Who can convene dialogue?

Posted on December 22, 2009 in Default

I am currently someone living two lives. As an academic and a writer, part of my job is to make interventions in public, often controversial, debates. These include debates about Israel and the Jewish community, an area that raises very senstive emotions in a lot of people. My writings show that I am a far from ‘neutral’ person. At the same time, my New Jewish Thought work involves convening intra-Jewish dialogue and I am currently bringing together Jewish leaders and opion formers for a series of confidential discussions about how Israel is discussed in the Jewish community. So on the one hand I am an active participant  in debate and on the other I am striving to be an ‘honest broker’ in that debate. How to square that circle?

In part, the answer is simply enough – I am convening dialogue myself as no one else is doing it. Further, while I am convening dialogue by bringing people together, I am not actually facilitating it as a neutral chair. Still, the difference between convening and facilitation is pretty nuanced and people would be forgiven for not appreciating the difference.

Successful convening, or facilitation for that matter, involves building trust. So far, most of those I approach to be involved in intra-Jewish dialogue seem to trust me enough to see my interest in dialogue as genuine. Maybe the fact that I am only on the lower levels of the commentariat and not a very well known figure helps in that some of those I approach simply have not heard of me. There’s no doubt though that if I write something that those I approach find objectionable this whole process could come crashing down. I am very well aware that I am skating on thin ice, trying to find a way to be publicly engaged in difficult debates while at the same time trying to be an acceptable figure for people on all sides of that debate. The risk of being seen as devious or hypocritical is very real.

I would argue though, that convening dialogue while intervening in public debates, while very challenging, is nonetheless possible and in fact necessary. One reason for this is that no one is in fact neutral – even professional conflict resolution specialists have their own opinions – and at least in my case my opinions are openly on show for those who care to investigate them. The whole ethos behind New Jewish Thought and the intra-Jewish dialogue project I am currently engaged in, is that members of the Jewish community should attempt to find solutions to internal divisions within the community for themselves. So when I convene dialogue I do so as a member of the Jewish community who is concerned about the tone of debate on Israel and other matters within the  Jewish community. As someone  who has contributed to public debates within the Jewish community, I recognise that I am implicated in the situation that I wish to work on.I myself am part of the problem as well as the solution.

I recognise a major problem here: by trying to develop a more civil tone in debates and by trying to develop better relations between Jews of very different opinions, I could be  accused of self-interest through seeking to create a more convivial environment in which my views could be aired. This is indeed an issue in that any argument for tolerance of a diversity of opinions necessarily involves an argument for tolerance of one’s own opinions. I do believe  though that the case for dialogue, for a Jewish community in which debate is conducted more civily, is that it ultimately benefits everyone.

To conclude, I recognise that I am trying to do something very difficult and that I am walking on a knife-edge. The only think that I ask of anyone is that I am not accused of bad faith. My desire to convene dialogue is as real as my desire to contribute to debate.