Authentic AND respectful at last – By Rafael Tyszblat

Engaging in challenging dialogue at MJC

Today at MJC, the 17 participants to the Conflict Transformation Committee finally tackled the “elephant in the room” and engaged in a constructive conversation about the situation in Israel and Palestine and its implications. Avoiding the pitfalls of the kind of debates observed through social media since the beginning of last Israeli military operation on Gaza, Muslim and Jewish participants – including some Israelis and Palestinians – managed to engage in a discussion that was both authentic AND respectful. Something they hadn’t been able to do for a long time – if ever. They were also invited to step back, facilitate and interject meta-comments on the dynamics of the dialogue they took part in.

Needless to say, tension was palpable. Even before starting, some participants were shaking in excitement and anxiety to start such a live, face-to-face dialogue. Many Jewish participants were from Israel and one Muslim Participant was from Palestine. But even participants living outside the region were impacted by the situation. All identified with one “side” or the other.

“I have a right to live in Israel and defend myself when being attacked.”
“The kidnappers of those three children should be punished, not the Gazan people.” “I feel threatened and at least the Israeli Defense Forces defend me.”
“I feel threatened and at least Hamas defends me.”
“Hamas should build schools, not dig tunnels.”
“Stop the occupation, end of the story.”

All of them expressed their sadness, anger and frustration about this new episode of violence in the region – the fourth in eight years – as well as the way it was used by advocates of their cause, around the world. Of course they were used to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, as they were used to the online expression of violence. But this time, it felt different. As if their last resources of hope were exhausted.

Pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians expressed their frustration about extremists from all horizons – within and especially outside of the region – constantly trying to confiscate their conflict. As Conflict Transformation experts or learners, they could indeed identify how, far from helping, those “unwelcome friends” only spoiled their relationships – and worsened their situation.

The participants directly affected by the conflict were frustrated and tired of living in a world where one can be targeted or discriminated because of religious affiliations, tired of being unable to be proud of their identity and their cause because of extremists stealing it from them; tired of having to prove again and again that they are human beings and that they respect others, that they are no “fascists”, no “terrorists”.

“We didn’t choose this situation, didn’t create this conflict, it was imposed upon us” was their message in essence. War can have its benefits for a lot of actors, on both sides: maintaining the unity of a very conflicted society, diverting the attention of citizens away from concrete ongoing problems, giving in to the urge to release an irresistible instinct of violence.

And yet, all of them felt a sense of responsibility in putting an end to it. The responsibility to reject those who make this issue a religious one. To condemn racists who claim to support their cause when they only want to find a pretext for spreading hate. The responsibility to fight for dialogue.

What’s more, as conflict specialists, they understood the main source of escalation – identity threat: if you put me in a corner, seeing me as a monolithic evil or denying my own needs, I will necessarily do the same with you. And none of us will have any chance of being heard.

If, in turn, you choose to really listen and acknowledge my pain, if you do justice to the complexity of my opinions, I will be much more likely to do the same and we may have a chance of being able to work together. If I treat you like an autonomous person, avoiding condescendence or judgment, the world’s violence won’t be able to pass through us.

Let us be clear: after exchanging for three hours, the conflict did not end. The participants did not have the time to express all they wanted. And when they did, some clearly disagreed on who was most to blame or what the origin of the conflict really was about. But something else happened that was at least as important as “making peace”: a new way of looking at each other and an increased sense of responsibility.

As if they were helping the group gain perspective, a participant from Pakistan explained that the State started to negotiate with its Taliban enemies after years of tireless confrontation, while a Turkish woman reminded the crowd that before talking with the Kurds, the Islamic Government was only spreading the idea that Kurds are against the State.

A Tunisian participant expressed her intention to combat e-terrorism. While a Brazilian Jew suggested to try and use Facebook differently, “not carrying any banner except for understanding and dialogue”. And a French participant advocated for increased media literacy and access to multiple news sources.

One Egyptian woman was first shocked at some of the things she had heard from some Jewish people but had to admit she never thought that she would “meet an ex-IDF soldier who served on the Egypt border”. While for him, “the fact that we are here tells me there is a different story to be told and I want something else for my children.”

A multi-generation Israeli woman could relate to a former combatant from Palestine who was engaged in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and non-violent resistance. He reminded the committee, “self-critique is not easy but very necessary” and reaffirmed his strong intentions to help for peace “on the ground”. “It’s possible”.

This dialogue was an opportunity for everyone to connect with each other and, in a sense, take control over their lives and their mutual relationships. At the end of the dialogue, not everything could be said. However that didn’t matter as much anymore because the dominant feeling was that of relief. As a result, participants were now able to engage in common work together.

This is what the Muslim Jewish Conference is essentially about: openness, interconnectedness and empowerment. It will not solve the world’s conflicts right away. It might, however, allow some us to preserve our humanity for a longer time.

Rafael Tyszblat