Dialogue Between Israeli and Palestinian Women

Eileen Babbit

Assistant Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law, Tufts University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Because the it grew out of a long series of workshops conducted by professor Herb Kelman, with whom I was working at the time, over many years between Israelis and Palestinians, using his social psychological process of focusing on needs and fears, which is the interactive problem solving model coming out of John Burton, which you probably know by heart from ICAR. The observation for many years of conducting those workshops was that in those workshops they were usually mixed workshops i.e. men and women. Although much fewer women than men. Usually in a group of 10 people there would be two or three women, and the rest men. But a consistent observation that it was often, not always, but often the women participants who would shift the tone of the conversation by using a personal story, or being able to reflect in a personal way and or to express empathy that began to change the tone of the conversation of the whole group.

So the question was, if you brought only women together would you see more of this behavior? In other words, would the group actually make more progress on this empathy building, relationship building, working through stereotypes, etc., which is the purpose of these interactive problem-solving sessions. And that was the purpose of the workshop was to identify, this was in 1992 that we did this, to identify women political leaders from the Israeli and Palestinian communities. These were not lower level. These were high-level people. Some of whom were members of parliament all of whom were politically active and acknowledged as politically powerful in their communities and by their communities.

So that was number one and the other thing we were wanting to do because of evaluation purposes, was to build into the process an agreement on the part of the women that within a year of the workshop itself we would go back to each of them individually and interview them about the impact of the workshop on their subsequent personal and political activity.

Q: So it was right up front. To participate, they knew they were going to be asked a year from now, what do think now?

A: Right exactly. And can you trace again the impact of this workshop on your subsequent thinking, feeling, activity, interaction with the "other," bla bla. We also constructed the third party to be all women. Because again we wanted to see if having the energy in the room be primarily feminine energy, if this would make a difference in terms of the content of the discussion and the tone of the discussion. What we found in the workshop itself, and Tamara and I have written this up in a couple of places, the Political Psychology Journal for one, was that the disagreements among the women were no less acrimonious, they were no less deep. It wasn't as if people checked their identities at the door and just said well we're all women let's embrace and you know create peace. They still felt very strongly about the needs of their respective communities and the realities that their respective communities had to face.

However, there were two major differences. One was their interest and ability in combining the personal and the political. There was no difference for them. Discussing their personal experiences was part of understanding the political dynamics. It wasn't separate for them. The second was, they were very concerned about creating space for each other. Meaning, allowing people to speak. Even if they violently disagreed with what people were saying, they respected each other's points of view to the point where they wouldn't allow people to interrupt each other. They did it themselves, we didn't have to do this. They really wanted everyone to have a chance to express themselves fully. Very different from mixed groups or all-male groups in which it's very common for people to interrupt, shut each other up, say I don't want to hear that, etc. The quality of the interaction was very different, even though the beliefs that were held and the concerns that were held were just as antithetical as they would be in any group. So that's what we found there.

In the follow-up when we did just the interviews, I guess it was less than a year, it was six or eight months after the meeting. A couple of things, again not consistent. One was, for women for whom this was their first or early dialogue, people who hadn't been engaged in a lot of Israeli-Palestinian connection. I know it's hard to believe that there's anyone left in Israel or Palestine who hasn't been a participant in these meetings, but in fact there are a lot. For those for whom this was a first session, it was a tremendous eye opener, it was like a life-changing experience to be able to sit down in a civil way and actually engage with these really difficult political and personal issues was just wonderful and they loved it. For the women for whom this was not their first dialogue, who had been doing this for years, it was more frustrating because they wished they could make more progress. They had this assumption let's just get on with it now. We don't need to be back here trying to understand each other, we understand each other, let's get to solving the problem.

Q: We learned that last year.

A: Exactly. So they were more impatient. But what they also said was that there's tremendous benefit in repeated contact because it's not just in one encounter that your relationship and your perspective on the "other" changes. I mean this makes sense, it's with repeated contact where you can watch what happens in between. You can hear what people say, you can see how they present themselves. This is what you would do in any relationship, right? You meet somebody for the first time they come off in a particular way and you think, "Oh, okay."

And then there's a space and the next time you meet them and they're either the same or they're slightly different and you see a different aspect of them and in the meantime there may have been some contact at a distance and you're trying to make sense of what's true about this person. How authentic are they? Do they say what they really mean? Do they act in accordance with what they say? It's only with repeated contact with people over time, that you can actually begin to make a judgment about that. And the women who were in these repeated dialogues, felt it was incredibly important to have that ongoing contact because they could actually begin to see who they could trust and who they couldn't. Who was being honest and who wasn't. And otherwise it was too hit or miss. You know you're really creating the context for a relationship to be established and relationships are simply not established in one meeting. I mean, they are, but it's only superficial. There's no ability for it to go deep and it's only by the repeated contact that that can happen. So that's what the women told us.

And it wasn't even just repeated contact that we would orchestrate. It was repeated contact through multiple organizational connections, you know. Because there is a group in the Middle East, in the Israeli-Palestinian context who get repeatedly invited to participate in these things and those people get contact over and over and over again. And then they wind up on panels and they end up establishing personal relationships that are much different from the ones that they establish more superficially. So that was our experience there.