compassion and conflicts

The Palestinian village Jalud. We are surrounded by agricultural fields whose earth is rich brown and thick with last week's rain. The sky is so huge it easily contains the heavy clouds that are gathering. There is chatter and a lot of shining, happy faces. For the past hour we have been planting olive saplings in a field at the edge of the land belonging to the village. On the hill above us is an Israeli settlement and due to that proximity the Palestinian farmers weren't able to access their land for some time. I and a group of 10 Israeli Engaged Dharma practitioners were invited by the local farmers for this action which is needed both for livelihood as well as symbolic resistance. We are the only Israelis present and know that in case of confrontation our presence can serve as protection against violence from the army or settlers. But right now we are all united by the happiness of sweating bodies, soiled hands, the sight of the saplings just planted and the freshness of the air.

We are nearly done when two army jeeps arrive and soldiers jump out of them. They are holding batons and the body language of some of them clearly indicates a desire to use them. An officer orders us to leave or else…

The Palestinians can stand up for themselves: One of them protests this order. In reply the officer says that in a few minutes they will start to arrest us. The atmosphere gets tenser. I step in and tell the officer: "We are nearly done. You can either allow us a few more minutes to plant the remaining saplings or attack and arrest us. This will be a nuisance for you and reach the media". The officer decides to let a few Palestinians stay and finish planting but demands that the rest of us leave the place. The Palestinians decide to accept this.

Gradually we can relax again. We can even be happy: We were able to defy this unjust reality as well as avoid violence. A couple of hours later we bid farewell to our hosts and there is mutual appreciation of this new partnership.

One of the unique aspects of the way our group does things is that we always make sure to take time for reflection and sharing. This is one of the things that distinguishes our work from that of other peace groups. Time and again we find that stopping, looking inside and expressing what we see there is very valuable in terms of respecting our experience, gaining insight and offering mutual support. On the way back from the village we stop and do this. Contrary to the apparent success of the day it turns out that for most of the group this was a difficult and shaking experience. For more than half of us this was the first time to take part in such a confrontation. People describe the fear they felt and the distress at feeling paralyzed and unable to contribute. We take time to listen to each other and to offer reassurance. There are no "shoulds" in activism. If anything then we should be true to what we feel – not deny nor judge it. Allowing ourselves the freedom to be afraid and inadequate is an important step on the way to act freely in face of a challenging confrontation.

A year later in the village of Deir Istiya I am engaged in a totally different kind of activity. I asked two Tovana Sangha members who are also physiotherapists to come with me and visit a 30 years old crippled woman. Not able to stand or walk on her own she lives in her parents' house and lies in one spot for hours. Her elderly mother needs to lift and carry her from place to place, including when visiting the toilet. Tomer and Yifat slowly make friends with Lina. Needing translation, language is somewhat of a barrier. But then Tomer takes Lina's hand and many barriers melt away. His voice becomes sweet and soft and she blushes and giggles. He touches, checks, manipulates her limbs and she chatters, instructs, demands. I watch transfixed. Lina's mother is moved to tears. I can only guess what it is for a mother to hold the suffering of her daughter and then unexpectedly have some hope. If this is not moving enough, there is also the recognition that Palestinians and Jews are intimately touching each other, engaging in a process of healing.

Unfortunately Tomer doesn't think that rehabilitation is possible. But our visit was important. Tomer manages to understand why the wheelchair Lina has is so painful for her that she refuses to use it. We should buy her an adjusted wheelchair. For Yifat this was the first time in a Palestinian village, not to mention, first time in a Palestinian family's home. She is deeply touched. After we depart she meets with her parents and their close friends and tells them what she has been doing an hour earlier. One of the friends becomes very angry. She attacks Yifat vehemently for being an "Arab lover" and accuses her of not caring about Jewish suffering. Yifat tries to explain but the woman only gets angrier.

So Yifat listens. She listens to the woman and can see her conditioning as well as her suffering. She also listens inside and comes in touch with a deep sadness. Thus instead of aggravating the situation she can be present with compassion for herself, her parents and for the angry friend. Then she apologizes and leaves.

These two stories from our Engaged Dharma peace work, are very telling. They demonstrate how skillful we Dharma practitioners are at touching the humanness of ourselves and others: creating strong bonds as well as being able to be present with pain. They demonstrate how less skilled we are when we are called for actions of resistance and need to confront aggression. But perhaps most importantly these stories demonstrate how the separation between compassion and confrontation is an illusion as one easily and naturally leads to the other.

Willing to enter confrontation requires that we deeply respect the emotional life and constantly devote energy to heal ourselves and our friends from the poisons of greed, hatred, ignorance (and fear) that confrontation can easily feed. On the other hand wishing to bring softness and heartfullness in order to heal or bridge the abyss of hatred between Jews and Palestinians will sooner or later bring us face to face with the people and social structures which oppress and violate the rights of the people we created intimacy and comradeship with.

What is the middle-way in which healing and fraternity coexist with resistance and struggle? In which introspection and acceptance fit harmoniously with determined action for change? Understanding deeply the roots of Dukha and the treasures of Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upeka, Dharma practitioners can have a unique and invaluable role in transforming the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. And as we are less adept at struggle and resistance our engagement with putting an end to this violence also poses a great challenge for us. Therefore it can be a deep spiritual practice: Once you witness how your new friends' lives are being disrupted, understand that your government is lying to you and experience for yourself how it is to be in danger of being harmed, the practices of non-violence, undoing conditioning, manifesting right effort, accepting what is, expressing inter-connectedness etc. are seen in a very different light.

It is not a small thing to choose to accept this challenge and move away from our comfort zone. I have deep appreciation and gratitude for my Dharma brothers and sisters who choose to come in direct contact with these expressions of Dukha. At the end of a recent activity in Deir Istiya which included no confrontation and was seemingly pleasant, one of our activists said: "I have been today to a prison. I move freely inside that prison and can enter and leave it as I wish. But the people we visited can not".

In wishing to transform society there is much need for a supporting community. Devoted and skilful activists can not do much without the sympathy and actual support of a larger community. As Dharma practitioners we know well the power of Sangha. As Dharma inspired activists we are privileged to have access to this rare and valuable resource. We have received the support of our Sangha in a variety of ways.

At different instances when we called for assistance there was a huge response, as in when we launched a campaign calling for Israeli restraint in the face of anticipated Palestinian mass demonstrations. At other times it was the special skills of individual practitioners that we could benefit from, as in when we organized a day of (alternative) medical treatments for the people of Deir Istiya.

Being part of a Sangha we see ourselves as a gateway for people to become involved. On most of our activities we are joined by new comers who explicitly say that it is thanks for the Dharma context that they decided to join. And a lot of them come again. We also make sure that our experiences reach back to our communities and thus raise the awareness of a bigger circle. One of the difficulties that peace activists in Israel face is the suspicion and alienation of the mainstream public towards them. We share the common language of Dharma and enjoy mutual trust with our fellow practitioners. This helps us enormously when we wish to share our experiences with fellow Sangha members who might not be sharing our political vision. We do this through retreats, practice days and Dharma talks where we invite people to come in touch with the pain of living in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

We picture ourselves as a pebble making gentle waves in the lake of the Dharma Sangha. We hope that these waves become strong enough to go beyond the confines of the Sangha and wash away the violence and suffering that is shared by all Jews and Palestinians who live in this land.

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