Working for Reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians: The Example of Friendship Across Borders

Hanns Maull

Dr. Hanns Maull is a former Professor of International Relations at the University of Trier

Working for reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians is arduous but rewarding—it keeps providing glimmers of hope in a situation that often seems beyond hopeless politically, motivating us to persevere. But how can it be done? Friendship Across Borders works for reconciliation in small groups of Israelis, Palestinians, and Germans in intensive seminars that try to deal with, and help heal, the collective traumas that tie the three nations—Israeli Jews, Palestinians, and Germans—together in one huge knot of suffering and victimization. We are a small NGO, registered in Germany as a nonprofit organization, but with a tripartite membership, and we try to find the money to organize at least one, sometimes two, tripartite seminars a year.

My own experience with this work by FAB includes three such seminars: one in Germany in 2013 and two in Talitha Kumi near Bethlehem in 2014 and, most recently, in July of this year. When we met three years ago, the war in Gaza had just broken out; we could hear it rumbling faintly in the distance. One Palestinian member of our group told us he just had lost five relatives in Gaza to an Israeli air strike, among them three small children; he did not even dare to tell his own children that he would meet with Israelis in Talitha Kumi. That wonderful meeting place, which is run by the German Lutheran church and usually bristled with activities, then was all but deserted: most dialogue activities between Israelis and Palestinians had been cancelled. I still remember this seminar vividly, and when I travelled to Talitha Kumi this time, I must confess I was a bit skeptical whether the deep experience we achieved then could be re-created. The seminar in 2014 had gone through two serious crises, and we came close to ending it prematurely, as the war rumbled on in the background and fear intruded and spread. Yet we persevered, and in the end we arrived at reconciliation: a deep sense of peace, security, and mutual trust. Israelis and Palestinians alike felt in a safe place, protected and at peace despite what was happening only a few dozen kilometers away from where we were.

Björn Krondorfer, the German-American Director of the Martin-Springer Institute and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Northern Arizona who moderated both seminars, describes this experience as a state of “unsettling empathy”: “empathy” refers to the appreciation and deeply shared sense of the emotional personal experiences of loss, sadness, suffering, and anger that surface in our work; “unsettling” refers to the fact that this state is apt to challenge our deeply held convictions.

This state of unsettling empathy will inevitably dissipate even while the group is still together, and some participants will lose all traces of it when they return to their respective communities and daily lives, falling back into their comfortable preconceived notions of right and wrong. Yet for others, this experience of unsettling empathy will profoundly change their whole outlook and their very lives. Thus, several activists from both Israeli and Palestinian members of “Combatants for Peace” (now shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize) participated in previous FAB seminars.

This time, the group in Talitha Kumi consisted of four Israelis, six Palestinians, and eight Germans, from their early twenties into the late sixties, some with experience in previous FAB seminars, others newcomers. As it turned out, I was far from alone with my skepticism: several others, in particular Palestinians, but also Germans, came with their own reservations about the seminar and its ambitions. They found the first two days tough going. In our work in the whole group, or in smaller groups, reasoning prevailed over listening and empathizing, we repeatedly stumbled into discussions about historical rights and wrongs, and there was palpable resistance to opening up all around.

On the morning of the third day, news reached us about an attack by three Palestinians on the entrance to the Holy sites on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the Holy Sanctuary. The attackers killed two Israeli Druze policemen, and were then shot and killed themselves.  Once more, we were confronted with the deadly realities of the conflict outside; once more, that helped concentrate minds and move on from there to where we wanted to go. To get there, it is necessary to open up and expose ourselves as human beings, with our vulnerabilities and flaws, our emotional baggage and our conflicted personal histories. Once that happens, reasoned arguments lose their importance, and empathy wells up.

On this third day of the seminar, and into the following day, Björn Krondorfer made us work with a powerful technique called “living sculpture.” This technique consists of breaking into smaller groups of six to eight participants around themes (in this seminar, the themes were “dignity,” humiliation,” and “fear”), which then have to work out how they can assemble themselves into a “living sculpture” that represents the theme in ways that one could envisage, as a sculpture, in a public place. Each group “performs” its living sculpture without giving explanations; the other two groups share their impressions and reactions with the performing group, which in turn reflects on their own emotional responses to their performance and the reactions it solicited. In the evening of the third day, in the context of this work, the whole group listened to a deeply moving, impassioned, and earnest exchange between two of our initially skeptical Palestinian participants .They, and we all, had arrived at where Björn wanted to lead us: unsettling empathy.

We left in the afternoon of the following day; there was no skepticism anymore, only a deep sense of gratitude for the shared experience and the bonds created by it between the participants. One of the Israeli members of the group later wrote this about his experience:

“For me the Fab seminar was an extremely important experience. I have tens of little stories of things that were said and that happened that made a profound impression upon me. All told, I have been on a journey of pulling my head out of the sand for the past 3 1/2 years, and this seminar was a very meaningful way station in this journey. I live in my own closed Israeli society with so many different unacknowledged prejudices and blind spots. It will take a life time of work to find them all out, to overcome them and not to revert back to them during trying times. This seminar made a really deep impression on me as part of this continuing life long process.”

The seminar also confirmed, I think to all of us, the continuing relevance of our specific tripartite format. Not only are the Germans at the heart of the Jewish national trauma and therefore intertwined with the collective traumas of both peoples that today live and struggle in Palestine, the Holocaust, and al-Naqba, the catastrophic displacement of Palestinians in the war of 1948. Their presence in those settings also allows for what Björn Krondorfer calls “triangulation”: breaking up a polarized conflict through introducing a third party as a catalyst.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.