Heart of Treasure Valley: Boise couple helps Palestinians and Israelis connect

kjones@idahostatesman.comJune 2, 2013 

  • WANT TO HELP?

    Right now, Global Village Square reaches about 500 people per year, and their dream is 10,000 people per year. Currently, the foundation has two part-time co-facilitators: a Palestinian who was born in a refugee camp, and a retired colonel from the Israeli Defense Force.

    Financial contributions will allow the foundation to hire full-time staff, and support more post-Global Village Square projects.

    The foundation also hosts Global Village Squares in the United States to learn about, experience and support the process. For more information, check out EmergingFutures.org.

  • BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNICATION TECHNIQUES

    Circle practice: Participants sit in a circle and pass a talking piece and say, "This is why I'm here." Only the person with the talking piece gets to speak; others don't respond or ask questions or help them say it better. While others wait for their turn, they don't rehearse what they're going to say; they listen to the person who has the talking piece.

    Whit Jones says, "People from cultures all over the world have done this for thousands of years. ...

    "We now use that in our family. … When Paula's mom died last fall, she didn't want a service. So instead, we got the extended family here in a circle, about eight or nine of us, and passed the talking piece. It was just very powerful. And hearing what those little boys (grandsons 8 and 10 years old) said. … "

    World Cafe: Four or five people will sit around a small table to talk about a presentation or topic. After the first question, everyone moves. There is a process where everybody gets to talk and everyone is involved.

    Open Space: Participants are asked if they would like to consider doing things together. If someone has an idea, the topic is written on a piece of paper. The host with the idea sits at a table and anyone who is interested will show up.

    There are other rules and guidelines to get people involved, but one example is "The Law of Two Feet": If you're at any of the tables and not learning or contributing anything, then use your two feet to go to another table. By definition, anybody who is at a table is involved in what's going on.

    Properly worded questions: Whit has learned from experts, studied disciplines called "compassionate listening," "active listening" and the Art of Hosting and draws from his own years of experience.

    He has learned to ask questions that prompt people to respond from a personal level rather than a theoretical or political point of view. Instead of asking people to discuss "the conflict," he might ask pairs of folks to "tell each other a time you overcame a conflict in your life." He has found that such a question helps get people very quickly to a personal story, which is a key building block toward trust.

Generally speaking, he had his life figured out. He would build his career and, if he was lucky, become successful. Then he'd retire and put up his feet.

He says: "And if I did anything after that, it would be a little postscript to the book of my biography."

He's a psychologist; he built a successful business that focuses on delivering substance abuse and mental health services (including employee assistance programs). His daughter now runs the business, and he's almost retired. But putting up his feet?

"I now feel like all of that was prologue. (I'm now doing) what I was supposed to do; it just took me 60 years to do the prologue. Which doesn't leave me a lot of time for the middle of the book. … "

Whit Jones has always been drawn to helping people who are struggling. "It just seems to be in my DNA," he says, and that explains his work in psychology. Years ago, he also became involved in nonprofit work, and helped start the Idaho Community Foundation. But he was looking for more, something that would address difficult problems in a pro-active, comprehensive way.

So eight years ago, Whit Jones and his wife, Paula, started a foundation called Center for Emerging Futures. While searching for what issue the foundation could address, Whit heard two men speak - two men who were on opposing sides of the Middle East conflict.

One was a Palestinian, who spent months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for being on a road that had no signs saying he couldn't be there. The other man, an Israeli, had been shot twice by machine-gun fire in a drive-by shooting at a coffee shop in Jerusalem.

"Both of those guys came out of that saying, 'We are not interested in revenge or retribution; I really want to be part of the solution.' And they had dedicated their lives to being part of the solution, in spite of what they had come from.

"I cornered them, one at a time, then two together, and said, 'Is there anything a well-meaning, bleeding-heart psychologist from Boise, Idaho, could ever do over there that would help?

" … Their general response was, 'If you want to come over here and fix it, you probably shouldn't bother.

"But if you want to be of help to a few individuals, a few families, a few villages at a time - the opportunities are endless.'"

And so began Whit's real work. Twice a year, the foundation holds a gathering on the border between Israel and Palestine. These two-day gatherings, called Global Village Square, bring together people from both sides of the conflict to talk and build trust.

"We all hear about Hamas and we hear about the extreme Israelis out on the settlements. But that's such a tiny percent. The vast majority on both sides want peace. Not because they love the other side - but they want to live their lives, put their energy into raising their kids, taking care of the garden, not spend it worrying."

The gathering begins with a circle where each person gets to speak, and then moves to different kinds of sharing, all using carefully crafted questions and communication disciplines.

"You don't do therapy on them; you don't tell them, 'Yes, I've had problems, too, in my life, let me tell you about my problems.' You just listen."

Discussions are not about politics. They're about participants and each other.

"People all have this goodness and basic humanity about them that, given the right opportunity, they will show it."

As an example, Whit tells about Danny Gal and Sausin. Sausin, a Palestinian woman, was uncomfortable meeting this Israeli man - there was no trust. They were to talk about a difficult time and the dreams associated with where that could go.

"They realized they both had two kids exactly the same age and they talked about what their kids love to do. What Danny's kids love to do is go to the beach. And Sausin's kids had never seen the sea.

"So they left the meeting, making this vow that they would get together and one day, their families would meet on the beach."

On one level, talking is powerful enough. For some, just being in the same room with someone from "the other side" is sufficient risk.

"(Some will leave saying), 'I just wanted to see somebody from the other side, see whether they really have horns or not. And I've done that and that's good enough for me."

For others, meeting people from the other side is life-changing. One participant was a suicide bomber who was caught before she could complete her deadly mission.

"She decided in prison that she wanted to work for peace. … For the Israelis, 'There's a woman sitting right across from me, talking to me and she was all strapped up and she would have blown my kids up if she could have gotten to them.' ...

"That day she sat and talked with an Israeli who had flown jets that were bombing her village, but who later became a member of Combatants for Peace. ...

" It is a real stunning thing.

" … I call it 'rediscovering each other's humanity.' If you don't do that, the partnerships will never happen. So first you have to connect as human beings, just you and me - here's what we share about our history; here's what we have in common. That is absolutely essential and necessary.

"But it doesn't go far enough toward having a lasting relationship."

So the second layer of Global Village Square is the crux: forming partnerships with people from the other side.

"The dream that they would do something together was what I started with. First you get them together, get them comfortable with each other. But before you send them home, you give them an opportunity to see if there's anything more they'd like to do together."

On the last day of the gathering, people bring up project ideas they'd like to pursue, and participants choose what moves them. Out of the discussions come collaborations and projects, some big, some small, that could move into the future.

For example, some people organized a similar program for kids and families - from both sides. Another group organized and published a cookbook including photos and stories about the recipes - from both sides.

Another post-Global Village Square project is called Two Neighbors, where women in Palestine embroider rough cloth and Israeli women do the finish work.

"In between, they're meeting with each other to plan what they'll do with the next batch, what colors, designs. And in the process, connecting with each other in a way that matters very deeply. … (For some of them, this) was the first money they'd made in their lives. … "

"Businesses will always last as long as they make money. As long as they can make money … those relationships will always be there, which we think is important."

So that has become Whit's dream. As you read this, Whit and Paula are on their 18th trip to the Middle East. Their first gathering hosted 16 people; these days, they will have to turn people away after the gathering is full at 70. Now, they reach about 500 people a year. They have dreams of reaching 10,000.

"Does it solve the Middle East conflict? If anything, it's worse today than in 2004 when we first started going over there. But again, we didn't have that fantasy that we were fixing the Middle East conflict.

"(This work) is absolutely essential, (but) it's not the whole solution. The solution will be a political one. … But we have this hope that part of what will push politics will be more and people having these experiences and continuing to have these experiences with each other. ….

"Not because they learn from this couple from America how they should act or feel or think about what's going on, but because of the contacts they have and ... by doing these additional (partnerships) in the future with these new friends they made from the other side."

It is, as Whit says, a tiny drop in a really big bucket.

"But it's our drop."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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