Developing Constructive Conversations

Posted on February 27, 2008 in Default

I convened a Jewish-Jewish dialogue group about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the congregation of the Liberal synagogue in Bristol of which I am a member. I have views on Israel and an equally strong desire to talk about what Israel means to us as Jews. I visited Israel in 2005 with the Compassionate Listening Project where we listened to both Israelis and Palestinians without arguing or trying to change anyone’s views. On that trip, I experienced the transformative power of listening. I learned that we can establish heart to heart connections regardless of whether we agree or not on the facts. We can recognise the humanity of the other and be present to one another. I wanted to share that experience in my community in Bristol.

I based the workshop on a guidebook produced by the Jewish Dialogue Group of Philadelphia – Constructive Conversations About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – a guide for convening and facilitating dialogue in the Jewish communities in the US. Before the workshop, everyone was sent a list of communication agreements, including a willingness to speak for ourselves, speak from our experience, aim for understanding, not persuasion or agreement, listen without reacting or interrupting, and to check out assumptions.

In addition to myself, eight people came representing a range of views from certain Zionist (one described himself as a pro-Palestinian Zionist) to certain anti-Zionist with 5 claiming painful conflict between their hearts and minds. We answered these questions from the guidebook in a group go-round, 4 minutes each: How have events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected you personally? Is there something you’d be willing to share about your life experiences that might help others understand your response to the conflict?

Then we asked the following question s in pairs, 10 minutes each: When you have felt a sense of belonging with other Jews, what contributed to that feeling? When you have felt alienated or isolated from other Jews, what contributed to that feeling? How has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected your feelings of belonging and alienation?

We met for 6 hours on a Sunday and we all felt it was a success. There was an atmosphere of trust and respect. People spoke from the heart, saying they valued the chance to be heard, the chance to listen and the opportunity to talk about Israel-Palestine with other members of the congregation. This is an explosive topic in our congregation with most people avoiding the subject but there is a strong desire by many to talk and this meeting enabled that conversation in a safe way. A few said they were disappointed that there wasn’t more debate and strong disagreement. Some didn’t like the pairs exercise because it meant they didn’t hear what others in the group had to say. There was a clear desire by everyone present to continue to meet for a series of monthly sessions which would include a variety of activities, such as role play and invited speakers.

The guidebook is excellent. I would recommend that others pick and choose from the guidebook what feels right for them and their group.

Lisa Saffron presents a weekly radio show on Radio Salaam Shalom – an pioneering internet radio station that encourages dialogue between Muslims and Jews.