Empathy Cafe — Ester Karen Aida

Empathy Cafe

A Letter to an American Friend

originally written in 2017

In January 2017 I went to Beit Jala, a Palestinian town close to Bethlehem, for an International Intensive Training of nine days, to study Non-Violent Communication. NVC, the brain-child of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, is known as a ‘language of the heart’  which enables compassionate connection with oneself and others. 

It’s also a set of skills including both careful listening, and advocacy for one’s own needs. The training session I attended was designed as an experiment in living and working together, and I’ve wanted to recount to you a few of the moments during that time that stuck with me, from nightmarish—in prolonged awareness of suffering and bloodshed—to inspiring.

I’ve been thinking of the painful social rifts both here in Israel and in the US.  The problems can feel hopelessly complex when considered strategically, even as a lot of people are working very hard to solve them. And yet it seems strange now in the telling: I confess to feeling low because this international group I only just met has dispersed. We flocked and clumped at the coffee urn or on the stairs, padding out of our rooms of a morning in the guest house together. We challenged one another to expand our minds and hearts- not self-consciously, it happened simply, moved by one another’s stories and the practice of active listening. Given the reality you report, this sense seems—with a rush—all the sweeter.

I need so much to try to understand what has made our close group connection possible.

Given that I’m a woman close to 50, pushing a walker, I was oddly at an advantage in a group of strangers who want to begin to understand each other- for the part of our group under the age of 30, they must know I won’t actually tell them they should wear shoes on the cold tile– but I wanted to. It was easy to connect with the middle-aged Palestinians, some of whom are community leaders, and many of whom are not new to Non-Violent Communication. When I asked how their neighbors take to their chatting up Israelis, several replied, I am respected within my community.

Our informal conversations take place in Hebrew. Not my native tongue, not usually theirs. It’s amusing and frustrating by turns. And in that initial brokenness there is less of the extraneous. Like having a speech impediment, the only thing worth the effort, at length, is to speak one’s truth. If our conversations are a walk together along a path, we are three faces with one seeing heart between us, we’re the lame, ancient ones of Rabbi Nachman’s Tales.

“ —Is that what you mean?” The careful attention and constant feedback required just to get my friend’s literal meaning straight proves a good model:  I am also learning to check whether I accurately get what she feels underlying her words.

My question as to how others will be received at home is also background to something I don’t completely understand yet for myself.  I made a choice as to how to present myself which I had not thought out carefully before arriving at the conference.

I am part of a small minority of relative liberals in my neighborhood, a National-Religious community within a more-traditional area of Jerusalem. When I voice views that are inclusive towards Arabs, neighbors often want to re-direct me into awareness that it’s a harsh reality: they want to kill us. Or, the ‘silent majority,’ they’ll say, if it exists, has no power over the brainwashing of Hamas. As voiced on my street these are not usually angry messages, nor vengeant. I too, do not want to perpetuate these images by stating them—it’s that it is crucially important to hear in them real fear, and concern for safety. Possibly there’s a subtext too of despair expressed as cynicism? What’s going on with those people on the other side? There is no one to talk to.  

It’s both their steadfast hope in some unknown other ‘to talk to’- a commitment to the human spirit, together with the vulnerability of this position; and the taking up of individual power by no longer being silent, that causes me to feel that I’ve stumbled upon a cadre of heroes in the Palestinian women and men clustered in stuffed chairs in the Talitha Kumi hotel lobby.

Well, there I was, at a training group of roughly 100 people. And while in my daily life I’m humored by my community of religious zionists, here I was part of an even mix of Palestinians and Israelis, plus some who are neither, some who are both- with two other observant Jews. And there were a few Israeli settlers. I was one of the closest, for having spent seven years in Tekoa,  and in belonging to a community which believes that God, through history, having returned the Jewish people to our homeland, is the beginnings of an eschatological shift toward humanity’s redemption. (Does it need saying? —there is no Jewish scriptural source and no commandment which requires excluding groups other than Jews from living in modern Israel.) The only voice in the room courageous enough to speak for the Jewish ancient love for the Land of Israel, and their right to belong here, came from a liberal Jew from Australia; how could I Iet him unpopularly represent us, alone?

After he had led the way I told our group, I expect that the Palestinians did not come to a non-violent communication session to speak only to those who agree with them- what kind of training would that be?

Later I learned that there is a phrase, “eating humus together,” which the activists-among-activists use for a sort of complacency that can develop among left-wing Israelis and Arabs.

The skills that we have been learning do not focus on debating our ideologies. I think you got it: a path of the heart—in any case I would be at a loss in trying to think my way out of this wet paper bag! How remarkable that these same Palestinian friends, some of whom have spent years in Israeli prisons, are still talking to me at the line-up to the coffee urn.

I feel confused because while my religious lifestyle may look outwardly extreme or dogmatic, I don’t resonate to those descriptions, but to the ethical concern I have seen in Jewish tradition, and the spiritual wisdom of rabbinic tradition. And now I have a bunch of people who may think I’m a radical ideologue of the right, yet I spend most of my time when the Arab-Israeli conflict hits the news, debriefing my children in the face of strong judgements they hear around them.

As I say, many of the senior Palestinians who attended, are focused, committed to using NVC in communal life. Economic factors and peer pressure can both be prohibitive. Some of the Arabic-speakers already use NVC regularly and teach regional workshops in the skills—in Mazen’s case, also from his home. He and one school principal—whom I admire for her measured words—have been involved in NVC for some [10] years.

If the factors stacked against them for the Palestinian participants cause them to be present in a more concrete way, for other participants, the deeper needs that brought them here vary. There were Jews from around the world, and very altruistic Americans and Europeans—8 individuals who were not Muslim, nor Jewish—these people often brought the particularly calm wisdom of distance. Many Israelis hoped to use NVC to enrich their personal lives, make like-minded connections, even as they too feel the day-to-day pain of the conflict here.

You may be wondering at this point about something that made me uneasy—it does seem a tremendous luxury that there were folks, I for one—who do experience NVC as personal enrichment rubbing shoulders with people who came here out of a sense of emergency conditions in the streets.  A Palestinian community worker remarked, in our closing session, on this gap that we all had simply lived with until then without comment. In NVC form, he looked deeper into this potential grievance to see a need, and express his hope: that there will be a time when bloodshed is not a topic of discussion at such meetings, and Palestinian villagers too will have the relaxation of mind required to nurture the self.

I feel I’ve given you mostly lite sociology, not the personal stories that make people real to each other. I haven’t yet adequately conveyed a few of the human stories that, by the workshop’s end, would fill me till I felt I would brim over. 

One of the first days of the Training. I meet Ayat, a self-possessed woman in jeans, a hjiab, blue eyeliner. We’ve broken into smaller discussion groups; our prompt is “Trust and Creativity.” She begins, “there is deep trust among my family. They trust me to travel to this conference, far from our very traditional village.” As I unpack all that this may imply, I wonder, is Ayat married? Does that figure in?

In this group of eight women, Ayat and I seem to be the most traditionally religious. In a sense the odd ones out. I decide to tell the group how my 13-yr-old was invited to the writing workshop her instructor now gives for adults, an hour across Jerusalem by bus. I tell them how I’m so careful to explain (when the time comes for parent-teacher meetings) that I went in person to check out the other students. That I insist my daughter calls me when she gets on the bus, each direction.

Yet, still, I see something draw back in her teacher’s face. We don’t do this in my community.

What precautions do we take to protect children, and which to protect the needs of women? Which needs of women?

When I was growing up on the East Coast of the US, when you confessed your challenges or fragilities among other women (or at least commiserated), you bonded. As our session comes to a close, I raise my eyes to those of Ayat, who does not see me.  If you recall your honky-tonk—this is what’s running through my mind: “everybody loves me, baby/  what’s the matter with you?/  What did I do/  to offend you?”

Ramat Rachel Overlook,  Jerusalem
©2021 Ester Karen Aida

I want to mention the Bereaved Families organization.

It was shared, life-shattering pain- not a pissing contest, not comparing Nakba vs Holocaust- that Rami and Bassam were there to communicate. Shared pain brought them to the conclusion that violence must not continue.

As a parent, coach or teacher, and any who devote themselves to nurture minds and hearts—there’s a certain maturity of perspective that one may find unfolding within. It’s something like this that had entered the room. Rami Elhanan’s 14-year old daughter was killed in a cafe bombing, but he wants to offer a  message that it’s not anti-semitic to disagree with policies of the Israeli government. He describes that it’s his very Jewish upbringing that prompts him: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. 

For Bassam, just as he fights now to create something positive of the memory of his 10 yr-old daughter, killed by a stray Israeli bullet, he is equally fighting this new path of peace for the lives of his five remaining children.

Many of the questions from listeners related to the personal conversion for each, as individuals, of anger and pain, at once private and collective, to a constructive driving force to end war. A movement of hope, when after losing a child, we wondered whether it would be possible to get out of bed in the morning.

On his virtually alchemical conversion, he says, My hatred would have destroyed me. I do this foremost for myself.

It wasn’t the first thing that came up,  but in the course of conversation with our group, Bassam told us that after ‘graduating from prison’ he went on to a Master’s degree in Holocaust Studies; he visited the camps in Europe and wept there. He had wanted to understand the enemy so as to ‘conquer the enemy within.’  To be clear about this, We are doing this work to have a reason to get out of mourning. We are doing this to give meaning to meaningless killing. Not to hug each other and eat humus together. This he asserted before an audience half of which reclined on mattresses and reed mats, one striped shawl nestled upon another like a pack of drowsing puppies.

Bassam told us, it’s not a selfless love of the other that motivates him. I won’t offer you a blow-by-blow of the ten minutes of what I would have to call respectful tension when the discussion did turn directly to the political, to atrocities; there were queries and perspectives by Israelis and Jews from around the world—the 60-person group was able to maintain order and desire to hear out all sentiments until Bassam clarified that it was not his intention to compare our suffering. All this was going on in English with simultaneous translation to Arabic. It was indeed easy to become momentarily confused. If it had been the orientation of the group to take offense, we would have found a way.

Ayat spoke, and I had it in me to listen. Yet, later my mind- dull- refuses to recall her precise words. I think I hear: ‘The horrors the Israelis have inflicted and still inflict on the Arabs are incomprehensible. It is not possible to compare any other suffering to that which Palestinian mothers have experienced.’

Such bald judgements are rarely articulated in the environment of NVC, and my mind feels like I’ve walked into a tree. I turn to the person next to me. I briefly mime a hammer-blow to my brain, and then a forward movement of my heart. He is another new friend, a middle-aged Palestinian; just now he’s returning a look as if his understanding includes me, then splashes outward to every tile of the floor.

Our facilitator, a senior NVC trainer from Seattle, had asked the group beforehand to be mindful of the tools of NVC throughout the talk. We are learning to steer away from mental sparring in private and group interactions, toward a learnable skill of listening from the heart. The idea is to search for deeper human feelings and needs underlying the messages so often couched in divisive words.

One parent told Rami, “My daughter chose National Service rather than army service, in line with the way we had raised our children. Then my son chose combat duty, and I prayed every day that he would neither be killed nor kill anyone… yet it happened too, that my soldier son encountered a disabled Arab man who kept missing his bus, because others would crowd ahead of him. He helped the man to his bus, and continued on with him until he reached his village.

It was Bassam who responded. For four years I feared for the life of my then 13-year old son, who wanted revenge and threw stones. I prayed he would not be shot. (Bassam’s son did eventually join his father in non-violent activism.) I felt as I listened that Bassam connected with this father’s worry. And with a certain frustration tinged with helplessness.

Rami, in closing the presentation: At any moment your bubble might burst.

I wonder: can the polarization in the USA feel so harrowing to you, too, as to be overwhelming?

I’d like to hear what you have to say about this business of ‘hugging each other and eating humus together.’ My personal take is that there’s a place for this- our conversations, this letter- the NVC training was at times a kind of family feast, and I think we need this too to sustain ourselves. It makes me wonder if Bassam’s strident tone voices a common need that we do not stop there, it’s not enough.

We have divided into “home groups” of six or seven to discuss whatever may be spilling over in us personally. There are three Israelis in my group and four Palestinians, Ayat among them.  Doron says, about Ayat’s earlier assertions: I found your words really hard to hear, but I appreciate that you’re not being ‘fake nice’. I’m impressed by your authenticity.

A Palestinian friend quickly explains that Ayat is new to NVC; in his view she expressed herself through indictments of Israelis out of a lack of skills to do otherwise.

It takes a few minutes to find a translator to render “authenticity”; “tzidik” sounds to my ears, like the Hebrew for “justice.” Doron is making clear efforts to offer this positive feedback to Ayat. I am reminded that until this outburst Ayat has spoken very little. I recall my heart pounding a few times when I felt a need to speak before the larger group. To draw attention to myself—I found this excruciating. I sense the force of emotion required for Ayat to stand and speak. When Doron’s affirmation of her directness and honesty registers with Ayat, her face relaxes and breaks into a smile that’s both a bit awkward, and warm. I haven’t seen it until now.

From anecdotes like these, I had wanted to draw observations about conditions that make it a little easier for us to meet each other, whatever the nature of our rifts… small notes such as how it was that when I confessed to Shiran (precisely in saying goodbye!) how moved I was by her care for my kashrut needs, I was rewarded by a flood of her personal stories.

Thursday nearing day’s-end, we discuss plans for Friday. There will be a Muslim contingent leaving for an hour to worship at a nearby mosque, while sessions will continue as planned in their absence. (Possibly the delicate accommodation of Islamic, Jewish, Christian and any other religious observances seemed such an enormous task- one best avoided?) A few women arrange to light Shabbat candles during the short afternoon break- at 3:30, it will be an hour earlier than necessary. But each training session is important; we make small adjustments where possible because we need one another for this work of the heart.

Friday morning I awake knowing there will be no time to shower and change just before candle-lighting. I prepare before leaving my room. I’m dressed to the hilt, wearing a BoHo dress from an ultra-orthodox shop and garnets—to breakfast in the dining hall.

Time for the first session. I sink into the anonymity of a row of seats in the main hall.  Within a medicated brain-fog, my norm til noon, I’m sipping coffee.  Movement to my right, dark fabric against my upper arm. Ayat is in the chair next to me. Her dress is sprinkled with cross-stitch Bethlehem embroidery, delicate and intricate, one page of an antique dictionary. The seeing is a hearing: hours of patient handwork, and deeper, the old language of craft that bespeaks time’s stretch beyond one lifetime. Beautiful, Jamila, I tell her. She has on sequined, gold-tone platform shoes. She indicates that this dress is her mother’s work, and yes, it’s in honor of Jumma, Friday.

You start to lose track of which language you use between you, or whether there have been words.

 After you asked whether there had been a women’s march in Jerusalem, and virtually the following week there was a much more immediate response in Jerusalem to the immigration ban, I thought, huh, sloggy empathy? or simply that we emotionally prioritize what feels closest?

I want to play out the workings of that in slow-motion because it seems useful to observe.

I am so far away from you, in the Middle East, that tomorrow these events will surely affect me but there is a lag—it seems as if they don’t actually touch me in the moment that they come down for you. (On a deeper level I believe that what hurts one of us or one group hurts all of us: Karma or Midda keneged midda.) In cases where I may not feel a spontaneous movement of the heart I have to actively imagine with my head before it trickles down to my heart- this is actually the process that I have seen in the best of liberal thinking and that it seems to me you have trained yourself in, for decades. (Empathy as spiritual or moral imagination?) I don’t know why I am such a slow learner in its broader implications. More on that momentarily—just now I register your anger.

I have been wondering if my own anger in my local example of Israeli society, would feel more alive in me if I were still now living in Tekoa, where just down the road, youths bombarded drivers with rocks the very week of the training, and a soldier killed a 17-year old. (So often it’s our young men who pay the price when our collective anger torques through their bodies.)

But I haven’t lived there in seventeen years. Our conflict in this region feels so old. At times, endless. It’s now partly my own life experience that prompts my awareness of the self-preserving disjuncture of my heart from the ‘other side’.  If I observe then feel this, it allows me a trickle of empathy even toward those who are not committed to non-violence and who would kill my sort of people.

This doesn’t imply a new identity as a self-hating ____ (Jew or liberal or whatever one may be), only a more flexible, expansive identity, and an awareness that we have the capacity to contain one another’s anger and other hard and soft emotions by being present to them in stillness, and we will not be burnt up by them.

I don’t mean to suggest that if we simply listen to each other, we will all agree, but that by focusing on needs rather than strategies, our emotional investment shifts to mutual respect and care for understandable needs.

At times during the training sessions, running through my head: why did it take so long for me to join you?

—here is a group who wants to connect from the heart in our common humanity.

Where was i?

I needed to care for and protect my family.

I am a father, I am a mother; sometimes ‘my family’ was so narrow in scope.  And I had not enough of a trait deemed essential by the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers), that of “haRo-eh et haNolad”, foresight as to what will come to pass, born of my attitudes and actions, or lack of them. How long it took for me to exercise some historical-spiritual awareness. Most of my own lifetime. The examples of Palestinians who feel existentially threatened by an opposing group yet who chose non-violence and dialogue after prison, inspire me.  When I hear you sensing your own radicalization, it concerns me very greatly: you’ve cared for the seed of my possibility for empathy by the example of your own long commitment to activism on behalf of those unlike you. So beautiful—that core seems to attest what the human heart makes of any -isms, only flimsier or rougher clothing.

©2021 Ester Karen Aida
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