Musalaha: Experiences and Impact
“Does it really work?” This is the first question that people ask when they hear about Musalaha. It is difficult to imagine what kind of impact “Desert Encounters” and Conferences can have in a situation where pain is great, emotion runs high and no political solution is in sight. In an ongoing conflict such as ours, that is violent and drawn-out, there is little hope placed in reconciliation initiatives. Efforts for coexistence and bridge-building face a context of deeply rooted and often opposing historical and cultural narratives, religious fervor, and identities. Peace and reconciliation initiatives take place in an atmosphere of hostility and opposition, where experiences and forces such as the media and politicians do not reinforce, but rather undermine, efforts to resolve conflict.
For believers living in this land, where relationships between people groups are at best damaged and distant, the process of reconciliation is not a choice. Many believers are committed to each other, and to loving their brothers and sisters in the Lord, no matter which side of the political divide. This is the mandate in following the Scriptures such as I John 4:20, “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
To this end, many are rising to face the challenge of following the Gospel that says “love your enemy” even though they feel vulnerable and surrounded by enemies. Amidst pressures to hate and seek revenge, believers are following Biblical principles. When the spiritual, social and political realities meet, we are put to a test. Does our faith inform our attitudes and relationships? Do these efforts bear fruit? Are there results? What is the impact of meeting with brothers and sisters from the other side?
Some encouraging insight has come from a recent study conducted by Gavriel Salomon from the University of Haifa , on the impact of peace education in Israeli and Palestinian students. Saloman found that peace education programs were able to meet some of their goals of changed attitudes and perceptions, and did have a positive impact on participants.
A synopsis of trends and results
1. Programs had a lasting effect. Positive outcomes were detectable up to one year after the program had ended. Results were evident in spite of the violence and conflict of the past two years. Even a year following the encounter, there was a measurable change in participants’ willingness to interact with the other side and to make efforts to understand their backgrounds and perspectives.
2. Expressions of animosity were curbed; hatred was reduced. Saloman found that while an encounter may not resolve the conflict, it does deter negative attitudes. It can prevent deterioration, although there may be no progress in the political arena. This is an important and often immeasurable affect of peace education.
3. Building relationships helped to change perceptions and further understanding of the other side. Participants were more likely to trust each other, and to try to understand each other’s perspectives, after they had developed relationships with individuals from the other side. Interaction with people from the other side enabled participants to see that the “enemy” has a face and a story.
4. Peace education impacted people in different ways. Participants’ reactions and the degree of impact depended on the backgrounds, perspectives and attitudes held prior to their participation in the program. For example, their political stance might affect their openness to hearing the other sides’ positions.
5. Participants were more likely to change their thought process before their emotions. They were able to understand mentally (cognitively), but did not develop as much emotional understanding and empathy.
Musalaha’s experiences and observations
We have observed some similarities and differences between trends in Saloman’s research and in Musalaha’s programs.
1. Continued involvement and long-term effect. As in Saloman’s findings, encounters have a lasting impact. In Musalaha’s experience not only are perceptions affected, but many participants move to the level of taking action. Some have made extraordinary efforts to reach out to meet the needs of those on the other side through donating time, money, and goods. Many endeavor to maintain contact by visiting each others’ homes and families. In awareness of the need for long-term impact, Musalaha has developed follow-up projects to enhance and facilitate progress towards reconciliation.
Participants’ involvement in Musalaha activities also has an impact in their communities when they speak out against prejudice and even make choices to avoid violence. This can be a step in preventing deterioration of the situation.
3. Building relationships has been a key element for Musalaha, as it builds trust and enables participants to approach topics that require extra sensitivity. Following a program, groups have moved to discuss sensitive issues such as theology of the Land, political matters and historical narratives. Discussions on theological and political issues have deepened believers’ understandings of each other’s positions on these topics. At times, assumptions have been made concerning interpretations of scripture or political opinions. Dialogue on these topics helps participants to understand the variety of perspectives on the other side.
Often participants are less influenced by one-sided media and seek alternative sources. They are moved to consult people from the other side to discuss issues addressed in the news. Our observation is that those who have not been involved in Musalaha are more influenced by media one-sidedness and less in touch with how the other side thinks and feels. By building relationships with people from the other side, participants are able to broach issues and have dialogue with a heightened sensitivity that leads to greater understanding.
Meeting with each other helps participants discover that a plurality of opinion exists within the other side. There is a tendency to believe that the other side is of one opinion. Usually the radicals, who have the most extreme voices, are perceived as representing the majority. For example, you often hear, “They want to kill us all.” This kind of statement is derived from the voices of extremists and applied as the entire opinion of the enemy. There is difficulty in identifying alternative voices within the other side. Encounters between the two sides enable them to learn new information about each other.
4. Participants are affected by the process in different ways, and the degree to which they are changed by the process is influenced by their background and perceptions. It is evident that people who participate in Musalaha’s programs bring with them strong political opinions and Biblical interpretations. These preconceptions have bearing on the affect that the encounter has on them.
5. Encounters do have an emotional impact. In contrast to Saloman’s findings that participants are more impacted mentally than emotionally, in our experiences with believers, reconciliation is very much a “heart” issue. In dealing with hatred and studying the Bible together, we see that the degree to which we learn to love God comes hand-in-hand with our love for brothers and sisters, even those who belong to the “enemy camp.” We are challenged by I John 4:21, “And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
As believers, the work of the Holy Spirit changes us from within, dealing with our desires for revenge and the hatred that so easily consumes. This spiritual dimension is of utmost significance in our interaction with believers and non-believers from the other side. The impact of reconciliation is a matter of both the heart and mind.
From Genesis to Revelation, there is the central theme of God reconciling the world to Himself and us to each other. The results of Saloman’s study are encouraging for us in our work, especially as we know that added to his findings there is the work of God in the hearts of people. At times when it is difficult to see the impact of these efforts, believers continue to pray together, to deepen understanding and to pursue reconciliation.
 Salomon, G. (2003) Does peace education make a difference? University of Haifa , Center for Research on Peace Education (second draft).