Be the Change Finding Empathy in Times of Conflict

“How can you defend terrorism?!”

“I’m NOT!” I replied defiantly. It took every last ounce of strength I had to keep my anger from boiling over at the suggestion. My friend and I were sitting at a café in central Tel Aviv discussing the socio-political circumstances in the country we, two Americans, now called home. Because who doesn’t like a little vitriol over cappuccinos and croissants. Israelis certainly do, and we were supposed to be Israeli now.

I had only been there a couple of weeks, and it was the first time I had this kind of aggressive conversation about Palestinians and politics, but it certainly would not be the last. I had moved there to study Conflict Resolution & Mediation after all. This was an active choice I had made, I kept reminding myself, to escape the mundane complacency I was feeling at my cushy job back in Chicago.

Life in Israel was like night and day compared to what I had left behind: sitting in a cubicle from 9-5 and respected for my impeccable work, I could feel my life slipping into comfort like the oversized armchair that grows harder to get out of the longer you relax into it. I did my best to challenge myself and to meet people with similar interests. But every time a coworker rolled his eyes at me for caring about international news, every time I heard, “Oh Danielle, it’s so far away – who cares,” I felt the dull ache of complacency, a sore pain deep in my soul as if I had been sitting too long in the same position and a few spiritual limbs had fallen asleep. Stretching out and feeling the pins and needles, I began to plan an exit strategy.

my response to the Boston Marathon bombings
“Creativity has the power to transform human behavior”

This quote from Leo Burnett inspired me from the moment I discovered it. I wanted to take this idea, reshape it, and use it to transform the abhorrent behavior that drives conflict and war. I wanted to use marketing strategy and apply it to conflict resolution. They’re such similar fields, I reasoned. Whether the goal is humanitarian (to broker a peace treaty) or entrepreneurial (to solidify brand loyalty), both fields aim to understand people enough to effectively communicate with them. That’s it, I decided, I want to study marketing, perfect the craft, and use my creativity to transform the behaviors that cause suffering around the world. That’s what I want to do.

The biggest obstacle: Transforming our own behavior

My friend and mentor at Leo Burnett was a highly respected Senior Planner who believed in my passion and supported my vision. He suggested I consider the IMC program through Northwestern University, especially since the program could be completed online from anywhere in the world. (Sold!)

That detail was especially important because I also knew that I wanted to move to Tel Aviv to learn about Conflict Resolution, but not just because I am Jewish and had intense experiences in Israel twice before.

I had tried to produce a marketing-for-conflict-resolution project within my company, but to no avail. However, during the development of the project, I had come across research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an organization called the Peace Index run by a think tank called the Israel Democracy Index.

Ephraim Yaar, the head of the Peace Index project, was also the head of an M.A. program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University. That’s it, I thought, that’s where I’m going to go!

And off I went :)

After a whole day of flying, I was in a 30 minute taxi ride from Ben Gurion Airport to my apartment in central Tel Aviv with no internet, no more To-Do list to think about, and nothing but the beauty of a quiet night to keep me company. And that’s when it hit me.

I had just quit my cushy job and moved to the other side of the freaking world where I knew almost no one and barely spoke the language in order to (ugh!) fulfill my soul?!

The next morning with renewed resolve, I was trying to muster the courage to find my way around alone, to practice my mediocre Hebrew, and to prepare myself for the abrasiveness that Americans often feel when meeting Israelis. But, as happened many times throughout the course of the year, what I had prepared myself for dwarfed in comparison to what I ultimately experienced. As soon as I was setting out to find my nearest grocery store, I also had to find my nearest bomb shelter.

Hamas had begun a shelling campaign from Gaza into Israel, and this time they had enough long-range missiles to reach Tel Aviv – daily for two months. I had known this would be a possibility, but when I heard the first air-raid siren I was a little in shock – I had no idea what to do!

I texted the one Israeli I knew whom I’d met on my last visit to Tel Aviv. He assured me that no bombs would land in Tel Aviv because of the Iron Dome missile interception system (Oh thank GOD!) and directed me to the website for Home Front Command, with instructions for what to do. I needed to find the nearest bomb shelter or protected space (like the stairwell of my Bauhaus concrete apartment building) that I could get to within 90 seconds (that’s how long it takes a rocket to get from Gaza to Tel Aviv) and stay there until I heard the bombs intercepted, wait ten minutes for the shrapnel to hit the ground, and then go back to my day like nothing was wrong.

So when the next air-raid siren went off at 8:00 the following morning, that’s what I did. I kept my flip flops, phone, and keys next to my bed so I could grab them and run to my stairwell. Mingle with the neighbors, hear (and feel) the boom, chit chat for a bit, and go back about our business (ahem, back to bed). When the siren went off the following day at the same time, it almost started to feel like a routine. We would get a siren once, maybe twice, a day, and then we could go on like there was nothing wrong. I could almost plan my day around the siren. Almost.

But all was not well. I had such social anxiety from being in a new country without the war, that now I was even more afraid to leave the house. The young Israeli woman I lived with was not particularly empathetic to someone who had never experienced war like this before. I was determined to find an excuse to get out of the house, so I found a yoga class about 10 minutes away. If a siren went off while I was walking, I could just duck into a store or follow what other people were doing – I refused to be afraid.

The class was taught on a rooftop in the hot summer evenings. The teacher had a warm, loving energy, and often dedicated the intention of the day’s practice to the manifestation of peace. In addition to a challenging yoga practice, then, the class was often emotional and very therapeutic because of this amazing teacher and the community drawn to her teachings.

Other than buying food and going to yoga, I was pretty much a homebody. As a result, much of my socialization was done online, and social media became a huge part of my experience in dealing with the war – for better and for worse. The benefit of social media in the land of seasonal warfare was the wonderfully dark sense of humor Israelis have when it comes to life in a conflict zone.

yes, those are condoms that say 'Israel: it's still safe to come'
It's so true
turn on CC for English

But the dark side of social media is how easily people engage in dehumanizing debates and arguments. Various extremely biased news sources don’t help.

Just a taste of the verbal violence inflicted on one another...

One day I had become so exhausted from arguing in the comments section that I just needed to get out and be with a real person, without fighting! I posted my feelings on Facebook, and a guy I had known in Chicago who now lived in Tel Aviv offered to hang out and destress.

We met at a café in central Tel Aviv, where we could talk about our experiences, and he could comfort me in these dark times. We ordered some treats and got to chatting about what he had been up to since he immigrated to Israel.

And then the conversation turned.

I knew we had different political views, but I always tried to understand both sides of an argument, both sides of a conflict, and give people the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s easy to get mad,” I reasoned, “to drop bombs, to go to war. The difficult thing to do is understand the other side. They are dropping bombs on us because they are frustrated by the blockade and oppression that they feel.”

That’s when he accused me of defending terrorism.

I wanted to say, “I just think the best way to end violence is to find the root cause of people’s anger and frustration, even if that means being introspective to what ‘our’ side might be contributing to causing it.” But I didn’t.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, if anything. The truth is, I didn’t really know any Muslims or Palestinians yet, so how could I counter his racism? I didn’t have the cognizance yet to know how to manage such situations. I wasn’t as articulate or educated as I wanted to be at that point. But I learned. Boy, did I learn.

I learned from my personal experiences, and I learned from my coursework. More importantly, they fed each other. Conversations with my friends would breathe life into the theories I was learning, just as those theories helped me understand my new friends better. In the fall I would spend a few months dating an Israeli guy. In the spring I would spend a few months dating a Palestinian.

I made so many friends who enhanced my knowledge with wisdom.

Can you tell the difference between the Israelis, Palestinians, and international expats?

Every experience I had poured a wealth of understanding into my soul.

We learned about how different religions approach and handle conflict in a discussion with top religious clerics from Jerusalem, Muslim Qadi Iydad Zahalka and Father David Neuhaus.

We witnessed the diversity of the Old City of Jerusalem, a coalescence of the world's largest monotheistic religions. We visited some of the holiest places in the world, and felt their spiritual power. The convergence of cultures in such a densely populated place was truly eye-opening.

We learned about the ultimate challenge of forgiveness, and the cooperative efforts of those who have paid the highest price. These are two members of the Parent's Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have all lost children to the conflict.

The Parent's Circle is featured in a film we viewed called Beyond Right & Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness

We spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem - the most politicized Christmas ever. A stage show in the center square had a banner in the backdrop that read ‘All I want for Christmas is justice.’ Women in hijab were sporting in Santa hats. Palestinian National Guard started to line the streets by nightfall in preparation for the arrival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity. Stopping only to see Banksy’s art on the way to the checkpoint, my friends and I made our way back to spend Christmas Day in Jerusalem.

We witnessed a gay pride parade peacefully pass an active mosque in Tel Aviv. Perhaps the only place in the world where this might happen, regularly.

We ate the Best. Food. Ever.

sign in front of Fattoush Restaurant in Haifa

Perhaps most notable was when we viewed the film The Gatekeepers, a documentary about the Israeli Security Agency, Shin Bet. Following the screening, our class had a private conversation with one of the six former heads of the organization featured in the film, Retired Admiral Ami Ayalon.

The hardest thing to be is Pro-Peace

I may not have been able to articulate my feelings well on that day with my friend at the café, but it was at that moment when I realized what I was up against. The uphill battle of convincing people, good people, friends even, to let go of their fear and the rhetoric that fuels conflict. I realized that people want to pick a side, they need to. But when it comes to intractable conflicts like this one, in order to solve the conflict you have to pick both sides, you have to choose people over rhetoric, compassion over fear. The hardest thing to be is pro-peace, because everyone accuses you of being pro-the-other-side. This is not the same thing as being neutral or indifferent. This is actively choosing humanity.

Now when people accuse me of defending terrorism, I know how to respond with measured reason and empathy. Because people who confuse empathizing with ‘the bad guys’ and defending them, well, they need empathy, too. They are hurt and angry, often because they have faced great personal loss at the hands of the conflict. And you don’t win an argument peacefully by pouring salt on the wound.

Sitting in the stairwell, listening to the bombs exploding overhead, feeling them ricochet in my bones, I was reminded daily that someone wanted me dead. But they would not succeed, and I knew it. The most painful part was knowing that instead of me, innocent children in Gaza were dying in the retaliatory bombs sent by the Israeli Army, un-intercepted, meant to stop those who were launching rockets. Over 2,100 people would die in Gaza during the 50-day war known as Operation Protective Edge, while I sat in my stairwell knowing I was safe.

That alone fueled my compassion and my drive to put an end to war. That way I could appease the guilt of knowing I had lived.

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