Getting Past Avoidance

By: Naomi Bilmes, Jewish Studies Educator, Gann Academy​

Recently, a colleague asked me, "Do you know anyone in the community who has right-leaning views on Israel who would be willing to be part of a panel?"

I thought for a moment. I had one suggestion. When my colleague pressed me for more, I paused, then replied, "Honestly, I don't know. I don't really talk to people about Israel."

And this is the truth. In my community, we hold our views on Israel close to the chest. We guard them, dwell on them, quietly taking in information and hesitating to speak. Personally, I keep my ears attuned to the right- and left-leaning comments floating around in the open air. But I almost never intentionally have a conversation about Israel. I avoid the topic with new acquaintances at Shabbat meals or community events, and I continue to avoid it when talking to my closest friends, for fear that politics will get in the way of our friendship.

In contrast with the avoidance so prominent in the community, I recently had the opportunity to attend a Resetting the Table workshop for faculty at Gann Academy. At the very beginning of the workshop, the facilitator, Dorit Price-Levine, asked for a quick show of hands.

"How many of you avoid talking about Israel?" Many hands went up.

"How many of you have a relationship that has been damaged because of different views on Israel?" About half the room raised their hands. Clearly, the fear that talking about Israel will have negative consequences is not unfounded.

During the afternoon, Dorit led us in two very powerful activities. The first was a relational activity. We were put into groups of three and given five minutes to draw three moments in our lives that affected our personal relationship to Israel. Then, each participant in the small group shared while the others listened. After everyone had gone, we asked each other follow-up questions meant to crack open each person's story a little bit more. This activity left me feeling warmly connected to the participants in my group. These "moments" revealed poignant life stories and commonalities. We had disclosed memories and feelings, and we had been listened to.

The next activity was not so comfortable. In this activity classically know as the "spectrum game," Dorit read multiple controversial statements about Israel. One side of the room was designated "Strongly Agree" and the other side "Strongly Disagree." After each statement, the participants physically placed themselves on a “spectrum” between the two extremes, indicating their opinions with their feet. Often in a spectrum game, participants are allowed to explain their position after each statement. Not this time. We were not allowed to talk at all until we finished all the statements. We again sat in groups of three — this time with people we thought had opposing views from us. Each person was given room to talk about one statement, and the others had to listen and paraphrase back what they said. If the paraphrasers didn't get it quite right, the speaker helped them tweak their statements.

The spectrum activity was uncomfortable because everyone could look around and see where you stood. In addition, the statements were not simple. Often, I would agree or disagree with a statement for very specific reasons or add a qualifier in my own mind. The trouble was that no one knew each other's reasoning, therefore leading to the fear that others would judge me without getting the whole story. The small group paraphrasing session helped a little bit, but we only discussed one statement, and the focus was on paraphrasing rather than deeply exploring each issue.

Even though the spectrum activity was uncomfortable, I think it was so by design. The fact that we were judging others based on where they stood on the line reminded me that we judge people all the time, based on how they look or based on one thing we hear them say. If anything, the spectrum activity reminded me that it's not enough to see and conclude. We must ask. We must listen. We must go deeper.

We didn’t have enough time to fully understand the views of the others in the group, but we got off to a solid start and established the basis for future conversations — which was one of the goals of the workshop.

As people, we need to learn healthy ways to dialogue about Israel. Also, Jewish educators particularly need to consider how we can teach healthy dialogue to our students. In three hours, we just scratched the surface of that first goal. I truly hope that Gann can have additional workshops for teachers and students to help us with this difficult dialogue process — and that the rest of the community can engage in them as well.



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