Yitzchak M. wrote this text two weeks after the Allgenders-seminar and published it on Facebook. He explicitly asked us to publish the it under his real name.
Exactly one month ago today, I flew off to Cologne in Germany to participate in an Israeli-Palestinian seminar that uses the nonviolent communication method as a way to dialogue. As is my habit, I packed my best clothes to be a fashionable eye catcher for the gentiles. But only seconds after boarding the plane, one of the passengers turned my attention to a serious aesthetic flaw that I had overlooked somehow. My elegant shoes were dusty and dirty to an alarming degree. He asked me how it had happened and I immediately remembered: Only a few days earlier I went on a dirt road to the cemetery in the village of Ofra (a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, ed.), where I attended the funeral of Dvir Shorek, a nineteen-year-old murdered by terrorists outside his Yeshiva (Talmud School) during the night.
And so I flew to the seminar with an abundance of pain in my heart and in my shoes, which reminded me of how entangled and threatening the situation here in the country is.
In the first few days we spoke little, if at all, about the conflict. They were an equally strange and wonderful days. Due to language barriers, I had to find alternative communication channels with most members of the Palestinian group. (…) Nevertheless, we learned to spend time together, even without words. Starting with a silent look in the eyes and a slight nod with your head in line for lunch, to a run together in the forest that surrounds the guest house, a swim together in the nearby lake, a session with the shisha and a very crazy, exciting and incredibly special dance party with DJ Soulcat, who also attended the seminar. (…)
The next morning, I went to breakfast as usual. The hangover, which no doubt gets worse with age, had just started when one of the facilitators sat down next to me with a gentle warning: „Yitzchak, today will be a tough day at the seminar.“ For a moment I thought she meant my hangover and that there was some kind of rebuke in her words, for how I behaved like a sixteen-year-old boy on an annual outing, but I checked the schedule and it said something like „personal stories / family stories“. I made myself a black coffee and thought that this facilitator is cute, but that she doesn’t really know me either. And I’ve heard very tough stories in my life, so everything is fine.
I did not imagine that the blow would be so powerful. It shook me beyond imagination. The moment the Palestinian friends opened their hearts to us, in the small groups, the pain rose up, poured out, and flooded the room. Because of their concern for their safety, I cannot give full names or tell stories, just say that my heart broke because of all the pain. Although I already knew that life in the West Bank was no picnic, I had not imagined to hear such hard stories: like a boy waking up in the middle of the night from the punch with a M16 rifle in his face by a soldier looking for weapons in his home (which did not exist in his case) or a Palestinian youngster who was required to strip completely naked at one of the checkpoints in Samaria on a cold winter night.
Many Palestinians said that ever since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, their families have been destroyed and their lives have become hell. Some spoke of the difficulty of finding work and the fact that they are forced to get permission from Israel to cross the border every day and do all kinds of hard work here. Others chose to share personal traumas that they carry with them since their childhood, such as soldiers raiding their homes in the middle of the night, accompanied by dogs in the search for weapons. (I am aware that this is necessary for the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), but explain to a seven-year-old child that there is some justification for such an attack on his home. For him, this is pure malice). I heard total helplessness. Their need for security was badly hurt and over the years they developed very hard feelings towards the State of Israel and everyone who represents it in their eyes.
The Israeli friends also shared their personal stories with the group, but mostly did not directly touch upon the terror of the Second Intifada. At the end of each story, we took a deep breath and tried to show full empathy with a look or a few words. The goal was not to argue or hold on to facts, but to simply hear the other and open your heart.
And then it was my turn.
I took a deep breath and in a bold moment decided to open up about something that had been buried deep inside me for years. I wondered at what point in time I should start my sharing. The autumn of 2000 felt right for me. When I started telling the story of the first attacks in Jerusalem, all sorts of memories that I had suppressed in recent years were washed up – like the huge fear I had of something bad happening to my mother because she worked downtown once a week. And the passport photos I kept in my room in case I would die in an attack and the press would ask my family for a picture to be put in the newspaper the next morning. (I did not trust my parents to choose a beautiful picture to my liking, and as a child with a strong sense of aesthetics, I was shocked by the very unflattering pictures of the murdered women which were usually shown on the front pages of newspapers and news channels). I talked about Malki Roth and Michal Raziel from my childhood neighborhood who were murdered in an attack in the Sbarro restaurant. I shared about the attack in the Yeshivah Merkas HaRaw (note: an attack in a National Religious Talmud School on March 6th, 2008, in which eight students between the ages of 15 and 26 were killed), which I don’t speak much about in no forum: About Yonatan, Segev and Avraham David from my class who were murdered while working eagerly together on one side of Gemara (note: part of the Talmud). I remembered Dvir Shorek and if I had heard about Rinah Shnerb in time (note: a 17-year-old who died in an attack on August 23, 2019 during the seminar in the West Bank) – I would also have mentioned her.
I concluded with a special request to the members of the Palestinian group: Try to understand that the picture is more complex than what they have told you for years. That it’s not black and white. After a minute of silence, one of them opened his mouth and said, „You know that high school students are also killed here, don’t you?“
At that moment, the pleasant feeling of hope that surrounded me and wrapped me with warmth since the beginning of the seminar, disappeared. I felt that we, the Israelis, had listened to them with full empathy, tears in our eyes, while a considerable part of the Palestinian group did not open their hearts to my pain. I felt hurt, lonely and discouraged. My need for recognition, compassion and mutuality was not met. It seemed to me that there was no space for my pain, and that everything in their eyes shrinks in contrast to the occupation.
I was in a serious conflict: Should I continue to insist them recognizing the „Israeli pain“ or would it be better to grow angel wings and be there, with their pain and with 100 percent empathy?
These days we were near the end of the seminar and I felt swamped and stirred up. I put on running shoes and went outside to clear my head in the forest. When I came to the lake, I looked into the clear water and suddenly the famous verse from the book of Proverbs Solomon echoed in my head: „Like face looking at face in water, so are the hearts of men to one another“ (Proverbs 27:19). At that moment I understood that I was completely blocked inside. Even if I wanted to be an angel, a well-fortified wall was built in my heart that did not allow me to be in full compassion for the members of the Palestinian group as long as there was no recognition of my pain.
It became clear to me that if I „waive“ for the sake of my Palestinian friends in this matter, it meant that basically I would also renounce myself and violate the integrity of the process. If it takes two to dance tango, it will surely take two to achieve any connection and understanding between the two parties in such an accursed and bloody conflict. When I ask them to acknowledge my pain, in principle I also ask myself to open my heart to their pain and to break the wall of interpretations and judgments that stands between us. My judgments are nourished by their interpretations and vice versa. I understood that the desire for mutuality in the process met a personal need, but overall it is an essential step on the way to a deep connection between the two sides.
Thanks to the great facilitator I had in my group thanks to my fellow group members, I decided to go back to this topic in the group and ask for recognition of my pain. (…) These things were a source of stormy debates within the group. Those were tough days. Some Palestinians felt that I was closing their mouths and attacking them. Some Israelis were frustrated with my clear words and others felt uncomfortable with the „polarizing“ discourse and with belonging to one narrative or the other. And Tacheles, if I speak frankly, it was also difficult for me to face those who confronted me, whether it was a Palestinian friend who spoke about his suffering or whether it was a friend who spoke about the feeling of guilt that she has as Israeli. I fumed inside and judged left and right. Many times I wavered between hope and despair.
And yet the beauty of the language of non-violent communication is that over time and after long practice you can see the other person through the wall of our interpretations and judgments, little by little. Non-violent communication teaches us that there are needs behind every feeling, and there are needs and feelings behind every strategy. The goal was to try to see each other’s needs, despite the difficulty and because of the difficulty.
Not that there was any ‘Hollywood magic’ there, but there were some very sweet moments (at least for me), such as an evening at the end of a hard day when we decided to watch a movie with a few Israeli people and suddenly there were some Palestinian people (…) and a common kiddush (note: Shabbat reception) that we did together and so on. And on the penultimate day, Saturday, one of the Palestinian friends who had argued with me a lot said, in other words, that she acknowledged that both sides are suffering, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Her words opened a door in my heart, and at that moment I promised myself that no matter how much the routine in the country would wash me, when I come back I would do my best to keep that door open, even if for now, it was only a tiny crack.
As long as I can think back, everyone in this state has been talking about peace: peace now, peace never, peace with enemies, peace agreements (although there has been more and more talk of ’separation‘ and ‚divorce‘ in recent years). But to get there we need, in my eyes, above all empathy and mutual recognition for the suffering of the others. It’s easy to write and difficult to put into practice, I know, but in my opinion this is the most appropriate way, if not the only one, that will cause the flames to go down. I have no idea what Greenblatt and Kushner have cooked for us, but no state agreement is a substitute for empathy, recognition, and a deep understanding that both Israelis and Palestinians are here to stay. Just like that. As long as we don’t, hostility will continue to simmer beneath the surface until the next war. …
Will we agree on the strategy? Unlikely. Will we bring peace here and now? Not likely either. But we definitely managed to get a little closer and come to the realization that we are, above all, human beings and that we have to acknowledge each other’s pain and make room for empathy.
Peace, that’s already the next level.