Jonathan Kessler

Dialogue has value: How we brought together Americans, Palestinians and Israelis

Two weeks of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian activists confirmed Heart of a Nation’s assumption that younger and older changemakers are ready to work together to fix what’s broken in their respective political cultures (
Two weeks of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian activists confirmed Heart of a Nation’s assumption that younger and older changemakers are ready to work together to fix what’s broken in their respective political cultures (

Through multiple rounds of safe and purposeful dialogue, Heart of a Nation is changing the stagnant US-Israel-Palestinian peacebuilding model

With Sarah Aweidah

Over the past several months, Heart of a Nation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that brings together American, Israeli, and Palestinian changemakers who want to improve their own societies, has held a series of roundtable conversations with diverse thought leaders selected from a variety of constituencies on their respective red lines regarding conversation and dialogue. We wanted to know how these individuals determined with whom they would and wouldn’t engage.

These conversations took place among prominent American Jews, emerging leaders in high school and college, and public-facing Israeli Jews. Similar questions were posed in each discussion, and valuable insights were shared.

We’ve followed up with another roundtable, this time with a group of Palestinians active in public life. In this discussion, which was moderated by a Palestinian educator and activist, the same questions and issues were raised as before. We observed silently, interested to see if the conversation might play out differently. We were not disappointed. The conversation was rich with anecdotes and insights, confidence, and conviction.

Participants were of different ages, with different vocations, and were drawn from a number of distinct Palestinian communities: Ramallah, Hebron, Gaza City, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beer Sheva. They were united in their shared Palestinian identity and past experiences with dialogue and dialogue-avoidance, with representatives of other communities, and within Palestinian society itself.

The conversation first dealt with modalities and reference points of communication. For example, how does one express understanding but disagreement? How can women ensure that their voices are heard and respected? How can young people set new parameters for engagement? And to what extent is the outcome of a dialogue predetermined by who is and is not included?

Along with these important questions, the conversation focused on why dialogue was necessary, why it should be more rather than less inclusive, and – above all – that it had to be safe to engage.

Necessary Engagement: Participants expressed, several times and in different ways, that dialogue for them is not an abstract enterprise. That ending occupation and discrimination requires being seen and heard by Israelis. Dialogue is one of the tools for Palestinians to achieve their freedom and national rights. Decisions regarding dialogue and avoidance, for these participants, were both philosophical (as they had been in Heart of a Nation’s previous roundtable discussions) and also political in the broad sense of the term. The dialogue was described as having the potential to raise Israeli consciousness, invoke a sense of fairness and perhaps compassion as well. Dialogue is seen as a necessary instrument to get  Israelis to see the Palestinians as a nation, to understand and respect their identity, and to dispel preconceptions and misinformation. Dialogue may have the potential, it was said, to transform current reality.

Inclusive Engagement: More than in any of Heart of a Nation’s previous discussions, the Palestinian participants unanimously agreed that, with certain safeguards in place, no one was off-limits for dialogue. The moderator pushed them on this point: What about Settlers? Soldiers? Extremist ministers?  None of these categories of potential interlocutors were rejected a priori. As long as the other side was open to listening and behaved respectfully, they were prepared to speak with anyone. For dialogue to be produced, however, participants would have to be able to listen with respect to each other. As long as that requirement was met, engagement was not a problem.

As observers, we were surprised by the Palestinian’s willingness to engage in dialogue with those we considered absolutists and rejectionists. In explaining their position, one suggested that a conversation with an extremist might bring about a better understanding of the Palestinian narrative. Another noted that since settlers are a key constituency in the conflict, it won’t be possible to end the conflict without engaging them. Or, as another participant put it, “there’s no point in dialoguing with someone you agree with.” This was the most unexpected response to the core question we had posed: when it came to non-negotiable red lines, this diverse group of Palestinians was remarkably agnostic.

Safe Engagement: The only exception to these Palestinians’ willingness to engage involved the need for safety and protection from those who might do them harm, especially from those on either side of the conflict for whom red lines are immutable. Some expressed fear that jobs could be in danger as a result of their engagement in dialogue; others recalled situations where they were unsure of the confidentiality of engagement situations; and issues of physical safety were also raised, both with regard to some of the Israelis, as well as some within Palestinian society.

What lessons have emerged from our four roundtable discussions, and how might we apply them?

As participants in our first conversation emphasized, profound difficulties and challenges are associated with engaging people whose opinions, and perhaps even past actions, we and/or our friends find unconscionable. Thoughtful reflection about harm and benefit can create rational and strategic frameworks for tough decisions.

From the second and third discussions emerged the idea that people, and therefore nations (which are, of course, aggregations of people), have the potential to learn and grow. Patience, fortitude, and “comfort with discomfort” are necessary, not only for civility but for progress as well. And that we benefit as much, or even more, than our interlocutors from exposure to controversial ideas.

And in this discussion, the case was made for safe and respectful engagement, even with those who present as rigid and inflexible.

By juxtaposing key takeaways from each of these forums, we hope to impress readers with the need to be mindful of each set of reference points – especially when working with different cultures and age cohorts. Navigating issues of engagement and avoidance is difficult and complex, with many different vantage points and few one-size-fits-all recommendations that can be applied in every situation.

Heart of a Nation will apply these insights and frameworks as we continue to engage those across cultures, ideological orientations, and generations who seek to better their own societies.

Sarah Aweidah and Jonathan Kessler are, respectively, a member of the editorial committee and the founder/CEO of Heart of a Nation.

About the Author
Jonathan Kessler has devoted his professional life to assembling thought-leaders and strengthening inter-communal alliances. For 18 years he was a member of AIPAC’s senior staff, having previously served as executive director of the Center for Middle East Peace, executive editor of Middle East Insight magazine and president of a consulting firm specializing in Middle East public diplomacy. In these positions, he met with the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. Jonathan has appeared as an analyst for MSNBC, CNN, C-SPAN and Voice of America, and served on the Executive Board of Seeds of Peace, Board of Directors of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and Board of Trustees of PANIM: Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. He has spoken before audiences in all 50 states, England and Australia, and has led numerous missions to Israel and the Arab world.
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