Terps for Israel Hosts Group Exercise Promoting Respect, Civil Dialogue
In collaboration with J Street UMD and LAVI, the organization presented a unique conversational exercise titled “Across the Spectrum”
In the public sphere, a remarkable amount of ink has been spilled over the vaguely romantic notion of “political discourse” and its state of supposed disrepair. Such proselytizing has appeared in a wide variety of contexts, from the editorial page of the New York Times to a broad assortment of digital forums. However, despite the constant promotion, “political discourse” that is both frank in its content while remaining civil in its character remains a rarity in most corners of American life.
This past Thursday, Terps for Israel, in collaboration with J Street UMD and LAVI, sponsored a unique exercise, titled “Across the Spectrum”, that attempted to foster just that type of discussion on an issue that needs civility and understanding as much as any; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The event was planned and conducted by Terps for Israel’s three-person education cabinet, led by Nicole Feigenblum, a sophomore kinesiology major and the Education Chair on Terps for Israel’s executive board.
Feigenblum said that when planning the event, she and the rest of her cabinet were hoping that the participants’ main takeaway would be that “no matter where we are on the political scale, we can still come together to support and advocate for Israel.”
These statements ranged from humorous and trivial (“I believe that falafel and hummus are a divine gift, which we must cherish and preserve.”) to deeply controversial and complex (“I believe that the Palestinians have a right of return.”).
Freshman early childhood education major Mia Stein, also a member of the education cabinet, helped with planning as well. “This is a fun, engaging way to hear other people’s opinions about Israel,” she said of the activity, adding that the interactive nature of the event was extremely important to its planning.
Meeting in the Rosenbloom Hillel Center, the assembled group of nearly thirty enthusiastic students first filled out a sheet with thirteen statements, all addressing different aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and wrote down their level of agreement for each one. These statements ranged from humorous and trivial (“I believe that falafel and hummus are a divine gift, which we must cherish and preserve.”) to deeply controversial and complex (“I believe that the Palestinians have a right of return.”).
The facilitators then collected the sheets and handed them out randomly, making sure to keep everyone’s answers anonymous. Feigenblum said that anonymity was important for this event. “I think that a lot of [the] time it’s hard for students to feel completely comfortable sharing their opinions, especially opinions relating to Israel,” she said, and that, by retaining anonymity, “a certain level of comfort,” could be created for participants.
Now, with each participant armed with someone else’s opinions, the facilitators pointed out four signs around the room reading “Strongly Agree”, “Somewhat Agree”, “Somewhat Disagree”, and “Strongly Disagree”, reflecting the possible answers for each of the statements on the questionnaire. They proceeded to call out each of the statements, and the students would then move across the room to the sign that corresponded to the answer on the questionnaire that they had received. Many students moved timidly, and frequently expressed surprise at the outcomes of these answers.
“It certainly demonstrated how so many similar people can have such different beliefs,” said freshman communications major Austin Bierman of this part of the activity.
After going through this exercise, students broke up into groups to discuss the experience, and went through each of the statements in-depth. Conversation was frank and easygoing. Facilitators were careful to make sure that each group member felt encouraged to share their opinion, and ensured that everyone was given the time to speak without interruption. The tones of each discussion remained distinct. One group was more conversational, constantly cracking jokes, but making a sincere effort to stay on task and make substantive points. Another was quieter, and would sometimes draw silent after a particularly heavy or unexpected assertion, taking the time to process each other’s arguments. The last group was somewhere in between, constantly fluctuating in pace and volume, but remaining intently focused.
Though positive in general, Bierman felt that the event stopped short of achieving genuine “political discourse” in the way that he expected. “I expected it to be more of a conversation with multiple people expressing their sides and engaging in discussion on that,” Bierman said. Instead, he felt that the discussions ended with the participants “just saying ‘we can all have our own opinions and that’s okay.’”
Nevertheless, the organizers felt that the activity went extremely well, “A lot of the times we are really stuck in our ways and our beliefs,” Feigenblum said, “but the fact that so many people came to the event shows that they want to discuss and learn more about the issues.”
Feigenblum was also very positive about the experience of working together with LAVI and J Street, stating that, after the success of this event, she hopes to cooperate on future events with the two organizations in the future.