Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.

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Organization of the week: Search for Common Ground

November 24, 2008

In light of my previous post, I want to highlight an organization that is doing the kind of bridge-building work I was talking about – and much more. This is an organization called Search for Common Ground. Their mission “is to transform the way the world deals with conflict: away from adversarial approaches, toward cooperative solutions.” Their goals and approaches go beyond traditional conflict resolution such as mediation:

At Search for Common Ground, we are not trying to end conflict, to prevent it, to mediate, manage or even resolve it. We are not a conventional conflict resolution organization that tries to resolve conflict in discrete pieces. We do include those things in our work as appropriate – there are times when mediation or negotiation is needed and useful – but these are usually applied to very specific problems. Our goal is much broader: to transform the way communities and societies view and deal with their differences.

They have a large number of programs around the world in conflict-torn areas. One bridge-building project that is particularly inspiring to me is focused on children: a bilingual and multi-cultural pre-school in Macedonia:

The primary goal of Mozaik is to socialize children into a multicultural environment at the earliest possible age, to teach tolerance and respect for the diversity of cultures, and to help different ethnic communities collaborate and communicate with each other. The project has helped build confidence and trust in everyday relationships and has been recognized by Macedonia’s educational authorities as a pedagogical model for all pre-school teachers.

Their other programs use a wide variety of techniques to foster independent media, dialogues, information access, regional cooperation, and other peace-building activities. Search for Common Ground is doing important and inspiring work.


Nonviolent Communication

November 20, 2008

I recently read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph. D. Nonviolent Communication, or NVC for short, is an important approach to and process of communication that allows us to stay connected to our own human-ness and that of others. As Rosenberg describes:

NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our works become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are preceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.

In a conflict situation, NVC is crucial in keeping things from escalating. If even one of the parties in the conflict uses NVC, they will be able to keep the focus on their own feelings and needs and those of the other party. It is only through acknowledging each individual’s feelings and addressing each of their needs that a conflict can be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.

I am in some ways a natural at NVC, in large part because my parents were familiar with NVC when they raised me and they raised me very compassionately. I am good at both being aware of my own feelings and needs and at being compassionate and empathic with others and hearing the feelings and needs behind their words. However, there were still things I learned from reading this book, making me realize how complex and, at times, challenging the NVC process is. For example, I became more aware of how prevalent judgments are in our culture and language. Judgments show up in subtle ways, in phrases I would not have immediately labeled as being judgmental. Rosenberg effectively points out how many seemingly innocuous phrases are in fact judgments (or, as he also calls them, evaluations).

Another important aspect of NVC that I understood with new clarity is the importance of owning our feelings. This is particularly important when it comes to anger. Although we may feel a certain way in reaction to a particular behavior, another person’s behavior does not make us feel that way. We feel that way because we have a need that was or was not met by the behavior in question. Rosenberg describes this as distinguishing stimulus from cause. For example, imagine that you are meeting a friend and she is late. You may feel angry that she was late. However, her behavior is the stimulus but not the direct cause of your anger. The real cause of your anger is that your need to see her for the full hour you were planning to be together was not met, or your need to not walk in to a show late was not met. It can become easier to distinguish stimulus from cause when you imagine a situation where the same thing happens but you feel differently. For example, another time your friend is late you may not feel angry but instead relieved, because you had scheduled things too close together and you needed some downtime in between. It now becomes clear that your friend being late is not the cause of your anger in the first situation.

As you can see, NVC is about more than language itself. It is an entire approach to life. I believe that compassion and empathy are key components to peace, and the best way to prevent violence and instead have peace is to make sure people stay in touch with their human-ness. NVC is an important tool for doing that.

I also reviewed this book on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany. I highly recommend it.


Organization of the week: Peacemaker Institute

September 22, 2008

Continuing with the theme of education and training on peace, this week I’d like to highlight the Peacemaker Institute. This organization is quite different from formal university degree programs. It offers workshops and trainings in peacemaking from a spiritually grounded Buddhist perspective, combining personal transformation with techniques and strategies for creating social change. On the website, it describes the workshops as:

…transformative, holistic (body, mind and spirit balanced), experiential, and inclusive. Each training is delivered with a focus on community learning, peer relationships, and respect for the background, experience, and needs of each participant.

They offer a certification program called the Integral Peacemaker Training, which they describe as follows:

The Integral Peacemaker Training™ is a professional certificate program in which we train leaders and community activists in a non-polarizing, reflective and wisdom-based approach to creating positive social change in support of a more just, peaceful and sustainable global community. Our training program is both integral and deeply transformative, balancing the inner and outer dimensions of leadership and activism. Our participants optimize their effectiveness and impact by cultivating resilience, emotional intelligence and mental fitness, while building strong communication, leadership and conflict transformation skills.

The certification requirements are to complete each of their four core workshops, as well as a non-violent communication workshop and an intensive personal transformation workshop called The Event. The four core workshops are titled “Transforming Self,” “Transforming Relationships,” “Transforming Groups,” and “Transforming Systems.”

Although I am not a Buddhist, I am intrigued by this approach to peacemaking, and I am seriously considering taking one of their workshops and possibly doing their full certification program. The cost is affordable for me and I would not have to travel, as they are located in my own town, Boulder, CO. However, before I decide for sure whether to do a workshop, I feel as if I need to clarify what I hope to get out of it. I know that I want more formal training in non-violent communication, conflict resolution, and peacemaking, but I’m not sure what I hope to do with those skills. I am drawn to the Peacemaker Institute in part because I feel that their trainings may help me clarify my goals at the same time as giving me new skills and confidence.