Constructive Conversation about Israel

ListenBy Paul Neustadt, Rachel Raz and Barbara Posnick

It is no secret that discussions about Israel within the Jewish community can be divisive and acrimonious. Many synagogues in the US have avoided the topic or keep the conversation limited to our need to stand with Israel. People who love Israel but have concerns about recent developments in Israel or are critical of the current government may feel unwelcome or ostracized.

At Temple Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Lexington MA, the community’s relationship to Israel has been a high priority. There are many opportunities to learn more and travel to Israel to deepen our connections. There has also been a commitment to welcome a wide range of opinions, and to maintain respect for each other in conversations about Israel. In spite of this commitment, it can still be difficult to have conversations with people who have different views, and some members have felt unable to freely express their opinions and concerns.

To address this problem, the Israel committee at Temple Emunah with the leadership of Yael and Eyal Dvir, initiated a program to provide a safe space for members to listen respectfully as they talk to each other about Israel. Called “Constructive Conversations about Israel,” this program invited all members to participate in facilitated small group discussions that encouraged reflection and curiosity about each other’s perspectives. At a meeting to explain this program to interested congregants, Emunah’s president, Barbara Posnick, ended her introductory remarks with this hope: May our love for Israel, openness, and mutual respect carry us through this process.

By the end of the first conversation, members with radically different views, who participated in the same group, both shared that for the first time they felt welcome to share their feelings about Israel. Many were deeply moved by the depth of the sharing by other participants. People appreciated the opportunity to reflect on their own feelings and the safety they felt in sharing their deep feelings and concerns. Others talked of the relief they felt at not feeling so alone with their concerns. Rather than just focus on their differences, participants were able to notice what they had in common.

Constructive Conversations is based on a model of dialogue created by the Public Conversations Project (PCP). PCP first developed its dialogue model in the 1980s in response to the intensely polarized issue of abortion. After the shootings at abortion clinics in Boston, PCP facilitated a year long dialogue between leaders on both sides of this issue. At the end of the year these leaders held a news conference in which they shared their experience with this dialogue and pledged to tone down their rhetoric and work together to prevent the issue from getting so intensely polarized and hostile. They talked of the respect and affection they had developed for each other in spite of their differences. Since then PCP has applied its dialogue model to many different issues all over the world.

The elements of this model include agreement to guidelines that stress respect, listening, not trying to persuade each other or engage in debate, and giving participants equal time to talk. The dialogue begins with each person reflecting on a question provided by the facilitator, and then taking turns responding to that question. The questions invite participants to share their own experience and to reflect on the values, concerns, and experience that have shaped their views. In this initial stage, participants just listen respectfully to each other but don’t respond. After listening to each other respond to the same questions, the dialogue is opened up for people to ask each other questions and to respond to what they have heard from each other.

The goals of the Israel committee in providing this program are: 1. To enable all members to feel welcome regardless of their views about Israel. 2. To create an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable enough to share their views with each other without tense arguments resulting in feeling alienated. 3. To encourage acceptance and understanding of differences in our views about Israel. 4. To give people the skills to listen, to ask questions, and seek deeper understanding rather than try to persuade people to think differently. The initial group of participants met twice for two hours each time. They were divided into groups of six to eight and each group had a facilitator to keep track of the time and to help people keep to the structure and guidelines. Encouraged by the positive response, the committee is planning to continue offering this program next year.

Paul Neustadt is a member of the Temple Emunah Israel committee. He initiated and led the “Constructive Conversation about Israel” program. Paul is a psychotherapist who practices Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Rachel Raz, is a member of Temple Emunah’s Israel committee. Rachel has extensive experience in Israel education for all ages and in many settings. She serves as the Director of the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education and directs the Boston Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection under CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies).

Barbara Posnick is the president of Temple Emunah.