Yoav Peck: Encountering Others in Their Full Humanity
Sep 18, 2017

30 minute read


Two countries in an endless war with each other. Generations of enemies born into hating the opposition. And with no end in sight, Yoav Peck has found a way to harness peace and cultivate unity between two groups of unlikely allies. Co-Executive-Director of the Sulha Peace Project, Yoav says the key is in listening and in working from the heart and not the head. “Each of us has a story. It's important to the Israelis to establish a situation in which not only are they listening to the Palestinians but that the Palestinians are listening to us. And it means listening to the history of our families. Any political future must address the human needs of both sides, We at Sulha stand on the front lines of the struggle to return decency and compassion to our shared land.” The following is an edited version of an interview with Yoav. You can read or listen to the full version of the interview here.

Aryae: Yoav Peck is the co-Executive Director of the Sulha Peace Project. Their purpose as stated on their website goes like this:

“We are Israelis and Palestinians who meet to encounter the other in our full humanity. The purpose of Sulha is to end conflict and hostility among people so that they can conduct their relationships in peace and amity. Any political future must address the human needs of both sides. We at Sulha stand on the front lines of the struggle to return decency and compassion to our shared land. Every month or two we hold tribal fires in which 50-150 Palestinians and Israelis gather to reach beyond arguments and beyond political posturing to the essential humanity longing to be heard. We pray and sing together. We enjoy a meal in quiet and informal time and we work in listening circles creating a quality of awareness and attention to the other sorely lacking in our respective societies. We persistently work with an uncooperative military to obtain entry permits for West Bank Palestinians so that we can be together. Sometimes we meet in the territories to make Sulha available to those Palestinians who cannot leave. As we depart from the tribal fire we are profoundly empowered carrying with us renewed inspiration, hope and determination to continue working to bring the conflict to an end.”

Yoav was born in the U.S. and grew up on the East Coast in a non-religious American Jewish family. His parents were very committed to supporting the new state of Israel as a home for refugees from the Holocaust. Yoav attended university at UC Berkeley and graduated with a BA in Sociology in 1971. During his time in Berkeley he was active in the peace movement to end the war in Vietnam. Later he received an MA in Organizational Psychology from Norwich University in Vermont.

In 1973 Yoav emigrated to Israel and joined a kibbutz where he lived as an active member for fifteen years. Like most Israeli citizens, he served his time in the military and was with the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1982. After completing his active duty as a soldier who had experienced the reality of violent conflict he decided to become a different kind of warrior in the cause of peace.

Professionally, Yoav is an organizational psychologist, coach, and consultant who specializes in systemic programs for the advancement of human dignity. He lives with his wife in Jerusalem.

Yoav, thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation with you. I want to start off by asking you a little bit about the present and then going into some of your history and how you got here. You blog on your Facebook page with poignant entries of what it’s like being in Israel today. I want to ask you if you could share the current mood in Sulha at your recent gatherings. Give us a sample of what the conversation is like today.

Yoav: Well people are dealing with a lot of despair, both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side. We look around and our present government is doing everything it can to avoid peace and the Palestinians are facing waves of occupying violence while the Israelis are not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel these days. So that's sort of the prevailing mood.

And in that mood, we continue, as we have for the last 17 years, to bring groups of Palestinians and Israelis together where we create a viable, vibrant alternative to the despair that surrounds us. People arrive from all over the West Bank and from all over Israel to our gatherings.

At a recent gathering a young Palestinian, around 18 years of age, got off the bus at his first gathering. And he looked around, and he was not happy. He had been persuaded to come, looked suspicious, and had a limp. We later found out his limp was caused by a beating that he received at the hands of Israeli soldiers before being put in jail. We coupled him with a young Israeli settler who was preparing to go into the army and had agreed to attend the gathering. Somehow, intuitively, we thought the two of them were a good match.

There was a lot of suspicion and distance at first. And then they started talking. They both spoke halfway decent English so they were able to communicate. During the evening, we tried to get them to join the collective activities, but they refused because something very special was happening between the two of them. We saw them exchanging cigarettes and beginning to laugh together. At the end of the evening it was clear that something had happened between the two of them. We had to get the Palestinians back on the bus to get back to the road block before the curfew and before he left the Palestinian turned to the Israeli and said, "In about a month you're going to be in the Army and I'm still going to be across the road throwing rocks at you soldiers at the road blocks. Please be careful out there." It was a magical moment. Then he climbed onto the bus. The two of them have actually stayed in touch.

Aryae: That is an amazing story. These seem like two people in the world who would be the least likely to become friends. So what's the secret? Where there's so much reason for people to hate each other, what is that magic that happens and what are the conditions that allow that to happen, that they can become friends like that?

Yoav: It's really in the listening. God gave us our subtle hint when he gave us one mouth but two ears. So many of us are so intent on saying what it is we want to say that we forget about listening. Particularly in Israel and Palestine- the level of listening is really quite dismal and people are sort of waiting for you to take a breath so they can leap in and say the next thing they have to say.

At Sulha we very much emphasize the importance of listening. The heart of our monthly gathering is listening circles where we take the Native American technique of using a speaking object, something that has some significance for the facilitator, only the person holding that object speaks. We don't argue. We really have people deliver themselves to whoever is speaking; to listen from the heart and speak from the heart. We stay away from political arguments because people can argue politically all the time if they want to. But actually listening through each other’s stories and listening to people talk about their lives and themselves is quite rare. What creates safety enough so that people can open up, is that we pay attention to each other. And work more from the heart than we do from the head.

Aryae: There’s something I'm curious about in the Palestinians and Israeli Jews meeting each other. There's a situation of such inequality where the one side has so much more power to act, to travel, to live their lives than the other. How does that play out in the dynamics of the conversation or does it?

Yoav: It does. You know the Israelis are aware of the power imbalance when we come into these meetings. For the Palestinians, it's quite unique to have a representative of the occupier sitting there and looking into his eyes and just listening to him. So that's a piece of it. The other piece is that Israelis, while talking about their lives also, very often, talk about their shame - our shame. And it's a critical piece because of the willingness of the Israelis to acknowledge the damage that's been done to the Palestinian people by the establishment of the state of Israel. It is quite unique for the Palestinians, for them to hear the pain and discomfort that Israelis experience when we consider what our government is doing, and what many of us have done as combatants. That really enables many Palestinians to come out of their shell and to establish enough trust so that they're willing to share themselves quite openly.

Aryae: Is that a surprise to a lot of Palestinians to hear Israelis talk like that?

Yoav: Yes, it's a surprise. I also want to say that though the Israelis might be part of the occupying force, they too have a story. Each of us has a story. It's important to the Israelis to establish a situation in which not only are they listening to the Palestinians but that the Palestinians are listening to us. And it means listening to the history of our families, many of whom have been through the Holocaust seventy years ago. This includes Palestinians listening to the dilemmas that Israelis with a social conscience are in when we do our Army service. It wouldn't work if it was all about the Palestinians.

I'll give you an example. During the 2014 war in Gaza we did a gathering at a small Jewish Arab settlement, the first Jewish Arab settlement, Nevi Shalom. While we were sitting outside having dinner a missile was fired from Gaza and exploded over our heads. We looked at each other, unclear how we would respond. And then one of the Palestinians asked an Israeli woman how she was feeling about all of this. She shared that her three sons were simultaneously in the Army and serving in Gaza. She talked about her fear. And even though the Palestinians had family in Gaza – a place that had far more casualties than Israel – they were still willing to hear this mother of three soldiers talk about her fear for her sons. There were a lot of tears on both sides. It was extremely moving to the Israelis that despite the fact that it was our government bombarding Gaza, that the Palestinians were willing to hear our fear for our kids and ourselves.

Aryae: Is there anything that's typically surprising for the Israelis to hear from the Palestinians as they're listening to the Palestinian stories?

Yoav: I think it's less surprising. There's a difference between reading it in the newspapers and seeing the number of casualties. In reporting, the Palestinians are not called Palestinians; they're called terrorists. There is a real dehumanization of the Palestinians. The Israelis pay attention to the situations the Palestinians confront. We can't take away their pain, but there's something wonderful about listening to their pain. It’s what opens up the doors of communication.

Aryae: There is so much pessimism on both sides, and no one seems to see any solution to the conflict.  I'm wondering, why does either side even bother? What are they thinking they are going to accomplish in talking to each other, and why are they doing it?

Yoav: Usually people come because they've been persuaded by a friend who's attended. They arrive with lots of skepticism. They really don't expect to be surprised or feel comfortable, and we do have times when it’s hard to bring people in. The Sulha gatherings include a core group of people who come every time, but what most interests us is reaching out to people on either side who would never ordinarily find themselves in this situation. They just come and bring their skepticism along with them and then we go to work. You can actually see people melting.

One of the members of our board is a Palestinian whose family was driven out of central Israel in the 1948 war. They moved to Gaza, eventually fled Gaza in the ‘67 war, and then moved to a refugee camp in Jordan where they grew up hating every mention of Israelis. As a young man he came to Palestine to join the struggle and to find Israelis to kill. That was his intention. He is still willing to talk about that today. He was invited against his better judgement to attend a Sulha gathering. He describes being absolutely flabbergasted by what he saw and felt among the Israelis. With time he understood that you have to make distinctions between different kinds of Israelis and that these people, the Sulha people, are there to support him and to seek peace together with him. He's now been active for about eight years and is a member of the board. So you can only start where people are and move from there.

Aryae: It sounds like maybe what you're saying is even if the larger picture invokes a lot of despair and there's no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, that on a personal level there's still stuff that people can do that's meaningful.

Yoav: Absolutely. A normal evening will include the listening circle I described, but we also share a meal together and bless the food in Arabic and Hebrew before we eat. We sing and we play music and have informal time. We come at it from different angles during the evening and something always works with people. If it's not the listening circle, then it's the informal time around dinner; something works. But, as you say, it's really the personal connection. It is sitting across from someone who's listening to you, who's passing the rice –  just people in the end.

Aryae: I want to go back in time a little bit to the 1960s when you were finishing school at UC Berkeley and decided to go to Israel. Why would you leave a place with so much financial opportunity, a relatively stable country, depending on how you look at that, and go to a place like Israel? What motivated you to do that?

Yoav: Discomfort. I had Jewish friends who were marching in Palestinian support marches in Berkeley. I was not marching because I didn't feel I had enough information to be able to take a stand. So I came to Israel to myself for a few weeks to try to figure things out and develop a political position about the Middle East. Well, three weeks was not enough, and forty-four years later I'm still figuring out what my position is!

What happened was that I fell in love. I was blown away by the Israelis. The country is beautiful, but the people are even more beautiful. There's a warmth here and an immediacy, a straight-talk ethos. And I had wonderful conversations. I felt wanted. I felt that wherever I went people reached out to me and said, “You’re a Jew. Your place is here.” At first I was very irritated by that. But then I started to feel this incredible sense of belonging that I really haven't ever felt in America. When I realized how good I felt in Israel, I was persuaded to stay longer and the longer I stayed the better I liked it.

In 1972 I also travelled to Palestinian refugee camps and talked to Palestinians. In Gaza I was escorted to a refugee camp by two young guides. And I saw through their eyes what occupation meant, although it was only five years of occupation at that time. I think the intensity of the mix – my increasing love for the Israelis and my concern for what Israel's existence meant to the Palestinians – created something challenging and exciting in trying to embrace that contradiction. The longer I stayed, the more I felt at home. Eventually my first wife (and I decided) to get back to the states. And while living in a cave on an island in Spain, we sat there for two months and wondered why we were going back to California. We couldn't find an answer and made the decision to immigrate to Israel. We went back to the States, made a little money, got married, and in ‘73 came back right after the Yom Kippur war.

Aryae: After that you wound up living and being an active member in a kibbutz. Can you say a little bit about your experience living in a kibbutz in a socialist environment?

Yoav: Well, at first it was just wonderful. I had lived in a commune in Berkeley in the ‘60s. That was sort of my value system, and the kibbutz value system coincided. The years I lived on kibbutz I didn't own a wallet, and I didn't have a key to my house because you didn't need a key to your house. It was a collective society where people supported each other. Twelve people made meals for 600; the other people did things for the people working in the kitchen. It was socialism in action, and I loved it. It was an English kibbutz. English working-class Jews who came to Israel in 1948. I loved the people. I liked my work. I started in agriculture and ended up going back to psychology, but I liked being a part of that community.

Aryae: What motivated you to leave?

Yoav: Eventually I was sent by the kibbutz movement to the States as an emissary. I proudly represented Israel in the States but I came back relating to the saying, "You can't keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paree.” I came back having lived an independent life. On the kibbutz if I wanted to work in my profession I would have to go through the work committee to get approval. I remember one year they said I could go back to my profession but only the following year because this year we wanted me to run the dining room. I felt myself getting older and less willing to compromise. The kibbutz was also undergoing change, increasingly going to privatizing, social glue holding people together, and some squabbling about property. When televisions were introduced into members' apartments, having no interest in being shut in my kibbutz apartment with a tv, I realized it was time to move on.

Aryae: I want to ask you about your experience being in the army fighting in Lebanon and what caused you afterward to make the decisions to be a peace warrior?

Yoav: I first joined the peace movement, then did my army service, and then did reserve duty until I was turned out to pasture. For me it's a contradiction but a contradiction I can live with. In June of 1982 I was called up to my unit. I was told that we were going no more than twenty-five kilometers into Lebanon in order to make the northern Galilee (safe for Israel). Yet when I got inside Lebanon we weren't told the truth by our own officers. We were listening to the BBC and realized the Israeli army was already in the suburbs of Beirut, and it looked like it was going to be a very long war which is what it turned out to be. I was really in a crisis because I didn't want to be part of taking over Lebanon and yet, and this might be hard for Americans to understand, when you join the Army you develop a very close relationship with the guys you're with. I couldn’t walk out on them and throw down my gun and say "I'm not participating in this, you guys work it out, I'm going home or to jail." I chose not to do that. On the other hand, when I got a 48-hour leave, I went home, said hello to my family and my kibbutz neighbors, took off my uniform, and went to Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the war I was fighting in. It might sound like a ridiculous contradiction, but, as I said before, living in Israel is about embracing contradictions and not being able to resolve them. After the demonstration I got some clean clothes and went back to Lebanon until I was discharged a few weeks later.

Aryae: Were there any legal consequences from the Army or the Government for the way to your embracing contradictions in the way you did?

Yoav: No, I didn't advertise that I had gone to the demonstrations. I was a munitions technician. I saw many of the reservists that I served with were falling apart. I went to my commander and told him that I was a psychotherapist and that I saw people that were in deep trouble. He gave me a tent and said, “This is your office. I want you to interview the people that say they're going crazy, because some of them are, and some of them are faking to get out of serving. Your job is to figure out who's faking and who's not.” It was a terrible mission. And for the most part I gave people the benefit of the doubt. If someone was desperate enough to pretend he was falling apart, I figured he wasn't going to be functional. That was what I was doing during the day, and at night I was sending munitions into Beirut: speaking of contradictions.

Aryae: Is there something about embracing contradictions that is key to being a peacemaker?

Yoav: Israel continues to be threatened. We do need an Army. My kids have served in the Army. And I feel it's an obligation to be part of defending us. When I speak to Palestinians, I don’t conceal the fact that I've served in the Army because I think it's important for them to embrace that contradiction as well. They are talking to a peace activist who cares about them visibly on the one hand, but has also served in the Army and believes Israel needs to maintain a strong defense Army until the danger has passed. I take a stand about peace, but I have blood on my hands. I think most of us do. And many of the Palestinians do as well. One of my best friends in the peace movement spent ten years in jail for stabbing Israelis. We're very close, and we're both peace activists. It's just the way things are here.

Aryae: There are roughly sixty different peace organizations in Israel. What is it like when some people are in favor of peace and others feel that a strong military solution is needed? What is the Israeli society like currently?

Yoav: In a recent study, 48% of the Jewish Israeli public said that left-wingers are traitors. Along with racism about Arabs, about Palestinians, there is a lot of hatred directed at peace activists. And yet we make a point of flying the Israeli flag. I feel that my peace activism is an act of patriotism. Yet we're facing increasing opposition. People who have despaired of there ever being peace with the Palestinians, many of them former liberals, have turned very strongly to the right and feel that we have to be strong, to show the Palestinians who's boss and hope that eventually the Palestinians will understand they can never win the struggle and give up.

Of course that won't happen, no more than it did in Vietnam. That tiny country defeated the most powerful army in the world. Because when you have nothing to lose, what you have left is the struggle. So if we are stuck with the Palestinians, then we're going to have to turn our enemies into partners. We don't have to love them. You don't have to go and have hummus with them, but we are going to have to work out how to cooperate with them. As you said, there are several peace organizations continuing this work. Sometimes peace activists get beat up on their way back to their car by right-wingers that are waiting for us. But the peace movement is steadfast. It's very small despite the number of organizations. There are people who have despaired but we try to strengthen each other. There are also several umbrella organizations that bring the peace organizations together to offer mutual support.

Aryae: What proportion of the Israeli Jewish population are either involved in the peace movement or hold beliefs that are aligned with the peace movement?

Yoav: I couldn't tell you how many are peace activists, but the studies continue to show a majority of Israelis – even if they don't consider themselves leftists or peace activists – continue to believe the two-state solution is the only way we are going to get out of this conflict. There is still support for a negotiated settlement in which the Palestinians end up with an independent state of their own.

We're in danger of losing that majority, and it's certainly smaller than it used to be. Life can be quite comfortable for Israelis. This is a prosperous country relatively speaking. You can live a very comfortable life in Israel and ignore what's happening a few kilometers down the road. For example, in Jerusalem, just a couple kilometers separate a barrier wall from massive refugee camps. Yet if you want to blind yourself you can. Consequently, your opinions are likely to be about defense, that we have to be strong, they'll never give up those Palestinians, that we just have to overcome them.

What's most depressing is when I talk to right-wing Israelis, I always ask them, "What's your vision of the future?" And they have no answer. They actually have no vision. In the 10 years he's been in office, our prime minister has never offered a vision of Israel at peace. He prefers to show us as a beleaguered country that will always be at war, and he actually said, just a year ago, that we would live by the sword forever. Many people have resigned themselves to that being a description of reality.

Aryae: I'm struck with the thought that there's a similarity in Israel and in the U.S. with divided populations. In Israel a majority of Israelis so far favor a two-state solution and yet Netanyahu's policy is tilting towards a one-state solution. Similarly, in the states, the majority of people here favor one vision of America, while the minority that support Trump look at a different kind of America. What does it look like to you?

Yoav: Yes, there are incredible parallels between what's happening there and what's happening here. I'm a little jealous of all of the activity that's blossomed before and after the election there. I'd love to see that vitality in our weary peace movement here.

But yes I think one of the strongest similarities is that there is a leadership vacuum at the top in the States and here in Israel. We share the fact that Trump and Netanyahu – I call them NitTrumpYahu – are what psychologists call representatives of the Dark Triad: a combination of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellism. If you take a look at Trump and a look at Netanyahu, I think you can see that Dark Triad operative in both of them.

The other thing that we both have in common is that if we don't reach out to the people who hate us, to the people who support Trump and Netanyahu, we are never going to lay the foundation for change. I think a huge challenge for us is to start talking to the people we disagree with. We must talk to them with compassion and with listening, which is stronger than our talking, and to hear their stories. Because, ultimately until there's a sea change in the masses of population all of the progressive movements will be talking to themselves.

How do you talk to someone who screams at you and does everything he can to insult you? I have been told in the streets when talking with the public, "It's too bad you didn't die in the Holocaust with the rest of your family." I've heard terrible things but there are techniques and ways of thinking about these encounters that can enable us to weather those kinds of attacks and to really seek the crack in the armor of the people who are angry at us. Everyone has a crack. It's a test of our creativity and sensitivity to see how well we can identify the place in which the humanity inside that person is still alive and well.

Aryae: Yoav, that is a beautiful summary and a beautiful place for us to transition. I'm listening to you and thinking it's not only about each of us finding a way to reach out to people being oppressed but it's also up to each of us to find a way to reach out to the oppressors. Not a simple task but maybe a very necessary one.

Comments and questions from other participants on the call follow.

Wendy: My first question is, what do you think is the motivation for people to come to a Sulha event? Have you been able to understand what that spark is on either side that encourages people to participate in the first place? For Palestinians it can be a very dangerous thing to participate in peace work. Also, you recently wrote about a situation where you were confronted with a right-wing Israeli and you were able to turn it around. Not that he agreed with your views but some ice broken there. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the specifics on how that came to pass.

Yoav: As I was listening to you I wrote on this paper the word "longing" because under the skepticism that people who have never been to Sulha feel, we see an incredible longing for something different from what's happening now. Their daily lives, both the Palestinians and the Israelis in different ways, are so full of how grim things are; how dangerous and grim they really are if you are a Palestinian. There is a deep longing in people to connect; to be in a safe environment; to express a closeness.

Just last week, under a full moon, around the camp fire at the end of the evening, I saw people's faces glowing after they had a long listening circle about men's roles and women's roles in Palestinian and Israeli societies. They came out, had dinner, and then they danced and sang around the fire. We were attacked once by Palestinians who were not at Sulha and they said how can you have these celebrations when the occupation is still going on? They call it normalization – that's a curse word in Palestinian society, and it's thrown at people who come to our gatherings. Our response is that if we don't celebrate, what are we struggling for? We must be able to create islands of aliveness and joy and comfort and safeness in order to recharge our batteries to carry on facing the reality of our everyday life. I really think people are dying to change things and not be afraid anymore.

The other night with the two orthodox right-wing guys, I could hear how thin their vulgar proclamations about Palestinians were. It wasn't coming from a deep place at all. I said to this guy, "I hear this coming out of your mouth and I'm looking at you, and I offered you a cigarillo and we're standing here together, I feel like you have a good heart and that you are actually a good guy. And even though I hate the things you're saying, it's not the way I feel about you."

And something there turned him around because he said the same thing back to me and it ended up that I gave him my card and invited him to the next Sulha gathering. I don't know if he'll come but you get what I'm saying. At the beginning of the conversation he was just disgusted when I said to him if my daughter wants to marry a Palestinian and the guy is a good guy, so I would give her my blessing. He almost killed me. He couldn't believe I was saying that. By the end of the conversation he knew my opinions but there had been a connection that had been created.

Shiv: I have an observation from Michelle Robinson. She writes, “Today's share by Yoav led me to a poem that focuses on what we can do. ‘Accepting This’ by Mark Nepo. ‘We cannot eliminate hunger, but we can feed each other. We cannot eliminate loneliness but we can hold each other. We cannot eliminate pain, but we can live a life of compassion.’"

I had the good fortune of visiting both Israel and Palestine a while ago. We went all around the country and met the people. But that was close to 10 years ago. But with social media today and the ability to connect a lot of people, would you have any observation about whether it's connecting people the right way or is it actually marginalizing and polarizing people? How has social media helped or hurt your cause?

Yoav: It's helped enormously. The powerlessness of the Palestinians is so overwhelming in so many aspects of their life. But Facebook is a great equalizer. Anyone can meet me at a Sulha, ask me my name and the next day ask me to be a friend. And I have many Palestinians who, immediately after a gathering, become friends on Facebook. I see their posts they see mine and we like each other’s posts. It's a great tool. I'm not particularly sophisticated in the dangers of the internet but from the perspective of a tiny organization with a $30,000 yearly budget, this is an amazing tool for connecting with the Palestinians. And, of course, connecting with each other. We advertise our events so it's very useful.

Shiv: Has language ever been a barrier when Israelis and Palestinians meet face to face? And if so how do you overcome that?

Yoav: I'm so glad you asked that. I can't believe I didn't talk about it. All of our gatherings at Sulha we work with translators so that no one is left in the dark. We have three languages because there was always someone from abroad that only speaks English. So the big barrier most of the young Palestinians don't speak anything but Arabic. So we have to learn Arabic. In fact I'm studying Arabic. I feel if someone wants to do something useful as a peace activist the thing to do is to learn the language of the people we're supporting. It's a wonderful language and it's a joy to learn it. Some of the Palestinians speak some English. We manage. The act of translating actually slows things down. If someone saying in Arabic what I just said in Hebrew I have time to breathe a few times and think about whether the next thing I'm going to say is useful or not. It's like turning a difficulty into an opportunity.

Aryae: Yoav, I've been thinking that what you've been talking about has mostly been about outward actions, how to act with another person. But it occurs to me that to be able to face someone who's screaming at you, disagreeing with you, saying they hate you, whatever, and be able to say to them, I can see and appreciate your essential goodness -- there's got to be some inner work there. So I'm curious about what inner practices you have. I know that you haven't been what we normally think of as a religious person. Do you have any kind of inner practices for transforming yourself that you have worked on in order to allow yourself the ability to respond to people in this compassionate way?

Yoav: Some colleagues and I do a workshop for peace activists called "Beyond Persuasion." – a workshop for training in the art of reaching out to a hostile public or to anyone for that matter. People report increasingly not being able to talk to the public but now also not being able to talk to their families and having huge rifts in families over politics. One of the preparatory pieces of the workshop is what we call "taking on a role."

You're not in a normal conversation. You say to yourself "Okay I have an objective in this conversation to turn this antipathy into human contact and maybe get some ideas challenged. In order to do that I have to be in a role. Putting on a hat, an imaginary hat, and saying I'm in the role of engaging with this person is one way. The other thing is we use a concept we call the "umbrella." An umbrella is what we imagine putting over ourselves and the rain is the horrible things people say to us. So if I want to preserve my own serenity or relative calm in one of these encounters, it's important to imagine I have an umbrella over me and am committed to not having my hurt feelings ruin the way I'm going to respond. Then it's possible to hear all kinds of things and look for the opening to be able to make deeper contact with the person.

Aryae: When you're standing under that umbrella and you're going to say something positive, is that merely a script or do you really experience the goodness in that person? And if so, how do you align yourself to see and experience that goodness?

Yoav: That takes us back to why I fell in love with Israel. Israelis who say hateful things are still beautiful in my eyes. It's easy to love these people even when they're being obnoxious. It's almost like there's this nice person locked up inside a prison who's just trying to find a way out of there. If we can unlock the doors then we've done our part. You know the guys I talked to the other night, they didn't transform their opinions about peace, but maybe they went home and talked to their wives and said, “I met a leftist who made some sense and wasn't such a bad guy.” And that's one step for humanity and feels good when you go home.

Kozo: Yoav, thank you for this beautiful conversation on peace. I wanted to ask you a question about the role of forgiveness in the work that you do. Do you have any stories like radical acts of forgiveness that caused transformation in the dialog or the individual?

Yoav: That's a great question. I talked earlier about shame. And the place that forgiveness begins for me is forgiving myself. Sometimes I'll be talking to people and I'll say, "The Jewish people were on a sinking ship in Europe during the Holocaust and when they jumped out of the sinking ship into Israel, the life boat of Israel, there were people in the life boat and we did damage." The damage we did in 1948 when 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes or ran from our Army – to forgive myself for that is not easy. The only thing that really helps is doing something.

When I'm putting together a Sulha evening I don't have a problem being nice to myself and being forgiving even if I was part of this occupation. I am part of this occupation and yet the doing puts all of that stuff in the background.

But some people of noble souls among the people at Sulha are able to forgive the occupiers, the people that have put them in jail. They want something bigger than resentment in their life. There are some very gracious moments. I'll never forget the Israeli woman talking about her fear for her sons in the invading Army of Israel and watching Palestinians listening to her intently, being compassionate towards her as she wept. That was pretty miraculous for us. It’s a huge subject and so complex. The Prime Minister of Australia once turned to the Aborigines in Parliament and said to them "I'm sorry what we have done in Australia to your people." I just so badly would like to see Netanyahu do the same to the Palestinians. I guess I'll wait a while before he can deliver that speech.

Shiv: How we can support you and your work?

Yoav: I have to thank you as this has been a wonderful opportunity, and I appreciate your generosity.  I always tell people to do a Sulha in your town. Anyone can locate five Muslims or Palestinians, the Jews are always available, and the Christians are interested as well. Put together a meeting. I would be supportive of that by providing materials for simulation games you could do. People can do Sulha anywhere. And we would love to host people when they come here. If we can, we will coordinate one of our gatherings with your visit. And we would appreciate you following us on Facebook and on our website. We can also get a newsletter out to people who are in touch with us to let you know when we're going to be in your neck of the woods.

Shiv: Very sincere gratitude to you, Yoav, as we end this call. People like you have always been the beacons, the light we hope to get energy from to move forward. I always want to end every conversation with hope, and that came when you said you see in people a sense of longing to change the status quo and to aspire for something more. That sense of longing will come to the surface, and people will humanize each other. They can then share their hearts and make a spark of hope.


This interview was transcribed by a team of volunteers, and edited by Victoria Nunes. The full-length version of this interview is available at Awakin.org. Awakin Calls are weekly conference calls that anyone from around the world can dial into at no charge. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker. 

1 Past Reflections