Laurie Zimmerman-Vice President
Tom Kaplan-Past President
Beth Israel Center, Temple Beth El, Jewish Federation of Madison and University of Wisconsin-Hillel
The Jewish community has struggled to engage in respectful dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which weakens Jewish life and creates toxic conversation when issues arise. The Madison Jewish community has developed a program to increase tolerance through facilitated dialogue. We would like to build on our success by involving more Jews, providing more extensive dialogue opportunities, rooting our experiences more deeply in Judaism through the use of traditional Jewish texts, and developing a guide so that this program can be replicated throughout North America.
When struggling over a controversial issue such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabbinic Judaism offers an important piece of wisdom for our communities:
Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure.
Any dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.
Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes of the Hillel and Shammai.
Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation. (Pirkei Avot, 5:20)
The rabbis believed that engaging in a machloket (disagreement or conflict) was essential to creating vibrant Jewish life. Disagreements need to be explored, assumptions and biases unpacked, and minority opinions voiced. Only in doing so can we come closer to discarding faulty arguments, creating holy communities, and realizing truth in our lived experience.
However, not all debates are created equal. A dispute for the sake of Heaven means that it will have a constructive outcome and lead to building strong, healthy community. A dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven will have disastrous consequences, unraveling the trust and good-will among its members.
The rabbis offer a model for a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven: the debates between the sages, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Why? Because when they argued they respected their opponents, ate at each other’s homes, and married into each other’s families.
But a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven is like the controversy caused by Korach and his followers. They treated Moses with disgust, mocked him, and derided his leadership. Unlike Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, Korach did not care about finding the truth in one’s ideas and experiences. Rather he wanted to start a dispute in order to obtain power for himself.
Preserving relationships between members of communities – so that they respect each other, eat in each other’s homes, and marry into each other’s families – motivates us to create dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that we can challenge each other, learn from each other, and find greater wisdom with each other.
Our dialogues have been so popular because American Jews are yearning for opportunities to have difficult conversations and explore controversial ideas. Our facilitated discussions have lessened the toxicity in our communities and have increased the recognition that competing ideas can and should exist among us, and that we need not fear airing our differences openly, honestly, and respectfully. We hold up the debates of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai as a model for engaged learning. These debates endure because they lead to new questions, new approaches, and new understandings.
Our program makes this wisdom accessible by outlining terms of engagement so that participants feel free to express their ideas but also listen patiently to the ideas of their neighbors. We ask them to listen with curiosity and refrain from attacking or deriding someone else’s ideas. In this way they can emulate Rabbis Hilllel and Shammai and move away from the model of Korach.
In the past we used the materials from the Jewish Dialogue Group, which explored a variety of positions within the Jewish community regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants used these contrasting opinions to help them form their own and clarify their own values and ideas.
We then moved towards exploring contemporary articles that explored a range of political, social, and economic ideas. These provided more grounding in current issues and helped members engage with conflicting and controversial ideas. This allowed participants to practice engaging in dialogue to fully explore important ideas and move away from shouting at each other or inflaming each other’s emotions.
Doing consistent evaluation has been a key factor in the success of this program. After each dialogue we conduct an online survey of the participants. Additionally, we have had several one-on-one conversations about the content, effectiveness, and future direction of the dialogues.
· 96 percent of our participants reported that they were able to safely express their feelings about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians.
· 89 percent reported that they learned from others in their session;
· 98 percent felt that the facilitator created a safe space for dialogue;
· 76 percent wrote that they were interested in participating in additional sessions; and
· 83 percent wrote that they would recommend a friend or family member to participate in future sessions.
The full survey results have been uploaded.
In addition to the survey data, we have observed that we are changing the culture of our communities so that respectful discussion has become an expectation in all of our conversations, programs, and educational sessions, and dialogue is no longer just a stand-alone event attended by only a few.
Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are not the only model for engaged dialogue. We draw on Abraham’s challenge to God over Sodom and Gemorah, the Talmud itself that documents both minority and majority opinions, and cultural norms that exist in Jewish communities that uphold debate manifested in “two Jews, three opinions.”
Currently in the United States, however, this kind of dialogue has been discarded by much of the Jewish community when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resulting in many Jews who have been largely unable to engage in safe, civil dialogue with each other about this topic. These dialogue sessions have taught us that we can follow in the footsteps of our great sages and ancestors and create an environment conducive to respectful dialogue. We can create a space where even the most difficult topics can be addressed.
When 15 people left our session about Gaza in friendly conversation with each other, after having intense conversation about painful issues, we knew we had created a very special environment which we hope to grow and expand.
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