2011: Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Encounter

2011: Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Encounter

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Founding Executive Director Emeritus, Encounter

MelissaRabbi Melissa Weintraub, age 36, was ordained as a Conservative Jewish Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has served as a Rabbinic Fellow in Conservative communities throughout North America. She co-founded Encounter in 2005. A noted speaker and educator, she has taught on four continents, including at the Parliament of World Religions, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Jewish Council of Public Affairs Plenum. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, she graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in political theory and women’s studies. More information on Rabbi Weintraub is available on Encounter’s website.

Melissa's Full Presentation

See Melissa's full presentation, "Authentic Peace-Building: A Justice that's Not Just Us" - presented October 27, 2011 in Herrick Chapel.


>> SARAH PURCELL: Welcome to our final talk in the Grinnell Young Innovators for Social Justice Prize Symposium for this year. Myself, I have benefitted incredibly from this week and I think we’ve had a wonderful time with all of our prize winners. I would like to take a chance to thank all of our prize winners for coming to campus all week and spending so much great time with our community. So, thank them all.


You will all have one final chance to greet them in person and maybe thank them personally for speaking with us this week. Immediately following this talk at 5:30, we will have a closing reception and everyone is invited. It’s in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts Rotunda, so please join us afterwards for some celebratory cake to finish the symposium. It will be very nice.

We are very, very happy to have, as our final speaker, the third winner of this year’s Grinnell Prize, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub. Those of you who have gotten to know her a little bit this week — as have I — I know have been impressed by her incredible sensitivity, her amazing capacity to listen to people and to engage us in reflective conversation. It has really been easy to see even in a few short hours of conversation why she has been so successful at people-to-people encounter and exchange in the work that she has done. In fact, Encounter is the word for it.

Melissa co-founded the group, Encounter, in 2005. Encounter is a group that engages Jewish diaspora leaders, particularly American Jewish leaders, from across the political spectrum in conversation and face-to-face discussion with Palestinians in Palestine. She does, at Encounter, pursue this strategy in the face of a lot of obstacles and after the second Intifada when other face-to-face programs had been ceased. It is really for that we recognized Melissa for this prize. She is, as I think most of you know, ordained as a conservative Jewish Rabbi. She attended Jewish Theological Seminary and she has been a rabbinic fellow in conservative communities throughout North America. As we have said several times this week, she is a noted teacher and speaker. We keep saying, “on four continents”, but that’s very impressive. I have only taught on two myself so I am very impressed with that. She now travels, speaking, giving training, discussing with groups how to have this kind of educational opportunity and face-to-face exchange even though she is now co-director Emeritus of Encounter. We will all be waiting as her Grinnell Prize friends to see what great new enterprise she does next.

One thing that we know she might be working on is perhaps some more publications. It’s something we haven’t spoken as much about this week but as a graduate of Harvard University and as I said the Jewish Theological Seminary, she is also a great person of learning. Her recent publications include two book chapters, “Warriors, Prophets, Peacemakers, and Disciples: A Call to Action in the Face of Religious-Inspired Violence,” and “Torture and Torah: Human Dignity and Self-Defense in Jewish Law.”

Melissa is, I believe, still currently working on a book exploring religious Jewish responses to terror. So perhaps we will be able to read some of her work and think back on this wonderful week of interaction with her. For now, we will really look forward to hearing her talk this afternoon. I want to get the title just right, everyone has done a great job of saying this in a compelling way. We will welcome her to speak on “Authentic Peace Building: A Justice that’s Not Just Us.” Please welcome Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.


>> RABBI MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Thank you Sarah for that wonderful warm welcome. It has really been moving to be in this incredible community the last few days. It just radiates warmth and commitment to social concern. I’m really struck that all three of the Prizes this year are educational projects that are focused on education as the catalyst for social change. After just a few days of being with the Grinnell community, I can imagine this community catalyzing so much social change on the intransigent problems that we face. So, I look forward to seeing what all of you are going to do as well. For those of you who weren’t at the awards ceremony the other night, I want to just before I even begin, paint a picture, really a concrete picture of what Encounter does, because I think it can be hard to wrap your mind around what we do.

Imagine this: Orthodox and Reform rabbis, lobbyists from the arch nemesis Israel lobbies AIPAC and J Street, national religious settlers and anti-occupation activists — are all sitting down in front of the separation barrier with a Palestinian family directly impacted by it and grappling together with what it means, with real mutual listening and respect. Imagine Jewish funders of the Republican, Democratic and Likud parties, sleeping in Palestinian homes and staying up all night pouring over maps and histories. And praying their evening prayers in the homes of former Palestinian militants. Imagine leaders who had formerly only met on mutually demonizing op-ed pages apologizing to each other for shutting each other down and learning to place joint creative problem-solving before political jockeying.

So from our origins, Encounter has focused on creating such spaces where communication like this is possible. Where diametrically opposed ideological adversaries can speak to the heart of their profound conflicts while sustaining the integrity and dignity of all involved, can hear each other and even collaborate in addressing problems of passionate common concern.

In preparing for today, I was thinking about what I could share with you that would convey the essential wisdom that Encounter has to offer as well as my own journey as an activist from when I was in college until now. I realize at the heart of that journey and at the heart of our work at Encounter, has been a transformation from a rage-driven to a compassion-centered activism. That is what I want to talk to you about today. I want to speak about the limitations of righteous rage, particularly in a polarized political context in which every side is angry and rage becomes the common vernacular. In which heels are dug in and positions so entrenched, discourse so ugly and unpleasant, that many people stop talking or engaging at all. Mudslinging, aggressive face-offs, gridlock, take the place of genuine collective problem solving and voices of innovation and nuance get drowned out, action paralyzed, energy drained from all of the urgent priorities before us.

I want to share with you a very different model that we created at Encounter. A model that’s more effective at enlisting those who are not our natural allies. A model that I think is more likely to produce innovation and smarter, more inclusive solutions. And a model through which we as activists sustain our core values, like the fight for human dignity, in the spirit and ultimate vision of the fight.

I am going to speak at length about my own personal story, my own evolution as an activist; because I think it will best capture concretely the handicaps of rage and the power of compassion in the face of escaladed conflict. I am going to share how we incorporated those lessons into our theory of change and our methodology of change at Encounter. And along the way, in moments I will extract from my story and Encounter's story to make some broad suggestions for other arenas of social change. But I really invite you to make your own translations and your own connections about the issues that you care about and be thinking about the implications for those areas that you’re really passionate about. How, if at all, a compassion-centered rather than a rage-driven activism may help you be more effective at creating the changes that you want to create in the world.

But first the power of righteous rage in my own story. How it moved and propelled me to action and awakened me to what really matters, but ultimately became counterproductive in creating the changes that I sought.

I grew up in a predominantly white middle class Midwestern college town, actually much like Grinnell but a little bit bigger. And at my first real job in this mostly homogenous town as a 17-year-old clerk, swearing in witnesses in a criminal justice court room, I found myself asking — apropos Morris Dees’s wonderful address this morning — I found myself asking, why did I meet more black men awaiting verdicts and sentencing then in all my previous years of growing up. That question took on an even more sinister edge when the judge pronouncing sentence, who had taken me under his wing as protégé, began overtly disclosing his racism behind closed doors. Saying things like, “You and I couldn’t possibly understand these men growing up where we grew up. We couldn’t possibly understand their violent culture. These men can’t be rehabilitated. They simply need to be taken off the streets.” This was — to use Eric’s wonderful phrase that has become part of our common vocabulary this week — this was one of my first real moments of obligation. The judge had flouted my most basic instincts for the equality and universal dignity of human life. “You and I can’t possibly understand them.” And my response was outrage and defiance.

So I spent the next summer, which was the summer after my first year in college, working in a summer camp with abused and neglected African-American kids on the south side of Chicago in an area with one of our country’s highest violent crime rates and one of the most warm and vibrantly alive cultures that I have ever known. “You and I can’t possibly understand them,”- he had said, implying the inevitability of black men filling prisons. So I researched context and root causes and discrimination, disenfranchisement and systemic disadvantage. I got involved with prisoner education and criminal justice reform. I learned models of creating change at the feet of inspirational community organizers and advocacy leaders addressing all of the interlocking issues that had led to all of those black men filing through a court room in my white town. Education, housing, the breakdown of families, policing, political neglect of the poor, and on and on. As my understanding of oppression and systemic injustice grew, I just got angrier and angrier. I banded together with like-minded people to target perceived oppressors and the order of things. And, as I worked with simpatico activists and my fellow college students, I generally found righteous indignation to be a motivating and infectious force. We channeled our common indignation into confrontational and adversarial strategies, picketing slumlords, we even shamed Harvard’s real estate corporation and Cambridge city council meetings (don’t get any ideas). We believed that as the community organizing gospel goes, the only coercion would prompt the powerful to take into account the needs of the disenfranchised and they weren’t going to give up power voluntarily.

I believed the key to being a good activist was to ask oneself what makes oneself angriest and to go there and fight. So when I went to Israel for the first time as a 20-year-old college student and I defied all warnings against travel into the Palestinian West Bank, you could say I was well-primed to be outraged by what I saw there. I had been a committed Zionist since childhood, having grown up as a Jew in a town dominated by mega churches where periodically things would happen like wooden crosses being left in our front lawn and even my best friends were praying for my hell-bent soul. My parents are here, so this is a good moment to thank them for my first model of activism on behalf of minority rights as they patiently swept into my elementary school again and again to explain that singing songs about Christ our Savior was neither neutral nor inclusive. Against this backdrop, Israel held a kind of salvific allure, as a refuge, and a source of ethnic pride and vicarious participation and admired collective strength.

So when I went to the West Bank, I was pretty emotionally-conditioned to distrust everything that I heard from Palestinians. But, my direct experience trumped all that emotional conditioning. I will quote Eric again — I love the saying you said last night — “what I see I understand”. That was very true for me.

I was originally only planning on being in Israel for the summer but I was so indignant at the injustices that I saw that were immediately visible to me in entering into Palestinian territory, and I felt such a sense of obligation as a Jew that I took a semester off from college and I ended up working that semester with Palestinian and Israeli jointly-run peace organizations. Most of what I did during that semester was make Palestinian friends. I tagged along with them to English literature classes where I watched women in hijab and men with slick hair and tight jeans arguing about Palestinian political factions in a class on Chaucer and Beowulf. I sat on Palestinian stoops drinking Palestinian liqueur. Trying to make my hands dance like a Palestinian girl while listening to the sounds of doumbek and oud, Middle Eastern instruments. I sat in the cafeteria of Birzeit University, the largest university in the West Bank, filling my notebooks with stories for no one in particular, just recording them. Talking to anyone who would talk to me. I filled up on the stories that no one had told me as a child. In this first, imbalanced stage, these were primarily stories of Palestinians as victims. Stories of Palestinian men who were smuggled in wheelbarrows from Birzeit to Gaza City to visit their mothers or resume their studies because they were legally barred from crossing between the West Bank and Gaza. Stories of young Palestinian men who had been dragged off in the middle of the night and held in administrative detention, indefinitely without charge and subjected to what was then euphemistically known as “moderate physical pressure.” Stories of East Jerusalem woman separated from their West Bank husbands five days a week so they could maintain access to their native Jerusalem or their families. Stories of Palestinian children who had no water in their taps to brush their teeth while Jewish children in neighboring settlements enjoyed refreshing swims in community pools surrounded by intensively irrigated gardens. You can hear my old outrage coming through.

Perhaps like the overly zealous new convert, I had a desire to shake everyone around me awake. I often had on my mind a wonderful story called, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin. Has anyone ever read the story? I see a few nodding heads. It is a story about a Utopian, dystopian kingdom where there is such abundance of food and resources that there is nothing left to do but eat and sing and dance and love and be merry. There are intricate descriptions of the music and colors and tastes of Omelas’ festivities. The only downside to living in Omelas, there is a child kept in the cellar who is chained, emaciated and sometimes beaten for the sake of the happiness and freedom of those above. The only cost to living in Omelas is that once in one’s lifetime, one must descend into the cellar to visit and witness the child. The story describes various reactions to those who descend into the cellar, those who rationalize the treatment of the child and why he deserves it, those who cry and protest but immediately forget about the child as soon as they’re involved in all the festivities of the world above. The story closes: "But every once in a while there’s one who walks away from Omelas.” I was totally haunted by this story. I would think about it as I sat in a beautiful Jerusalem park as I imbibed cappuccinos and yummy salads, as I took pleasure in Israel’s natural and cultural beauty. Part of me still wanted to just walk away from Omelas, but I was too much of a Zionist and an activist to simply walk away. What I really wanted was to bring everybody that I knew into the cellar with me. To learn the cost of our abundance and freedom and to explore or engage what we would do to rectify it.

But most of the time, my efforts to drag people into the cellar fell flat. Unlike every other social justice issue I’d cared about, even unpopular causes like prisoner’s rights, I found my outrage was not motivating or persuasive to almost anyone around me except those who were already in the choir. On the contrary, it seemed to shut down conversations before they’d even had a chance to being. People dismissed me as marginal and naive. They either got antagonistic or dismissive in their conversations with me about the conflict or they just chose to avoid the conversation all together. No one, it seemed, wanted to be dragged into the cellar to look into the eyes of the ill-treated child whom I saw as the object of their denial. For the first time my righteous rage was utterly futile.

So I started to read about the psychology of denial itself. Stanley Cowan — one of the founders of B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human-rights organization — wrote a wonderful book on this subject, motivated by his experience in growing up under apartheid in South Africa and then living for 18 years as a human-rights activist in Israel. So he asks, and he is writing about his upbringing in South Africa and I quote him, “Why did others — even those raised in similar families, schools, and neighborhoods, who read the same papers, walked the same streets — apparently not see what we saw.” He continues, “Could they be living in another perpetual universe where the horrors of apartheid were invisible and the physical presence of black people often slipped from awareness? Or perhaps they saw exactly what we saw but just didn’t care or see anything wrong.”

This is a great book. It explores the psychological and social basis for shutting out and repressing disturbing or threatening information or reacting with indifference or justification. What it doesn’t explore adequately is how this phenomenon might be overcome. How does one break through denial? Stanley Cowan describes his experience as working with Daphna Golan, my original feminist peace mentor, to try to bring the issue of torture to public awareness in Israel. I will quote him again. He says, “Even liberals did not react as they should.”

“Was this time,” he continues, “for another report, press release, article, or documentary driven by our touching faith and if only they knew? Hardly. The information had been received but not registered or digested. It sunk into consciousness without producing shifts in policy or opinion. Was there some deep flaw in the way we were trying to get our message across, or was there a point at which the sheer accretion of information would not have any impact.” That is the end of his quote.

So these questions just trail off in the book. He doesn’t answer them. He doesn’t seem to believe that truth commissions or human-rights reports or documentaries, even if they obtain wide spread media coverage, will actually break through denial and facilitate information being not just received but actually digested and internalized, acknowledged, acted upon. He doesn’t offer any alternate propositions. So it has been 15 years since I read Stanley Cowan’s book — actually no, it has been 15 years since I traveled into the West Bank, I am not that old — in the years since I dedicated my life to supporting people, particularly the Jewish people, to access the stories and information that we are inclined to shut out but we most need to make good and effective decisions. To speak and confront about what’s hardest. To surface what is buried. To look in the eyes of what we are afraid of but we most need to face. So support and encourage are the operative verbs in what I just said. I could also add strengthen, enable, nurture, and heal, not castigate, not shame, not shake or drag into awareness.

It turns out that facing what we have denied, actually digesting what we’ve averted our eyes from or closed our hearts to for whatever reason, is a painful and jarring and vulnerable proposition. And it turns out that rage is exactly the wrong tool for encouraging us to do so. One of Encounter’s board members who’s been with us from the beginning, Rabbi Benjamin Barnett, likes to say that you can’t open a flower with a hammer. I really love this phrase. If not a hammer, what actually opens a flower? A flower opens on its own. It doesn’t actually need us to force it, it just needs the right conditions to be present for it to be in a state of health and growth for it to open as it wants to.

So as I shifted from simply mobilizing and marching with my own choir, those who agreed with me, to trying to engage and transform those who don’t, my whole mode of engagement had to change. My compassion had to be greater than my rage. Compassion for all of us, including those I once wanted to bring down as a feisty community organizer or shake awake as a nascent peace activist.

But I want to be clear. I did not suppress my rage, but re-directed it. I did not supplant justice with mercy but rather set out to achieve the true aims of justice: to nourish human dignity, to remove all obstacles to human potential. I began working towards what I see as Martin Luther King’s highest vision, deepest vision, the beloved community. A vision of redemption and reconciliation, and brother/sisterhood that includes our ideological adversaries. A justice that’s not just us. Not just us righteous ones fighting in the wilderness versus all those brain-washed loonies who just don’t get it. That’s the big vision that guides my work and gave rise to Encounter. But I want to back up and walk you through a bit how I got there from trying to open flowers with hammers, to trying to create the right conditions for them to want to open on their own. From castigating to encouraging. From dragging by the arm to supporting and healing and why. So three intertwined factors fueled that shift.

The first was pure and simple efficacy. With the brutal violence of the Second Intifada beginning in 2000, Israeli and Palestinian peace camps became increasingly ineffectual and marginalized. I am speaking in the past tense but this landscape sadly largely still holds despite a lot of the shifts we have been able to put into play with Encounter. So this was a time of intense polarization, proliferating distrust, and dehumanization. Among Israelis, “peace activists” literally became a dirty word. The mostly secular Tel Aviv activists that remained reacted by retreating into a politically isolated and largely politically impotent bubble. And the more marginal the peace camp became, the more clear it became to me that activists who had dedicated their lives to peace were not going to achieve their ends by only talking to themselves, only talking to those who wanted something to do with peace work with them.

In this highly escalated environment, rage and adversarialism was only going to reinforce the alienation of those who weren’t already with us. Broader transformation of this conflict wasn’t going to be possible without effective engagement of those who weren’t. We needed to reach unusual suspects. We couldn’t do so without compassionately relating to their very real and understandable hopes and fears.

So the second factor in my journey from rage to compassion was waking up to the pitfalls of us-and-them thinking, including my own. Good and evil binaries are the engine of righteous rage, right? There is nothing more igniting than identifying the evil enemy oppressor and having him or her, them as our target. But the longer I lived in the Middle East, the less such black-and-white binaries seemed to have anything to do with what was actually causing suffering in this land. The more it became impossible for me to bifurcate the situation, into evil aggressors and noble victims. Denial is hardly, for example, a one-way street. Most Palestinians have a serious block to Israeli grievances and narratives. Palestinian acknowledgment of Israeli suffering tends to leave off with the Holocaust, if it gets that far. Few Palestinians genuinely recognize Israeli claims to the Holy Land that are not based in the current balance of power. The more my direct experience exposed me to Palestinian contributions to the impasse, the more my own sympathy was restored for Israeli fears and self-protective policies. I came to see Israeli and Palestinian destructive actions as interlocked in a tragic dance of cause and effect.

So now I filled my notebooks with heartbreaking stories, not just of Palestinians who’d suffered at the hands of Israelis, but also of Israelis who faced unenviable moral and political murky choices at checkpoints, at negotiating tables and suffered unspeakable and wrongful loss. Instead of seeing evil aggressors and blameless victims, I developed a more compassionate lens toward everyone in this conflict that organically tempered my one-sided rage and a greater humility about my own incomplete and ever-evolving view. But as this was happening all around me, the world was splintering into greater and greater pockets of venom and blame.

Four years into the Second Intifada, the social distances in this tiny geographical space were staggering. I’ve already talked about the secular peace camp in Israel being virtually relegated to a pariah faction. The Palestinian West Bank was also increasingly isolated economically and politically and socially and physically. It had become illegal for Israelis to enter into the Palestinian West Bank and virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain a permit to enter into Israel. Very few Jewish Israelis, even secular peacniks, were able to sustain any kind of genuine relationships with Palestinians. And the Jewish Israeli religious community, meanwhile, had few meaningful connections to Palestinians even before the Second Intifada and far fewer after, and tended to dismiss peace activists as naïve, if not dangerous, crazies. The largely-secular peace camp, which was never to be outdone, tended to dismiss religion as coterminous with ethnocentrism if not outright bigotry.

So basically everybody was surrounding themselves with people who talked and thought exactly like them. Religious Jews had little to do with secular Jews or Palestinians and there was this sort of triangulation of self-affirming nuclei colliding in frustration and hostility or not talking to each other at all. And I was sort of living in the Twilight Zone. As this fracturing was happening all around me, I had become a practicing and observant Jew and begun a long process to become a Rabbi, and was increasingly connected to religious circles in both America and Israel. So I found myself in an extremely unusual and lonely position of being connected personally and professionally and emotionally to each of these enclaves.

I sometimes felt like I was leading a triple life. I’d spend my weeks shuttling between bars in secular Tel Aviv, Shabbat dinners in Israeli religious settlements and birthday barbeques in Ramallah; between Palestinian NGOs in Bethlehem and rabbinical school in Jerusalem. It got to the point that I could go to a Palestinian or an Israeli or a young American Jewish young-leadership conference and know as many people in each room and in each room people were mutually obsessed yet had virtually no contact with each other’s actual lived experience or basic realities. Each caricatured and demonized the other’s positions while operating in a near total vacuum of information or understanding of each other’s actual genuine integrity and concerns. I sometimes felt completely torn apart by sustaining real human connection to people who regarded each other as beyond sympathy, if not evil.

I am going to skip ahead a little bit actually. I was going to talk about how this got reproduced in the American context and we’ve created a lot of polarization here but I may save that for the Q&A.

What I want to talk about now, at every turn I was coming across the tragedy of what sociologists call group think. Echo chambers of like-minded people, reinforcing each other’s assumptions. Well, each misses out on crucial information and insight because they've demonized and dismissed everyone that is an ideological counterpart. Like blind men, touching different parts of the elephant — to draw from the old Indian parable — and mistaking the tusk or the tail for the whole, we all lose the big picture, the deficits of our own analysis and, most importantly, innovative ways forward. And on the flip side, as I crossed between all of these fragmented worlds, I became convinced that we all needed each other’s perspective. That if those in each world could take in each other’s points of view on the conflict, we just might amass the collective wisdom we needed to resolve it. I became convinced that getting to that collective wisdom would require a broader cultural shift — akin to the personal shift that I had undergone, from righteous rage to compassion, from adversarialism to curiosity, across lines of dramatic difference.

So the first factor was efficacy, the isolation of the peace camp. The second was us/them group think, and the third was that I came to see that my foundational values demanded this transition from rage to compassion. If I was going to live up to values, like human dignity, that I’d always claimed were the north star of my politics, I needed to affirm the dignity, not only of the oppressed but also of those with whom I fundamentally disagreed. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of that going around. Activists from left to right were sacrificing their ideals in the name of advancing them, as I had done without fully realizing that.

I told a story at lunch a couple of days ago, so apologies to those who heard it before, but I want to tell it again because I think it captures what I am talking about. Shortly before conceiving Encounter, my co-founder and dear friend Rabbi Miriam Margles and I attended a Palestinian non-violent action training. After simulating a confrontation with Israeli soldier, an Irish peace activist leading the training remarked, “Remember that even the Israeli soldier is a human being who goes home and kisses his children at night.” Miriam leaned over and said, “Yeah, I went on a really great date with him last night.”

For us, this moment came to be emblematic. The trainer was paying lip service to Israeli humanity but we saw that lip service as utterly cold and hollow. Totally removed from the human grittiness and integrity and living concerns of Israelis we knew intimately and genuinely. This peace activist, like so many pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists that are in exclusive solidarity with one side with no real human connection to the other, didn’t recognize the way she was chipping away at her ideals in the name of pursuing them. She was dehumanizing one population in the process of trying to fight for the rights and dignity of the other.

So we found ourselves asking, what would non-violence, what would peace activism in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s highest visions, look like here. Non-violent action that’s rooted in authentic commitment to the dignity and integrity of all human beings. Non-violence, not just as an absence of violence, but rather as a living code that refuses to degrade anyone on any side but rather lifts up everyone. Advocates for everyone: Jews and Palestinians, right-wingers and left-wingers, perceived aggressors and victims. A vision that sustains faith in the integrity, the basic goodness, the concerns and the needs of those we agree with and those we don’t. A vision of the beloved community that includes the dignity of our ideological adversaries: a justice that’s not just us.

In a sense, since those first days when the suffering child of Omelas and the psychology of denial had been on my mind, I had desired to reach beyond the peace camp. But now I felt that I had to. I believe that most peace activists by withdrawing in upon themselves had become completely ineffectual and irrelevant. I’d been forced into greater complexity and balance and humbled by observing a greater multiplicity of voices and stories myself. I was traveling uniquely between all of these landlocked worlds and world views and I saw the necessity in bringing them into conversation if we were ever going to have the collective intelligence we needed to resolve this conflict. And I believed that my fundamental values demanded it, so the path was paved.

In the fall of 2004, Miriam Margles, whom I mentioned before, and I lit Shabbat candles in Beit Sahour a Palestinian village outside of Bethlehem, with a group of Palestinian grassroots activists. I'd met the Palestinians sitting around this table in 1996, when we were all college students. Now eight years later, here they were, prominent communal leaders directing Palestinian NGOs. Together this group of old friends began to dream. We dreamed of something quite simple but in almost every respect, quite unique. We would counter the marginalization and ineffectiveness of the peace camp by reaching the right people, those who cynicism and distrust had predisposed them against peace efforts. We would engage multipliers: the most influential Jewish leaders, executives and board members of major Jewish organizations, rabbis, lobbyists, and philanthropists, leaders with social capital who had the ears of elected American and Israeli officials.

We would try to ensure that interpersonal change became systemic change by leveraging power brokers to new and wide constituencies and we would target American Jews, not only because it was our own community but because American Jews were deeply involved in this conflict through philanthropy and funding and nobody had ever targeted them in peace work. We would create a setting that would turn the patterns of group think on their head. Where people were challenged to examine their own assumptions by taking in the histories and life stories of those they had dehumanized and dismissed. We were connecting to the everyday humanity of the other. Compelling people to let go of their scripts and defenses. We imagined expanding by orders of magnitude the unique position that I had been in. Shuttling between people who dismiss each other without really understanding each other at all. We would create a web of connection in which pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists, heads of orthodox institutions, secular peacnik and PLO leaders would call each other up in moments of crisis before hardening into blame games, and get more innovative, smarter, and constructive as a result. And we would create a model of dialog that would live up to our highest ideals, that would honor the humanity and dignity of all parties in this conflict and train change makers to do so as well. We would diffuse the volatile reactivity and defensiveness triggered on all sides of this conflict by supporting participants to step into their most empathic, wise and expansive selves.

We added all this up and this is what we got:

1. We would support the creative and critical thinking of our participants to reach their own conclusions without advancing any particular political agenda. We wouldn’t push people to compromise their own positions. We wouldn’t push people to find common ground. We wouldn’t take any of the stances we were being pushed from all sides to take. We would rather only encourage people to expand their field of vision by listening resiliently to those they had formerly shut out.

2. We would train people in communication skills to strengthen their capacities to extend curiosity and openness and honesty through stark disagreement.

3. We would create the most welcoming, inclusive possible space, down to every last detail. To make the religious feel at ease, we would draw in Jewish elements — kosher food, prayer and Torah study — to bookend difficult presentations by Palestinian speakers. We would give unusual attentiveness to details like people’s food needs and allergies and medical needs. Believe it or not, this actually goes a long way towards people feeling like they are being taken care of and they’re included. We would bring one facilitator for every five participants, several of them trained in chaplaincy and counseling, proactively extending care and support to every participant whatever they are going through. We would speak about what matters most. We wouldn’t skirt the hard stuff. This was something most dialogue groups over the years had not done. They had sort of tried to abandon all the hard stuff in the name of basic rehumanization and our Palestinian partners called us, eating (inaudible) together while pretending nothing’s wrong. So we said there would be no evasion or side-stepping. Rather than looking away from what was hardest, we would lean into it.

4. Finally, our programs would take place in the West Bank. This was really crucial to us. Because insofar as people-to-people initiatives existed in 2004, they took place in Cyprus or in Maine. Primarily due to legal and security barriers to actually encountering each other in the region, we felt that so much was lost in these elite meetings out of context. All of the immediate visceral connections to the land in which people were actually living and everybody was talking about, and the actual direct realities and experience of their lives.

We felt that it was essential also for there to be an actual Jewish presence in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, breaking through the Palestinian isolation that I described before. And meeting Palestinians where they lived, most of who had never met a Jew who wasn’t in military uniform, carrying a gun. So we would do all of this in the midst — at the end, actually, though no one knew it yet — of the Second Intifada by bringing busloads of right-wing, and centrists and left-wing Jews into the West Bank all at once. Listening to and speaking with Palestinian activists, officials, sheiks, and school children; sleeping in Palestinian homes; and digesting what we were taking in, in carefully facilitated dialog within the Jewish group. Everybody thought we were crazy.

But even on that first trip, there was a waiting list. And our participants returned to Jerusalem using words like mind-blowing and life-changing. They had listened to the stories of traumatized children, bereaved parents and every day humiliation. They had vehemently disagreed within the Jewish group over the morality of the separation barrier, the collapse of the peace process and who was responsible for it, the rightful future of Jerusalem, refugees and the boundaries of this land. They hadn’t ignored the harsh reality around us or any of the sharp disagreements between us. But it turns out when you create the right conditions, flowers want to open on their own. It turns out when you sincerely remove shame and coercion and attack and dismissal from the equation, the human curiosity to encounter the other is quite natural and powerful. We had created a model that can hold Palestinian and Jew, right and left, religious and secular in conversation with each other and with the support of our carefully crafted model, our participants had confronted scary and destabilizing new perspectives. And it turned out the sky didn’t fall, but the earth cracked open. They had so much to say to each other when supported to do so. They had hung on despite all impulse to shut down. They had listened to people they might otherwise have avoided. And they were already on fire with new possibilities and more creative, innovative thinking. They were exhausted and shell-shocked and also quite exhilarated and proud of having risen to the challenge. One said to me, “I think I just encountered what everyone around me is blocking.” And the name for Encounter was born.

Soon Jerusalem was abuzz. Everybody wanted to come on a trip, so we organized another one and another one, not knowing we were starting an organization — and insert a lot of messiness and uncertainty and learning here and trips between Staples and my living-room office, apropos what Eric and Boris talked about last night. But now we are 1,000 participants and 60 trips later. Encounter include many of the most influential leaders of Jewish life; lobbyists and philanthropists of rival points of view who have re-directed their funding and policy priorities and are impacting thousands through their advocacy efforts, their sermons, their published articles and their spin off entrepreneurial initiatives. Were we have most succeeded, they are reaching for a more compassionate and effective path through this conflict, this entrenched conflict. And they are reaching toward each other with humility and with honesty that comes naturally from the collective intelligence of divergent views confronting each other.

I want to give just one concrete example of what I mean. Leftists and liberal-leaning people tend to advocate for the dismantling of Israeli settlements, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but rarely if ever give recognition to the holiness of this land including the West Bank to the Jewish people and to religious Jews. And the heavy trauma that Jewish settlers would undergo were they to be displaced from this land, those who are not there for economic reasons. People who are on the national religious Right meanwhile attach tremendous significance to the sanctity of this land but don’t tend to attach much significance to the sanctity of the Palestinian human beings who are living on it. We are creating a new community of people who are empathic of what this land means to religious Jews and who are also empathic with the sanctity and the needs and the rights and the need for self-determination of the human beings that are living on it.

And I believe that it is from this deep compassion towards all sides that is so sorely lacking, this collective intelligence, this innovative thinking, that actual responses to this conflict that might resolve it will emerge. So may it be so, this new community of leaders is helping shift our culture of engagement with this conflict from rage and hate to compassion and recognition, from antipathy to our adversaries to affirmation of their dignity and full humanity. This is the mercy that does not supplant justice but sets out to achieve its true aims: to nourish human dignity, to remove the obstacles to human potential, to create a justice that is not just us.

There is a wonderful TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. It is called “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie describes the danger of talking about any group of people as if they are one thing and one thing only. The consequence of the single story is this, she says: it robs people of dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity impossible. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of single stories that rob people of dignity. There is the single story of Palestinians as violent, uncompromising, nilistic, Jew-hating, hell-bent on our destruction. And there is the single story of Palestinians as innocent victims removed from all agency and culpability. There is the single story of Israelis as callus and aggressive, imperialist military brutes impervious to any suffering but their own. And there is a single story of Israelis as heroic, unprovoked, and morally-superior victims. And there are the single stories that we within the American-Jewish community and broader American public impose on one another, from every side of the political spectrum: extremist, self-hating, anti-semitic, bigoted, brainwashed, bonkers.

When I tried in impatience and rage to drag people into the cellar, they didn’t want to come with me because they didn’t recognize themselves in my story, the story I was telling about them, about the other or about myself. To transform the attitudes and actions of my audience, I had to undergo a transformation as well. To break through my own single stories and even my own denial about the integrity and concerns of those who came at this conflict from rival points of view. I had to realize also that my story didn’t encompass the entire story of the conflict.

The heart of our work at Encounter is prying open these single stories, the temptation to caricature or dismiss our political opponents, even enemies, in one dimensional terms, hardening against their integrity and humanity. Or to use the profoundly simple words of Morris Dees this morning which I really love, “to love and care about those who are different from us.”

Last year a woman named Ariel Cohen traveled to Bethlehem for the first time and she was totally scared. And she was asking herself “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it?” She said to herself, “You know, I know that Palestinians are human beings, like I know it up here, but I don’t actually really feel it.” So at one point while we were walking down the street, I turned towards her and I saw there were tears trickling down her cheeks. And she said, “You know, I have lived on and off in Israel for 10 years and I had no idea there is a whole other country here. There is a whole other country here.” And just as she said that a church bell off over her head. It was so loud and so deafening that we couldn’t say anything for a moment. And then when it stopped she said, “You know, I think I have heard a faint echo of that bell in Jerusalem but everybody told me I was hallucinating. And so I ignored it and pretended that I didn’t hear it. And I think I am going to have to keep coming back and keep coming back. Because I know I am going to go back to Jerusalem and I am going to forget and everybody is going to tell me there is no bell and I am going to believe them. And I’m going to keep coming back until I am able to hold with compassion in my heart the claims and the concerns of people on both sides of this wall.” I think of Ariel’s wish for a heart that can hold the contradictions and claims, the passions and fears of multiple parties to this conflict with compassion. We pray every day. We were talking at dinner the other night about wanting to open our hearts in Jewish prayers. pta klibi, open up my heart.

I pictured two enemies standing before each other and talking; closed, scared hearts opening. That is the answer to my prayers. That is the tremendous vision and gift that Grinnell has made possible. I hope that this gift will enable thousands more scared, closed hearts to open and will help us to shape our collective destiny in the direction of our greatest hopes rather than our fears.

Thank you.

Melissa's Highlights/Interview



Melissa cofounded the group, Encounter, in 2005. Encounter is a group that engages Jewish diaspora leaders, particularly American Jewish leaders, from across the political spectrum in conversation and face-to-face discussion with Palestinians in Palestine.


So when I went to the West Bank, I was pretty emotionally conditioned to distrust everything that I heard from Palestinians. But, my direct experience trumped all that emotional conditioning.

I believe that most peace activists, by withdrawing in upon themselves, had become completely ineffectual and irrelevant. I had been forced into greater complexity and balance and humbled by absorbing a greater multiplicity of voices and stories myself.
I was travelling uniquely between all these land-locked worlds and world views, and I saw the necessity of bringing them into conversation if we were going to ever have the collective intelligence we needed to resolve this conflict. And I believe that my fundamental values demanded it, so the path was paved.

It turns out, when you sincerely remove shame and coercion and attack and dismissal from the equation, the human curiosity to encounter the other is quite natural and powerful. We had created a model that could hold Palestinian and Jew, right and left, religious and secular in conversation with each other and with the support of our carefully crafted model  our participants had confronted scary and de-stabilizing new perspectives. And, it turned out the sky didn’t fall, but the earth cracked open.

It’s coming to an understanding of other people and I totally agree with you, it’s the core of social justice because I think of social justice ultimately what are we after, right, we’re trying to make human potential possible, right, we’re trying to help realize the capacity of the human being to be all that we can be. We’re trying to affirm human dignity and a lot of social justice work, I think, actually ends up betraying that goal, in the name of serving it because we degrade or dehumanize our own ideological adversaries; the people that we perceive as oppressors, that we want to bring down. And Encounters work is all about saying the so called oppressor is perceived differently depending on which side of divide you sit on and our work is about trying to see the dignity and humanity of everybody and help them realize their potential whichever side of the conflict they’re on or you perceive them to be on.

I think recognition for the work and the tremendous sacrifice that is involved in starting an organization and doing really risk taking and in some cases, I think, for all of us, even life threatening work is something that, first of all, I think it will encourage other people to take those risks, it catapults our work forward by shining a light on it and raising the profile of it. I think it inspires students to start envisioning themselves being able to walk in these footsteps and I can’t thank Grinnell enough.

Additional Information on Encounter

Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to training Jewish leaders to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by providing them with firsthand exposure to Palestinian narratives and realities on the ground. Encounter’s flagship program has brought more than 1,000 influential Jewish leaders on trips to Palestinian cities, representing the only significant non-military Jewish presence in Palestinian areas of the West Bank during the last decade. Through innovative methodologies geared towards producing civil discourse across political divides, Encounter seeds fruitful and vibrant conversations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Encounter’s past participants include rising and prominent leaders, opinion-shapers, and decision-makers. The program helps leaders on the right and left to gain a more nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and accordingly, to reshape their funding priorities, advocacy efforts, and policy decision-making.