People in conversation

4 Tips to Talk About Israel and Gaza

Diverse group of people in dialogue

It’s extremely rare that people change their minds about this issue as a result of a dialogue. But a healthier discussion often helps them see the people in their lives anew. It helps them create a more complex, more human understanding of the differences that crop up in their own lives. Dialogue enlarges us as humans without compromising what matters most.

The war and humanitarian crisis in Israel and Gaza is one of the most polarizing and emotional topics in American life today. In conversations about the war, we are asked to reflect on and speak about complex ethical and political perspectives, religious commitments, and sensitive collective histories, all under the shadow of longstanding and dangerous bigotries.

Over the past two months, many of you have called us with difficult, urgent questions. How can we make ourselves known authentically without harming people in our community? How can we articulate our values in a way that other people can truly hear? How do we help every person feel a sense of belonging, even when they hold a minority perspective? How can we hold space for different perspectives with care and compassion? How can we stay rooted in our values and commitments while remaining in relationship with those around us?

Each of these questions invites a different conversation, and the design of that conversation will hinge on who wants to participate, what your context is, and the time and space that’s available.

Many of you are holding space on college campuses and in high schools, in congregations and communities, within civic groups and cultural centers, and in corporations and nonprofits. In some cases, your community is ready to engage in dialogue. In others, there is still foundational work to be done. No matter what conversation you are trying to hold or how ready your community may be, we want to share a few pieces of advice that people have found helpful during this time.

1. Make Understanding Your Purpose

People often enter into conversations like these with the purpose of changing minds or winning the argument. That has made us all expect zero-sum debates or hammering lectures whenever the topic comes up. As a result, we find that defensiveness is the default starting place for this conversation today.

When people feel defensive, they listen differently. They can’t speak about what really matters because they are too guarded to be vulnerable. They turn to oversimplified arguments, political talking points, and generalizations that can demean people with different views or identities. 

That’s the old polarized dynamic, the one that will lead to alienation, division, and dysfunction for everyone involved.

If you want this conversation to be different, make mutual understanding the core purpose of these conversations, make that clear to the participants, and design accordingly. 

Present this as an opportunity to articulate and share values, describe the experiences or relationships behind a given perspective, and talk about what’s at the heart of the matter. Emotions may still run high. The conversation will still be difficult. But with mutual understanding as the purpose, people are much more likely to develop authentic relationships across differences, a greater resilience to polarizing dynamics in their context, and a renewed sense of trust in the people around them.

2. Disrupt Established Patterns

One way to disrupt established patterns is by setting explicit agreements about how you’re going to communicate. It can feel unnatural—because it is. You’re trying to intentionally improve the way this conversation happens.

When discussions become fast-paced with lots of interruptions, they often turn into arguments. You say something that touches a nerve in me, I cut you off to disagree, you reply with a zinger, I’m half-listening as I think of a response. If that’s the pattern in your space, suggest an agreement to use a timer as people speak, so they don’t go on too long, and not to cut people off. Every so often, take a minute of silence to gather yourselves, or have people write down their reflections about the conversation so far.

Maybe sweeping generalizations are part of the pattern. In that case, have everyone in the conversation commit to an agreement that they’ll speak only from their own experiences and their own perspectives, not on behalf of others—that is, I'm not going to say, People who are like that believe this and this, but we believe that and that. This agreement can help people remain personal, specific, and grounded.

We begin almost all of our dialogues with agreements and structures like these, which are designed to disrupt the unhelpful patterns of a specific context—and since every context is distinct, the design has to meet the specific pattern.

3. Be Prepared to Surprise Yourself

One of the most exciting things about a good dialogue is that every person—even the facilitator—comes away from the experience feeling like they understand their own beliefs a little better. Rarely do people change their views, but almost every person is surprised by what they discover about their own perspectives.

When we're not trying to convince one another and we’ve interrupted some of the established patterns of polarization, it creates a space where people can share some of the nuances, tensions, and complexities in their beliefs. We also listen more deeply to different perspectives, an experience that enriches our understanding when we’re free from the anxiety of losing and the distractions of arguing. 

Again, it’s extremely rare that people change their minds about this issue as a result of a dialogue. But a healthier discussion often helps them see the people in their lives anew. It helps them create a more complex, more human understanding of the differences that crop up in their own lives. Dialogue enlarges us as humans without compromising what matters most.

4. Ask Powerful Questions (Here Are 3)

Every question invites some types of responses and discourages others. A great question can go a long way in helping people understand each other and themselves a little better. Try out these three questions the next time you feel stuck in a discussion:

  1. Could you share a story that would help me understand how you've come to your beliefs about this issue?
  2. Can you share a bit about what is at the heart of this for you? What value or commitment drives your beliefs about this? Where does that value or commitment come from for you?
  3. Are there ways in which you feel pulled in different directions? Are there complexities here, or questions that you have even about your own beliefs?

The power of these questions is that you’re asking for more about the individual. Expanding on one person’s perspective dispels the influence of a binary, pro/con, polarized mindset for everyone involved—speaker, questioner, and listeners. This is not an anonymous avatar on one side of the debate. This is a human being.

It reminds us that we all have rich experiences that inform our values and perspectives. When we play the game of stereotypes and canned talking points, we sell ourselves short.

After a dialogue experience—whether it’s a one-on-one conversation, a facilitated small group with agreements and structures, or a classroom exercise—everyone involved will return to activism, education, work, or pastoral care with the same set of values and commitments they brought into it. But they’ll also carry a new or renewed ability to hold that difficult space between personal values and our shared humanity. ​​​​​​

In this moment of crisis, we call that hope.