The end of rude: Did the Year of Civil Discourse make it easier to talk about Israel?

Thursday, January 5, 2012 | by dan pine

The Year of Civil Discourse officially ended Dec. 13. So how civil was it? Just ask Dan Magid, a congregant and president of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Before his Reform synagogue participated in a civil discourse training sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and other Jewish organizations, the subject of Israel was so contentious, it was essentially “taken off the table,” Magid said.

That was a common dynamic across much of the Bay Area Jewish community. Incidents such as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s 2009 screening of the film “Rachel,” and the subsequent uproar over the booking, exposed an undercurrent of deep division among Bay Area Jews when it came to Israel.

This was certainly the case at Magid’s synagogue.

“Some years ago we had an event,” Magid said, going on to describe a Beth El panel that included four “refuseniks,” or Israeli soldiers who had refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. “There were some heated exchanges. We lost members. Then we decided we’re just not going to talk about Israel.”

That experience helped spur Beth El congregants to sign up for civil discourse training in 2011.

The Year of Civil Discourse was funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and sponsored by the JCRC and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in partnership with the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

Dan Magid
Dan Magid
The aim of the initiative: to lower the debate on Israel from hard boil to manageable simmer.

Close to 1,000 people participated in the various program components, which included a group for rabbis and another to train Jewish professionals. But the heart of it was the grassroots training done at four Bay Area synagogues over the course of 2011.

Those four synagogues, each of which had experienced turmoil over Israel-related topics, signed up a cohort of at least 25 congregants from across the political spectrum.

Pre-program surveys revealed more than 50 percent of those participating felt marginalized in the Jewish community because of their views. Those views ranged from holding Israel responsible for the breakdown of peace talks and demanding an end to Israel’s presence in Palestinian territories, to those who place Israel’s security needs above all else and/or distrust the Palestinians.

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray
Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray
In that same survey, 47 percent felt unsafe asking questions on Israeli-Palestinian subjects in a Jewish institution.

Through Project Reconnections, the JCRC program that took the lead on the sessions, congregants engaged in a series of workshops and exercises. Those included facilitated discussions about the conflict, Jewish text study and plenty of old-fashioned, one-on-one dialogue between people who disagreed about Israel.

Through the process, participants learned to talk to each other. Or more importantly, they learned to listen.

Magid, an ardent Israel supporter, says he and other training program participants can now talk with congregants who hold diametrically opposing views, because they learned to develop a big-picture attitude.

“The community is very important,” Magid said, “and it’s not worth tearing up over these kinds of things. If people have positions I find beyond the pale, that’s OK.”

Norm Frankel
Norm Frankel
Kendra Froshman, a congregant at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, came to the program with a very different set of opinions. She had spent time in the Palestinian territories, where she said she saw “Palestinians suffering under the occupation.”

She was initially uneasy about the Year of Civil Discourse because it was sponsored by JCRC, which helped write new federation guidelines for funding Israel-related programs.

Yet she overcame her reservations, and took part.

“I feel it’s important as a citizen and a Jew to share the stories and end the occupation,” Froshman said. “I was interested in participating in dialogue at Sha’ar Zahav to build stronger relationships and also so people would get to know a young person who is Jewish and has anti-occupation politics.”

For Beth El executive director Norm Frankel, the monthly civil discourse training he, Magid and 28 other members of their congregation received over half a year proved not only helpful, but transformative.

“There were moments in every session with [someone] you had categorized as ill-informed or extremist,” Frankel said, ”and suddenly you’re talking to them, listening to them, finding places you actually agree on, as opposed to only finding them wrong. It was a breakthrough.”

Though organizers have more follow-up analysis to do, they agree that the Year of Civil Discourse was a success, so much so that other Jewish communities around the country have inquired about copying the Bay Area model in their own cities.

Karen Schiller
Karen Schiller
Abby Michelson Porth, the JCRC’s associate director and organizer of the Year of Civil Discourse, shared the project with JCRC’s parent organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and she also went to Washington, D.C., to facilitate civil discourse training for colleagues from around the country.

“We knew we’d achieve success if individuals said this gave them a sense that the Jewish community was welcoming and inclusive of various ideas,” she said. “In the beginning, we wanted people to have increased knowledge and sensitivity to discuss issues.”

According to follow-up surveys, 92 percent of participants reported they achieved exactly that.

“The data show [participants] by their own reports were able to engage with people of differing views far better than before,” said Rachel Eryn Kalish, a conflict resolution expert who led most of the sessions (Rabbi Shelly Lewis, Mady Shumofsky and Judy Gussmann led others). “When you get underneath the noise and get to core values, people find that their morals and caring are far more in common.”

Porth also said that when controversy over Israel exists within a Jewish institution, it’s often because people don’t have the skills to discuss the subject.

“The purpose was not to have people check their opinions at the door,” Porth added. “We wanted people to bring their passionately held views into the room, and give them the skills to have meaningful conversations about Israel. There was no political litmus test. The institutions all said they desperately needed this program because things had reached an untenable point.”

Kendra Froshman
Kendra Froshman
Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City was a typical case. The spectrum of political opinion on Israel ranged from the far left to the far right, said Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray, and though tensions rarely resulted in confrontations, the anger did bubble up.

“Below the surface, there was a feeling that the community propagated a more right-leaning point of view,” Ezray said. “People who leaned to the left felt they were not listened to; people on the right felt Israel was besieged. A core principal for me as a rabbi is there needed to be a lot more room for people to listen to each other.”

Barbara Sommer, 59, is an Atherton physician who has been a Beth Jacob congregant for 15 years. She considers herself strongly pro-Israel, active with AIPAC and other like-minded organizations.

Sommer also oversees the Conservative congregation’s Israel Action Committee, which has more than 100 members. She frequently sent to committee members emails, many of them touting Israel and spotlighting its security concerns.

Little did she know she was infuriating congregants who took a more critical view toward Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

“I learned from the rabbi that there was a lot of dissention,” she said, “in that not all ideas were well received. Some found their views were not well-accepted, particularly people who felt Israel is not going in the right direction.”

One of those was Miriam Zimmerman, 65, a San Mateo mediator and retired college professor who has participated in Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups and has been critical of some Israeli policies.

Barbara Sommer
Barbara Sommer
By participating in the Year of Civil Discourse program, she learned to identify her “triggers,” as Kalish called them.

“What really triggers me are negative, judgmental statements about Palestinians that contradict what I know about them,” Zimmerman said. “They don’t all hate us. There are moderates, there are friendships, there are grassroots organizations in Israel that promote peace, composed of both Jews and Palestinians.”

She and Sommer were part of the Beth Jacob cohort. Together in the YCD sessions they learned to bridge the emotional gap, if not the political gap, between them.

“During the training, I enjoyed being able to articulate a very important perspective: the Palestinian voice,” Zimmerman said. “Going back to the process of our group, maybe there will be a ripple effect as we practice managing our triggers, and not refuting people for their beliefs.”

Going into the sessions, participants were warned by the leader, Kalish, that many people take a my-way-or-the-highway approach to arguing about Israel — that a middle ground, for them, does not exist.

“I think I may have been one of those people,” said Sommer. “What the [program] did was make me hear another vantage point, while understanding that people with a different point of view may also have great knowledge of the history of Israel. I can talk to them, see their point of view and still be faithful to mine.”

At Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, Israel had been too hot a topic to handle. Congregation president Karen Schiller pointed to an in-house survey that showed the spectrum ran from AIPAC supporters to those she described as “to the left of Jewish Voice for Peace.”

When Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel sent an email to her congregation defending Israel after the March 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, during which nine Turks died, many members pushed back, not wanting their rabbi standing up for Israel.

That led to a town hall meeting in July 2010, attended by more than 60 congregants and moderated by Kalish.

At times, the dialogue devolved into blame and invective. That was when Schiller realized her synagogue needed something like the Year of Civil Discourse training.

“It’s not that people were at each others’ throats,” she said. “It was that they didn’t feel comfortable. People just weren’t talking. Some members felt the synagogue doesn’t represent [them] because the only things that can be said about Israel-Palestine are the mainstream positions.”

She and 24 other congregants signed up for the civil discourse training in 2011. Over eight sessions, the cohort engaged in small-group discussion and one-on-one dialogue. In the beginning, Israel was not discussed, but gradually the focus turned to hot-button topics.

“The focus was about learning,” Schiller recalled. “People were looking for intense arguments, and what they were getting was civil discourse. We might have disagreed, but I learned it wasn’t so scary to disagree, and you could still like the person and have a great conversation.”

Froshman, 30, who came into the program highly critical of Israel, learned to identify and neutralize triggers that set her off. A big one for her was a phrase like “It’s all the Arabs’ fault.”

Meanwhile, at Beth El in Berkeley, Rabbi Yoel Kahn noticed a difference after the cohort completed its training.

“My predecessor [Rabbi Ferenc Raj] said the two things we don’t talk about here are God and Israel,” Kahn remembered with a laugh. “There was historically incivility underneath the surface.”

Through the YCD workshops, Kahn believes Beth El participants learned to “overcome some of their adrenalin response.”

“A few things changed for people,” Kahn said. “One is being open to the possibility that the person I disagree with might have some truth to offer, that I don’t have an exclusive claim on the truth. So it’s a spiritual movement, to a place where one can say, ‘I believe I’m right and I can hear what you have to offer.’ Instead of saying, ‘You are wrong,’ say ‘Tell me more.’ ”

Kalish said it’s impossible to have a tug-of-war “if you let go of your end of the rope. Letting go does not mean letting go of your values, your facts, beliefs or that there’s no room for bringing those into the conversation. If you scream ‘You’re an idiot,’ and I say ‘Tell me what it is that makes you feel this way,’ you’re going to run out of steam pretty fast, so now we can have a real conversation, finding common ground where we can, and learning from each other when we disagree.”

Magid still struggles with some of his triggers, especially when other Jews question Israel’s right to exist or call it an apartheid state. But, he added, “After the training, I could talk to [people who espouse those opinions] and express my thoughts.”

Frankel said the civil discourse shouldn’t end with the conclusion of the training. He and others began a process of community-based organizing and what he calls a listening campaign to “broaden this experience to engage more people in the process of listening to each other.”

He also said the synagogue can now plan Israel-related programming to encourage more in-depth discussions about Israel and the Middle East.

At Beth Jacob, Ezray made civil discourse the topic of one of his High Holy Day sermons three months ago.

At Sha’ar Zahav, Schiller said cohort members now want to share what they learned, and teach others in the congregation about civil discourse.

Moreover, she noted that Israel programming has returned to Sha’ar Zahav, with a panel of congregants having recently discussed members’ varied relationships with Israel.

Some of them will undergo further training from the Jewish Dialogue Group, a Philadelphia-based organization that also trains people in leading facilitated discussions on Israel and the Palestinians.

“My hope is that out of this we go from having a year of civil discourse to having a community of civil discourse,” Schiller said. “If we come from a place of civility rather than fear and demanding, we can have a good effect.”

That’s music to the organizers’ ears.

The year may be up, but for Kalish, the quest for civil discourse does not end. Difficult, if not impossible, as it may be to bridge the political gap, she believes people can learn the skills necessary to have constructive dialogue.

The alternative, she feels, is much too destructive.

“My mantra is ‘I trust Jewish morality,’ ” Kalish said, “and I know if we can keep working on this, we can truly be a model for a world deeply fractured and polarized. It takes some work, but it takes even more work to do the clean-up when things get out of hand, as we have seen.”