oav Peck was born in the U.S. and grew up in a non-religious American Jewish family on the East Coast. His parents were very committed to helping Israel’s new state as a home for Holocaust refugees. Yoav attended college at UC Berkeley and graduated in 1971 with a BA in Sociology. He was involved in the peace movement to end the war in Vietnam during his time in Berkeley.
Later, at Norwich University in Vermont, he earned an MA in Organizational Psychology. Yoav emigrated to Israel in 1973 and joined a kibbutz where he lived for fifteen years as an active member. He spent his time in the military, like most Israeli people, and was with the Israeli army in 1982 in Lebanon. He vowed to become a different kind of warrior for the cause of peace after completing his active service as a soldier who had witnessed the truth of armed conflict.
What is the idea behind Sulha Peace Project?
“Sulha” is an Arabic word which describes a centuries-old tradition of dispute resolution in Palestinian society. In Hebrew, it also means “reconciliation.” We believe in Sulha that improvement can come from the top and from the bottom. There are political rulers, the press and protests at the top. It’s the work at the bottom, from individuals to individuals. And that’s our work. We assume that any solution for the future of the Middle East would require Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. But on both sides, there is enormous mistrust. Our commitment is to close the gaps between individuals at a person-to-person level through a series of encounters. We want to create trust among individuals whose trust has been shaken by events.
How do you do that?
We discourage political claims and allow individuals to share their experiences of conflict on a personal level. Every six weeks, we put together up to 120 Palestinians and Israelis to spend some informal time together, get to know each other and sit in circles. Whatever brings people closer together, we always share a meal together, we use prayer, music and drumming.
We have a theme we concentrate on each time. We once concentrated on terror and the perception of fear. We focused on gender roles in Palestinian and Israeli society again and divided the community into groups of men and women.
People arrive in the listening circles with whatever reactions they have to what happened that week and also with their long-term resignation to the way things are. We try to break through resignation, to awaken hope and to encourage people to carry on working for peace in their lives, but with the knowledge of being human just as they are on the other side. That’s the gatherings’ impact.
How can listening be a tool of change in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?
Most of us don’t listen to each other for real. Much of the time, just sitting there, managing yourself and worrying about the next clever thing you’re going to say when the other one has done speaking is what people call listening. I’m much busier worrying about how I’m going to win this debate instead of really getting into the other’s skin and seeing what it’s like to be Mahmud. That’s how warriors listen to each other, but that’s not how they make peace. Listening is at the core of our work, truly. The deeper listening experience is about being with individuals entirely while they are talking. I may very strongly disagree with you and yet respect you enough to let you finish what you want to say. It contributes to familiarity and closeness between them as people genuinely listen to each other. The facilitators’ goal is to build a space where individuals feel comfortable enough to share their personal experiences.
To what extent does politics play a role during those circles?
Throughout the circles, the political situation is continuously stated. Throughout the last 50 years, the Israeli occupation has been a fact for the Palestinians. Yet we are leading our participants away from intellectualizing the issue and exploring the political situation’s potential solutions. We really reserve the time to communicate with people-to-people. Palestinian participants often feel annoyed that we’re not talking more about the political situation. But they soon learn what we’re after. If they can find someone to listen to them, everyone has a story and needs to share their story. The older I get the clearer it becomes to me that in the best case scenario, political debate ends with one person believing that he is the winner and the looser the other person is. It doesn’t change anything it divides people, and it makes people resentful.
How do people come to know about the project?
That’s a lot of word-of-mouth. Every time people bring friends from their environment, neighbours or others who have never been exposed to this kind of work. We have a core community of individuals who come every time, but our purpose is to reach out to others who are wary of this kind of work. We still do have a chance to change hearts and minds if we can get them to come.
How is this kind of transformation possible?
Let me share with you a story. I was hospitalised once and the man lying on the hospital bed next to me turned out to be a settler, Yossi. Rejection was my automatic reaction. I assumed we didn’t have much in common. Then Yossi started telling me about his life and it turned out that in a terrorist attack he had lost his parents and siblings. He was on his way into the army.Then I told him about Sulha and about myself. He asked, to my amazement, ‘Why are you not inviting me to one of your gatherings?’ He came at last. We asked Ahmed, one of the Palestinians, to spend some time one-on-one with him. Ahmed had been in Israeli prisons for some time and was still limping from the injuries he had sustained when he was captured. He was very suspicious of speaking to a settler, and Yossi was very reluctant, too. Still he agreed. They were in a deep conversation with one another within ten minutes. They even declined our invitation to take part in the activities because they were just talking, laughing and sharing cigarettes with each other.
We asked the Palestinians to get back on the bus at the start of the evening because they had a deadline to get back to the border roadblocks. Ahmed hugged Yossi and said to him, ‘Listen, you’re going to be a soldier in a couple of months, and you’re going to be standing at the roadblocks and I’m going to be throwing rocks across the road at you guys. Please take care of yourself.’ It was so sad to see that both of them, a future soldier and a potential rock-thrower, feel trapped into their positions. A connection had arisen between them, however and Ahmed was worried that his new friend Yossi would be harmed. It was quite a moment of magic.
Do you sometimes get frustrated that the human connections made in the circles might be crushed by the system?
The true frustration is with the people we don’t have to know. People who have been to one of our meetings carry the message into their lives and share with their families their experiences. In a way that other people are not they are touched. Of course, if we get a hundred people to a meeting every six weeks, we statistically have a very small effect. I’m disappointed with what’s happening to people who have never had this kind of experience. More and more Palestinians are becoming embittered and full of hatred. Israelis are becoming increasingly scared and alienated from the people who live a few miles down the road.
We can just trust that the connections from the circles will ripple out in some way and slowly change something from within. Isn’t that the vision you’re holding?
Yeah. Yes. For example, when the father of someone who has been at a previous gathering shows up and wants to see it for himself, great pleasure comes. We can see the spreading ripples. Just recently, we went to one of the West Bank Palestinian villages, where jam and vegetable spreads are made by a group of women whose husbands are all in prison. They try to make a living and we find ways to help them. It’s not all gatherings and listening circles. These are all our informal contacts with individuals. Typically, when someone is pleased with an encounter they have had, they share it with the people around them. No matter how small the effect is, it’s very rewarding when it happens.
Has your own perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed since you joined Sulha seven years ago?
There is a quote from Gandhi: ‘There is no way to peace, the way is peace.’ Before Sulha, I worked with a hands-on peace group coordinating mass demonstrations. There were a few people in that organisation who were making choices about a lot of other people. It was not genuinely democratic, and from the left there were plenty of manifestations of hate. You can’t be a peace organisation and fight with your own organization’s members and the people on the other side. To convince the other side that in the way that we do that, peace is the way we have to be peaceful. I tried to change things, but I failed, and I left.
I found in Sulha that people were highly responsive to the decision-making process and the manner in which we handled each other in meetings. This includes the refusal on both sides of the border to demonize even the most militant anti-peace forces. When anyone acts with hate, some experience of suffering really covers him. Our job is to be artful enough to get all that hatred underneath the human being. That’s hard work. The Palestinians listened to him with tears in their eyes as Yossi, the settler, shared the trauma of losing his parents to terrorists. They felt deep shame because even though the person was a settler, this could happen to anyone.
Looking at the situation in the Near East, it really seems like it’s going to take a lot of time to transform things. Doesn’t that seem like a never-ending task to you?
Yes. It’s all about building trust. We have a technique that we call the “friendly undermining of your assumptions.” If someone says, ‘The Palestinians all want to drive us into the sea,” as people very often do, then in the course of their discussion, people will repeat that. Maybe we should say to them Do you think this is true for any Palestinian? Do you think that any Palestinian here at this gathering, including the people here would like to throw you into the sea?’ They would be prepared to accept the faulty logic of some of the things they say only after there is enough link to the other person.
This is a long march. In someone’s mind, it can open a small crack. He could go home and tell his friends that he had met a peace activist who was, in fact a good guy and that he wanted to spend more time with him. Maybe he’ll take another step forward to open up his view on things next time. One of the things I ask myself sometimes is ‘What do you want for your kids?’ What you want to do is raise your children and send them into the army for the next war in Gaza? Or is the alternative there? ‘They soften when you speak to people about their kids. They are willing to listen to your stories about your own children, how scary it is to be a combat soldier’s parent. Therefore one move at a time.