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Greenfield rabbi helps Israelis, Palestinians to hear one another

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, in fact, indicative of more than one set of issues. And there are no simple answers, beyond the need for intensive, compassionate listening.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who became spiritual leader of Greenfield's Temple Israel this summer, knows that deeply, from leading tours of groups of Jews and non-Jews to hear each other out, try to understand the many dimensions of the seemingly intractable conflict and even -- as in the case of a meeting between a former Israeli soldier and a Palestinian woman this month --to move through fear and suspicion toward a real friendship.

Cohen-Kiener's eighth trip for the Compassionate Listening Project, begun by a Seattle woman in 1999, was a 12-day excursion from Nov. 2 through 13 to Bethlehem, East and West Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and Palestinian refugee camps as well as West Bank Jewish settlements, meeting with an array of people on all sides of the complex issue.

"If you're on a side, you're on the wrong side," Cohen-Kiener quotes founder Leah Green as saying about the project that the Greenfield rabbi joined on its first tour. This time, with 19, nearly half non-Jewish, participants from around the United States as well as Canada, it was in the context of the most active random violence, and her intention for the group -- many of them with backgrounds as therapists and peace workers -- was to keep them safe, even while daring to make eye contact with people in the street and being comfortable showing everyone respect and empathy in day-to-day encounters.

Moving in and out of the occupied territory, she said, the group on an Israeli bus encountered Israeli forces at border crossings who came aboard to see that passengers were indeed American and Canadian tourists and not Israelis or Palestinians -- and made sure a white-and-black keffiyeh scarf was visible in the bus windshield as a signal when they drove around the Palestinian side.

The group listened to the stories from Israelis and Palestinians, from working and professional class people, from former soldiers and peace workers, from people who had endured decades, and even generations of suffering.

Roni Keidar, a Jewish peace activist who lives "inches away from Gaza," told of living with artillery shells flying overhead 30 to 35 times a day, in both directions, with just 15 seconds warning before she and other Israelis had to find shelter, with a neighbor whose house had received a direct hit, before she was forced to scream to the barrage, "Stop it! Stop it! I can't feel empathy for you! I can't care about you when I'm this afraid for my life!"

For her, K-C explained, "It's about her self-preservation and her humanitarian self-preservation," epitomizing the struggle of everyone on both sides with relatives and neighbors who have been killed or injured, with children serving in life-threatening situations and fathers or grandfathers who fought in decades past.

"Everyone's entrenched in that story," she says. "They've all been actively traumatized over time. And yet we met a half-dozen people who'd transcended their personal narrative and said, 'I want to care about you.'"

The group also met with Ibrahim Issa,who runs Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, working for community development and doing trauma therapy, and heard how Israeli troops came to his house one night, roughed him up and moved his children to another room as they searched for weapons and arrested him, seemingly for no reason.

Two days later, they listened as Shay Davidovich of the 8-year-old Israeli veterans' group Breaking the Silence, recount how as part of their training, soldiers trained in arresting as many as 15 Palestinians in their homes each night, deliberately humiliating them in front of their children and throwing out all the contents, and targeting the most benign people who would be the least danger during trainings.

"When we listen, we just reflect back," says Cohen-Kiener, who facilitated the sessions with three other Compassionate Listening workers. "We never argue. We have to make sure people have a chance to process the stories they're hearing" and understand some of terms, which can have double or hidden meaning, like "occupation," "Arab" or "normalization."

Everyone on the tour, she said, has a "wow" moment when a stereotype is turned on its head, when "you end up really meeting these people as humans through your own fear and projections. Every every trip is designed to evoke that."

Over the years, said Cohen-Kiener, working with the tours has "cost me friendships, because when you're inside of the narrative of your people and then you start hearing from the other side, letting the humanism and subjective experience of the 'enemy' or the other side and start letting that in, the body that you're in rejects you."

As someone who tries to see all sides, she acknowledges, "It's very sad and hard for me. I see the kind of defense mechanisms in play that prevent people from opening their minds and hearts to the humanism of the other side. I see that on both sides and see that it's also in me. When get back, I get impatient with this person who's flamingly anti-Semitic, or pro-Israel and dismissive of Palestinian claims. Can I compassionately listen to that?"

After eight tours, Cohen-Kiener has also seen enough examples of people who, despite and even emboldened by their harsh circumstances, have managed to devote themselves to keep the ember of compassionate listening alive and do the difficult work for the years that it takes.

"One of impacts is that my heart gets bigger," she says, "Our really profound intention to be of service, to listen and understand, to bring a salve of understanding and connection ... it feels good and leaves me on certain kind of high."

Greenfield's new rabbi quotes Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad, who she talked with recently, as saying, "The way to a Palestinian state goes through the heart of the Jewish people. If they see me, if they know me, if they trust me, then they want for me what I want for me"

She adds, "He knows this is the way. He may not see it, and I may not see it either. But there's so much solace to me in understanding. ... That's the thing that gives that me hope, and I keep trying."

And Cohen-Kiener intends to keep trying here as well, using Compassionate Listening techniques as part of a monthly reflective practice to get at some of the hidden, controversial issues that lie even inside the local Jewish community: differences over the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, different feelings about antisemitism and other ideas.

For Cohen-Kiener, whose return flight was over Paris, unknowingly, during the Nov. 13 attack, said the questions she encountered while on the tour "are not disconnected at all" from the controversies that have dominated headlines at home in recent weeks.

"Before I went, people said, 'I'm really worried for you, I'm going to pray for you.' I told them, 'Pray for all us, honey, because we all live on the same planet.' And this issue is everywhere: the fear, the hatred, the self-limiting narratives. We all have a choice all the time. The main question is not the point we're starting from, but how open we are to letting in the personal story of the person whose tradition is different, whose history is different. How much can we listen to that story?

"We all have the same battle on a small and large scale," she added, "The fear is pervasive, and people are selling it to us."

On the Web: www.compassionatelistening.org

You can reach Richie Davis at: [email protected] or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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