Listening — The Common Ground Amid Conflict

By Janet I. Tu | THE SEATTLE TIMES

Leah Green, founder and director of The Compassionate Listening Project, grew up listening to stories from her grandparents, who fled persecution in Europe.

The Israelis and Palestinians sat in a circle in a rundown room outside Bethlehem.

They had already heard from a Palestian man who was fighting to preserve his house from being demolished by the Israeli army. They listened as a Palestinian mother described how she cried as she sewed her daughter's wedding dress, knowing she would not be allowed to leave the country to attend the wedding.

But the Palestinians were having a hard time seeing how Israelis suffered in the conflict.

Then a former Israeli soldier spoke. More Israeli soldiers die from suicide than in combat, he said. Please see our suffering in that statistic, he requested.

"You could hear a pin drop," said Leah Green, facilitator for the group, which met in June. Suddenly, people realized that though the Israelis' suffering "doesn't look like the suffering of the Palestinians — it doesn't look like occupation — it was still suffering."

Such breakthrough moments are part of what Green, a resident of Indianola, Kitsap County, strives for in her work as founder and director of The Compassionate Listening Project. It brings together people on opposite sides of conflicts past and present — Israelis and Palestinians, Germans and Jews — to listen to each other's stories.

At a time when headlines from the Middle East are almost unceasingly about strife, Green, 48, presents a different vision. She believes peace can be built. And she believes the compassionate-listening process, which she helped develop, can be a valuable tool in creating that peace.

The basic premise of Compassionate Listening is that people need to listen, without judgment, to the stories of those on the "other side." They need to resist knee-jerk reactions while asking nonadversarial questions that allow them to see the other person's humanity.

It can sound touchy-feely, Green acknowledges. But she points to concrete results: For instance, an Israeli woman who went through the program plans to bring the Palestinian participants to meet with Israelis who have never met any Palestinians before.

And Green has won over some skeptics.

Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Greater Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee, initially thought her approach was "too touchy-feely and ignored the hard political reality of things."

Now he believes it's the only way to build bridges of understanding. "When you have those bridges, you have those chances to make the kind of peace that is not just paper peace, but living peace."

Green knows any big breakthrough has to come at the higher political level. But she says people on the ground need to first know there are those on the other side who acknowledge their suffering and see their needs. They need to have developed a level of trust with each other.

"If you prepare the ground, when there's a crack of an opportunity, they'll jump — make the leap of faith," Green says. "Without that, they won't make that leap."

Shared stories

One evening in early May, some 20 people met in Berlin.

Some were Holocaust survivors or the children or grandchildren of survivors. Others were descendants of German soldiers or citizens. They were there as part of The Compassionate Listening Project's Jewish-German reconciliation program.

They put photos of their relatives on a candlelit table, then told their stories.

"It was the first time I had heard a German talking about a grandparent in the same way I had talked about my grandfather. It totally brought tears to my eyes," said Phyllis Selinker, an attorney from Poulsbo, who says her time in the program helped her with longstanding fears about the Holocaust and Germany.

Green grew up with stories from her grandparents, who were refugees from the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.

It made her wonder: If everyone says they want peace, why aren't peace-making skills taught in schools? Why don't governments spend more money on peace efforts and less on war?

Those questions stayed with her as she spent two years in Israel studying at a university and living in a kibbutz, and as she earned her master's degree in public administration from the University of Washington.

She got involved in Middle East peace groups. While she felt they did important work, she also found some of them too focused on what they were against.

Then Green came across the writings of Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace activist who believes that at the heart of every violent act is an unhealed wound that can be healed, in part, through nonjudgmental listening. In Hoffman's writings, Green saw the underpinnings of peace-building skills that could be taught.

Over the years, Green has developed an array of programs. There are daylong workshops, advanced-training sessions, local compassionate-listening groups and people who use the techniques to resolve workplace or interpersonal conflicts. Revenue from these programs, along with grants and private donations, funds the project.

The organization is best known for its work around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to getting individual Palestinians and Israelis together to hear each other's stories, Compassionate Listening also organizes delegations of Americans who travel to the Middle East.

Larry Snider, a consultant for nonprofits who lives in suburban Philadelphia, was part of such a delegation six years ago. He was profoundly touched by a Palestinian whose son had been killed during the 2000 intifada. Yet the father urged them to keep working for peace.

The next day Snider met a Jewish couple who had built an institute to take care of developmentally disabled Israeli and Arab children. They had built it in honor of their son, who had been killed by Palestinians.

"If they could make a commitment after they lost their children, then I could make a commitment," said Snider, who is organizing Philadelphia-area imams, rabbis and Christian clergy for a Compassionate Listening trip next year.

Is it enough?

Still, there are those who wonder if listening is enough.

Ziyad Zaitoun, a Seattle engineer who is active with Voices of Palestine, says organizations like Compassionate Listening reach only a tiny percentage of the population. Most Palestinians, he said, are still suffering under occupation.

At the same time, he thinks what Green is doing is needed. "They have to bring more people together, especially high-ranking people within the leadership."

Recently, the husband of a young woman who had been seriously injured by a 2002 bomb attack at Jerusalem's Hebrew University asked Green to help him meet the family of the bomber.

In June, Green met with the bomber's family in East Jerusalem. She listened as they expressed deep sorrow that their son and brother, who as a teenager had been arrested and tortured by Israeli military, would turn to such violence.

Green says she doesn't condone the act, but believes it's important to try to understand its roots.

Both the bomber's family and the husband of the bombing victim, Green said, had expressed to her that "if perhaps both sides can get together and hear each other's realities, maybe we wouldn't get to this point where we're wounding each other."

Readers interested in learning more about The Compassionate Listening Project, go to: www.compassionatelistening.org