Structured, facilitated dialogue among Jews about Israel-Palestine issues can help heal communal rifts and tensions.
Beginning in 2014, Jews in Madison, Wis. engaged in facilitated, small group dialogues regarding Israel-Palestine for more than two years, seeking to understand one another and find collaborative approaches to issues that divide our communities. It opened up their minds and hearts to other perspectives, and transformed the ways they understood these complex issues.
The Urgent Need for Dialogue
Many Jews have difficulty expressing authentic dissent regarding Israeli-Palestinian policy as such conversations often devolve into family-dividing, friendship-ending arguments. For some, it is “My Israel right or wrong,” despite serious private reservations about policies affecting the Occupied Territories. To even discuss BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is considered treasonous heresy in certain circles, while for others the Biblical One State of Israel and Samaria is the only reasonable consideration. Many simply defer to those living in Israel, feeling that North American Jews overstep their bounds by offering opinions on treatment of Palestinians, the viability of a two-state solution or the future of Jerusalem. But Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman and Jeff Spitzer-Resnick of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison were not satisfied with the status quo, believing it wise to bring people together to try to bridge this relational abyss. Rabbi Laurie and Jeff convened an initial dialogue in 2014 guided by Josh Klemons, one of the editors of the guide authored by the Jewish Dialogue Group that served as an initial framework for the conversations.[fn]Jewish Dialogue Group, Philadelphia, Guidebook for Deliberation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. While I didn’t know people with this organization, I had worked with folks at the Public Conversations Project that had collaborated in its creation, and they had great credibility with me. www.whatisessential.org [/fn] But they wanted to offer an ongoing dialogue opportunity and received a small grant from the Madison Jewish Federation to do so.
How Each Dialogue Was Structured
Rabbi Laurie and Jeff felt that a professional facilitator should conduct a series of smaller group sessions, which is how I became involved. I had a history of facilitating difficult, contentious group dialogues around other issues, and as a member of the Madison Jewish community, I understood and appreciated the context in which participants were living. We convened group meetings in early 2015 and maintained monthly dialogues across two years, involving approximately 22 sessions and 180 participants. Initial sessions were structured following the materials and format of Jewish Dialogue Group, but we broadened our resources and approach over time. As the program continued and evolved, we brought in new, current articles and materials that provided balanced background on specific topics that were the focus of the two-hour dialogue each evening. Topics included water rights, the occupied territories, the Gaza War, the Iran nuclear deal, BDS, Jerusalem and other hot-button issues that were generated periodically as events emerged to make them important topics of conversation. Each dialogue was intended to be fresh and inclusive of new participants, and we made efforts to have “veteran” participants support “new” participants in getting acclimated and comfortable in taking the risks involved in honestly sharing perspectives. This was achieved through the opening 45 minutes, which included brief but revealing introductions around the circle. We then had a series of “step in/step out” questions that made visible some hidden perspectives, experiences and areas of disagreement, as well as paired interviews that shared participants’ initial stands on key issues and how those had been shaped by personal experience. Each pair then proposed a shared question, based upon genuine curiosity that framed the larger group dialogue agenda for the remaining hour. We would patiently address each question, inviting diverse perspectives to be shared with authenticity and curiosity. A set of “Ground Rules” governed each dialogue, so participants had an easy way to either express a concern or “pass” on a given question. All sessions were confidential, in terms of content and stories, though the “lessons learned” were taken to other conversations in varied spaces. The intention was never to persuade or to leave with an “action plan,” but simply to experience being heard deeply and respectfully about things that matter. My Reflections as a Facilitator
As one who has been privileged to facilitate numerous such experiences through my career, I’m often struck by the simple power of dialogue. As physicist and dialogue pioneer David Bohm, one of the champions of this approach has pointed out:
The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.
Some enter the room with hesitation, doubt and skepticism. They say things like, “I don’t expect to change my mind,” or “I doubt we can be honest without being passionate” or “I worry dialogue is ‘nice’ but lacks authenticity.” But then we begin. The impact on participants is powerful and palpable. You can sense the transformation occurring, and it is then gratifying to hear it expressed aloud. This often results in new perspectives, as well as a yearning to replicate and expand upon the experience: “Why can’t we talk like this all the time?” is a common question. As some gain deeper experience, they also have different expectations: “I want to go more deeply, bring together others who can actually answer some of my new questions” (such as Jewish leaders, or Palestinian leaders). There is a call to action that is energized by this experience. For me, this is a powerful reminder of the capacity of human beings to gain deeper insight and form empathic relationships with the other. Certainly, it is difficult and risky to undergo such profound openness, but I feel people are often yearning for it, needing it and immensely grateful for it once it is achieved. Our dialogues included people who were secular and rarely engaged with the Jewish community, and others who were lay leaders in their congregations. Religiously observant participants, community members born in Israel, Jews By Choice and people from three adult generations shared their perspectives and experiences with one another. It may be quite difficult for a young person to grasp the experience of a Holocaust survivor, or for an American with little or no experience living in Israel to appreciate how an Israeli has coped with the realities of life there. Yet as they strive to do so, many find it to be quite rewarding.
What We Need
Dialogues should not be a rare occurrence. This is an approach that can be widely used throughout the North American Jewish community. At a subsequent stage, these dialogues can be used to facilitate conversations of Jews with Muslims, Christians and others with a natural investment in the Holy Land and its future. It was disheartening to learn that few other communities had adopted the materials developed by the Jewish Dialogue Group at that time, and that we could not get the mainstream Madison Jewish community leadership to engage further with the process. It may simply be too politically charged in this current environment to take such a step, but there is great potential for healing wide social divisions among Jews and for the consequent strengthening of community cohesiveness
We have little choice but to try. The North American Jewish community is critical to the viability and sustainability of the State of Israel. Our relationship with Israel-Palestine depends on meaningful interactions with the array of governmental, commercial, religious and social organizations in Israel-Palestine that seek our financial and political support. To do so as a community depends upon cultivating the feeling of community that arises from dialogue experiences in which we see that we are community that includes different perspectives—that all members of our community need not be like-minded. Ultimately, there must be meaningful conversations and actions taken by both Jews and non-Jews about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, this is key to unlocking the solutions to lasting peace in the region.
For now, however, just being able to have such conversations among Jews would be a great place to start.