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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students discuss Middle East in calm environment

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: News

Studet clubs participated in a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aimed to refine their own views to form a general consensus in an event sponsored by Hillel, and was led by the organization, “Constructive Conversations: About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

Students from four Israel-related clubs on campus, Jewish Voice for Peace, Brandeis Zionist Alliance, J-Street U and Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine attended the discussion.

Three facilitators, reconstructionist Rabbi Rachel Schoenfeld, mediator Wendy Foxman and Benj Kamm hosted the group discussion,

The Jewish Dialogue Group was formed in 2001 to foster constructive dialogues within Jewish communities in the United States.

The organization aims to examine difficult moral and intellectual questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to create a safe space where participants will not be lectured, attacked or recruited and also to establish the groundwork for future relationships and dialogues among participants.

Upon beginning the dialogue, students and facilitators shared one word each, describing how they felt about the upcoming discussion. Students said that they were concerned about arguments and concerned that they would be bullied into certain views. Others shared that they felt “anxious, honored, pessimistic, proud and excited” to begin.

The facilitators had three principles: “prevention is preferable to intervention, the facilitator’s role is to support the group in having the kind of conversation the group wants to have and all participation is voluntary.”

Facilitators share these principles, but also emphasized the importance of positive discussion and for organization leaders to “take off their leader hats,” in order to make the discussion environment conducive to a good dialogue where everyone listens to one another.

Brian Reeves, ’11 President of J-Street U, stressed that the discussion was important because “students coming together to exchange ideas helps to bridge the divide between right wing, left wing and center groups at Brandeis.” It also “presents an academic view of the conflict from many angles.”

As the facilitators’ preface to the discussion continued, Kamm stressed “it is important not to make assumptions while other people are speaking. This is a place where you can try saying something you have never said before.” And most importantly, Kamm said, “do not make assumptions about yourself, and be willing to ask difficult, challenging questions of one another.”

Constructive Conversations is designed to help people talk to each other across political differences and to help people talk through their own ideas and feelings. This particular discussion was designed to focus on what it is like to be at Brandeis among many different perspectives.

Discussion topics include respect and disrespect, being understood by other Jews and by non-Jews, deciding which sources of information to trust, open disagreement in your community, synagogue, school or organization, and, finally, faith, spirituality and philosophy.

By the end of the discussion, the facilitators said they hoped participants would gain greater mutual understanding, the ability not to take ownership of a conversation and communication skills that can be used in other conversations about divisive issues in the future.