to focus on the Mind/Consciousness that feeds the I-P conflict. On the beliefs, assumptions, negative emotions and so on that block people from giving trust, that push them to demonize the other and that help them live in peace with terrible acts of violence. This needs to be done in both societies but we as Israeli Jews feel that we can do it within the Jewish society. And we feel that we have to do it. We are also slowly building relationships with Palestinian partners who share with us these views and are interested in joint work on such barriers to peace.

So our “educational” work is a variety of methods we have been developing to transform the Conflict Mind into a Reconciliation Mind. I must admit that the wording “educational work” is not a good one here, we should think of better terminology. This work – which we would like to be doing much more of – is not in the least contrary to being in solidarity with Israeli Jews: It is based on being empathetic, creating a safe space and expressing understanding. Through these expressions of solidarity we allow people to come in touch with their suffering and anxiety. They see their pain, fear and anguish.

What we try to do is to arrive at a place where these expressions of one’s suffering stay the focus so that one does not push them away by ideology, blame, guilt, or any other form of fantasy. Then we try to assure people that they are bigger than their fears, that they don’t need to be violent or despaired (just) because they are sometimes on the receiving end of the violence this conflict generates. We let them feel that the same softness and curiosity that allowed them to come in touch with their suffering can also support them to intelligently and nonviolently respond to it.

When hearing about our vision people sometimes mistakenly think that what we do is bring people together and help them see that “we are all human”. This is not exactly true and it refers back to the political-change perspective I mentioned above. Over the years many people have found the so called “people-to-people” approach problematic: Jews and Palestinians meet for an intensive process which is seemingly transformative – anger and prejudice give way to understanding, compassion and closeness. But once the process is over, the Jews go back to their privileged and safe homes and the Palestinians return to the checkpoints and abuse. Reality doesn’t change and it doesn’t seem that the Jewish participants are doing much in order to try to change it. Because there is a big a-symmetry in power there is also a big a-symmetry in needs: The Jews need to release their negative emotions, and they need that the Palestinians stop hating them. The Palestinians need the physical reality to change and ( to be blunt) don’t necessarily care if the Jews hate them or not. So unfortunately the people-to-people approach addresses the needs of mostly one side. At the end of the process the Jews may feel “We are all people, we are all the same” while the Palestinians may feel “they have so much and I can’t secure my basic human needs”.

Our approach is different because our process tries to weaken the military discourse so prevailing in the Jewish society and because we bring people face to face with the reality of living under occupation. Actually, one of the main reasons for our “solidarity work with Palestinians” – when we visit places like Deir Istiya – is the impact it has on us and on our minds. At the same time we may be able to offer our support (you rightly criticized the use of the word “help”) and maybe even alleviate some injustice. By the way, your articulation of the principles of not knowing, bearing witness and loving action has given us much inspiration in doing this solidarity work

This came out very long – thank you for the patience in reading. I do take from it the need to find a better name than “educational work”. Also, what I have depicted here might be an ideal picture of our work and vision. Perhaps some of us fall into one-sidedness some of the time. Also, recently, as our solidarity work demanded more attention, we have been feeling that we are not managing to devote enough energy to the “healing the conflict mind” work.

Yours
Aviv

 

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4/18/2014