[JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session
[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill

[JStreet] How We Stop Talking to Ourselves

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

I couldn't get into the plenary session, the "Jewish Community Town Hall" featuring Jeremy Ben-Ami (Executive Director, J Street) and Rabbi Eric Yoffie (President, The Union for Reform Judaism) -- the blogger lunch session ran long, and by the time I tried to get into the plenary session, both the big ballroom where it was happening and the overflow ballroom where the presentation was being simulcast were completely full and I couldn't find anywhere to sit, even on the floor. So I took a bit of a break to polish and post my notes from earlier sessions.

Next up: How We Stop Talking to Ourselves: Innovative Ways to Broaden the Conversation. This session features Ronit Avni, Founder and Executive Director of Just Vision; Malka Fenyvesi, Director of Interfaith Programming at Progressive Jewish Alliance and and Co-Director of NewGround, "A Muslim / Jewish partnership for change;" and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Co-founder and Co-Executive Director of Encounter. (A personal note: I had hoped to go on an Encounter program last summer while living in Israel, but the trip was canceled, so I had to find other ways to engage with the situation in the West Bank. I had the subsequent opportunity to meet R' Weintraub at the RHR-NA conference last December, where I attended her session on Torture in Jewish Laws and Values.)

Moderator Shawn Landres kicks us off explaining that he's CEO of Jumpstart, an incubator and think tank which favors initiatives which lead to an open and inclusive Jewish life and benefit broader Jewish society and the world. "I hope this is going to be a beneficial follow-up to the conversation we had in the plenary," he says -- Yoffie and Ben-Ami did a great job of modeling how to deal with issues where we may agree and issues where we may disagree. "So how do we engage people in our communities of all backgrounds and perspectives who wouldn't come to this conference?" How do we talk to people who may be hostile or indifferent to "the pro-Israel, pro-peace" movement?

The emphasis of the workshop will be on sharing specific models for reframing the conversation and drawing people one might not expect to be in the same conversation into that same conversation.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is up first. "How we stop talking to ouselves is the central question of my life," she says. It's the question behind the founding of Encounter, which brings Orthodox and Reform rabbis, national religious settlers and antioccupation activists and Palestinian families, together to talk about what's going on and what it means. "We're an organization whose very purpose is to enable and facilitate people who don't usually talk to each other, to talk to each other."

The big question is why. "Why bother? Why not just rally the troops that are here and run with the beauty and excitement of what's happening in this moment?"

Five years ago she found herself in a unique position, leading what felt like a double life. She was a 4th-year Conservative rabbinic student in Jerusalem, and in her 8th year of involvement in Israeli and Palestinian peace efforts. It was nearly impossible for Palestinians to enter Israel and vice versa, so if Israelis and Palestinians wanted to meet face to face they met in Cypress or in Maine. The reality was one of "polarization and separation," not only among Israelis and Palestinians but also those of us engaging in the conflict, near and far. She spent that fall shuttling back and forth between Palestinian living rooms and Machon Shechter. There was very little contact between young activists on both sides. "Worlds literally down the street from each other but mutually invisible. Cocoons with no interaction but complete mutual impact."

That fall, 2004, she sat around a Shabbat table with a group of Palestinian activists and a dear rabbi-friend "and we dreamed another dream: of bringing everyone we knew to sit around that table with us." Including those who didn't even imagine participating in those efforts. "We dreamed of an inclusive community that would advocate for the dignity of all sides -- that would inform Jewish leaders to decide what they think while stretching comfort zones and educating all sides." That dream is now a reality.

"Picture this: AIPAC staff have spent the night in Palestinian homes, poring over maps. Orthodox yeshiva buchers have davened ma'ariv in the homes of former Palestinian militants. Jewish leaders who'd only met on Op-Ed pages have apologized to each other for shutting each other down... By the end of the trip, for most participants, the us/them framework has been shaken. It's been warped by dinner conversation with a Palestinian, or a leftwing Jew, or a rightwing Jew, who they had previous dismissed."

They're asked all the time, how do they do it? She shares two primary strategies: 1) trusted messengers. Yeshiva University rabbinic student came on their very first trip because Yossi told Yitz that they were great, and Yitz went back to the beit midrash and said, "you've got to have this experience I just had." In other words: one person has the experience and then shares it with friends. People trust their friends in a way they don't trust advertisements. Same goes for board presidents, Federation presidents, rabbinic students from across the denominations.

2) Reframing old issues in new ways. One of the core elements of successful paradigm shift is the capacity to speak in the worldviews of others and to tap into core fundamental values. One of their reframings is that one simply cannot care about Israel's wellbeing without also caring about, and learning about, the realities of Palestinians on the ground. They also appeal to curiosity, human dignity, and the quest for truth.

She cites a book called The Answer to How is 'Yes' -- "If we discern our purpose it's easy to find the way to 'how'." The reasons that draw her to this work include: 1) it's efficacious to do so. As exhilarating as it is that there are 1200 people here, societal transformation requires engagement with those who are not already our allies. The deeper reason to do this: 2) our values demand it. If we affirm human dignity, we must also affirm the dignity of those with whom we disagree. It's easy to pay lip service to common humanity, "but what does nonviolence action born in an authentic commitment to the dignity and humanity of all people actually look like?"

At Encounter they believe that we have to transform the very logic of conflict itself -- a logic which dictates that some people get dehumanized. And that's not okay. We need to create a new paradigm, to "teach and model the importance of sustaining human dignity across ideological lines and through disagreement." And 3) "The profound creative problem-solving that we need to confront this complex situation is not going to be born in groupthink, but in cointelleigence, reflective diversity, and conversation across ideological lines."

JStreet's aims aren't identical to Encounter's, R' Weintraub notes. "But I think that the movement that's being born here has the potential and aim" of transforming the conversation.

Malka Feynvesi is our second speaker in this session. She got into this work because she was looking for a thoughtful and responsible way to engage with the work of peacekeeping. "The relationships between Muslims and Jews here and around the world were very interconnected and interdependent," she said; it was time to start doing something thoughtful with those relationships.

NewGround works with young Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles, mostly people in their 20s and 30s. They build relationships, work on dialogue skills, an wrestle with the "elephant in the room" -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They're expanding now to the Bay Area.

"We engage the unusual suspects," she says. NewGround was born out of the bold chutzpah of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. It was a radical move, a Jewish and Muslim organization saying "we are better and stronger together than we are apart." These two organizations don't always agree with each other, and that's okay; "great change, learning, community can come from people who don't agree with one another!" The need is to communicate, understand, and recognize interdependence. (This mirrors what I was hearing this morning in the How Jews, Christians, and Muslims Can Work Together for Peace session.) This kind of pluralism is something that NewGround takes very seriously; they try to engage people across religious lines, lines of practice, ethnic lines, and so on.

Feynvesi tells the story about a Jewish man who said to her, "If I hadn't joined this program I might never have met Muslims, but for sure I would never have spoken to any of these Jews!" Many of their Jewish fellows feel that it's the first time it's been okay for them to have an honest and difficult conversation with Jews about the conflict -- as well as with Muslims -- and both of those conversations are important. (This echoes my experience at the retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders this past August.) They're not interested in creating a single Jewish party line or consensus within the group, although many people find this very difficult -- living with the tension of our different views, even within our own religious communities, can be a real challenge.

"We don't treat the conflict just as a policy issue, but as a personal issue," she says. "What does it mean to be Muslim in America today? What does it mean to be Jewish?" Often this means caring about the conflict there, and often it also means caring about other regions of conflict in the world as well. "What does it mean to really unpack all of the different experiences, feelings and perspectives in our two communities, and offer a way to thoughtfully understand each other better?"

Her hope is that the relationsips and friendships being built, and the learning being done, will help to shift and broaden the conversation to create change.

Ronit Avni is the third speaker on the panel. Her intention is to focus more on the "how" of this kind of work. When Just Vision emerged, her background was in human rights advocacy. The model there tends to be, there's a victim, a violator, a violation, and you shame the violator into compliance. "It works nicely when there's agreement as to who the victim is, who the violator is, and what the violation is." But that's not so true when none of those things can be agreed-upon. JustVision is an attempt to move away from the shame-based model of the human rights field (though it's incredibly important to shed light on human rights abuses -- this is meant as an alternative) and toward a hope-based model. "Providing credible messengers from the field, Israeli and Palestinian, who are trying to problem-solve in creative ways."

One of their projects was the film Encounter Point, which aimed to address the common perception that Jews say different things to our own community than we do in dialogue with Palestinians (and vice versa.) The plan was to create a piece of media and use that same piece of media for multiple publics. The film premiered in 2006 and has been screened in Gaza, Jenin, Sderot, 200 cities around the world. It's even been used officially in Israeli classrooms. The broadcast on Al-Arabiyya, which was followed by a one-hour conversation about the film on that network, led to a phone call by a former militant from the al-Aqsa martyr's brigade who wanted to meet with one of Palestinian subjects of the film; the two of them have since become friends.

"We have to think ambitiously about what we want to communicate and who we want to communicate it to" -- and also be conscious that whatever we say is probably also being heard/seen by multiple other audiences. Their underlying assumptions included, 1) you need credible messengers, people who you can believe are not anomalies or fringe exceptions. One of the things that JustVision does, for that reason, is focus exclusively on Israeli and Palestinian civic leaders in the region. If people who are in the line of fire are committed to nonviolence, then how much more so do we who live here need to commit ourselves to that work?

The second assumption is 2) the incredible importance of knowledge and data. Beyond that, people often have data but don't necessarily understand the nuance or significance of terminology and trigger words for the other community. For instance: if we hear anything about Jews controlling the media, that's a big trigger for us! Our defenses go up, there's historical resonance to that. But in some communities, they have no idea that this is a trigger for us. (And of course the same thing operates in a different direction -- there are words we may use in a benign way which resonate painfully for Palestinians.)

"In order to really be heard, we have to understand what it is that our language conveys." The Israeli public aspires to "normalization," having normal relationships with everyone in the region; for Palestinians, that word means entrenching the asymmetric status quo of today, accepting it without dealing with the core issues of freedom and dignity. We have to understand what these terms mean to the audiences we're speaking to.

And the third thing she mentions is "kishkes" -- "ultimately, this takes guts, for us to open up these conversations in painful ways." There have been screenings from which she comes home and needs a stiff drink, because this is painful, and it hurts. The more we anchor ourselves in our values, the more we have people who anchor us -- that connects us to something deep. "I'm anchored by those models." (That resonates for me a lot.)

Now we move into Q and A, and hands fly up all over the room. (I'm not going to manage to get all of this -- room participants don't generally tend to speak as slowly or clearly as panelists!) Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, president of Ohalah, points out that the words we're using here today -- "two-state solution" -- make her shiver, because "solution" makes her think of Hitler's "Final Solution." The panel nods, understanding, and we move on to the next question!

"On the ground, we have some incredibly shrill, tireless, energizer bunny people -- all you have to do is say the word 'peace' and people are down your throat," another commentor says. It tires him out; what to do? Avni responds, "this happens to me all the time," and the room laughs. "One strategy is, we turn to people who are much harder to be shrill at -- bereaved families, soldiers, etc." That's one strategy: bring one of these speakers, bring a film, bring someone who speaks to this in a different way, to help you break free of the interpersonal dynamics of butting heads with someone in your own community. Feynvasi adds that she's a big fan of kindness, and often what people need is to feel heard and engaged; she also counsels involving clergy, who may be able to help de-escalate tough conversations.

"Israel has become a radioactive, toxic conversation in American Jewish life no matter what your politics are," adds R' Weintraub. "We need to change the whole climate; we need a paradigm shift in the Jewish community... we need to build a community that is again asserting our most fundamental values of listening, learning, and loving."

Another audience member speaks about conversations with family members and friends. (A ripple of knowing and rueful laughter rolls around the room.) "Any suggestions on how to have a civilized converstion about these issues without everybody freaking out?"

The first response, from Avni, is "I would pick your battles." The room laughs, but she's serious. "At what point is it critical to you that this person join you in your journey?" In family settings there's so much stuff going on -- she suggests structured conversations (go see a film, go to a speaker) so you can discuss external material rather than getting caught up in the interpersonal stuff between the two of you. If you want to get a family member to join you on your journey, go for it; if it's just going to be an "exhausting, depleting" ongoing conversation, then it may not be worth engaging with. The other speakers agree.

R' Weintraub notes that Encounter didn't initially set out to do intraJewish dialogue; the intention was dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. But it began to seem strange to people that they could have these amazing encounters with people whose opinions are different from their own in the Palestinian territories, but couldn't do the same at their own Shabbat dinner tables. "There are resources out there for conducting constructive conversation" -- she recommends the manual developed by the Jewish Dialogue Report, among others.

Moderator Shawn Landres points out that mindful listening -- listening to our family members without trying to convince them that we're right -- can be incredibly difficult. But that's the common ground between what all three of these organizations are doing. He asks: given that we are reliant on trusted messengers who have situated identities, how do we make systemic transformation so we can go from individual conversations to the radical shifts that need to happen in order for transformative change to occur?

R' Weintraub talks about leveraging people who are attached to constituencies who aren't here in this room. How do we connect individual transformation to societal transformation? Encounter brings people who are connected to the settler movement on their program. One of them recently said, "you know, I still believe that Jews need to control this land." And he said, "but now I know what Occupation means, for the first time in my life, and I want to know what a responsible Occupation would look like." Why is this something she's raising? This man isn't dismissing the sanctity of the land within his community; he's saying, eretz Yisrael needs to belong to us but now I know there are these people here and I can't refuse them, I need to find a way to include them. "That's where I think creative, nuanced, wise solutions are going to come from -- people like him and people he's in conversation with."

Avni says it's going to happen with concurrent movement. JustVision is working on film, JStreet is working in politics -- "it's a constellation of factors." What it can't be is, us waiting for every person to have a personal epiphany, because we can't wait that long. The Palestinians won't wait that long. "We can't wait until all of our family members and congregants have this kind of transformation in order to have structural change. That said, there won't be structural change without enough people having transformation."

Another audience member raises R' Yoffie's answer to the Gaza question during the plenary session. "He downplayed the severity of the blockade," he says. "If you were engaging him around that issue in that moment, how might you have engaged him?" The panelists commend JStreet for wanting to engage with R' Yoffie, but Avni argues that the structure of the conversation was not conducive to probing or challenging in a meaningful way. R' Weintraub says, "What I would say to him is that I commend him for being here; I think it was an enormous stretch. I think the fact that he was willing to engage in a respectful conversation, while also asserting where he's coming from, should be commended."

Another voice from the audience argues that "to have the impact that we need to have, it's not ncessary to convince people who disagree with us. It's necessary to get people who already agree with us to understand that they have to become active." Our next questioner is from Visions, Inc., and she says that when she's with friends and children's friends she feels handicapped and without-tools for having this conversation. "For me it's about loss and pain; it's so painful to be in conversation with people who say it has nothing to do with me." This session, she says, is so far about conversations happening within organizations, but that's not helpful to her. What she needs is help having this conversation with her community, even her own family.

"A beautiful model I've seen some Israeli bereaved families who are not institutionally connected to -- they have house gatherings for intimate friends. They might show a movie, then a month later invite someone to come speak." It's an ongoing thing. "It's an emotional risk for them to bring their immediate community into their home... the first step, when it's really emotional and painful, is to make sure you have your anchors. Make sure you don't feel completely isolated." In that way, when you're ready, you can turn to your community.

Once again, as the final words are being spoken I stopped taking notes so I could get these notes cleaned up and posted before the next session. Deep thanks to the panelists, moderator, and everyone who participated in the conversation.