Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue: Methods, Techniques and the Importance of Dialogue

Talks given by Dr Tony Klug, and Sa’ida Nusseibeh, Co-Chairs, Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue, on principles of dialogue to a seminar organised by the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Madingley Hall, Cambridge,  18 November 2001

Tony Klug:

It is a common practice, in tackling a question of this nature, to begin by defining ones terms: what exactly is meant by dialogue?

I hesitate to do this for the simple reason that had we, as Jews and Palestinians, been obliged to define precisely what we were doing when we nervously started to meet almost 20 years ago, we probably would never have done it. And if somebody had come along with a set of pre-determined rules that we had to swat up on, that for sure would have killed it off completely. I have little doubt that we made all the classical mistakes including, possibly, having the wrong initial motives or attitudes in some cases. Indeed, we didnt even know at the time that what we were doing was called dialogue. Yet it fulfilled a need and achieved a purpose, albeit a limited one. So I tend to be a little wary of the ‘rules merchants’ and the ‘procedure buffs’.

Which is not to say that codifying some loose principles is not of value.  Indeed, certain operating principles did evolve in our case over the course of years. They came from within and worked for us and they may or may not be useful in other contexts. You may be the better judge of that. I shall try to draw some of these principles out as I go along and my co-chair in the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue, Sa’ida Nusseibeh, drawing on her own extensive experiences in this area, will elaborate more fully in her talk. But first I want to say something about the background and context of our efforts.

Our initial, cautious, encounter, took place in 1984 in a London pub when a small number of us, Palestinians and Jews - maybe slightly rebellious, certainly curious - took the first tentative steps to start a conversation across the hostile gulf that had divided our two communities for decades. We soon found that we shared, apart from a ploughmans lunch, the opinion that it was time to stop cold-shouldering each other, or worse - spitting venom at each other - and to start talking to each other. We ended our lunch by agreeing to meet again and to try to pull in a few others.

This might not seem such a big deal today but, at the time, such an idea was considered very radical and some of those involved feared for their images and reputations within their own communities. And so it was agreed that the meetings would be on a confidential basis. Interestingly, the sharing of this mutual secret had the unintended benefit of creating a certain common bond among the participants. This remained the basis on which we continued to meet for some eight years, until in 1992 we decided to come out of the closet and went public in the form of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue.

The group’s meetings, held monthly, were not academic seminars between dispassionate analysts searching for supposedly objective truths.  They were more of the fiery encounter type between activists who were and felt themselves to be personally involved in the long-standing and bitter conflict between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian. All the Palestinians were from the West Bank or Gaza Strip where their relatives and friends still lived. The Jews too had family and friends living in Israel
- one or two were Israelis - and strong emotional ties to the country.

Doubts and anxieties about talking to the enemy continued to haunt some participants even as they did it, and both sides sought to apply the brakes at different times, often related to moments of extreme tension in the Middle East. More than once over the years, it seemed that the discussions had come to an abrupt end, only to be picked up again later on.

One of the fundamental principles established at the outset was that of equality. This had a number of implications. One was a recognition that dialogue could only work if both sides truly wanted it. It was no good if one side had continually to pursue the other. Another implication was that neither side should play the permanent host. Initially, we tried to establish the practice of meeting alternately in Jewish and Palestinian homes. It was a good principle but it didnt work as it was predicated on a false equivalence between a well-established British Jewish community, for which it was easier to play that role and, by comparison, a much newer, smaller and less-settled Palestinian community.

As a consequence, true to the equality principle, the meetings stopped after the first two or three gatherings. They were picked up some months later when the Quakers invited the two sides to their premises and from then on they acted as a neutral convenor. The first meeting under their auspices got off to an inspired start when the Christian hosts innocently prepared and handed round a plate of ham sandwiches, only to have their kind generosity apparently rebuffed by the predominantly Jewish and Muslim interlocutors, neither of which ate pig meat.  Surprisingly, most of the Jews and Muslims present were unaware that this prohibition extended to the religion of the other. This sparked a mutual interest in the two traditions, that probably no other discovery could have equalled. It was an auspicious beginning.

Despite the occasional attempt to do otherwise, especially on the part of our Quaker hosts, the meetings generally had no set agendas and not even a clearly defined purpose. They just seemed to pick up and take off of their own volition. We found we all had a great deal to say. The more difficult part was the listening. That took a little longer. And it is probably fair to say we never really became truly expert at it.

The tendency to sermonise to the other side, to explain where they were wrong, powerful at first, diminished, at least to some extent, over the course of time. Indeed, for some, putting the other side right may have been the principal reason for their participation. But most participants were keen to acquire a genuine understanding of the others’ fears and hopes, of their perceptions and basic aspirations, in the belief that this
should help all parties to identify what is truly necessary to achieve peace in the region and reconciliation among the people.

However positive the motive may be to engage in dialogue, the process can be one of profound discomfort, especially in the early stages, as it frequently forces the participants to reconsider deeply held convictions concerning not just the beliefs, motives and deeds of the other side - but also of their own side.

Above all, dialogue is a humanizing process. It is much easier to despise, humiliate and destroy a stereotype than a fellow human being with feelings, frailties and hopes not so different from one’s own. Palestinians and Jews engaged in dialogue, however sharp some of the differences may continue to be, tend to lose their susceptibility to the hate
propaganda and demonic imagery which have been employed by all sides over the decades. As - if - the practice of dialogue becomes more acceptable and widespread, so, it is to be hoped, the old tactics will lose their potency and peace may indeed be given a chance.

None of the participants in our group, as far as I am aware, ever changed their basic convictions on the fundamental questions as a result of these encounters. The main achievement, I would say, was the common recognition that there are two historical perspectives - even if ones own is the more valid! - and that understanding them both gives a far more accurate and reliable insight into how the people on the other side think
and act than trying to explain this by the supposed traits of an imagined stereotype. There is no doubt that what we as dialogue participants have learnt from each other has profoundly affected the way we approach, perceive and analyse issues surrounding the conflict and this in turn has influenced the arguments we present within our respective communities.

Generalising from our experience, Palestinians and Jews engaged in dialogue are less likely to view the conflict in terms of good and evil and more likely to appreciate that it is not even zero-sum; that the case for one side is not the antithesis of the case for the other - indeed, the parallels are sometimes quite striking; that a severe setback for one side is not necessarily a powerful gain for the other; that rejoicing at each other’s grief is not the way forward; and that, on the contrary, feeling each other’s humanity - and having the knowledge and psychological disposition to be able do that - is where the key to a more promising future lies.

Whereas as a group we had no blueprint for a solution, such insights as these did help to impress certain imperatives on most of us, such as that the futures of the two peoples are intimately linked, that the approach to peace should be based on common understanding & mutual benefit, that any proposed solution must accommodate the vital interests of both sides, that whatever demand one side makes for itself it cannot easonably deny to the other, and that ultimately peace will be enjoyed by both peoples or by neither.

If by dialogue we basically mean effective communication then, in terms of basic principles, I think what we discovered, once we reached calmer waters, is that dialogue is not about negotiating, preaching, blaming, converting, persuading, winning,  compromising, being judgmental, making decisions, or even building a consensus - although this could be an outcome of dialogue. Nor is it about giving up ones own identity or abandoning ones own views, beliefs or values - although again there is no guarantee that this sort of thing might not happen in some cases

If dialogue is not about those things, it is about enquiring, exploring, finding out, opening up, breaking down taboos, understanding, communicating. It involves self-examination, maybe self-criticism, certainly a preparedness to modify ones own perceptions. Its about honesty, passion, fear, hope, needs, anger, confusion, distress. Above all, its about listening - the hard part.

You know its probably working if it leads to mutual respect, trust, fresh insights, different ways of looking at issues, a spirit of creativity, and maybe even new ideas for resolving conflicts.

To conclude, I should mention that, although a number of us - including Sa’ida and myself - have continued to work closely together, the dialogue group as such doesn’t really exist any more and hasn’t done so for a few years. What killed it was the election of the Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel in 1996, which many Palestinians in particular felt betrayed by, causing them to lose the impetus to continue with dialogue.
But I believe another factor may have been that, in a way, for those who had been involved from the beginning, the dialogue group had more-or-less achieved its essential purpose. The challenge now is less to re-involve the old-timers and more to attract people from both sides for whom meeting the enemy may still be a strange and fearful proposition, but potentially a rewarding and productive experience.

Sa’ida Nusseibeh:

Dialogue among individuals, is the key factor that leads in the long term to the settlement of any dispute between two parties that are in a conflict situation.

It is through dialogue one gets to know the ‘other’ and eventually learns to understand and respect the ‘other’.

And it is this understanding that will lead to resolution of the conflict, and not any signed treaty, but by reaching the hearts and minds of the people.

Dialogue itself does not automatically lead to agreement. But it is the beginning of a long and hard voyage that starts with sitting with the ‘other’ in the same room. The process passes through many stages of defensiveness, aggressiveness, self -examination,  disbelief, exploration of the ‘other’ and re-examination of our own beliefs and values.

However, throughout the process, an increased and widened understanding of the opposite side, and quite often of oneself, always accompanies the first hand experience of dialogue with the ‘other’.

To understand is not to agree. But perhaps dialogue can be the beginning of a joint search for agreement. The common ground having been established, we come to the conclusion that ‘we are both human and we both share a strong belief in basic human values, you are no more the evil side than I am’. This change in view cannot be brought about without the personal involvement of individuals: without dialogue with the other side.

A person who refuses to dialogue with the ‘other’ may have many excuses.  The feeling of being unjustly treated or hurt, being ridiculed and so on, that normally stops people from interacting with others. But how can the other know of our feelings if we don’t openly talk to them about them? The goals of dialogue are to get to know one another, to better understand each other’s perspectives, to discuss ways of resolving the conflict, and to build a relationship for future work.

Before any of this can happen we have to connect, as human beings, to establish the ground rules:

Mutual respect, honesty, and a commitment to listen.

And then we take the four steps to dialogue:

The first thing we need to do is to liberate ourselves from our fear, self-righteousness and anger. These negative emotions impede dialogue and obstruct co-operation and must be replaced by understanding of where the ‘other’ is coming from.

The second step is respect and acceptance - the value of those whom we speak to, and what they have to offer, must be respected and accepted.

  The third step is that we use our will to forgive those we believed have harmed or disadvantaged us. Reality follows intentions and a determination to forgive- you/yourself as well as others - it is the first healthy step towards achievement of full forgiveness.

The fourth step is healing. To heal memories and make anger a positive experience. One way is to acknowledge that agreement is not the only way to build trust. We begin the healing process by sharing experiences and identifying needs of the ‘other’ - deepening appreciation of ‘difference’ by learning about ourselves and the ‘other’ - helping to overcome ignorance and prejudices.

The role we have here is, of course, to want to be healed, to want to let go of our pain.

The end result of this process of liberation, acceptance, forgiveness and healing is, of course, reconciliation with those formerly we considered to be alien to us, the ‘other’.

Now I would like to discuss some of the methods that I have learned. I will begin with creative listening.

There is an art/technique for creative listening and prejudice reduction that can help in any dialogue with the person one is in conflict with.

The concept of Creative Listening was developed from the realization that a person cannot give full attention to what is being said and, at the same time, assess it and frame a reply. True listening rarely occurs.

  Despite this obvious fact, we continue to try to communicate as though this ‘double attention’ was possible. The result is failed communication, or at best partial communication, in which two speakers may hear some of what is said, agree or disagree with it - but fail to reconsider or modify the firmly held attitudes they brought to the discussion.

  What is the point of a conference if those who come to it representing one side expect the other side to change their views, but themselves have no intention of listening sufficiently to change their own?

The failure to listen runs through all levels of society and all activities. In discussion groups, interruptions and repartee occur, causing disruption - an irritation. The over-speakers over-speak, and the under-speakers under-speak; both are frustrated and neither is fully heard.

We are all familiar with the minutes of a committee meeting which read:  “After a lively discussion the motion was carried by seven votes to five.” What probably happened is that both the group of seven and the group of five left the meeting with little or no communication having taken place.

The ‘lively discussion’ consisted of both groups pushing their views. Did anyone pull? That is, did anyone open themselves to the views of the other side?

Even if some pulling took place, time- especially time to sleep on it- is necessary, before people can make even a moderate change in their views. A decision made the same day as a discussion does not allow time for a re-examination of views to take place.

Some groups in our society suffer more than others from being unequal participants in any group communication.

For these problems, and others, Creative Listening offers a solution.

The basic principle is: When two people meet to discuss one subject, what usually happens is that they are really discussing two subjects: that is, the two viewpoints that each in turn is putting forward. If full understanding is to take place, only one subject, that is one person’s viewpoint, should be considered at any one time.

I don’t believe that total listening can be achieved by willing oneself to listen. A person who decides to listen by making that act of will, inevitably gives some attention to the act of will itself, which in turn distracts him/her from what is being said. For effective use of the Creative Listening method, the act of will must be made at the beginning, before the ‘listening’ take place (and it does need a great deal of practice).

Having made this initial decision, it is then possible to listen completely to the other person by consciously adopting some very simple techniques.

With practice, this technique enables almost everyone to achieve ‘single attention’ whatever the views of the speaker and however great the urge to interrupt would otherwise be.

Basically, the method consists of the listener totally switching off their own views for the duration of the ‘listen’. By doing so, they are able to give total attention to the speaker. The listener will have a brand-new experience: by not interrupting or arguing, they will hear things they have never heard before.

The speaker too will have a brand-new experience. They will be aware of being heard by someone who is not coming back at him with a reply, criticism or opposition. And not only is the speaker being heard, he can also hear himself. This is a fantastic experience, and it sends the speaker away re-thinking the subject.

What about the listener’s desire to answer back? It is my experience that when one side of a controversy is fully heard, there is no need for the other side to be heard. One act of listening to one side of a controversy causes both sides to re-think their views. And maybe the next time the parties meet, the second party can present their views, having a more receptive audience, while they themselves have experienced a change in views.

This may be hard to believe. In the early days of Creative Listening I did not fully grasp it myself. There is only one way to understand the process, and that is by experience and practice.

Now we come to honesty to oneself, then towards others, then mutual respect. To be honest and respect the ‘other’ we have to take the first step in looking inward. We have to look at our own prejudices and try to understand where they came from, then look at the ‘other’s prejudices, then try to get rid of both sets.

We all have our prejudices. Our individual prejudices are just a tiny part of the burden of understanding. But unless we are aware of them, we are more likely to be part of the problem than of the solution.

Hesitating to explore prejudice is partly due to embarrassment and guilt. Embarrassment comes from not wanting to be seen as a prejudiced person, and guilt because we do have prejudices. It also comes from the fear that uncontrollable anger may be evoked if the prejudice comes out into the open in a mixed group. (I am talking about the anger that comes from the fear of being exposed- we don’t want others to see our weaknesses, insecurities, hatred and so on).

Much prejudice is born of ignorance, often culturally imparted or imposed and later reinforced during our social interaction with others.

There is no doubt that encounters with the ‘other’ and co-operative projects help to reduce negative stereotypes and group chauvinism.

However, prejudice is not always so easily dislodged. People deny concrete evidence that challenge their stereotypes and insist on maintaining them to the extent of avoiding situations where they will be proven mistaken.

Why is this so?

Clearly there are more than ignorance and culture attitudes at work. To admit prejudice can mean facing unacknowledged guilt. Requiring someone to admit their prejudice often may increase their defensiveness. “Guilt is the glue that holds prejudice in place”.  Attitude change requires the creation of an environment that reduces the guilt of people. For others, prejudice can be held in place by their own past experiences of hurt or
discrimination. Insecurity can produce fear or powerlessness that often acts as a glue reinforcing prejudiced attitudes.

In addition relative depravation or rising expectations that have not been met can also fortify prejudicial attitudes.

People tend to deal with these emotionally based factors, once they have internalised them, in a number of ways.

The person who has experienced discrimination attempts to feel better about himself by discriminating against someone else.

The first step in this process is called displacement. In this psychological mechanism, feelings of anger or hostility are directed against objects that are not the real origin of those anxieties. People tend to look for scapegoats to blame as the source of all their troubles: thus the Middle East conflict is entirely due to “Palestinian terrorism” or
“Israeli expansionist policy”.

Scapegoating frequently involves projection. Instead of facing up to and admitting, as individuals, our own negative characteristics or secret desires that run contrary to our group’s cultural norms or values,  we often project the negative characteristics onto the other group (“all Israelis are arrogant”, “all Arabs are unreliable”, etc).

Another consequence of prejudice is that certain individuals can actually internalise negative stereotyping. That is internalise their feelings, or draw them inwards, while the exterior has changed. They begin to see faults in the behaviour of their own group towards the others and become themselves highly critical of that behaviour. They begin to distance themselves from their colleagues, whom they see as being guilty of
stereotyping while not recognising the same fault that remains in them.

These psychological mechanisms are often used by individuals as a means of retaining their own self-perception of a positive self -image. Underneath, the feelings of guilt, fear, hurt, resentment and powerlessness remain unchallenged.

Getting rid of these prejudiced attitudes requires a process of emotional healing. Without this healing, prejudices are retained, lasting attitude-change is incomplete, community building hampered and personal creativity and leadership stifled.

Emotional healing can be dealt with in a secure environment through a workshop.

Once we have dealt with our prejudices, then we can be honest with each other and respect each other’s opinions.

Having dealt with the importance of the art of listening and how we can look, understand and thus heal our prejudices, I would like to go on to what usually happens at a first dialogue meeting.

It is my experience that both Jews/Israelis & Arabs/ Palestinians come prepared to make the other side realise the ‘truth’. They each have a tendency to insist on ‘correcting’ the other’s misperception about the same reality. What happens is that the history that reminds the Israeli/Jews of their vulnerability reminds the Arabs/Palestinians of their rage.

So, the first step in dialogue is that we must all try to pursue a win/win strategy.  And try to remember: not to argue about who is to blame, but to agree that both peoples have made mistakes.

Not to argue about who suffered more, but to agree that both peoples have suffered and experienced tragedy.

Not to argue about who deserves the land more, but to agree that both peoples deserve a homeland.

Not to argue about who has had more numbers killed, but to ensure that there is no more killing.

The importance of dialogue is that we are reminding ourselves that all the dead on both sides have not settled our differences. Thus we have to look to different ways than killing to settle our conflict.

Dialogue is an exhausting, emotionally draining experience. The importance, and thus the reason, we put ourselves through this meat grinder stems from a wonderful human paradox. We endure the excruciating hours of tension in order to create ‘opposite- ordinaries’ in our relationship with the ‘other’ - humanising the enemy and creating a new vision of co-existence. Once we reach agreement on this, we must then work toward a more peaceful Middle East.

We are not negotiators, we are dialoguers, and no matter how hard we try, not all our differences can be settled; sometimes one must end by agreeing to disagree- agreeably.

I would like to end by quoting from a poem by Martin Israel - gathered from a scrap of paper which was found near the body of a child in Ravensbruck Nazi concentration camp, where some 92, 000 women and children died during World War II.

This poem movingly portrays the amazing power of forgiveness to transform human hearts.

  ‘O Lord- Remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us.

Remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering:

Our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, and the generosity.

The greatness of heart, which has grown out of all this.

And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have born, be
their forgiveness.’

The Nusseibeh family is the oldest recognized family in Jerusalem dating back to 1400 - odd years.  This is also the family which since Caliph Omar accepted the keys of Jerusalem 1400 years ago, has been the Muslim family assigned the custodianship of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre which included in addition to opening and the closing of the door of this most venerable church at dawn and dusk, the adjudication of differences between various Christian denominations over traditional rights within the church.  Some historians date back this honorary assignment to 1191, when Salah-U-Din and Richard the Lion Heart made a compact on the holy Christian places. Whichever is the correct date it is a minimum of 800 years.

Dr Tony Klug, an international relations specialist, has been writing about the Middle East for many years. His Ph.D thesis was on Israel’s rule over the West Bank. He is co-chair of the Council for Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue in the UK and has served as head of international development at Amnesty International.

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