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Practicing Art of Civil Discourse on Israel

October 7, 2010 By:
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Five Jews with divergent viewpoints gathered last week inside a Mount Airy sukkah to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some blamed events on the Arabs; others said the problem was Israel.

The conversation could not have been more topical: Sept. 26 was the final day of Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement-building. The future of the direct talks remained in doubt -- as they still do -- with Palestinians threatening to walk if the freeze is not extended.

Yet at the local gathering, the rancor that often accompanies a Jewish discussion on the Middle East was absent. In fact, at several points, the five participants, who ranged in age, sat in silence.

There was plenty of talking, but virtually no interrupting, as the participants shared personal experiences of the Mideast and their views on the conflict.

The restrained environment didn't come about by chance. The talk was run by a pair of facilitators affiliated with the Jewish Dialogue Group, a nine-year-old, Philadelphia-based nonprofit devoted to enhancing civil conversation among Jews, primarily on Israel-Palestinian issues.

Ilana Emmett, a 26-year-old Center City resident who spent 2009 in Israel and questions certain policies toward the Palestinians, said: "You are forced to listen to everything a person has to say. And that's not something we always do. It's so easy for us to interrupt. It's so Jewish."

Mitch Chanin, the group's 36-year-old founder, decided to start the project in the fall of 2001, during the second intifada in Israel and after the Sept. 11 attacks here. The Northeast resident has never been to Israel.

But he did have a model: the Boston-based Public Conversations Project, a nonprofit that in the 1990s began organizing formal dialogues on abortion. According to Chanin, the approach combines aspects of family therapy and legal mediation. It also requires that participants keep comments confidential. As such, the session attended by the Exponent was off the record.

"Our goal is to help to change the nature of public conversation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Jewish community in order to help individuals to think more clearly and creatively about issues that are important to them," said Chanin.

What began as a part-time effort has grown, though it still operates on a shoestring budget of roughly $30,000, given by donors. The group has published a guidebook, trained facilitators and overseen some 250 dialogue programs around the country, involving more than 3,000 people, in synagogues and on college campuses, according to Chanin.

Locally, the Jewish Dialogue Group has run programs at Society Hill Synagogue and Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The group will sponsor single sessions, but Chanin said the process is more effective when talks are held on multiple occasions.

From the start, the group has had to contend with the perception that it's left-leaning. Chanin acknowledged that a majority of its facilitators and advisory board members trend that way, but he insists that the group has no particular point of view.

At the Mount Airy session, participants voiced some standard right-left arguments regarding the conflict: that Israel faces constant threats from Arab nations and needs to protect itself; or that the conflict is about Israel's oppression of Palestinians.

But that's OK, according to James Rosenstein, chair of the local Jewish Community Relations Council and president of the local American Jewish Committee chapter. A lawyer and professional mediator, he has run dialogue sessions and contributed some of his own dollars.

"We only have to go back to Hillel and Shammai," he said, referring to the early Jewish sages who often disagreed, "to see that Judaism values different perspectives. We learn from each other's perspectives."




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