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Relationships

Today’s blog post comes from Valparaiso University Law Student Kirk B…

In my private practice as a social worker there were particular statements we were trained as a therapist never to say to clients. For example, “I understand how you feel, or I understand what you were going through.” That was a sure way to lose a client. If you wanted to ruin the client-therapist relationship in its initial stages, presuming to know the answer before asking the question is a bad idea. As lawyers we are taught never to ask a question we don’t know the answer to, but that doesn’t always work when dealing with human behavior. When getting to know your client the most important thing in the initial stages is building a relationship by simply listening.

Getting to the point where you can actually tell the client your assessment of the problem and how they may need to change takes time and a relationship. No one wants to hear that they are wrong. But they are more willing to listen if they can trust that the assessment comes from a genuine place of concern. Two weeks is not enough time to change a person’s mind. It’s not enough time to fully comprehend another’s story. To explain away the complexity that comes, for example, with the PTSD experience in a few sessions is condescending. It strips the victim of his chance to tell his story. Westerners feel the need to find perfect solutions, because we don’t like “dead space.” However, it is not always important to find a solution to every problem. An unsolicited attempt to solve a person’s problem presupposes that you always have the answer. That may be true, but it is not always our job to have a solution to every problem. It is certainly not our job to sum-up the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Our job was not to solve anyone’s conflict, it was to listen to the Israeli students and build relationships with them. Instead we argued with them and drove them away. Sometimes it’s not about being right, it is about simply becoming a person’s friend. Change can come through breaking of bread and sharing one another’s experiences. In some respects we lost that opportunity to break bread with the Israeli students because they felt misunderstood.

The closest thing Americans have to compare to this present conflict is the Twin Towers Attacks. However, the truth is that we have no idea what it feels like to have the enemy drop a bomb in our backyards. Unless we’ve served in the military we have no idea what it feels like to be bombed. I suspect the effects are still present. The most recent spate of attacks was in 2014. Death, loss, and fear continue to live in the hearts and minds of both Israelis and Palestinians. Since the Twin Towers attack in 2001 Americans have had time to heal. America mourned its tragic losses, punished the wrongdoers, and moved on from the tragedy. We still struggle with the blanket discrimination of Muslims but no one is worried about having their neighborhoods bombed or being displaced. It has only been two years since the last bombing of Israeli Territory. The trauma of the experience is fresh. Asking the Israeli students to be objective is insensitive. It’s like asking the families of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina to think objectively after recently losing love ones to a terror attack. Imagine asking Americans to forgive Al Qaeda?

Two people can experience the same trauma and have completely different visceral responses of the same incident. Different people experience trauma differently. Some find it difficult to relive the experiences. Talking about the situation brings up anger, resentment, and anxiety, especially for those who have served or been victims. Others may be hurting, but are able to endure talking about it. There are those who can endure even frank discussions and are able to separate their personal feelings. However, it’s important to remember that each person has a different threshold. I watched some students in LOAC (Law of Armed Conflict) affected by trauma find it difficult to even sit still in class. Each time the terror narratives were retold it made them so uncomfortable they could not sit still. The anxiety level in the room was so high it was difficult for them to remain objective. Many found it hard to accept what they perceived to be a skewed version of the truth. I imagine it must be like standing at the precipice and being pushed in against your will.

An American frame of reference to the Israel/Palestine experience is limited because, unless we’ve served in the military, we have no reference to the conflict. We cannot mirror what the Israeli students are experiencing. We have no way of fully grasping what the Palestinians experience daily. We have no way of “walking in the other persons shoes.” The most powerful thing we can do is build relationships with them.

I believe we attempted to show empathy and open-mindedness, but actually because of our lack of understanding we isolated the Israeli students. Taking unto ourselves the struggle that has been going on since 1947 and that will remain even after we leave limits our understanding of our reasons for being here.

This trip is about awareness, support, appreciation and understanding of the conflicts. It is not about giving smart solutions. The reality is, when we leave the Israeli students they will remain here in fear. When we leave the conflict it will not end just because we came to Israel. When we leave Palestinians they will continue to experience injustice. It is not our job to change the minds of the people. Greater minds have tried and failed. It is not our job to victimize people who are traumatized from watching their loves die. It’s our job to bridge gaps. Attempts to provide solutions from an American perspective, or arguing one’s side because we believe the other side is wrong is futile. What are we trying to prove? Who are we trying to convince? The American empathy is different because we are taught to find a solution behind every problem, but two weeks is not enough time to solve the problem.