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Language, Listening, And Learning In An Age Of Polarization: The Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh

We are all shouting, but no one is listening. That can be said of American politics in general, but what can we do to restore constructive deliberation of important issues. Perhaps the experience of Pittsburgh’s Middle East Forum might be instructional.

Back in the late 1970s a small group of Jewish and Arab Americans, Pittsburgh residents, organized the Middle East Forum for the primary purpose of opening communications between Jews, Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians. Back then it was illegal for an Israeli to speak with a PLO representative, and communication between American Jews, and Palestinians was nearly non-existent. Through living room dialogues, public presentations of speakers, films, and a conference. the Forum played a small local role in legitimizing talking to each other. After Camp David and the famous handshake, Forum organizers felt their initial mission had been accomplished and disbanded.

However, peace did not come, by 2002 the Forum reconstituted itself as the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh. Once again communications among the parties and supporters is cut off and needs to be restored and a mutual search for peaceful solutions must be initiated.

As a participant with the Forums since the beginning I have had a chance to observe how difficult our task is. Yes, we can get people to talk at each other, but to get them to listen and really hear each other is terribly threatening. It is only after hearing and understanding each other’s predicament that the various sides to a conflict can begin to find the common ground on which to build a settlement.

The difficulty, and the potential, of getting the parties to really hear each other is exemplified by a program the “old” forum ran in the 1980s soon after the Israeli forces moved into Lebanon.

We brought together a group of Palestinian students and local Jews with a facilitator who worked with symbols. With careful preparation, he drew two symbols, a swastika and a Star of David and asked participants what they felt as they looked at the drawing. Both Jews and Palestinians associated the swastika with Nazism and the holocaust. But to Palestinians it was a terrible historical event, but it is “old business.” To Jews it was and still is a deeply emotional, terrifying symbol. And you could feel the high emotion in the room. Similarly, the Star of David gave most of the Jews a warm-fuzzy feeling – an identity. But then some of the Palestinians said, “That is the symbol on the tank that flattened my father’s house last week” – with as deep emotion as the Jews reaction to the swastika. The importance of this experience is that each side saw, heard, felt, and understood where the other was coming from – and that is the first step. For some it was so frightening that we never saw them again. For others it opened the doors to cooperative work for peace.

Today, the Middle East Peace Forum of Pittsburgh is organizing programs along similar lines as before. It is impressive, and somewhat disturbing how difficult it still is to move people from talking at each other to talking to each other. Supporters of the various factions seem to have a deep down fear that if you really listen to your opponent, really try to understand where they are coming from, you are somehow sacrificing your integrity. Whereas we, in the conflict resolution field, are learning that listening is a vital first step to communication. Until the other party has had a chance to feel that they have been heard, it is unlikely they will hear you, either.

The reluctance to listen and engage in a real dialogue is illustrated by a debate now taking place over the wording of brochures and public announcements from the Forum. Should a dialogue-oriented program use terms like Israel’s treatment of the West Bank amounts to apartheid? Or, “Zionism equals racism,” or Palestinians are terrorists. Or should it use less loaded terminology. Like, “The enforced separation of Palestinians and Jews, and its economic dislocation…” or “Suicide bombing of civilian populations is … Some, argue that you must call it like you see it, to do otherwise would reveal a lack of integrity, and one side will not have anything to do with us. Others, myself included, feel that position leaves us just talking “at” each other and is a dead end. Much more difficult, but productive, is to search for the words and concepts that will encourage the parties and their supporters to hear each other and to seek common ground. Unless one side or the other totally defeats the other, an end of hostilities will come about through negotiations. The peace process is stuck and needs a push from the public, which stresses that settlement is indeed possible.

Strangely, a useful text supporting the listening and seeking common ground, rather than “winning” a debate, is Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. I am told, he states, “Never surround your enemy on all four sides” – somebody is liable to get hurt. Similarly, I would encourage using language that does not box the opponent in, but gives them room to step out of the conflict and come to a settlement.

Kim Bobrowsky, a Pittsburgh mediator, suggests a useful frame of mind for being successful in dialogue or negotiations. One can say, for instance, “Joe is a jerk. That defines Joe in your mind. His reality is static. He is a jerk and will continue to be one. But what if you say to yourself, Joe is an OK guy, but he is acting like a jerk. Now, there is potential for change. It leads to questions like “Why is Joe acting like a jerk?” That moves us into a level where we can make a difference. Can we enter into dialogue with a similar frame of mind and discover why Palestinians are resorting to suicide bombing, and what can be done about it? And why is Israel building a barrier across the landscape? And why is the corruption level said to be so high with the PLO. That may give us a chance to explore some real settlement proposals.


Paul Wahrhaftig

Paul Wahrhaftig, has been active in organized conflict resolution since its modern beginnings in the early 1970s, both as a practitioner and organizer/networker. While maintaining an active mediation practice he continues to maintain contact with conflict resolvers around the world. Recently retired from his  position as President of the Conflict Resolution… MORE >

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