Strategies for “Successful” Conversations about
By Rabbi Julie
Saxe-Taller, Rabbinic Cabinet
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.
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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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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