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Original article can be found at the Inly News & Events archives page.

Donna Milani Luther Lectures in Israel

April 28, 2006

Fresh back from her two-week stay in Israel, Donna is feeling both energized and introspective. She rode a camel, floated in the Dead Sea, witnessed Bar Mitzvah Day at the wall in Jerusalem (“as joyous as anything I have ever seen”), and relished in the confluence of age-old cultures in streets patrolled by armed guards. But most of her time was spent teaching and brainstorming at the conference “Imagine: Expression in the Service of Humanity.” How did these two weeks affect her, both personally and professionally? “It changed everything,” she said. “It simply changed how I view everything in life.”
The mission of the conference came with a tall order: “Transforming Conflict from Destruction to Creation.” Sponsored by Lesley University in Cambridge (where Donna is an adjunct professor), in conjunction with the Israeli government and Tel-Aviv University, the conference focused on developing creative therapeutic tools for dealing with conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestine conflict in particular. In an unusual move, the sponsors were given a grant—and granted permission—to host 40 Palestinians at the conference. Because it is against the law for Palestinians to stay overnight in Israel, they had to apply for special permits.

Palestinian and Israeli participants, together with professionals from the fields of psychotherapy, psychology, psychiatry, and social services, as well as from education, the arts, and expressive therapies, came together in both Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem to explore new territory.

Ties that bind…
During the conference Donna taught a class to 30 master’s-level students on “Intergroup Conflict Resolution.” She also conducted innovative workshops in movement, sculpture, and art, in which she created exercises designed to help people break out of patterns. This series was called “Artscape: Imagining a Peaceful Landscape Through the Arts.” As she explains, it’s patterns that bind us. We are all so accustomed to doing things and seeing things in precise ways, and our patterns are so deeply ingrained, that it’s extremely difficult to change.

…and set us free
So Donna’s exercises were all about letting go. Her students would work on a sculpture or painting for a period of time, and then be asked to leave it half-finished and move on to the next workstation, to take over work on their classmate’s creation. This process proved to be both frustrating and liberating at the same time.

According to Donna, the workshops were definitely effective, but often in subtle ways. Some cases were more dramatic than others, as in the case of a Palestinian man who said emotionally after one of Donna’s movement classes, “I never thought I’d feel my spirit again.” Being part of that breakthrough alone made the entire trip worthwhile for Donna.

Further Reflections

Q: So did the conference achieve its objectives?
A. In the beginning, people sat at opposite sides of the room and said, “I’ve never spoken to an Israeli in my life” and, conversely, “I’ve never spoken to a Palestinian in my life.” Then, over the days you could see the lines melting, conversations happening, people making connections that they never thought were possible…and that was powerful.

Obviously the mission of the conference was optimistic. But at the end I did sense a feeling of hope, particularly for the children and the new generation. No one made a full turnaround, but they did make progress. In some cases, they’d made a new friend. But they were quick to say that that one person was a minority and that just because they liked that one Israeli or Palestinian, that doesn’t mean they’d like another Israeli or Palestinian.

Q: How can the arts help with conflict resolution?
A: When well done, arts therapy can really “take you to a new place…a place beyond words. “ You can see it happening, you’ve probably felt it yourself, when you feel “swept away” by a piece of music, or transported by a painting. It’s this sensation that also helps you let down your guard.
Arts therapy also helps alleviate the stress. Here they call it “traumatic stress syndrome,” rather than “post-traumatic” because the stress is ongoing. It’s all around them every day. And in Gaza they are quite literally boxed in.

Q: Were the faculty from all over the world?
A: Yes. There were a lot of impressive presenters and teachers there, like the head of drama therapy at NYU. But the real contributors were the Israelis and Palestinians who were putting themselves on the line. I was just honored to be an observer.

Q: What made the most lasting impression?
The thing I’ve thought about the most, now that I’m back, is this concept of the “other.” The divides are less drastic here, but they are still real. It’s very important to me that we are one united community here.

Interview by Sally Sisson