Pieces of Peace: My Personal Journey into Israeli-Palestinian Peacebuilding

I must be honest, the timing for this publishing topic is unsettling. The air is thick with tension, grief, and a palpable sense of despair, making me question whether it is appropriate or even sensitive to release a study about peacebuilding during such a tumultuous time. The conflict, so raw and immediate, challenges the very essence of my work, and I found myself grappling with a profound dilemma.

After much contemplation, I realized (with some help) that perhaps there couldn’t be a more relevant time to publish this piece about peace. In moments of heightened conflict and hopelessness, voices of hope and appeasement are needed more than ever. It’s during these times that we must cling to the belief that something other than violence is possible, and that efforts towards understanding and healing are not in vain.

I decided to go ahead with the sharing of the published article, holding onto hope rather than succumbing to despair. It became clear to me that sharing these insights and experiences could offer a glimmer of light in a time of darkness, a reminder that even in the midst of war, there are individuals tirelessly working towards peace and understanding.

So, as you read this, remember that this is more than just an academic study; it’s a testament to the enduring human spirit, a beacon of hope amidst turmoil, and a call to believe in the possibility of bridging divides, even in the most challenging of times.

As I embarked on a journey deep into the heart of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding, I discovered a world where the threads of understanding and reconciliation are delicately woven. This isn’t just a story of conflict resolution; it’s a personal narrative of transformation, set against a backdrop of one of the world’s most enduring conflicts.

A New Perspective

As a secular Belgian Jew who made Israel my home in 2013, my understanding of the conflict was, for the longest time, seen through a singular lens. Growing up, the narrative I was familiar with was one-sided, shaped largely by my community and surroundings. But life has a way of opening doors to new perspectives, and for me, that door was an academic master’s program I followed back in 2015–2017, titled “Society and the Arts.”

This unique program, blending social change theories with artistic practices, placed a significant emphasis on conflict resolution. It was here, in this melting pot of ideas and creativity, that I found myself studying alongside Israeli-Arab peers in Israel. This was a turning point in my life, a moment that brought me face-to-face with narratives vastly different from my own. For the first time, I was exposed to stories and perspectives that were absent from my earlier understanding of the conflict. The program didn’t just offer academic knowledge; it provided a balanced presentation of Israel’s history, something that was new to me. We engaged in open dialogues, which, while challenging, were immensely enriching. These conversations weren’t always easy. They required us to navigate through our biases, confront uncomfortable truths, and listen — really listen — to what the other side had to say.

This journey with my Arab-Israeli classmates was eye-opening. It broadened my awareness beyond the confines of my previous experiences. I began to see the limitations of the narrative I had grown up with. It was like stepping out of a room into the open air — suddenly, there were so many more dimensions, so many more voices and stories that I had never considered before.

This experience transformed more than just my understanding of the conflict; it transformed me. I came to realize that truly comprehending any conflict means recognizing that each story carries its own truths and sorrows. This journey was about sparking my curiosity, a desire to uncover different truths. I began to create space in my understanding, not to dismiss my own narrative, but to weave in others as well. It’s a journey about expanding my horizons, preparing myself to embrace and learn from the diverse stories and experiences that shape this complex conflict. This experience was both painful and relieving, a bittersweet mix of emotions.

Hearts and Minds: the power of transpersonal peacebuilding in action

In my final year of a master’s program in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Transpersonal Psychology at the Alef Trust, I dedicated 2021–2022 to an immersive research project. This endeavour led me into the lives of seven extraordinary individuals: four Israeli Jews and three Palestinians, each bringing their own unique background and story.

My journey through this period was not just academic; it was a deep dive into the personal narratives that define and distinguish each of these remarkable people. Among them were three Israeli Jews, a Muslim Palestinian from Gaza, another from Bethlehem, and a Christian Palestinian from Nazareth. All seven participated in and/or facilitated peacebuilding initiatives. These weren’t ordinary diplomatic efforts; they were profound gatherings rooted in holistic and integrative methods. Holistic methods refer to approaches that consider the whole person — their mind, body, spirit, and background — rather than focusing on just one aspect. It’s about understanding how these different parts connect and affect each other. Integrative methods, on the other hand, involve combining different techniques and practices to create a more comprehensive approach. This means bringing together traditional, modern, and spiritual approaches, to get a more complete picture and effective solution. Here, individuals from both sides of the divide came together not as foes, but as fellow humans on a quest for mutual understanding and healing.

One heart spiritual conference

Through open-hearted dialogues, psychodrama sessions, shared rituals, expressive arts techniques, emotion release, collective meditation, spiritual lectures, and much more, we tapped into a level of consciousness that goes beyond the individual ego. This helped in breaking down barriers and building bridges of understanding and compassion. It’s about seeing and acknowledging each other’s humanity, beyond the layers of conflict and history. These approaches are described as transpersonal approaches to peacebuilding.

Transpersonal approaches to peacebuilding go beyond just tackling the political or social facets of conflict. They involve engaging with the deeper, often unarticulated emotional and spiritual dimensions that are fundamental to human relationships and conflicts. This method provides a more holistic understanding of the issues at hand, addressing not only the visible but also the invisible forces that shape conflicts.

In these transpersonal spaces, Israelis and Palestinians didn’t just talk about peace as a concept; they experienced it as a deeply personal and collective journey. It involved exploring their inner worlds and shared human experiences, transcending the usual narratives of blame and victimhood. This approach allowed for a more profound connection, understanding, and empathy between individuals who have been traditionally seen as enemies, fostering a sense of unity and shared humanity.

This immersive approach was crucial, as it allowed me to experience first-hand the transformative power of these initiatives. The insights I gained were both enlightening and deeply moving. I found that peacebuilding events grounded in transpersonal approaches do more than facilitate dialogue; they require participants to confront and embrace the painful, opposing narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Through these various transpersonal methods, these events nurtured human connections and led to tangible changes in attitudes and perceptions.

Gathering Stories: The Heart of My Research Process

Through this research I sought the most authentic source of knowledge: the first-hand experiences of those who lived it. Through individual interviews, I invited participants to share their personal narratives of attending and/or facilitating transpersonal peacebuilding events between Israelis and Palestinians. This exploration led me to uncover incredible stories of personal transformation, each one a testament to the power of human resilience and understanding. Picture intimate, heartfelt conversations, where each participant had the space to express their experiences in their own words, revealing journeys that are nothing short of inspiring.

Consider the story of Saeed, a Palestinian who has been actively involved with Roots for over six years. His experience is a powerful example of how engaging in peacebuilding efforts can transform one’s personal life. By continuously immersing himself in initiatives bridging Israelis and Palestinians, Saeed found that his connections to ‘the other’ profoundly improved his relationships at home. This newfound connection not only brought him closer to his family and friends but also fostered a deeper understanding and connection with himself. Saeed’s journey illustrates that the impact of peacebuilding extends far beyond the political or ideological — it’s a journey of personal growth and enrichment that permeates every facet of one’s life.

Meet Daniel, an Israeli Jew who has played a pivotal role in facilitating open dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians. Through his work, Daniel has witnessed first-hand the evolution and maturation of these groups during peacebuilding events. He sees transformation as a journey towards maturity, both in how we view ourselves and others. For Daniel, it’s not just about individual growth; it’s about the collective progress of the community. By fostering a deeper understanding of our emotions and thoughts, he believes we can build more profound and meaningful connections with one another. His experience shows how dialogue can lead to personal and communal development, changing perspectives and strengthening bonds.

Azzam’s story is particularly striking. A Palestinian from Gaza, who expressed having experienced profound feelings of non-existence from the other side. His first encounter? A ‘Systemic Constellation’ event via Zoom. Imagine the scene: a first-time meeting, virtual yet so real, where he found himself speaking and thinking in ways he never had before. As I was also participating at this event, I found this to be a particularly powerful moment. It involved role reversal with Azzam.

In this exercise, we stepped into each other’s shoes, attempting to see the world through the other’s eyes. I, as an Israeli, took on a role from the Palestinian perspective, and Azzam did the reverse. This was not just an exercise in empathy; it was a transformative experience that allowed us to break down barriers and truly understand each other’s experiences and emotions. Azzam’s reflection on this exercise was poignant: “To see things from not your eyes, from the eyes of other people. To think not your mind, but of other people’s mind.” This role reversal was a revelation, a moment where the lines of division blurred, and we saw each other not as ‘the other’ but as fellow human beings. Through the power of role reversal, Azzam felt seen and was also able to see the other.

Maayan, an Israeli dream group facilitator, brought a unique flavour to the transpersonal mix. In her joint dream sessions, she helps participants to step into someone else’s dream, as if the whole group had experienced it. Furthermore, she finds deep, universal symbols in each and everyone’s dreams, and connects these symbols to the outside world, letting all the participants link up with them. She explains that these common images free people from both sides from heavy emotions and brings them together, reminding them that, deep down, we’re all human and share so much in common.

Then there’s the remarkable and unconventional tale of a Palestinian man who took part in joint Ayahuasca ceremonies (see table above). While some might view this as controversial, it’s an integral part of the diverse range of transpersonal peacebuilding stories shared between Israelis and Palestinians. He recounted an extraordinary experience of unity, where the typical us-versus-them boundaries faded into a profound moment of connection. In this experience, he saw others not as strangers or opponents, but as reflections of himself, illustrating a deep sense of shared humanity and understanding.

There were many more incredible stories of connections formed between Israelis and Palestinians during these events, with several of these relationships enduring to this day. If you’re curious to learn more, I encourage you to read the full article here. This blog article is merely a brief summary of the original, more detailed account.

The Heart of Transformation: A Journey of humanizing connections

One of the most profound aspects of this journey was the focus on building deep, human connections. It began by establishing trust and intimacy, creating a foundation that allowed us to explore our common humanity. This approach was about more than just discussing the conflict; it was about finding the threads that connect us all — our fears, hopes, and shared experiences. As such, I will never forget during the ‘Together Beyond Words’workshop, standing in front of all the Palestinians whilst admitting to each of them, one-by-one, my fear of them. This was one of the most difficult and liberating exercises I’ve ever done. Difficult because of the vulnerable, painful, and embarrassing content of my words; liberating because of their compassionate and appreciative reaction towards me, despite the weight of the content. This cathartic moment created an energetic field of humanization on both sides.

This brings to mind a conversation I had with a Palestinian man who shared with me: “We are afraid of each other. And I didn’t really understand that they are afraid of us. I was afraid of them, that’s what I know. We don’t meet as normal human beings; we don’t have normal human connections”. This heartfelt admission reveals our often-unrecognized mutual emotions and fears. Becoming aware of these shared feelings has the power to humanize us, bridging the gap created by our fears and opening a path to empathy and understanding. It’s a reminder that beneath the layers of conflict, we share a common human experience.

Dalia is a young Palestinian woman who is an actor in joint playback theatre (see the above table). She explains that joint playback uses humanization as a tool for getting closer to each other. The performances don’t focus much on the conflict, they’re about simple stories from human beings, which helps Israelis and Palestinians to remember that we all have similar stories in our lives, and that makes us first human. She stated: “And I think playback has exactly that purpose. To bring me back to being a human being. That I am a person. A person with a story”.

Another powerful method of fostering humanizing feelings at these peacebuilding events was the shared accommodations between Israelis and Palestinians. Picture this: sharing a room with someone you’ve always feared or viewed as an enemy. Initially, many were hesitant to share their space with ‘the other,’ but this turned out to be a profoundly impactful experience. In the simplicity of sharing intimate moments, like conversations in pyjamas, participants began to see each other as just fellow human beings. This proximity broke down barriers, transforming perceptions and highlighting our shared humanity in the most ordinary of moments.

The use of symbols

The use of symbolic activities also played a crucial role in our journey. For instance, at the Musalaha approach (see above table) the enactment of cross-cultural weddings served as a powerful metaphor for unity and reconciliation. This symbolic activity allowed participants to experience the joy and union of two cultures coming together, transcending the usual boundaries of conflict. Another poignant example was the use of water to represent the tears of those who suffer on both sides. These methods allowed us to communicate in ways that words alone could not capture, deepening our understanding and connection.

The transformations that emerged from these initiatives were both subtle and profound. Participants experienced shifts in their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, leading to increased empathy, open communication, and a reduction in fear and prejudice.

 The acknowledgment of the other’s narrative

As I write this, the stark reality of the ongoing war, with its daily toll of lives lost, casts a shadow of scepticism over any talk of peace and reconciliation. It’s a valid scepticism, one that acknowledges the complexity and depth of the conflict we’re facing. The peacebuilding events I’ve been part of represent a microcosm of hope in a landscape where violence often prevails. It’s important to recognize that these events attract individuals already inclined towards peace, which in itself is a significant but limited step.

The connections formed during these events were genuine and meaningful. Yet, I am acutely aware that the recent escalation in tensions has strained these newfound relationships. It’s a reminder that the path to peace is not linear; it’s fraught with setbacks and challenges. These initiatives, while impactful, are just the beginning — the humanizing step of seeing each other as fellow human beings, not as faceless enemies.

However, there’s a contrast between the small-scale, personal transformations witnessed in these events and the larger, harsher reality outside. This disparity highlights the enormity of the task at hand. Peacebuilding efforts like these are often overshadowed by the prevailing narratives of conflict and aggression, with mainstream media seldom shedding light on these pockets of peace and understanding.

A crucial aspect of these peacebuilding efforts, and perhaps the most challenging, is the acknowledgment of the other’s narrative. It’s a fundamental step, yet often misunderstood. Acknowledging another’s narrative doesn’t mean negating or diminishing our own. It’s about recognizing that multiple narratives can, and do, coexist. This is not about agreeing with the other side or abandoning our truths; it’s about accepting the complexity of our shared reality. It’s a tension that’s difficult to hold but essential for any genuine attempt at reconciliation.

The current war, as horrific as it is, underscores the need for greater awareness of these peacebuilding initiatives. People need to know that amidst the chaos and violence, there are efforts being made to bridge divides, to understand and acknowledge each other’s narratives. It’s about planting seeds of empathy and understanding in a soil that has been barren for too long.

Conclusion: alternative stories of hope and connection

In conclusion, while these peacebuilding events may not resolve the conflict, they represent a vital first step in the long journey towards peace. They remind us that amidst the overwhelming narrative of war, there are alternative stories of hope and connection. It’s a challenging path, but one that must be pursued with resilience and an unwavering belief in the possibility of a shared future.

My research study, exploring the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding through a transpersonal lens, has been recognized and published in the Alef Trust Journal of Consciousness, Spirituality, and Transpersonal Psychology. This journal is well-known for its dedication to examining the deeper dimensions of human consciousness and transformative practices. It provides an ideal platform for my work, resonating with its core themes of spirituality, consciousness, and transpersonal psychology. For those interested in a more comprehensive understanding of my study, you can access my research study here.

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