Saybrook doctoral student Donna Nassor presents at APA symposium on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Portions of Donna’s paper were presented at APA Division 48 Invited Symposium: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Potential Psychological Contributions to Resolution, Reconciliation, and Peace Building (August 2011, Washington DC). The full paper online can be found at Facilitate Global.

Models of Restorative Justice for Peace-Building and Transformative Societal Change In Palestine-Israel 

I come in peace with the intention of enhancing relationships, engaging in dialogue, creating alliances, building bridges and actively being a more effective agent of social change.  None of that can be done by avoiding the truth.  We can only move toward peace with justice if we collectively are willing to do what needs to be done.  I am a third generation Lebanese/Syrian American, raised as an Orthodox Christian.  Until I was 16, I thought that all Arabs were either Syrian or Lebanese and that all were Orthodox Christians.  I have a strong background in the world of business.  At the age of 36, I graduated from law school and practiced law for many years, mostly representing adults and juveniles accused of crimes as a public defender and as private counsel.  I became a lawyer because I thought I would acquire the tools to be a more effective agent of social change.  I was wrong.  Thankfully, I am now retired from the practice of law. I eventually had to admit I was almost powerless over the very broken criminal (justice) system in which I found myself working.

After helping to move mass quantities of human beings through the criminal system, in a small rural county in Pennsylvania, utilizing the punitive model, I discovered the concept of “restorative justice” (RJ)–    an effective and holistic alternative to the punitive system being used by people around world.

My experiences told me clearly that punishment was not effective in adjusting the behavior of the same people who kept coming through the justice system.  The indigenous practices of community, healing, and reconciliation had the potential to be transformative.  RJ recognizes that harm to an individual also has other layers and dimensions.  Not only is the individual affected by the harm, the community, the families of the victim and offender and the offender are also affected.

The punitive system often dehumanizes both the offender and the victim.  The offender never recognizes how he or she has harmed another.  A person offended against is not real, only a concept – referred to throughout the process as simply the victim.  The victim has little ability to heal without answers and the possibility of a human connection to the offender.  The punitive system offers the victim no opportunity to ask direct questions, or look into the eyes of the offender who has caused the harm to even imagine the humanity in that person.  The community and the family of the offender and the person harmed have few answers to their questions and little or no closure.

There are many restorative methods, including victim – offender dialogue, restitution, conferencing, and circles.  RJ is victim centered.  The offender must take responsibility for his or her actions.  All parties are offered the process, but are not required to participate.  Facilitators prepare the participants involved in an effort to create a safe environment for all.  RJ promotes healing, reconciliation, and allows the offender to gain knowledge with insight and encouragement to make better decisions in the future.

Restorative practices (RP) is a field of study that integrates developments from a range of disciplines and fields, which include education, psychology, social work, criminology, sociology and organizational development (Wachtel, 1999).  RP supports building healthier communities, the repair of harm, and restoration of relationships.  Healing circles, peace-making circles, community conferencing, nonviolent communication, and active/compassionate listening all can be used to transform the harm into healing, changed behaviors, closure, and better decision making for all involved. Instead of throwing offenders away, the community embraces them, encourages and assists transformative behavioral change, and the offenders take responsibility for their actions.

After too many years of standing next to clients wondering how they got to the point in their lives where they were facing the chance of losing their freedom, realizing that the punitive system was not helping them, trying to get the system to change by embracing RJ and RP as an alternative or complement to the punitive model, and finally surviving cancer, I quit my job as the Chief Public Defender, closed my law office and moved back to New Jersey.  After a bit of contemplation about what to do with the rest of my life, I began my doctoral studies at Saybrook University.  Additionally, for the past 12 years I have also been an adjunct at NJ City University teaching “Human and Intercultural Relations” a course that addresses how we treat each other as human beings.

My life experiences and work have influenced my research interests, which include:  Restorative justice and practices, nonviolent conflict resolution, forgiveness, healing, peace, global and local transformative social change. As part of my studies, approximately 10 years after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, I participated in a peace studies delegation to study the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), restorative practices, and the residual effects of Apartheid.  I learned a lot about how people were affected by the Apartheid system and how they continue to be affected even after the system of separation and oppression ended.

I was amazed by how the indigenous people who had been harmed were embracing the importance of forgiveness and believed it was essential to their own healing.  Time after time I met with individuals who had been through extreme hardship and trauma, who now were intent on moving forward in their own lives and knew that forgiveness was the first step to accomplish that goal.  I learned that the concept of justice was fluid and that there were ongoing studies to address the more current needs of the people.

The TRC in South Africa was certainly a flawed process.  It did not accomplish all it was intended to. That said, even though social and economic challenges continue along with some current questionable leadership there, I came away understanding that we have valuable lessons to be learned from people’s experiences.  We do not have to be concerned with revenge and retribution first.  We need to be focused on the holistic needs of the community.  Clearly there are more transformative, loving, peaceful, healing and effective ways to deal with harm.

I came away from the experience feeling inspired, amazed at the power of forgiveness and filled with hope. Soon after my South Africa trip I went to Palestine/Israel and Jordan with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on a peace-builders delegation.  The leaders of that trip are now part of Interfaith Peace Builders (IFPB).  We had Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, those who were spiritual in their own unique ways, and some who just wanted to see for themselves what was going on.  The experience changed my life and I continue to be committed to advocate for a peaceful, just, and sustainable resolution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

It was a shocking experience. I had been aware of the situation and very active in working for a peaceful and just end to the conflict since well before the first Intifada.  I have personally engaged in non-violent direct actions, was a member of the board of the National Association of Arab Americans, have researched and studied the conflict, taught about it, been involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and a variety of other activities.   I thought I understood the state of affairs.  Even though I suspected my trip would be emotional and challenging, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

I had every intention of coming back from the delegation to begin working on RJ programs for Palestinians and Israelis to begin addressing the need for healing.  By day two of that trip I was traumatized to the point of believing my plans had been ridiculous and extremely naive.   Each day was filled with emotional realizations of how incredibly overwhelming the situation was.

I visited refugee camps, spent time in the Negev with Bedouins, met with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and advocates.  I stood at the checkpoints and looked into the eyes of people who were being treated like animals in a cage.   I cried the first time I saw the separation wall and how it affects the lives of Palestinians trying to get to school, work, doctors, and to their land to tend their crops.  I visited Birzeit University, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the settlements, Hebron and Tel Aviv.  I spoke with Israeli and Palestinian students, settlers, activists, and others.  I observed with my own eyes a system that clearly appeared to intentionally destroy the self-esteem and self-worth of the powerless in society.

After what I saw and heard I wondered how I could expect anyone to begin healing when they continue to be traumatized on a daily basis.  I returned home with a broken heart.  I was angry, disappointed and filled with despair, yet I had to do something.  I bought a projector and began offering my pictures and eye witness description of what I had seen to anyone willing to listen.  The one positive result was I finally felt empowered to speak out loud about the situation.  Plus, I needed to process what I had observed by talking about it.

Although it took a bit of time, my hopelessness eventually turned into determination.  I recognized that IT WAS THE RIGHT TIME to take a more proactive and visionary approach to promoting and participating in nonviolent peaceful conflict resolution and do something to help build the foundations for healing and restorative justice in the future. 

To continue reading the full paper, please visit Facilitate Global or email Donna at [email protected]

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