Robbie Gringras
British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator

Can American and Israeli Jews argue in wartime?

It is challenging enough to have healthy arguments about important things. Even more challenging when the healthy arguments are between American Jews and Israelis since both groupings have different approaches to argument. Add to that the hyper-emotional state of war, and this challenge would seem to be even greater, if not impossible. 

Yet Israelis will continue to meet with American Jews, and at some point they may talk about that which is important to them, and then disagreements will inevitably arise. At camp, for example. 

This year Jewish summer camps across the United States are hosting more Israeli counselors than ever. These counselors are working with the American counselors, and the war will arise as a topic of conversation either with the campers or between the counselors. We at For the Sake of Argument have been invited to work with several of these camps, and with their overall organizers such as the Foundation for Jewish Camps and Reshet Ramah. 

In addition to our regular argument workshops, with our key tools and argument-stories, we have found that there are some additional coordinates required to navigate arguments around the war in particular. 

Hurt vs Harm?

Pain medicine teaches us to differentiate between hurt and harm. If I run into a bar, my leg will be very painful and I’ll find it difficult to walk any further. An x-ray will show whether my leg is broken or not. If the leg is broken, it has been harmed, and any further walking without a cast will cause further harm. If however the leg is not broken, I can or even should get back on my feet to rehabilitate it. In both situations my leg is going to be incredibly painful. But there is a difference between hurt and harm. 

We encourage our participants to assess for themselves whether a particular conversation is painful or harmful for them. They should ask themselves before or even during an argument: Is this pain that I feel warning me of long-term harm, or can I stay in the conversation and work through the pain? Harm tells me to avoid the conversation, while hurt tells me to keep working. 

As much as possible we encourage people to relate to their painful emotions as signals, not necessarily stop-signs.

Empathize with pain, not opinion

I must always work to empathize with your suffering or pain. But I do not have to automatically accept the conclusions your pain leads you to. If you undergo a terrible traumatic injustice, you might come up with a clear solution to this injustice. But while the traumatic experience provides you with certainty that your solution is the correct one, it does not provide me with that same certainty, and I do not owe you my unquestioning acceptance. That is, if your family was devastated by the October 7th attack, I must listen and empathize without question. But my empathy is still valid even if I do not agree with your opinion as to what should now be done. 

The easiest way to explain this approach is to point to bereaved families who have been undergoing hell since October 7th. Some have embarked on campaigns for peace and dialogue with Palestinians, and others call for existential war. Their traumatic experiences have dictated their opinions in opposite directions. 

Empathize with a person’s story, but you don’t have to agree with their opinion.

Meet or move?

These days we can sometimes find ourselves in the wrong conversation. The argument can go round and round and not seem to get anywhere healthy. We recommend checking with yourself and checking with your interlocutor: Do I just need to meet you where you are emotionally and support you, or are you up for a conversation where you or I might gently push each other? Sometimes it seems like the conversation is about the opinions that could do with serious engagement, but the reason it’s getting nowhere is because it’s really about the pain that just needs to be met and attended to. 

Check and ask yourself and your interlocutor: Meet or Move?

If not now, then when?

Jewish tradition suggests that all loss must be mourned, but at some point life must go on. In Jewish tradition, we put specific dates on our progress back to the world. One week, one month, one year. These dates do not dictate the end of our sadness. They dictate when we should aim to move forward with our lives in spite of the ongoing sadness. We’d suggest using a similar approach with our arguments. If someone feels that a particular argument is too harmful, or that they are unable to move but only be met, we should ask genuinely “If not now, then when? I accept you find yourself unable to talk through this issue now. Let’s make a time when we will return to it.” It is this belief in a stronger future that can allow us to prepare for it.

Make a date and time for the discussion to resume.

Since October 7th we at For the Sake of Argument have been busy adjusting and adding to our pedagogy of argument. We are available for workshops and for consultations as we keep learning throughout this unprecedented period. 

About the Author
Robbie Gringras is a British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator. He lives on the top of a hill in the Galilee. He is co-director with Abi Dauber Sterne of For the Sake of Argument.
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