Dialoguing about Dialogue

Running a Middle Eastern and American youth program in light of the war in Gaza of July 2014

Ashraf Ghandour August 2015

As a Palestinian living in Israel, peace programs can be a riot. Initiatives to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews living in Israel and solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been a part of my life since I could form complete sentences. “We’re going to talk about the conflict today” says the mediator as he throws a bone between me and another puzzled young fellow who thought this would be a hummus and tea gathering. Like a gunshot the mediator fires the next pressing issue on his political agenda and both I and the poor fellow in front of me proceed to tear each other to pieces with stereotypes and accusations occasionally spiced with “you and your people”. When you’re forced into difficult surreal situations the best thing you can do is try to leave with as little scars as possible and avoid confrontation, try to salvage as much of your humanity from it as possible and keep your bottom lip in-tact. Unfortunately I was on the other end of that theory, I became good at it. I could carry on arguing the Palestinian cause or anything for that matter until my throat was dry and my tongue was numb. Reasoning was not an option and hearing “we’ll agree to disagree” became a white flag signaling that the argument is over and I have triumphed over my weak and weary opponent. And yet I knew nothing. I have encountered people without meeting them and heard stories I could not care less about, I was invincible to knowledge and understanding and 100% empathy proof, so naturally I sought a career in political science.

Ironically, it was my experience with debate and partisan politics that led me to curiosity. In November 2010 I was hired to work as an English teacher at a Jewish-Israeli high school and military academy in Israel. A year later, as a part of the Israeli advocacy and public diplomacy department I was sent to “represent” the school at a dialogue seminar hosted by Debbie Nathan in Beit Jala, Palestine, a city located in area C of the West Bank. I was sent as the Jewish-Israeli representative and was there to provide the Zionist voice to the seminar. That’s right, read this again. You can imagine Debbie’s surprise when I showed up. “The rest couldn’t come” I said “15 years ago they served in this area in the military and are convinced it is too dangerous to be here”. “So they sent you?!” she wondered. What started with a touch of ignorance and an irresponsible sense of adventure landed me in a circle with a few Palestinians, a couple of Israelis and Debbie Nathan. To my dismay, arguing and debating was not an option and my usual responses were met with the questions “are you curious about that?” and “what is your goal by asking this question?” and when I could finally answer these questions, Debbie offered me a job as a dialogue facilitator at Artsbridge: Making A Difference Through Art. This time, all I had to represent was my human curiosity towards other humans.

Artsbridge conducts a special method of dialogue and combines it with the processing of the ideas that come up in dialogue in the art and film studios, resulting in an annual showcase. The method includes an interviewer asking curious questions, a speaker who feels safe enough to answer them and reflectors ready to discuss what touched them about the interview they had heard. In short, a completely foreign concept to anyone who communicates with others the way people are used to communicating. Being a part of this dialogue has taken me through life stories of Palestinian, Israeli and American youths and opened up a world of hurt, trauma, goals, passions and beauty that previous generations, including my own, have left behind. While we were focused on “the conflict” we have neglected our internal conflict that we would later pass onto our children. Questions of identity, loyalty, rivalry and more that we have neglected to deal with and deconstruct with these children in favour of constructing a solid cultural-political narrative that will lead them to a supposedly conflict free life, to serving their country and fighting for a cause that we and the governments we elect are dictating for them. And all this would not be possible without the “othering” of the other side. They versus us, we and our cause, led by a strong yet vague sense of community that will forever define us through our conflict with the other side and put to rest our conflict of self. There is no I in team and there is no me in they. They are the enemy, they are there for one purpose and that is to destroy me so we better rise to destroy them first. And yet, here we are.

10 Israeli, 10 Palestinian and 10 American students come to Artsbridge in order to learn to stay curious, to share their experiences in a way others can hear them and to learn how to have difficult conversations. Because, until we came into this room, we had been so eager to plant the tree that we forgot to bring the shovel, we were so desperate to say what was on our minds we forgot to look up and check if anyone was still listening. Until we walked into the dialogue room in the Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts we knew conversations were hard but we were convinced they had to be painful, we thought feeling attacked and undermined was “getting political” and mistook offence for opinion. But what if we teach them to stay curious and that the human story of every one of the students around them could potentially lead them to not only realize something about the “other” and thus eliminate “othering”, but also lead them to realizations about themselves? After all, there is rarely a conversation we engage in which we completely put ourselves aside and hope not to gain insight from. However, insight leads to deconstruction of narrative and questioning the pillars of our very existence as social beings. A story of a Palestinian student’s encounter with an Israeli tank while on his way to get food and supplies with his mother in the midst of the second Intifada leads some of the Israeli students to question their solidarity with the Israeli army. The shared experience of an Israeli student of a bus bombing in her neighbourhood claiming the life of her close friend puts a Palestinian student in a place where Hamas no longer represents their voice, only more questions within their already complicated identity. Supporting Palestine or being pro-Israel no longer necessitates the support of violent acts since those affected by those acts are right here in this room, desperate to uphold the rules of dialogue they came up with together that will keep this space safe and their friendships strong.

It is mid July, 2014 and the conflict is in full effect. Israel bombing Gaza, Hamas bombing Israel, hatred is spreading like the plague in the region and the students are hard at work. Curiosity is hard to achieve when your home is jeopardized and all they know is to argue over the “facts”. The more time goes by the more intervening variables we are obligated to factor in. Social media is making the distribution of hate more efficient and systematic. The students are required to hand in their phones in the beginning of the program and do not receive them until the end of the summer. It’s hard to keep them safe from what they have never perceived as danger. The news updates are not getting easier and the students are beginning to get impatient since they have moved from an over abundance of information to a 5 minute daily news update. The program, however, is going exactly according to plan. Dialogue about how to have dialogue resulting in the students testing their limits and practically comparing the two methods; the old way and the new way, by bringing up a hard topic on the third day and feeling the painful outcome of leaving their safe zone. Curiosity suddenly hits them and the interviews with each student are once again greeted with insightful reflections and a heightened sense of agency. A student from Harlem, New York is interviewed and shares his strategy for overcoming the interaction with closed minded people. A Palestinian student listens closely and in his reflection shows interest in this strategy. By telling our story we are helping others understand their own. And while over here assumption turns to curious question and argument turns to interview, over there the bombs still fall and hate turns to violence. We worry about the students and they repeatedly surprise us with their resilience. The ability to let “that which does not matter” truly slide. They are here on a mission to work together and find a new way to succeed where their parents and their parents’ parents have failed, and they will have fun doing it with all the guilt and hardship involved.