Professor, Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), The Israeli Center for Qualitative Methodologies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
A: First, I'll mention a professor whose name is Dan Baron. He went to Germany in the mid-'80s, and he decided to interview children of Holocaust perpetrators. That research led eventually to the establishment of a self-help group of second-generation Holocaust perpetrators. Here in the US, there are a number of groups of second-generation Holocaust survivors; one is called One Generation After, and it's located in Boston and New York.
After these groups had been meeting for a while separately, he had this idea. He thought that it might be worthwhile to bring them together so that the children of survivors and the children of perpetrators could be together. He established this program in 1992. There were about 16-18 people from the US, from Germany, and from Israel, who would meet for about a week. Now these are all professionals and multipliers. They're social workers, psychologists, researchers, doctors, community workers, teachers, educators, etc. There's no outside facilitation. They facilitated it themselves. Through this context of either being a child of a survivor or being a child of a perpetrator, they started telling each other their life stories. The whole week, they just spent time with each other and their life stories. They decided afterward to meet each year, so each year they get together in Germany, or in the US, or in Israel. After they did this for about six years, they decided to pick a name. They decided they couldn't talk about reconciliation. They didn't have the authority to reconciliate, but they could reflect on what their life experiences had been and they could hopefully try to trust one another. This group became very cohesive and very strong.
They thought that maybe what they had was something good that could work in present-day conflict areas, since the Holocaust, with all of its pain, is over. You have to learn how to live with that and deal with that, but it's not something that's currently ongoing. Don thought about bringing together people from different areas. At the time, they thought about South Africa, which was at the end of its conflict.
Q: The end of apartheid?
A: Yes. In addition, Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants, and of course, Israelis and Palestinians. Now, Israelis and Palestinians aren't that simple, because we're talking about Palestinians from the territories, from the West Bank and Gaza. We're talking about Israelis who are Jewish Israelis and also Palestinian Israelis, meaning citizens of Israel who are Arab but who are also Palestinians.
So in 1998, the people from the TRT went to these different places and found participants. They met together in Hamburg for the first time. Every time people get together, they decide what they're going to do. "Are we going to have mixed groups?" "Are we going to have separate groups?" "How often are we going to meet together?"
Q: So this structure is very loose?
A: The structure is very loose.
Q: The guidelines, for what the process is going to be, are very open.
A: It's very open, except that there are a few guidelines. One is that we work by telling our life stories. It's difficult, very difficult. We try very hard not to get into attitudes and political stances that lead nowhere. It can't always be helped, because people have feelings about these things. Sometimes, you meet more together with your own group and sometimes you meet more in mixed groups, and you always have some number of plenaries, and you meet other people from outside, also. It's loose, so that you can decide something in the morning, and in the afternoon you want to change it. So, they met in Hamburg...
Q: When you say, "we met," these are members from all of these different groups?
A: Right, everybody who's a member of the TRT.
Q: People there from Northern Ireland, South Africa... It's like a world conference.
A: Right, right. If it began with say 16 or 18 people, I would say that now the list is about 100 people. Not everybody participates each time. For instance, at the last meeting, we had about 40-45 participants, and we broke up into 4 groups. So we were 10-11 in each group each time.
Q: So when you say "group," you don't divide necessarily by geography?
A: In 2000, we met in Stockton in July. We met exactly when Camp David was going on. In September 2000, the Intifada started. When we met in July, we knew that there were all kinds of problems, but we really thought that peace was right there.
In 2000, it was easier for us to sit together and talk. In 2002, I know a lot of us were sitting on the plane, kind of thinking, "Why am I doing this? Well, I want to see Northern Ireland." We all felt that no good was going to come of this. Just hopeless, totally the atmosphere of hate. The problem was solved, because we did have a meeting the first night with just the Palestinians and Israelis.
And this is where the concept of different groups turns out to be very helpful: When we sat together in the first plenary and were talking about how to do it, one of the German participants said, "Why don't we sit in mixed groups?"
Q: For the first time ever?
A: They might have done it before, but I don't think they did it quite this way. She said, "Why don't we have, you know, two or three from here, two or three from here, two or three from here?"
Q: Talking about the Middle East?
A: No. Everybody with their life story, in the context of their conflict. It wouldn't be that Israelis and Palestinians would sit in a room, and nothing would be able to come out of it, because there would be too much hate, fear, and distress. It was a brilliant idea, but I don't think an Israeli or a Palestinian could have come up with it; it took a German to propose that. So we sat in mixed groups mostly that time, and it made it much more possible to communicate. I was in a group with two Jewish Israelis and two Palestinians from the West Bank.
Q: And Catholics and Protestants?
A: Catholics and Protestants. There were very few South Africans there, but we had one white man from South Africa. There were 11 or 12 in our group. I think two Catholics, two Protestants, two Israelis, two Palestinians, and I think one or two Germans and one or two children of survivors.
Q: How did it go?
A: I think it went very well. It was very emotional.
Q: It was easier to talk than it would have been, had you been in a group with only Palestinians?
A: I think so, yeah.
When I told my story, for instance, one of the Palestinians semi-attacked some things I had said. There was a German participant, and there was a child of Holocaust survivors, and there was a Catholic from Northern Ireland who could step in and say, "I heard this; I didn't hear what you heard. Why don't you try thinking about it in this way?" I don't have any traumatic life story, thank heavens, so I was just talking about how I'm originally from the US and how my decision to emigrate was based on ideological reasons. Israel is a Jewish state, and I, as a Jew, should live there.
I talked about my decision to live there and my life there, again, in the context of the conflict. I continued on about how my identity has been affected, and the way I've changed over the years, the way I look at things differently. I've been in Israel over 30 years, so I look at things differently now from when I first came. I more or less ended with the fact that my youngest son — at the time he was 17 (now he's 18) — is going into the army soon. We have a lot of discussions at home, and he wants to go into a fighting unit. He wants to be a combat soldier. He's 18 years old and has got raging hormones. All of his role models, all of his friends, and the people he looks up to are combat soldiers. Among 18-year-old boys, that's what's discussed. I keep trying to tell him, "Daniel, I don't want you to go into something where you're going to be, say, in the West Bank, pointing a gun at a Palestinian citizen." It always ends with, "Oy mom, give me a break." He's going to decide what he's going to decide. He's 18 years old. He's an adult. It's his decision. I was talking about how I'm torn because I love and care about him; he's my son. Whatever he does I have to support, because, how can he go into the army for at least three years and me not support him? Then, he's going to be doing things that are against my morals, against things that I believe in.
One of the Palestinians said to me, "Well, you just have to forbid him." And I said, "I can't. What do you mean I have to forbid him? What can I do, sit on him? I mean, what am I supposed to do?" And he said, "No, if you really meant it, then you would forbid him." And I said, "You know, I really mean it and I can't forbid him, he's going to do it."
Then either one of the Germans or someone else from outside the Israeli-Palestinian group said, "Look, what if your son came to you and said, 'I'm going to go be a suicide bomber?' What would you do?" Because this is also a man of peace, this Palestinian, and he said, "Well, I would forbid him." And I said, "How would you forbid him? What would you do?" He said, "He wouldn't do it." I said, "What would you do? Would you lock him in the house? What would you do?" I could tell that he didn't accept it. He kept asserting, "No, I would forbid him." The other said, "Okay, I believe that you would like to forbid him just like Julia would like to forbid her son, but in the end, your son will choose whatever path he chooses, just like her son will choose whatever path he chooses, and that's one of the tragedies. I mean, hopefully, neither son will choose one of these paths, but the fact is that you live within societies where there's also great pressure on Palestinian youth to become suicide bombers, just like there's great pressure on Israeli youth to go into these fighting units." So, I think if we'd just been the Israelis and Palestinians, that whole thing would have really blown up. So I'm not saying we have gotten to any happy end, but on the other hand, things could be brought up and then they were much more diffused because it wasn't me saying it, it was somebody from the outside.
Q: And there were people who weren't going to be defensive about the things you said who were also hearing your story?
Q: When you said that Don Baron thought that it would do good to have Holocaust survivors and children of perpetrators meet, what do you mean by "good"? I presume that that would extend to these meetings that you have now between the Catholics and the Protestants, and black South Africans and white South Africans. What do you mean by good? What good does it do?
A: Good in that people carry with them a lot of traumas of the past, whether or not they actually experienced them. My parents are not Holocaust survivors, but I've been a researcher of the Holocaust for a long time, so I've heard hundreds and hundreds of stories. People carry with them all kinds of things, all kinds of attitudes and fears and stereotypes of the other, and a lot of this gets passed on to their own children, to the third generation. So, good in that a lot of these issues could be opened up, and not only opened up amongst second-generation people, but with people from the other side. Of course, these are children of Holocaust survivors who are willing to meet with children of perpetrators, it's not an easy thing. Can you imagine the son of Martin Bormann telling his story, and someone sitting in the room is talking about their parents who'd been in Auschwitz? You can imagine the tension and emotions that were in that room. We call it "working through."
"Working through" means not to overcome the past, not to put it behind you, but to learn to live with it. "Working through" is a process, and it's a lifelong process, because when you're 10 you have to learn how to live with it, and when you're 18 you have to learn how to live with it, and if you get married and you have kids, and then things come up, you have to learn how to live with it. As you pass through different developmental stages in life, these things come back to influence you, and you have to continue to learn to live with it. A good way to learn to live with it is by facing that other, who's willing to face you also, and to enter into dialogue, and to talk about these things.
Q: So, the goal is to allow the people who are participating to live with the trauma, whether they've experienced it or inherited it from their parents?
A: That's one of the goals.
Q: There are others?
A: Well, one of the ways of keeping it from becoming a cult — you know, "once a year we go and have some kind of catharsis" — is by working with other people. If we want to bring together, say, Israelis and Germans, we're not bringing them together on the level of, "I'll tell you what my opinions are," and "I'll tell you what my attitudes are," but in order to also choose this life-story method of group work and facilitation as a way to really understand yourself better. Because, as you tell your story, you reflect on your story; others, as they listen to your story, help you reflect on your story; listening to other stories, you get a broader perspective; and listening to other stories, of course, you reflect again on your own story. So it's not just to work with others; it's also to have some sort of multiplication effect.
Q: So, by learning to live with those things, you are, in a sense, capacitating yourself to help others deal with their trauma?
A: Yeah, that's the idea.
Q: Is it a growing circle? I mean, do you get different people every year, or is it the same people every year?
A: It's a growing circle.
People love telling their life stories, whether they're old or they're younger. When they have the real opportunity, and enough time, and it's open, people like that. It's become extremely popular in Northern Ireland, and it's become extremely popular in Germany. Also, the THC, Toward Health and Conciliation, has many groups. A lot of people know TRT, because Don Baron has a number of contacts in Northern Ireland, so he's been at a number of what they call "residentials," like overnight conferences. A lot of self-help groups have adopted this way of working. In Northern Ireland, the last day of the conference was an open conference day, and there were hundreds of people there. It was really amazing.
Q: People like telling their stories, but do they like listening to other people's stories?
A: Yeah. It's very difficult to tell your life story, but it's much, much harder to listen. You have to really listen, and you have to not be judgmental and not think about what you would have done. It's easier for me to listen to a Catholic tell his story, of how he was shot between the eyes when he was ten years old and has been blinded since then, than it is for me to listen to the life story of a woman from Jenin. This Catholic from Northern Ireland isn't a threat. So, I can listen to his story, and we can all cry with the story and see what a wonderful person he is, because I'm not a Protestant from Northern Ireland. I have to work much harder to really listen when the woman from Jenin tells her story.
Q: Without reacting, and saying, "No, you're telling it wrong?"
A: I'm good at that, because I do a lot of interviewing, so I can do that, but without feeling containment inside. How much can you contain? How much pain can you contain? And then you're trying to contain the pain of another who is telling you that you, the Israelis, are the source of their problems. So you have to be able to listen to that for an hour, for two hours, for however long her story takes. It's very difficult.
To Reflect and Trust is people sitting together in a room talking to one another, so even if a Palestinian is saying something that is making my blood boil and getting me very upset, I still see the person as a person. I sit with them at dinner, I'll sit with them in the evening, and we'll have a drink together in the evening. It's a much different kind of thing. You can't help but see the person as a person. A lot of it is people I work with also. Some of these people are also involved in PRIME, so it's people you get to know.