When it comes to navigating peaceful resolutions in matters of dispute, there is a common belief that any outward demonstration of empathy might ultimately compromise one’s bargaining position. The thought is that any sign of compassion or gesture of compromise towards an opponent (be it in a relationship, in a business transaction or in a court of law) might be seen as a sign of weakness. When such displays of the heart are off the table, negotiating issues can be contentious, merciless and unyielding.
Marital disputes can become like war zones where the inflexibility of spouses can compromise a sense of peace within the home. In business negotiations, hard-nosed transactions will often dismiss the needs of the other side in fear of losing the upper hand, and in all strategies where one party hopes to maximize power and strength, it is a common strategic ploy to demonize and demoralize the other. Whatever advantages these aggressive negotiation strategies may present, they can create hostile barriers to communications and significant impediments to finding a peaceful resolution.
Just as it is in disputes in the home or conflicts of interest in business, peace between nations can become paralyzed by dismissiveness and obstinance. This has certainly been the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where, for over seventy years, resistance to finding a resolution has been rooted in cycles of fear and mistrust as decades of hatred have become barriers to progress on every front.
Overcoming such seemingly insurmountable barriers demands an approach which strives to ensure that each side feels heard and understood. This concept of peace through mutual understanding has been central to the mission of Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB), an organization dedicated to fostering positive relationships between Jewish, Muslim and Christian teens in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. In stark contrast to a strategic negotiation that seeks to maximizing bargaining power by dismissing the needs and claims of others, JPB promotes transformational, person-to-person encounters in its quest to overcome decades of hatred and mistrust. For the past nine years, JPB has been bringing Israeli and Palestinian teens to the United States for camp experiences designed to promote positive communications by building bridges of understanding, expanding circles of shared leadership and sowing seeds of hope and peace.
The teens who participate in this forward-thinking program are an extraordinary group of dedicated young men and women whose commitments to diplomacy is unyielding. Their boundless dedication to peacebuilding is evident in their avid desire to acquire the tools that will allow them to shine as leaders in forging a peaceful society in Jerusalem and across the Middle East.
Central to their toolbox for the future is empathy. These teens work hard to overcome the hatred that festers within each of their communities, and without empathy they would be stuck. Their lack of trust in each other is pervasive, so developing a sense of empathy is not an easy task. For Israeli Jews, it is difficult to imagine trusting a people who are associated with building tunnels of terror and bomb bus stations and cafes to foment fear. Conversely, it is difficult for Palestinians to accept the full legitimacy of Israel, whose ongoing territorial expansions through settlements are seen as illegal and immoral, and whose existence (in the first place) is understood as an extension of European colonialism.
These teens grow up and live in very different understandings realities had hold aspirations for their people which are often diametrically opposed. Their relationships with each other are complex, and their connections with their past are complicated. Yet, their work with JPB demonstrates that regardless of the circumstances, each side has the capacity to suspend anger and suspicion for a greater good. Central to this work is empathy.
Empathy is the act of seeing something from someone else’s perspective. Empathy involves the capacity to analyze a situation based on the values of the other side. Empathy requires an effort to understand an outcome based on a set of experiences that may not be shared, and in many ways, empathy is one of the most important tools in negotiating a compromise that can be agreed upon by two parties with conflicting interests.
Healthy divorces demand empathy; long lasting business relationships are strengthened by empathy; and the negotiations for the future of Israel and the Palestinian people cannot be shaped without empathy.
In January, the Trump administration presented a new peace plan. The plan has many merits as well as many challenges, but as we look ahead, it would be wise to take a lead from the teens of Jerusalem Peacebuilders who fully understand that the key to moving beyond conflict demands a sense of empathy.