How I failed to apply these lessons before the election, and am now trying to do better...
In the weeks leading up to the election, I had a few “discussions” with my Trump-supporting family members. During one particularly heated exchange over Rosh Hashana dinner (admittedly, after a couple of glasses of wine), I accused my cousin of being stupid for supporting Trump even though her father and husband are immigrants. Obviously, that didn’t go over well. She yelled back, the meal came to a screeching halt and she nearly stormed out with her family until I took her aside to apologize.
In the few weeks after the election, the initial shock wore off, my brain kicked in, and I could not forget this exchange with my cousin. And finally it hit me-
I have been here before, just in a land far, far away...
Lessons (somewhat) Learned from a Peace Activist
On and off for the last 7 years, I have lived in Israel and attempted to be what they call a “peace activist:” solidly in the leftist peace camp, a member of the committee of Meretz (considered far left political party), and a young veteran of Peace NGOs. Over those years, I observed the marginalization of the “left” from up close, as even the term “leftist” becoming a curse word in modern Hebrew slang.
In graduate school I explored the question of how the left, and the peace camp/NGOs in particular, can reverse this trend. At the individual level, I began to understand that we, as a movement, have a serious communication problem; how and what we say matters.
For example, by telling settlers that they’re anti-democratic occupiers and complicit in human rights abuses, the left only managed to exacerbate settlers’ fears over the safety of their families. Understandably, in response they defensively retreat further to the right after what they perceive as an attack from the “other’s fifth column.” Sound familiar? Swap out “settlers” for “Trump supporters” and “occupiers” for “racists and misogynists” and the parallels are striking.
The other most traumatizing election I have ever lived through- Benjamin Netanyahu’s late night surprise victory in early 2015- demonstrates how much worse it can actually get. I went to bed that night thinking we (=the left) had finally won, only to find out in the morning that a last minute plea by the incumbent Prime Minister, appealing to the fear of the Palestinian “other,” propelled him to victory overnight: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”
I took away from this that the people on the other side of the political spectrum are not “bad people,” their support for certain policies is based on fear and misunderstanding- and as my therapist always says, productive communication is the only way to overcome these feelings.
What Now? Bringing Peacebuilding to Your Own Life
Well, I wish I could say that I completely internalized this, recognized it in the run up to the US election, and communicated effectively to address the fears that underlie my family’s support for Trump, but my holiday story does not lie. I missed the boat.
It is not too late, not for myself, not for Israel-Palestine, and not for the US.
While the circumstances are certainly not identical, the electoral victories around the world that have liberals squirming this past year have similar underpinnings that Israel has dealt with ineffectively for decades. Maybe there are lessons that can be learned from their missteps:
- Inclusion and building bridges- make a point to meet with and interact with those that are different from you, whether that be of different political beliefs, religion, skin color, or sexual orientation
- LISTEN and communicate about fears, interests and values- Ask about their positions. Listen to and try to understand what their fears and needs are that drive them to support a particular policy by making the “why” question your best friend: “Why does that scare you?” “Why is that important to you?” Chances are, once you figure out the interest underlying their fearful position, you will relate to it on a human level. Use that, tell a story about a similar fear and watch as the shared values become apparent.
- No more name-calling and insult hurling- Labels (ie. “racist”) are cognitive tools that we use to facilitate comprehension of the complex world around us and make communication easier, but in this case, they are frankly not useful. Hurling an insult exacerbates pre-existing fears and causes people to react defensively. To reduce fears, we need to transform our communication to one of love, acceptance and understanding.
- Do it over food- The blow out with my family member happened over a meal, and it was probably the meal that salvaged the interaction. I couldn’t be the reason she would leave a family dinner, so I took her aside to apologize. Food has the power to bring people together- use it.
Join Us in Communicating & Connecting for Local Peacebuilding
It is these lessons that I am bringing with me to Sesamaise Tahini, a social food business launching in 2017. Our vision is a world where businesses connect & collaborate with their clients, partners and employees to positively change their communities & ecosystems. Originally, our social mission was focused on building bridges between Israeli and Palestinian family businesses.
With the post-Trump-election fallout, and the deepening of the divides between communities in the US, we must stay true to our vision and bring the lessons from the Israeli-Palestinian case to repair and build bridges among our clients in the US, as well.
With our launch in 2017, we will begin organizing and supporting #SesamaiseConnects events where people from different communities come together over a bowl of Sesamaise Tahini Dips, learn communication skills for their own lives, using the lessons from the Israel-Palestine case, and build bridges, meaningful interactions and connections among members of the communities represented.
Contact us here to host your own in your community.