The Conversation No One Knows How to Have

This week at Harvard University, Harvard Hillel invited a member of the IDF who served during Operation Protective Edge to speak about her experiences. In response to this guest speaker, pro-Palestine students staged a die-in in front of Hillel facilities.

Upon hearing this had occurred, I was perplexed. Why didn’t the Pro-Palestine group approach the student leaders at Hillel and discuss their issues with the speaker? Why did a group resort to a protest when they are on a college campus, a place overflowing with difficult conversations about complex topics? I came to the conclusion that despite the intellectual vivacity and thriving debate on campuses, uncertainty still remains as to how exactly we can discuss Israel within and outside the Jewish community. There are no guidelines, no suggestions, and no rules on how to converse without antagonizing someone who does not share the same ideas as you.

I’m optimistic that this won’t be the case in the future. Based on how a conversation is framed, insight and respect can be shown while also giving participants a way to express their opinions.

What many people seem to forget in a debate is that certain ideas that seem completely irrational to one person are normal to another. Why is this? I believe that how we are raised, the communities we live in, and our exposure to the world shape our opinions, ideas, and perceptions. A person who has traveled to the rural parts of Asia will be much more receptive to poverty than the person who has never left New York City. Granted, views on Israel and Palestine are far more complex than this. There’s a spectrum of opinions within all communities. Conversations need to happen not only between different religions, but also within religions themselves. However, if we don’t address the range of ideas off the bat in a conversation, we will spend so much time being baffled by another’s opinion that we will lose sight of where they are coming from and what they are actually saying.

In a conversation with anyone about Israel, you should start off by describing your upbringing. Where did you grow up? What type of schools did you attend? How old were you when you were first exposed to Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestine movements? Where did your parents lie on the spectrum? Have you visited the area? When did you start making your own opinions? The questions can go on and on. It may seem awkward to set all of that baggage on the table, but these questions provide insight to how people think, what issues speak to them the most, and why.

If this approach sounds familiar to you, then you’ve probably read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is the hallmark book for having difficult conversations about issues in a respectful fashion. The infamous quote of the book proclaims, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While literally climbing into someone’s skin is a bit extreme, Harper Lee was on to something.  We will never be able to have a meaningful conversation if we don’t see where a person comes from, how they live, or what being inside their skin is like.

Understanding a person’s point of view based on their upbringing and exposure to the world is only one part of having an intelligent conversation about Israel. The conversation also has to be conducted in a way where people are not debating their points of view. In conversations, no opinion is to be struck down or denied. Instead of shooting down an opinion, we must discuss what aspects of it bother us and why. By stating, “I feel that…” or “I don’t understand why…”, we don’t blame someone for how they view the Israel-Palestine conflict. We take ownership over our disagreement and confusion, and we bring it up.

Closing the discussion is another feat in itself. Now that differing opinions are brought up, participating parties should attempt to close the discussion by finding a baseline of where they do agree. This could be as broad as “the casualties are bad” and “we want peace”, or as specific as “we agree that the actions taken by both sides on ____ date are ____”. If no common ground can be reached regarding the issues, the agreement could be broadened to include the community where the Israel-Palestine issue is being discussed. This could be a statement like, “we agree that the ability to express our opinions in this community is important”. This is a reminder that no matter what side we stand on—Israel, Palestine, or somewhere in the middle, we all are human and share at least one thing in common that brings us together. Remembering that both sides are human allows a conversation to retain the level of respect it needs to be productive.

Granted, this method does not apply to the world stage. Negotiations for peace don’t happen by sitting and discussing the backgrounds and upbringings of world leaders. This conversation style is catered towards college campuses, where students are already disagreeing and debating about who was more right when it came to political science modernization theory: Rostow or Lerner? This way of discussing diverts groups from having competing rallies on opposite sides of a street and instead brings them to sitting together at one table.

Understandably, this method is not perfect. But I don’t see any other options. Even if we don’t achieve a perfect conversation about the conflict, we should certainly strive to. Our conversations will only improve if we let them improve.

People will always come into discussions with preconceptions, bias, and judgment. People don’t always follow the rules of discussion. People can still be offended by an opinion even if they understand the background for it. But people can also be surprising. Their opinions in a discussion can be very different from the ones you see in massive die-ins, rallies, or conversations without this structure. Maybe you leave the conversation still thinking that you are in the right. But you’ll leave the conversation with an understanding of where your views fit in the grand scheme of things.

The only thing left is to start talking, start thinking, and start understanding. The time to discuss these issues is now, and the way we can start working towards a solution—or at least a baseline of understanding—is by sitting down at a table and asking something as simple as: “Where did you grow up?”

About the Author
Ari Berman is a freshman at Harvard University with a predicted concentration in Government. She served on the Israel Affairs International General board for United Synagogue Youth, was the Israel Intern for Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and also interned for a Congresswoman.
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