Bereaved Parents Wage Peace

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great privilege of being part of a group that hosted the Parents Circle Families Forum during which 3 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents gave a moving presentation about the personal losses of their children and how that motivated them to fight for a just and peaceful resolution of the longstanding conflict between their peoples. My role was as Chair of J Street Madison and President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, both of which served as co-sponsors along with other churches and peace groups.

The presentation started with a moving video, Taking Steps (click here to watch). Then Israeli Rami Elhanan described his own background: his grandparents died in the Holocaust, his father escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel and Rami fought in the Yom Kippur war.

christinesmadar

Then, one day, in 1997, everything changed. His 14 year old daughter, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. While he could have succumbed to anger and hatred, he made a very different and profound decision to use the power of his pain to bring light and hope to others seeking peace in his troubled nation. Rami stated quite eloquently that despite his personal tragedy and the tragedy of so many other families who have been scarred by losing an innocent child to senseless violence, he insists that,

We are not doomed.

img_3185

Israeli father Rami Elhanan speaking with Najwa and George Sa’adeh in the background

Rami used the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank as a metaphor as he believes that the Parents Circle helps to create cracks in the wall and through those cracks, each side can see each other and begin to break down the wall and create peace. As he put it, “our blood is the same color, our tears are made of the same salt water.” As Rami introduced the next speaker, Palestinian George Sa’adeh, he called him his brother.

George’s great-grandfather was the Mayor of Bethlehem in 1860 and his family has resided in Bethlehem for many generations. His dream was to work in the aerospace industry, but since Israeli security will not allow Palestinians to work in that field, George studied aerospace engineering at UCLA. However, when he returned to Bethlehem, he was only permitted to work as a mechanical engineer.

img_3188

Palestinian father George Sa’adeh

One tragic day in 2003, his family was driving in Bethlehem. George noticed the streets were empty, except for Israeli army jeeps, though he did not know why. All of a sudden, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting approximately 300 bullets into his vehicle, striking George, his wife Najwa and both of his daughters. His 14 year old daughter Christine was killed in the gunfire. George, Najwa and their other daughter survived after surgery and hospitalization.

Approximately 50,000 people attended Christine’s funeral, the biggest ever in Bethlehem, but like Rami, after all those giving condolences were gone, George had to decide what to do with his grief. Like Rami, he chose the path of peace. He believes the region needs strong leaders who will work for peace, justice and human rights, instead of waging war against each other with hundreds of innocent victims. Profoundly, George stated that he and his wife forgive the soldiers who shot them and killed their daughter, as they have no hatred, because, “hatred will kill us.

The Parents Circle is a unique group as it is probably the only membership group that wants no more members. Rather, they have decided that,

from our pain, we make peace.

Finally, Najwa Sa’adeh spoke of her love for her daughter, Christine, who spoke of her  impending death during the year before she died, which puzzled her parents as she was a happy child who only wanted to help others. In fact, she told her parents that when she died, she believed she would be famous. So, now Najwa and George share her story so others can, “feel with us.”

img_3189

Najwa Sa’adeh

In addition to sharing their stories and demonstrating that despite the greatest loss, they can work side by side for peace, the Parents Circle does a lot to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, from summer camps to professional interest groups. They had received funding from the USAID and the European Union, but that dried up after the most recent so-called knife intifada. In fact, President Obama mentioned the Parents Circle in his speech to the Egyptian people in Cairo, as the only group that gave hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When they took questions, someone asked about whether they support a particular territorial solution. Rami made it quite clear that the number of states is irrelevant. As he said, “nothing is sacred about a state. The key is respect.”

Rami closed with the following profound and moving statements:

We must work together, not alone.

We are  working for the security of our children.

You cannot clap with one hand (an Arabic saying).

You cannot make peace with yourself

We demand that you work for peace and justice.

It is people like these who will overcome power hungry leaders and bring peace to their peoples. After their talk, I let Rami, George & Najwa know that my son was returning to Israel that day to begin his sophomore year at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), and that he does what he can to meet those working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All 3 of them let me know that my son is welcome in their homes and when we visit him next year, we are also welcome. I look forward to visiting them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and continuing to help them break down barriers and work for peace and justice.

If you want to contribute to their work, you can go to this link.

_________________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Advertisements

My Congressman in Palestine

Cong. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) is a progressive leader whom I have known since before he was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1998. I have had the pleasure of meeting with him many times and he is always eager to learn from whomever he meets.

Recently, his local Chief of Staff reached out to invite me to attend a talk Cong. Pocan was giving in Madison to share what he learned from his trip to Palestinian territories this past June. Fortunately, my calendar was clear and earlier today, I attended his very interesting presentation.

20160823_113553

Cong. Mark Pocan talking about his recent trip to the Palestinian territories.

Cong. Pocan has had a human rights lens to his world view dating back to his visits to Madison sister cities in Colombia and El Salvador when he served on the Dane County Board 25 years ago. As such, although he entered Congress with little knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he was eager to learn and see what he could do to promote peace in the region. Although he had traveled to Israel on previous Congressional delegations, he wanted to visit the Palestinian territories and meet with their leaders and citizens. An opportunity arose when the Humpty Dumpty Institute (which seeks to put the pieces back together in broken situations), sponsored a trip for him and a few other progressive colleagues in Congress to see what was really going on in the Palestinian territories. It was the first Congressional delegation to Palestine.

Cong. Pocan met with the US consul to Palestine, had lunch with Israeli Arab members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), met with Palestinian youth and students, as well as leaders including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat. He visited E. Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem and candidly admitted that he is still learning about this complex situation and does not claim to be an expert.

During his talk, Cong. Pocan made it quite clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman are obstacles to peace. He reminded everyone of Netanyahu’s snub of President Obama when he refused to meet with him but created a political commercial for himself when he spoke to Congress. Cong. Pocan refused to attend that talk along with 60 other members of Congress.

Rep. Pocan also reminded the audience of the tremendous blow back that he and other members of Congress took for supporting the Iran nuclear agreement. He singled out Sec. Clinton for her strong effort to sway Congress to support it.

Pocan noted that continued Israeli settlement expansion violates any meaningful effort towards achieving a peaceful 2 state solution. Daily checkpoints along the barrier wall which Israel has erected, manned by young Israeli soldiers makes life difficult for both sides.

When the delegation went to Hebron, they saw the inequity between Israel’s protection of approximately 800 settlers in a Palestinian city of 270,000.  He noted that many settlers are actually American citizens. While the delegation was able to see whatever they wanted in the West Bank, visiting Gaza was another matter altogether.

They were told by both the Israeli and the U.S. government that it was unsafe to go to Gaza. However, that did not deter Cong. Pocan, as he heard the same things when he went to Colombia and El Salvador in the 90s, and in fact, was held captive for 5 days by Colombian rebels during one visit. His delegation had arranged for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to escort them through Gaza. Unfortunately, however, the Israeli government refused to let the delegation enter Gaza. Cong. Pocan hopes to visit Gaza in the future and he said that J Street has agreed to help sponsor another Congressional trip there.

While Cong. Pocan noted the Israeli government’s obstacles to achieving a peaceful resolution, he also noted that Gaza has no effective government and that Palestinian students are dismayed with the Palestinian Authority as it has made no progress in achieving statehood. He mentioned that students at Bir Zeit University recently voted to support Hamas and now support a 1 state solution.

Cong. Pocan will continue to encourage President Obama to set forth the groundwork for peace before he leaves office. He pledges to push the next President to work hard to achieve peace and believes that a multi-national effort is needed. He looks forward to bringing his views to the floor of Congress in September. He believes that real people, not politicians, want peace in both Israel and Palestine and to support those people, he wants the US to support human rights in the region.

In conclusion, Cong. Pocan  made clear that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the strongest blow back that we can make against ISIS, which uses the Palestinian struggle for statehood as a recruiting tool. As Chair of J Street Madison, I look forward to continuing to work with Cong. Pocan to help his effort to achieve a peaceful 2 state solution.

_________________________________________________________________
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Insight not Incite

Last night, I had the pleasure of engaging in dialogue with fellow leaders in the Madison Jewish community about the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I was reminded once again why it is so important to create safe space for meaningful dialogue.  This was the 3rd monthly session this year, with monthly dialogue sessions to continue throughout the year. Dates and registration information are available herecover_image_for_constant_contact_e

At the outset of last night’s session, our facilitator reminded the participants that through dialogue, our goal was to gain insight and not to incite, which felt highly appropriate given the inflammatory nature of so much that is said about this conflict, and about those who are trying so hard to solve it.

Earlier this week, I attended the 5th J Street Conference in Washington, DC. Together with over 3000 pro-peace, pro-democracy, pro-Israel attendees, including over 1000 college students, I gained tremendous insight about both the challenges and opportunities for peace.

The challenges, of course, include Prime Minister Netanyahu’s renouncement of a two-state solution (which he later backtracked on after securing his election victory) as well as deep fractures within Palestinian leadership. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 13 minute mark). But despite these challenges, opportunities abound, and were demonstrated profoundly in a few ways at the conference.

First, during Monday afternoon’s plenary session, two remarkable things happened.  As was well covered in the media worldwide, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, made clear that the United States friendship with Israel remains strong.  But, he also made clear that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories must end in order maintain the viability of  Israel as the secure, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. He received multiple standing ovations from the crowd. (A web cast of this session is available here.  Start watching at the 44 minute mark).

Later in that same plenary, Hilik Bar, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, sat side by side with Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s Chief negotiator.  They both spoke of their mutual desire to achieve a peaceful two state solution. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 2:05 hour:minute mark). These 2 statesmen continued their conversation during a packed workshop, during which it was clear that while they did not agree on everything, they did agree on the fundamental need to establish a Palestinian state for each nation’s mutual security. I would like to see them go on a world-wide Partners for Peace tour.

That evening, at dinner, former Secretary of State James Baker reaffirmed the longstanding bi-partisan support for Israel and for a 2 state solution.  He went on to support President Obama’s efforts to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran and chided those in Congress who have attempted to scuttle those sensitive negotiations. He reminded the audience that American opposition to Israel’s expanded settlement occupation of the West Bank has also been bi-partisan.  Indeed, when he was Secretary of State under the first President Bush, the United States withheld $10 million in loan guarantees to Israel when then Prime Minister Shamir insisted on expanding those settlements over US opposition. He added that Shamir’s actions were followed by his election defeat and the election of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 41 minute mark). Witnessing the staunch Republican Baker essentially agreeing with President Obama’s Chief of Staff made clear that these positions are indeed bi-partisan.

Yet, despite the ability of Republican and Democrat, Israeli and Palestinian to find ample room for agreement, journalists like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin choose to incite by describing J Street as “anti-Israel” when she blasted McDonough’s speech at the conference. Worse yet, conservative talk show host, Mark Levin, fueled more incite when slamming Sec. Baker’s J Street speech, described J Street as a “left wing hate group.”

As Chair of J Street Madison, with family and friends in Israel, I can assure you that my work with J Street is premised on both my love for Israel and J Street’s support for Israel’s long-term viability as the peaceful, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. Hate? I saw no hate at the J Street conference.  Only insight on how to solve the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

coexist

________________________________________________________________

For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

When Right and Wrong are not the Answer

As I watch with dismay the deteriorating situation in Gaza and Israel, I am further dismayed by the deteriorating level of discourse between those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians.  As one author recently wrote:

there’s also an especially pernicious kind of tribalism that pervades the Israel-Palestine debate within the US-one that turns issues of fact into tests that determine whether or not you’re the right kind of person.

I have watched this kind of debate play out in my nearly 3 decades as a systems change civil rights attorney where one or both sides in litigation is more interested in vilifying the other side and making it pronounce its mea culpas than it is in resolving the dispute at hand.  In these cases, I need to remind my clients that civilized systems of justice were developed to replace vigilante justice and that they should keep their eye on the prize of solving the problem at hand rather than securing their pound of flesh. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Jewish.  I made my first visit to Israel in 1976, volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Gev (pictured below on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights which prior to 1967 allowed Syrians to literally drop bombs from the hill above it on the kibbutz below) working side-by-side with Israeli Jews and Arabs and non-Jewish volunteers from around the world during the winter of 1979-80, and have returned many times since to visit family and friends and attend 2 cousins’ weddings.

images

I am also the Vice-President and one of the founding members of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and the chair of J Street‘s Madison chapter.  With both of these hats on, I have successfully helped to create safe space for meaningful dialogue in my community about this issue and continue to work to expand that dialogue.

But despite my efforts and those of many other peace loving individuals around the world, the debate remains largely unproductive at best and vicious at worst while Israel and Hamas continue to lob bombs at each other.  Historians and diplomats may one day be able to judge why this battle has remained so pernicious for so long but one thing remains clear: peace will not come to Israel and the Palestinians because one side convinces the other side that its version of history is right and its opponent’s version is wrong.

Indeed, perhaps because both sides insist that the other side capitulate to its version of history, the battle rages on.  The question, then, is how can this vicious cycle end?  After all, the killing and recrimination has gone on for decades and no solution seems at hand.

So, too, was the situation in Northern Ireland for decades where religious and nationalist warfare raged for decades killing thousands of people.  Ultimately, it was civilian mothers who founded the Community of Peace People in 1976 ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to the decades known as the “Troubles.” One thing worth noting is though the ongoing terrorism in Northern Ireland has ended, not all the conflict is over.  But despite the remaining disputes, overall peace presides in this once troubled land with significant economic benefit to the people in the region.

Resolving the Troubles in Northern Ireland did not resolve the historical debate over who was right and who was wrong.  Nor did it make Catholics & Protestants all love and forgive each other. So, too, peace will only come between Israel and the Palestinians when their people demand it from their leaders and both sides let go of insisting that they are right and the other side is wrong.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Creating Safe Space for Meaningful Dialogue

Sadly, we now live in a world in which those who engage in political debate often spend more time shouting at each other and insulting opposing views and opponents, than actually listening to and learning from each other.  In the American Jewish community, this lack of meaningful dialogue is particularly acute when the topic is Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. This problem has erupted in a major way in many college campus Hillel chapters.  At the University of California-Berkeley, the Jewish Student Union recently voted to deny membership to J Street U, marking a low point in refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Jews about Israel and its conflict with Palestinians.  However, not all Hillel chapters have been so closed minded.  Indeed, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel recently welcomed the establishment of a J Street U chapter.

Fortunately, there is an organization which is dedicated to providing a safe forum for Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians. The Jewish Dialogue Group trains facilitators to convene groups of Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians.  It has no agenda to sway participants to one point of view or another.  Rather, its agenda is allow Jews to understand each other better and to learn from each other.  To that end it has published a Manual for Facilitators, Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which you can read and download for free, or purchase a printed copy. It has also recently published a, Guidebook for Deliberation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is also available as to read or download for free, or for purchase in print.

Image

Last year, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, convened a number of facilitated Jewish Dialogue sessions, and I was pleased to be able to attend one of them. The session provided what it promised, a safe and meaningful dialogue where participants not only learned each other’s views, but of equal importance, learned more about their own true feelings because they were able to express them safely in ways that may not have been available to them in the past.

Based on the success of my own congregation’s dialogue sessions, last fall, I made the decision to try to broaden Jewish Dialogue in Madison to the entire Jewish community.  I felt that the best way to do so was to obtain co-sponsorship of all the major Jewish organizations in Madison.  I am pleased to report that after many discussions, the Jewish Federation of Madison, UW-Hillel, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, have all agreed to join Shaarei Shamayim in co-sponsoring 3 Jewish Dialogue sessions in late April and early May.

The sessions are free, but in order to participate, one must register by April 1st. So, if you are Jewish and you live in the Madison area and can attend a Jewish Dialogue session on April 23, April 30, or May 1st, please register by April 1st.  I assure you that if you participate, you will grow from the experience and learn important skills about how to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue, something our world sorely needs at present.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Systems Change Advocacy: The Personal Touch

Earlier this year, I published, How Systems Change Happens.  While I still consider that important advice for conducting effective systems change advocacy, earlier this week, I realized that I left out one critical element which is especially important to systems change advocates working on a tight budget: The Personal Touch.

One should never underestimate the importance of connecting with legislators or other important decision makers on a personal level.  Although they may hold lofty offices, they are still human beings with thoughts and feelings just like all of us. Moreover, just like everyone else, they are more likely to respond favorably to people with whom they have a positive personal connection.

Earlier this week, in four different ways, I experienced how my personal connections with members of Congress, helped improve my advocacy for Middle East peace on behalf of J Street.

  • During my meeting with Cong. Mark Pocan, I was able to open up the meeting with friendly references to the fact that our dogs do not get along and we kidded each other about whether one of our dogs belonged to the other party.  While this may seem trivial, these are the types of connections that helped me convince him over 12 years ago when he was a member of the Wisconsin Assembly to be the first and only sponsor of our bill to eliminate the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on school children.  His brave act led to the bill’s passage 12 years later as I previously described in my post on:  Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children.
  • Next, I met with Cong. Gwen Moore, whom I have known since early in my career when I was engaged in advocacy on behalf of the elderly and she was in the Wisconsin legislature.  Our personal connection became quite clear when rather than the standard handshake, she gave me a big hug when she greeted me.  Not only is she a strong J Street supporter, but she agreed to work with me on creating dialogue between J Street and black pastors in Milwaukee.
  • J Street next scheduled a meeting for me with Cong. William Lacy Clay.  In this case, since he is from St. Louis, I reached out to my in-laws from St. Louis to see if they knew anything about him that would provide me with that critical personal touch in our meeting.  As fate would have it, my father-in-law e-mailed me right before the meeting to inform me that he used to rent his vacation house to Cong. Clay’s family.  During introductions, I brought that up, which brought out a big smile from Cong. Clay and eased us into a very successful meeting.
  • Finally, I met with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whom I have known since she was in law school and applied for a job where I then worked at the Center for Public Representation.  We didn’t hire her because we rightly knew that she was destined for a career in politics, but I wisely maintained a personal connection with her during her years in the Wisconsin Assembly, followed by her years in the US House of Representatives.  With pleasure, I received my second Congressional hug of the day from Sen. Baldwin, and I was able to thank her for signing an important letter to President Obama, encouraged by J Street and signed by 27 Senators calling for a “Sustained, US Diplomatic Initiative” for Two-State Solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Personal connections with key decision makers must be earned, but the work is worthwhile as those connections make a difference, especially for non-profits going up against well financed opponents when trying to engage in systems change.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.