My Turn: Empathy introduced into the U.S. Senate

  • Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

For the Monitor
Published: 5/14/2019 12:10:23 AM

It was a sunny spring day in Washington, D.C. We were midway through our visits to the offices of our senators and representative advocating for legislation concerning Palestinian rights and just political solutions.

Legislative aids and assistants listened carefully as we described the difficulties of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. They exhibited concern for our accounts of Palestinian experiences with home demolitions, military arrests and detainment of children and youth, taking of land by Israeli settlers, settler destruction of farmlands and olive trees, and severe restrictions of movement through Israeli military checkpoints within the Palestinian territory.

However, proposed legislation in the Senate lacks understanding and limits the freedom of those who refuse to be complicit in the oppressive actions of the Israeli government toward Palestinians.

For example, S.Res.120 is a resolution “opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel.” This resolution establishes that any conversation or action that questions Israel’s apartheid and racist policies is “delegitimization of the State of Israel.” It also denigrates people refusing to buy products originating from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. These people refuse to be complicit in profit-taking from products produced by Israeli settlers on occupied Palestinian land.

Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen are co-sponsors of this resolution against free speech and nonviolent resistance. Rep. Chris Pappas is a co-sponsor of a corresponding resolution in the House of Representatives, H.Res.246.

Also, Senate Bill 852, “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019,” conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. We were unable to get any commitments from legislative aides that their senators would vote against this bill that expands the definition of anti-Semitism from prejudice against Jews to include voicing any disapproval of unjust actions by the state of Israel. (Even writing this essay will be considered out of bounds if these resolutions and bill were to pass.)

It seemed like our conversations on the Hill about human beings in distress were being overshadowed by political, financial and military power to solve problems. I wondered, is this methodology all there is circulating through the halls of Congress?

My hopefulness plummeted as we rode the elevator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building down to the basement dining room. However, in the elevator with us was a Senate staffer. She asked about a pin I was wearing on my lapel and introduced herself. She asked what we were doing and encouraged us saying that representative government is all about constituents communicating with elected officials.

Getting off the elevator, she offered to guide us to the dining room. During the walk through the lengthy corridors she told us about the Senate Office of Training and Development. She explained: “Among the various professional skills programs they offer to support the work of the Senate are courses in listening and other communication skills. These courses are the result of researching the needs of Senate employees and legislative staff who are daily subjected to anger, abuse and pushback when meeting with constituents. Working with some of the Senate staff, they have developed a workshop to teach skills of empathy in order to hear constituents while avoiding inevitable burnout from the stress of our current political climate.”

The source of this approach comes from health care settings dealing with patient injury and pain. It is also supported by principles of humane ethics. I expressed amazement that such a program exists in the Senate. Later in the afternoon while searching for an exit from the Dirksen building, we stumbled upon a door displaying the nameplate of the Office of Training and Development. We stepped inside to thank them for their work.

The Office of Training and Development really exists in our U.S. Senate. In the hidden reaches of the maze of offices, hearing rooms and service areas there is a place sowing the seeds of empathy and care for all human beings. There are people there offering an alternative to labeling, name-calling, fault-finding and self-righteousness. Beneath all of the political posturing of nation states dwells a movement to enhance the state of humanity. I have been given hope that in time the movement will burst into the open, like the spring tulips sprouting from underground bulbs into multi-colored blooms on the sunny streets of Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, it is up to us to prepare the way by filling our neighborhoods and the halls of Congress with hospitality, empathy, freedom, peace with justice and love for all people. It begins with us. Also, the next time you visit the Dirksen Senate Office Building, drop by the Office of Training and Development and join me in saying, “Thank you.”

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)

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