This Thought for the Day was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 26 February 2015.
I’ve just returned from Belfast, visiting the Shades Programme which is training Israeli and Palestinian civil servants and NGO employees in conflict resolution and negotiation skills.
We were at Stormont, now the seat of the Northern Irish Assembly. Politicians from across the political spectrum, many of them once sworn enemies who had been at the crucible of the conflict, shared their experiences of the Troubles. They told us that they had all believed they had God on their side and their side only.
It was fascinating watching Palestinians and Israelis listening to parliamentarians who included ex-prisoners. They heard stories of transformation from terrorist activity to accountable parliamentary roles.
I was particularly affected by hearing Monica McWilliams, from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Every evening during the Good Friday talks, the participants were set homework by the leading negotiators. Monica explained that she would gather colleagues around her kitchen table to deliberate over potential clauses of the suggested agreement. The next morning, the women explained their deliberations. It was this willingness to share ideas that brought others along with them and modelled new ways of collaboration and power sharing.
This was a timely visit for me as next week Jews will revisit our own history, celebrating the festival of Purim, when the risk-taking negotiation by another woman leader, the Biblical Queen Esther, paid off. Esther invited the King of Persia to her banquet table and persuaded him to reverse a plot to kill all Jews in his Empire.
It’s surprising that the name of God doesn’t appear anywhere in the Book of Esther. Sometimes it’s better not to invoke God’s name or wait for God to intervene, to be delicate with the use of the divine.
In Belfast, the politicians talked about a watershed moment when a delegation visited South Africa to hear about the negotiations that ended apartheid. Nelson Mandela told them: “You, and no one else, have got to change this situation.” By revisiting someone else’s history, they saw a possibility for accommodation in their own struggle. They knew they couldn’t leave the work to anyone else.
Dehumanisation of the other side means negotiation often appears impossible. Self-perpetuating and self-destructive narratives on either side means it takes fierce courage to get round the negotiating table. It takes a Queen Esther or a Monica McWilliams to help change the narrative and challenge situations that seem as bleak, as they do unique.