Personal stories of transformation: A non-violent means of building bridgesThursday, October 31, 2013
Encounters associate Ben Yeger is in Palestine and Israel for nine weeks as part of a year long series of visits to deliver bi- national workshops with fellow members of Combatants for Peace (CfP).
This week I worked with two Combatants for Peace (CfP) regional groups offering workshops which focus on developing and supporting the use of personal story as a central part of the work of this movement. The first session was in Tel- Aviv and the second in Tul- Karem Refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. The workshops offered a space to find personal story, understand how this relates to the CfP narrative and explore how to communicate stories appropriately and effectively to the audience in front of you. Both workshops were full of emotion, new learning and humble authenticity.
Starting to build bridges
The first thing that needed to happen, in the early days of the CfP Movement, during the first tentative meetings between Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters, was for us all to listen to each-others personal stories. These were stories of involvement in a circle of violence and the path each had taken in choosing to come to these meetings in a search for reconciliation and Peace.
The telling of stories was a way to build trust, a way to dissolve the suspicions and doubts that inevitably existed on both sides in those early days. This telling of stories on both sides was a way of saying: “We are here, we are committed to a journey of transformation.
This is a transformation from a separated violent path to a united non-violent one.” As time went on this method, this non-violent weapon of story telling or truth telling, became the means of communicating the intention of CfP in our own communities and on international platforms, always to great effect. Because the personal IS the collective, the relationship between us is intrinsic. i.e., ‘If I can transform myself, so can you, and so can everyone.’ This seemed to give a sense of connection, of hope in the potential for change.
The validation of personal journey
Over the years many new people have joined the CfP movement. In some cases and particularly on the Israeli side these new members were women, or men who didn’t serve in combat units. This resulted in a growing feeling that they, at worst, didn’t have a personal story worth telling at all. At best, there was a feeling that their story didn’t fit into the central narrative of CfP. Anyone in Israel who chooses to join CfP, meets Palestinians in restricted areas in the West Bank and has made a huge leap of faith by choosing non-violence and dialogue as a path towards Peace. They have a personal story that needs telling.
On the Palestinian side this choice is just as significant. Most of CfP Palestinian members were born into life under occupation. This means that they have experienced violence and lack of human rights throughout their lives and for the most part Israelis to them were simply ‘The Israeli Army’. No other image existed. Moreover most of them have served time in Israeli prisons and are still restricted from entering into Israel due to their ‘high security risk’ label. This narrative makes their choice to enter into dialogue with Israel ex-combatants even more significant and everyone has a different flip point that is vital to hear and makes the stories unique.
The challenge is to find a way to honour the authenticity of the personal story on both sides whilst offering opportunities to practice, refine and structure it so it can be best received by the variety of audiences listening to it.
Structuring a personal story
Courtesy of Dr Chen Alon and Shimon Katz, I have been drawing on a very strong 6 part structure that offers a guide for how to look at and tell the personal story.
1. My roots: Where do I come from ?
2. My basic upbringing: The national context. How were my basic belief systems formed? This is the time where we are taught (on both sides) about being separate from the other and about the concept that we all have an enemy.
3. How I entered into the circle of violence: What was the process, the reasons, I decided to join the violent struggle and what was my actual role?
4. My experience of being involved with the violence- touching my trauma: It’s easy to forget how damaging being violent can be (even if there is supposedly- ‘No choice’). So, in this part it’s important to acknowledge and share the affect being part of violence has on us, even if it’s for a just cause which we believe in.
5. Uni-national transformation (leaving the circle of violence): What was the moment you realised that you can’t continue to be violent and that you need to change your approach? This is finding the story within the story.
6. Bi-national transformation: The how and why in joining CfP? Why are you still here working with CfP?
This structure has been a real anchor in the two workshops to date and seems to be supporting participants to delve deeper into their story through breaking it down into clear stages.
In Tel Aviv 18 people gathered on a roof of a trendy arts gallery with the hustle and bustle of the city droning in the background. New and older members, women and men, those who know their story well and those who don’t even know they have one. With many moments of realisation from all sorts of angles, as time went on it became clearer and clearer that this enquiry is vital! Vital in terms of supporting the roots of the individual to feel part of the collective. Vital in terms of reaching beyond a given and stuck narrative of conflict, sharing these journeys with others and having the courage to connect across divides.
In Tul Karem 6 brave men turned up and in this context the journey was quite different. Here the task became about how participants can contain the enormity and intensity of their experiences under occupation and still maintain the authentic and extraordinary depth of their stories. The central question becoming- How can these stories, mostly unfamiliar to others, be told within prescribed time, with translation and remain in the personal realm whilst including (in an oblique way) the national story which is very important for Palestinians to communicate when coming into contact with audiences in Israel and around the world?
In both workshops the commitment to deep process and growth was palatable and the outcome visible and significant. It is humbling and inspiring to feel useful
“It was interesting, fun, important and strengthening. This is important in many different ways- both as a way of supporting our direct activism and as a support for each one of us as individuals” (Avner Horovitz- CfP Office Manager)
“I have realised how helpful it is to think of the structure offered as a support when telling my personal story ” (Abed El Chakim- Long standing member of the Tul- Karem group)
Chen Alon- co-Founder of CFP said-
“Highly recommended, very moving, very connecting, very Ben…”
In the coming week I will be facilitating the first bi-national session in Simia in South Mount Hebron and then in Nablus. The following week I will be working with the Jerusalem groups with a Palestinian witness.
I hope for new insights and tales to tell next week