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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Getting to Yes in the 21st Century

In their seminal book, Getting to Yes, originally published in 1981, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s subtitle, Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, only begins to describe how this fairly short 200 page book, gives valuable lessons on the art of negotiating Win-Win solutions, instead the more commonly experienced Win-Lose, or worse yet, Lose-Lose solutions.  These lessons are needed today more than ever before.

As I previously described in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our political environment is poisoned by politicians and their funders who believe that their sole goal is to obtain or retain the political majority.  Sadly, the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass the mildest of gun control reforms when it allowed a minority of Senators to block the background checks that roughly 90% of Americans want, demonstrated that the desire to obtain a Win-Win solution was unable to carry the day in the face of the NRA’s desire to “win” at all costs.

While there are numerous other examples of the failure of our political leaders to obtain palatable outcomes on the important issues of our day, rather than point fingers and accuse one side or the other of their responsibility for this miserable failure of leadership, the lessons taught so well in Getting to Yes need revisiting in order to change the unfortunate dynamic we are currently experiencing.

Fisher and Ury explain that we all negotiate on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.  We negotiate with our families, our co-workers, those with whom we do business, as well as in the legal and political arenas.  While it may feel good to “win” when one negotiates, the long term outcome of having someone you deal with on a regular basis “lose” the negotiation, may not be worth it in the end.

I regularly explain this to parents of children with disabilities, whom I represent, when they want to “win” their legal claim against a wrongdoing school district, but may end up destroying relationships with the very educators whom they need to provide a quality education to their children.  Thus, I regularly remind them to “keep their eye on the prize,” which is the quality education they seek for their children, and not the pound of flesh which their anger may cause them to desire.

Many people who are in the midst of a dispute assume that there will always be a winner and a loser when the dispute is resolved.  This assumption is patently false, as there are two other possible outcomes:

  1. Neither side wins because the dispute remains unresolved (e.g., Israel and Palestine); and
  2. Both sides lose because though the dispute is resolved, neither side is happy with the outcome (e.g., a lawsuit results in a Pyrrhic victory for one side because that side obtains a fraction of what it sought and spent more money on attorneys than it gained through the resolved dispute).

So, how do Fisher & Ury suggest obtaining Win-Win solutions?  They do so by focusing on five key elements of principled negotiations:

  • “Separate the people from the problem.”  In other words,  the goal in negotiating should not be beating the other side.  It should be solving the problem at hand. Successful negotiation should not be considered the equivalent of a competitive sport if the parties are truly interested in solving the problem.
  • “Focus on interests, not positions.”  In the special education advocacy example mentioned earlier, the parents’ interest is in getting their children a quality education, not in having a judge rule in their favor to prove to the school district that they were right.
  • “Invent options for mutual gain.”  This is where win-win negotiating really becomes an art form.  Creative negotiators seek opportunities where both sides can gain from the outcome.  For example, when a school is dealing with a difficult behavioral situation, the win-lose situation is the child either stays in school with continued misbehavior, or the child is expelled, relieving the school from having to deal with the child, but putting the child on the Schools to Prison Pipeline.  The win-win solution involves bringing in a behavioral expert to observe the child in school and to provide sound suggestions to educators on how to improve teaching techniques and behavioral interventions to teach the child appropriate behaviors.
  • “Insist on using objective criteria.”  All too often, negotiation takes place on emotional terms or even outright falsehoods.  We saw this in the recent background check debate where the opponents to background checks simply lied about the bill before the Senate by raising false fears that the bill would prevent sales between family members.  No problems are successfully resolved by relying on falsehoods or emotions alone.
  • “Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)”  On a regular basis, I must counsel clients on what the likely outcome is if they fail to come to a negotiated agreement.  Without knowing this, the client (or politician) cannot truly make an informed decision as to whether to accept the offer presented.

This is not to suggest that Getting to Yes is easy.  In fact, it takes hard work, checking egos at the door, and regular reminders of what you are really seeking in the midst of your negotiation.  For nearly 28 years, I have had the professional privilege of assisting clients, non-profits and policymakers negotiate Win-Win solutions with the assistance of Getting to Yes principles.  Perhaps it is time for our political leaders to read and follow the rules of this invaluable book.


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.