This Sunday night I observed a room full with over 40 Jewish students from around the world who chose to use their evening to learn about how  participating in dialogue has shaped the lives of three alumni of ICCI’s Youth and Young Adult programs. The students were in the middle of a 4-month period of intensive learning about Israel, Zionism and the conflict at the “Institute for Youth Leaders From Abroad” and they were extremely interested in what our panelists had to say about their experiences.

The panel was made up of Yehuda Lapian, who participated in a seminar with Jewish Israelis, Palestinians and Germans last summer, Tal Michaelis who participated in a dialogue group a few years ago with Jewish Israelis, Palestinians and Japanese Buddhists, and Tareq Saman who has both participated in a dialogue group for Young Adults and facilitated youth dialogue through Face to Face/Faith to Faith (F2F) for three summers in the USA.

Yehuda shared that for him, it was life-changing to see that he could simultaneously deeply disagree with another person of a different faith or nationality and become close friends with him. Before he participated in his first dialogue group at the age of 26, he had never had a real conversation with a Palestinian, and it was therefore shocking and deeply challenging for him to encounter the extent to which the other sides’ narratives challenge his own. He learned through his work with dialogue to listen even to those people he disagrees with, and to authentically connect with them through the process.

When asked about a particularly challenging experience he has faced in dialogue, Tareq, a Palestinian Muslim, shared that during the war with Gaza he was in a dialogue group that included Jewish participants who fought in the war. He left the group because he found it too difficult to sit and talk with people who were serving in the IDF and committing violence against his people. Once he had a chance to calm down, though, he was able to see that if he could not bring himself to talk to the other side, then nothing was ever going to change. He told the students that going back to the group was one of the hardest things he has ever done, but that he is very glad he made the effort to continue to talk, both for his own sake and for the sake of his people.

Tal let the students in on a funny observation from her first dialogue experience with Jewish Israelis, Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Japanese Buddhists. She said that when the Israelis and Palestinians were put in a group with Japanese people who were culturally so different from them, the two sides immediately connected and suddenly felt how much they have in common as people from the Middle East who “speak loudly, argue passionately and eat the same foods.”

Following the panel, the students had the opportunity to meet in small groups with each speaker. It was fascinating to watch the group I was with engage fully with the political and personal narrative of each speaker even though they all conflicted. The students shared afterwards that normally they argue with speakers and try to convince them of why X or Y political solution is the best, but that after hearing the panel they realized the importance of just listening to each other person’s story.

The night ended with a huge expression of gratitude from the Jewish students from all over the world for having their eyes opened to the importance and vitality of dialogue, and great eagerness from a large number of them to find ways to participate in dialogue experiences before they leave Israel. A personal highlight took place for me when an Israeli staff member came up to us and said that at age 21 this was the first time that she had truly encountered a Palestinian, and that now she wants to join a group and set out on the journey the alumni spoke about, painful and challenging though it may be. She was ready to listen.