Island-grown group listens for peace

The Compassionate Listening delegation listens to Aidi Shibli, a Bedouin woman living in north Israel.  - courtesy Leah Green
The Compassionate Listening delegation listens to Aidi Shibli, a Bedouin woman living in north Israel.
— image credit: courtesy Leah Green

Compassionate Listening delegation promotes understanding in Israel.

In Jerusalem on Oct. 30, an international delegation from the Compassionate Listening Project listened in rapture to Palestinian author and professor Ali Qleibo as he discussed the Palestinian condition.

Qleibo impressed the group with his intelligence and eloquence, Compassionate Listening founder Leah Green said. Then as Qleibo’s passion grew, anti-semitic language began to boil up. Jews always saw themselves as victims, he said; they would only help themselves. Green could see the eight Jewish members of the delegation growing uncomfortable and working to control their emotions. But they stayed with their training, and tried to listen beyond his words to his emotion. For Qleibo, it seemed to be the sense of helplessness he felt as a Palestinian, Green said.

“I immediately knew Ali was speaking from his pain,” Green said. “He was speaking through his wounds.”

The listeners reflected to Qleibo the things that he had said. They asked penetrating questions and reminded him of the times that Jews had come to the aid of Palestinians. Within minutes, Green said, Qleibo had softened and was questioning his own opinions. Qleibo spoke on with the delegation for hours.

That single conversation, one of many the group would have in its 14-day stay in Israel, summed up the purpose of the Compassionate Listening Project, a nonprofit group Green started on Bainbridge Island 12 years ago.

The organization teaches and practices the technique of building connections between people through deep, nonjudgmental listening, connections that can be used for peacemaking at all levels. In its delegations and training sessions in Israel and among Palestinians, the organization works to spread compassionate listening as a skill that Green believes can build understanding between the clashing ethnic groups.

This year Green’s delegation included Bainbridge natural healer Maria Cook and 23 Compassionate Listening participants from several countries.

During its time in Israel, the group met with leaders and peace activists from both sides, holocaust survivors, artists, settlers and grieving fathers.

It was the 26th delegation Green had led to the region.

She first traveled to Israel in college and lived for two years in an Israeli kibbutz. Later, as a Bainbridge resident, Green traveled to Israel and Palestine with delegations from Earthstewards Network, a Bainbridge-based nonprofit agency.

Delegation members had powerful experiences, Green said. But she felt that many entered the trips with preconceived biases about the conflict and used their encounters with Israelis and Palestinians to bolster their own opinions, rather than engaging them with open minds.

“I felt like I was only adding to the polarization over there,” Green said, “I wanted to add to the reconciliation, and create something new.”

Soon after, Green read the work of Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman, who wrote about the power of nonjudgmental listening as a tool for overcoming barriers.

Believing it could be the solution she was seeking, Green met with Hoffman and began building a group around the philosophy of “compassionate listening.”

Under Compassionate Listening Project, Green began leading groups to Israel to practice the listening techniques.

The groups’ listening sessions were clumsy, but Green said the people they talked with recognized its good intentions and were quick to open up.

“I could see, just knowing that intention, it created trust so fast it was unbelievable,” she said.

Soon people interviewed by the listeners were asking Green to teach the technique in the Middle East, and Green incorporated training to Compassionate Listening’s mission. Today the group has more than 20 facilitators training peacemakers in several countries. It recently launched a project to promote reconciliation between Germans and Jews still haunted by the Holocaust. Since founding Compassionate Listening, Green has moved to Indianola, and runs the organization from an office in Suquamish.

Maria Cook began attending compassionate listening training to help in her work as a therapist and healer, and now serves on the group’s board. This year’s delegation, was her first trip to the Middle East.

Arriving in Jerusalem Oct. 28, Cook was overwhelmed by the sensual landscape.

“The old city is amazing,” Cook wrote in her blogged account of the trip, “narrow streets, old stones, Roman archways, small crowded shops, Arab music, jostling humanity, smells of spices and coffee.”

The group spent its first three days in Jerusalem, visiting holy sites and conducting its first listening sessions. From there it traveled by bus south to Bethlehem and Hebron, visiting Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank territory. From there the group moved north to the See of Galilee before rounding out the trip in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

As they listened and traveled through the region, the delegation members absorbed what it meant for both Israelis and Palestinians to live everyday in a conflict zone.

Israeli guards in towers – placed on the region’s many walls that surround Jewish settlements – kept a constant eye on the roads, and yellow gates meted traffic to each Palestinian camp. An Israeli artist living in a settlement told them she sometimes wore a bullet proof vest when she went out and avoided stopping at roadside stands.

On Nov. 2 the group visited a refugee camp outside Bethlehem where more than 9,000 Palestinians were living in an area of less than one square mile. Residents told them about the poor health care in the camp and frequent searches and antagonism from the Israeli military forces.

When the delegation tried to leave it found that Israeli soldiers had closed the gate on the only road leading from the camp. Palestinian youths had been caught throwing rocks and they closed the gate to punish the entire population of the camp. It took negotiation by Green to allow even the delegation to leave.

At the same refugee camp the year before, Green and her group had watched as a skirmish erupted between Israeli soldiers and refugees. Palestinian residents pulled group members inside their their homes as the soldiers unleashed tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

Many of the listening sessions lasted for hours as speakers relished the opportunity to vent and be heard.

The group met with leaders from peace organizations, hospitals and schools, and paid a visit to Dalia Landau, an Israeli activist featured in the book the “Lemon Tree.”

At a cemetery in Haifa the group met with two Israeli fathers who had lost a teenage son and daughter in 2003, when a suicide bomber detonated in a bus. They met a Palestinian man who continued to work with Israeli peace activists, even after his own son was hit and killed by an Israeli driver, who did not stop or call for help.

“Sometimes people cry,” Green said, “and sometimes they say things so unspeakably painful that words are just too small, and you just sit there in silence.”

Returning to the United States last week, it took Cook time to readjust to her old routine. Cook said seeing first hand the power and complexity conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has made her own problems seem smaller given her a feeling of empowerment.

“I feel lonely, getting back, but the experience hasn’t diminished,” Cook said. “I’m quite full with it. I want to continue to try to make a difference in the world, in a small way, because it’s very enriching.”

While Compassionate Listening is taking on deep-rooted conflicts, Green said the change will begin with individuals willing to take the time to listen to those around them.

“We all want peace,” Green said. “Not just over there, but in our personal lives, our communities, and our schools. I don’t think we can do it on a global scale until more people do it personally.”

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