Fran Lebowitz once said, ‘Food is an important part of a balanced diet.’
In some ways, I’d like to amend that statement by saying that food in many ways also offers insight into the complexity of conflict. Conflict has taken on an unsavoury flavour in the minds of the general public. My own experience on the Insight Fellowship is that the most common mindset of my clients, partnering organizations, and even those outside the realm of my work, is that the absence of conflict is objectively a better place to be.
That idea speaks to what we view as conflict: something negative, damaging, perhaps violent, and discriminatory. Conflict is and is not these things. My understanding, through a trained and more in-depth lens, is that conflict is a necessary part of life. Like bitter gourd is a necessary part of life. Or medicine. Conflict is simply the difference in opinions or ways of viewing a certain topic. Rather than seek to eliminate conflict, if we are provided with a certain level of awareness about mindsets and a certain set of external skills and frameworks, we can embrace conflict and manage it, to move in a direction of better mutual understanding.
Consider some of the food I have eaten in Israel, either at the hands of my future-chef roommate, or at the local café some 100 yards from the Friends of the Earth Middle East office: the falafel sandwich is made of pita bread, hummus, a tomato-cucumber salad, tahini, falafel and hot peppers. It is complex, multi-layered, and damn tasty.
Any conflict has multiple layers, a degree of complexity, and several components. The falafel sandwich is incomplete if one of above-mentioned ingredients is omitted. The taste diminishes. A flavour goes missing.
But how many of us want to eat only falafel for a meal? Or only pita bread? How many spoons of hummus or tahini can you scoop into your mouth before you’ve had enough? While the parts alone outstay their welcome rather quickly, they are integral to a whole that requires them.
Similarly, the difficult parts of conflict are also, as individual issues, hard for us to deal with if we limit our focus to just those issues. A more promising examination of conflict, like the falafel sandwich, is to consider each issue in its larger context. To embrace conflict then, is to embrace the necessary complexity. Yes there are damaged relationships, and there are also opportunities to repair them; there are sensitive issues, and there are appropriate ways to raise them; there are difficult topics to talk about, and there are structured ways to evaluate them.
Food also belies the importance of place and belonging, a concept that defines the conflict here in the Middle East: who belongs here, and who has the greatest claim to a sense of place in this region?
As far as conflict resolution goes, the sense of place sours in the absence of collaboration and mutual understanding. A sense of community necessarily takes precedence over belonging to a place. And in conflict resolution, as I find with my sessions, the skills and mindsets with which I coach FoEME staff are at their essence a framework for forging relationships that develop community. Through community we protect belonging.
I suppose I am seeing enhanced, invigorated purpose in my Fellowship as it draws to a close. Hindsight, as the say, is 20:20. Well, you don’t appreciate all the layers of an onion until you’ve chopped it up. At the surface, my work here has been largely a continuation of my own training in Boston—I teach, so that I can learn. I help others improve their skills in communication and negotiation so that my own get better.
The layers beneath reveal something profound—when you help develop community and protect the idea of belonging, you advance the conditions for peace.
Sometimes it is the schnitzel sandwich near work; sometimes it is the meals with my colleagues here; sometimes it is the late-night hummus and fries. Sometimes you are in the middle of the Ein Gedi desert on a field visit, giving a session to one of the coordinators, eating in the midst of the hot sun in an Eco Park. If you’re looking for a chance to build strong relationships, food really does it best.