3 Strategies for “Successful” Conversations about Israel
By Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, Rabbinic Cabinet Co-Chair

This piece is based on a talk given by Rabbinic Cabinet co-chair Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller at Brit Tzedek's Grassroots Leadership Training Institute on June 22, 2008.  Appended further below is a brief report from a meeting Rabbi Saxe-Taller facilitated with members of Brit Tzedek's Rabbinic Cabinet during the conference.

Many American Jews have well developed opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - some agree with us and some don't. When we engage them, rather than trying to "win the argument" we want to focus on having "successful conversations." In approaching a conversation with this goal in mind, I find three strategies helpful.

1. Listen first

Please Donate to help Support Brit Tzedek's Rabbinic Cabinet

First is to listen. We have to listen to ideas, even those that are abhorrent to us. We have to listen to facts that we feel misrepresent the situation, and we have to remember our own message that you don't have to agree with someone to sit across from the negotiating table from them; this applies to our own conversations as well. To listen to someone does not mean agreeing with them. We need to practice hearing things that we don't like. Sometimes we'll even get lucky and hear something we do like.

I recently brought together ten people to air thoughts and feelings about the situation in Gaza. I was a little worried about how the experience would be for the one Israeli participant. When she spoke, she let out a torrent of angry defenses of Israel. I clamped my mouth shut, and I listened to my heart race. Interestingly, at the end of the meeting, she said how much she had appreciated being listened to and how much she enjoyed hearing all of the different perspectives that had been shared in the group. Given her angry tone, one never would have guessed that she had been able to take in and appreciate the opinions of others.

This reminded me of two things. One is that what people say is not the whole story of what they think. And the other is that sometimes what we say is just what we need to get off our chest, and not even related to what we think. I try to remember that when I'm listening.

2. Share without trying to convince

The second is to share my perspective without trying to convince someone to come around to my viewpoint. This has been a particularly hard habit for me to break. I have ardently held on to the belief that I could really convince people to change their opinions in arguments. I am finally starting to give this up!

Several years ago I served as a student rabbi in a congregation in Florida. One of my favorite congregants disagreed with me about almost everything regarding Israel. He gave me many opportunities to argue and try to convince him otherwise. After many attempts I began to face the ineffectiveness of my attempts to change his mind through argument.

Towards the end of my first year with the congregation, I shared a personal story during a Friday night talk shortly after 9/11. In it, I talked about a phone call with Nazira, a close Palestinian friend. When I sent her my family's good wishes, her immediate response was to say "do they hate us?" "Of course," I rushed to say, "my family doesn't hate you.". And after that conversation, the next day I spoke to my brother, and I told him, that Nazira sent her love. Before I could say another thing, my brother said, "do they hate us?"

A few days after sharing this story with the congregation, I got a note from the congregant with whom I had argued so many times.  It said, "I don't know how this will affect my politics, but your talk helped me to see the Palestinians as human beings in a way that I had never seen them before." Listening and sharing our thinking without trying to convince people to agree with us can be an effective tool.

3. Be personal

Out of that story comes my third and last point, which is to be personal. It's often the personal story that allows people to hear difficult information. Of course, in order to be personal, we have to have material. We have to make personal contact if we are going to have stories to share. And so we have to pursue talking with Palestinians and Israelis.

When we go to Israel, we need to seek out personal conversations. Ask people what their lives are like and what they think. Of course, not all of us can so readily hop on a plane, but there are Israelis and Palestinians in our community that we can talk to. Sometimes we already know them. We just haven't considered engaging them in a political conversation. For example, there are Israeli teachers who teach at the religious school in my congregation who are not going to share their political ideas with me unless I sit down at lunch and ask them, "what do you think?" But when I do that, I hear stories that I can then share -- stories that go beyond my own experience, but are still personal. So listen, try to have conversations where you're not trying to bring someone to your position, and be personal.

Rabbinic Cabinet Meeting Report

Twelve members of the Rabbinic Cabinet met over dinner during National Advocacy Days. Attendees included Rabbis Eliot Baskin (Durango, CO), Ben Biber (Silver Spring, MD), Michael Cohen (Manchester Center, VT), Joab Eichenberg-Eilon (Atlanta, GA), Marc Gopin (Silver Spring, MD), Brant Rosen (Evanston, IL), Julie Saxe-Taller (Berkeley, CA), Howie Schneider (Santa Cruz, CA) and Gerry Serotta (Chevy Chase, MD), Cantor Steve Puzarne (Los Angeles, CA) and rabbinical students Joseph Berman (Somerville, MA) and Rain Zohav (Rockville, MD). 

The group discussed a variety of topics including how synagogues can more closely affiliate with Brit Tzedek, how to shift opinions of mainstream Jews on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and developing resources for peace-oriented High Holiday sermons.  The meeting will be followed by a conference call of the entire Cabinet to discuss next steps.

If you are a rabbi or a cantor, or a rabbinical or cantorial student, and you want to get involved with Brit Tzedek, please contact Rabbi John Friedman, Rabbinic Cabinet chair, at rabbifriedman@btvshalom.org.


Julie Saxe-Taller is the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, California. She serves as co-chair of Brit Tzedek's national Rabbinic Cabinet, and as a board member of the Bay Area chapter of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an organization dedicated to asserting a progressive Jewish presence in social and economic justice campaigns. Before becoming a rabbi, she worked in Jewish high school education, and directed a Jewish living and community service program for teenagers.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

Donate:Help build on Brit Tzedek's success.

Share this message:Tell others about Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.

Receive regular updates:Click if you received this message from a friend, and would like to get regular updates from Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.

More information:Click to see our website.

 Join Brit Tzedek's Facebook page

This message was sent to . Visit your subscription management page to modify your email communication preferences or update your personal profile. Click here (or reply via email with "remove" in the subject line) to remove yourself from ALL email lists maintained by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.