Few skills are more difficult to master than having real conversations about divisive topics. It seems easy in your head; you know what’s right, so all you have to do is articulate it clearly (perhaps loudly) enough for your interlocutor to grasp. But the more you care about the topic, the more forcefully you try to voice your opinions, and the less likely you are to change anybody’s mind.
This pattern is especially evident in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tone is always acerbic, the stakes and tempers always high. This both scares off quiet voices and draws in people who either feel a personal stake or relish a fight. When people talk about Gaza and international law and who is more wrong, they often end up prioritizing rhetoric over problem-solving. To enter the conversation, you ante up: family, identity, religion, intellectual pride, worldview. The facts stop being used to enlighten and start being used to bludgeon.
We don’t pretend that we’re immune to such vices ourselves. But these pitfalls are by no means inevitable. If anyone can summon the willpower and graciousness to overcome them, it should be Yale students.
The first step is to recognize where your own impulses are coming from. When you want to invite a hard-line speaker, submit an editorial smack-down to the News or even write a call-out on Overheard at Yale, ask yourself: Am I trying to educate and foster conversation? Or to score personal points and stoke my own ego? Ask yourself how your actions will be perceived by others. Will they anger or provoke? Will they create common ground or a battleground?
Instead of casting blame, start by fostering a shared sense of purpose. For all the vitriol that has been flung back and forth, the 20th-century experiences of Jews and Palestinians have much in common. Both communities know what it means to be without a national homeland. Both have known intractable conflict and suffered from fractured communities. Both have struggled to reconcile religion with modernity. Both have flourishing diasporic communities around the world. Finally, both have the (admittedly abstract) goal of peace in their hearts. Cooperation is surely possible.
But it won’t happen without dialogue. We need to be able to describe what hurts us without assigning blame, and we need to correct our actions without feeling resentful. This needs to go both ways.
Dialogue also involves a recognition of the fact that gray areas exist — and, frankly, there may be more gray than black-and-white on either side. To be “pro-Israel” does not equate to being “anti-Palestinian,” or vice versa. Our belief in the necessity of a national homeland for the Jewish people does not signify an acceptance of all political opinions espoused in, or actions taken by, the state of Israel. Blindly accepting everything that a state does is simply poor judgment; painting the issue as black-and-white harms everyone involved.
We at Yale are lucky to have multiple pathways to discuss the pertinent questions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we in the Jewish community are lucky to have communal leadership that welcomes all voices. Middle East Resolution through Education, Action and Dialogue brings together Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and others for weekly conversations about the topics that, for ideological and personal reasons, are some of the hardest to broach. The Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale supports summer travel to Israel, where students have worked for the Israeli parliament as well as for organizations dedicated to aiding African refugees (a taboo topic in Israel). J Street U brings students together to advocate for a two-state solution. Yale Friends of Israel strives to bring Israeli culture to Yale’s campus, often through speakers ranging the whole political spectrum. These organizations and opportunities continue only because of the civility with which we approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Any cause without room for conversation and introspection is sure to fail. As pro-Israel students, we seek a secure Jewish state. But we do not view this position as in conflict with the justified demands for Palestinian statehood. To see the two as diametrically opposed, without recognizing that most of our beliefs fall somewhere in the middle, is frustrating at best and dangerous to both sides at worst. As Yale students, we cherish our ability to foster debate and dialogue about all ideas, even those with which we strongly disagree. Let’s not place Israel and Palestine in opposition to each other. It’s too important.
Bernard Stanford is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Gabby Deutch is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at email@example.com .