Israel judicial reform: How to make Israelis talk, listen to each other

To better understand how to foster listening and dialogue, I spoke with an expert, Yishai Shalif, the first Israeli-born ultra-Orthodox psychologist.

 Yishai Shalif (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yishai Shalif
(photo credit: Courtesy)

I got it wrong. 

For over 50 years, as an educator, I knew for certain that the skill I most needed was expertise in speaking and writing words – to impart knowledge. The gift of the gab, the Irish call it.

Belatedly, I saw the light. I have come to understand that the real skill I most needed was not talking but listening – because listening precedes talking, so that we can speak wisely and thoughtfully to our counterparts in a manner that is respectful, constructive, and attentive. 

Why is this relevant regarding Israel’s current plonter (tough dilemma) over “judicial reform”? 

Simple. We face a seemingly intractable conflict between Right and Left, with a paucity of real listening on both sides. At some point, we will have to reach a consensus. But it will never happen unless both sides truly listen to each other. 

 MK Simcha Rotman, Head of the Constitution Committee, at a committee vote on the judicial reform legislation at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023.  (credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90) MK Simcha Rotman, Head of the Constitution Committee, at a committee vote on the judicial reform legislation at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90)

In general, we Israelis are poor listeners. We break into each other’s speech, never let others complete a sentence, fail to listen to their points of view, and keep them from speaking by talking loudly over their words.      

Members of Knesset are topnotch experts at it, especially on TV, but so are the rest of us. Why in general are people poor listeners – not just us Israelis? I found the answer in a 66-year-old article in Harvard Business Review, “Listening to People,” by Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens. 

People speak at about 125 words per minute, the authors explain. This rate is slow for the human brain; spoken words race through our brains “at speeds much higher.” Hence, “we can listen and still have spare time for thinking”. 

And how do we use all that spare time? Processing what our counterpart is saying? Probably not. We mostly think about our own response or about everything else but what we are hearing. The result is debate rather than dialogue. 

Debate is when participants listen, if at all, solely to refute what the other side is saying. Dialogue occurs when participants listen attentively in order to understand and to gain insights into the concerns and beliefs of the other side, while asking questions to clarify – all this driven by sincere curiosity about the counterparts. 

To move forward and reach some sort of agreement, we must learn to listen much more closely to what the other side is saying. And this refers not just to the two negotiating teams – opposition and coalition; pro-reform and con – who meet at the President’s Residence. 

All of us Israelis, all 9.5 million of us, must become better listeners if we are to mark Israel’s 75th diamond jubilee as a united nation filled with hope and optimism for the future. 

To better understand how to foster listening and dialogue, I spoke with an expert, Yishai Shalif, the first Israeli-born ultra-Orthodox psychologist, head of School Psychology services at Modi’in Ilit, an expert in narrative therapy and the originator of an effective approach for constructive secure dialogue.

The Jerusalem Report: Yishai, when you chose to study psychology, did you encounter opposition within your community? 

Shalif: For two years I studied psychology secretly. Only my wife and my parents knew of the secret; no one else knew I was studying psychology. And when I came out with it, everyone from Neturei Karta to Modern Orthodox, everyone said it’s about time there are psychologists that can understand and know the ways of life of the haredi community. 

The Jerusalem Report: At the President’s Residence, opposition and coalition representatives are negotiating. It is not going very well. We Israelis are not good at listening and discussing, rather than arguing and shouting. You started an initiative over a decade ago to help people engage in meaningful, productive dialogue. As an adviser to President Herzog, what advice would you give to these two groups who are supposed to save the nation and come to some sort of agreement? How can they conduct a fruitful dialogue?

Shalif: First, shape together guidelines for listening, not talking. Talk about the process and make guidelines and rules so the conversation can get us somewhere.

The Jerusalem Report: Researchers have found that over time, the average listener remembers only 25% of what was said. Even the moment after we have a conversation with someone, we remember only half of what the other person said, on average. So we are very poor at listening. And in college and in schools, we don’t teach listening, even though it’s a vital skill. Perhaps you have insight into this problem. How can we change something as fundamental to Israeli culture as our inability to listen to people without breaking into what they’re saying, not listening to what they’re saying but rather thinking about what we ourselves believe? 

Shalif: I think that developing curiosity is one way of developing this skill. That means understanding that what people say has many layers to it and that when someone says, ‘I feel bad about the situation,’ we assume we know what he’s talking about. But what does it mean, ‘I’m feeling bad’? Tell me about it. Tell a story about it. 

Changing the way of listening and talking to stories is helpful. My sister-in-law is a storyteller by profession, so when we have a weekend with the family and there are children a year or two old, and adults 80 and 90 years old, after the meal we have a storytelling time, and the children come to listen. The 20-year-olds come to listen, too, along with the elderly. Why? Because a story has the power of inviting one to listen. So when people express their values and preferences in stories and anecdotes, that’s very helpful to foster strong purposeful listening. We can dialogue effectively by telling stories.

The Report: I’m an economist; I was a dedicated number cruncher. It took me a very long time as an educator and researcher to understand that you rarely find truth in numbers. You find more truth in stories, in good stories. Yishai, you actually heal people with stories. You are an expert at narrative therapy. How do stories heal people?

Shalif: We believe that life is multi-storied. And in English, ‘multi-storied’ has a double meaning to it. The problem is, people often have a mono-story of their life and not a multi-storied one. And when we interview people who come to us for help, we begin with the assumption that there’s more than one story to their lives. We search together with them for their unique outcome or exceptions to the problematic story. And in their lives themselves, they have knowledge that if we tap into it, we can create a preferred story. 

Every kind of therapy has a metaphor that expresses the meaning of how the therapy works. Using a narrative metaphor is part of our belief that life is much more flexible than previous therapies thought. When you talk about a structuralist way of understanding people, that means he is this, or this, or this. We label. It’s very hard to change a structure, but a story is very flexible. And having a flexible metaphor makes it possible to have healthy change.

The Jerusalem Report: I belong to a Masorti congregation in Zichron Ya’acov called Ve’ahavta. Rabbi Akiva, as you know, said that Ve’ahavta le’reiacha kamocha (Love thy neighbor as thyself) is a great principle in Torah. I once had a visitor from abroad; after a week or so in Israel, he looked at me, puzzled, and asked, ‘Shlomo, do you Israelis hate each other? You yell at each other. You don’t let anybody finish a sentence. On the roads you cut other cars off, you drive aggressively. Do you Israelis dislike one another?’ 

And I had to tell him, ‘Absolutely the opposite. When we’re in trouble, we come together cohesively, instantly and we help one another.’

But lately, after the last 14 weeks of protests, many of us have a terrible feeling that the Ve’ahavta principle is not being observed, even though it’s a core Torah value. Your secure dialogue program is brilliant. [Disclosure: My wife, Dr. Sharona Maital, is deeply involved and working hard to disseminate it.] In practical terms, what can we do to implement ve’ahavta, ‘a great principle in Torah’?

Shalif: My father [a former senior naval officer who helped develop missile boats and the Gabriel ship-to-ship missile] once said, ‘It seems that Israelis hate each other…but the hatred is a form of a relationship. In America, everyone is very polite and there’s much less hatred. But it comes out of not caring, indifference.’ So I think if we reshape the story and understand that the hatred, the shouting and the demonstrations are actually acts of caring, then we can make a change in what develops out of the current situation.

The Jerusalem Report: I think that’s a brilliant observation. We are beginning to write the narrative of what is happening now because it’s a defining moment in our country. We’re 75 years old and, as you observed, it makes a huge difference how we tell each other the story. It is precisely because we care so deeply that we are out there demonstrating. Somebody once said the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is apathy and indifference. We Israelis care! I feel you have so much deep wisdom, that I have only scratched the surface. What other insights would you like to share with our readers? 

Shalif: Mediation used to be the preferred way of bridging the gap between rivals and enemies, husband and wife, and children and parents, and the main approach in mediation was looking for common interests. I think that’s not the way. The way is to have everyone tell their story and have others listen closely to it. And focusing on the listening will make a difference without having the pressure of getting to a common interest. 

In one of the first courses we gave on narrative mediation, in Haifa, we had Arabs and Jews, religious and non-religious. And we got to a point where the Arabs listened to the history of Jews who came from Europe, from the Holocaust. 

And we Jews listened to stories of how Arabs had been driven out of their homes in 1948. It is not that spontaneously everything changed – but in the end, we were in a different place than we started. What made it possible was that we did not have to get to a common interest. The only thing we were invited to do was to listen to others’ stories.

PROF. HANAN ALEXANDER is an expert on the philosophy of education, former dean of education at the University of Haifa and currently visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Writing in The Jerusalem Post on April 7, he quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in turn cites a Greek aphorism, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 

“Societies conceived by foxes encourage citizens to choose among competing paths to human fulfillment, provided they respect the choices of others. Hedgehogs assign privilege to those who follow one particular path,” Berlin observed.

“Berlin,” Alexander notes, “saw center-left liberals as hedgehogs, no less than right-leaning traditionalists.” And, he might have added, hedgehogs are often terrible listeners, abysmally bad at dialogue. 

What lies ahead?

 The Jerusalem Post’s political reporter Eliav Breuer suggests a possible “albeit unlikely” scenario when the Knesset reconvenes on April 30: 

“The talks [mediated by President Herzog] could lead to a breakthrough and wide consensus, in which case the sides will likely continue to work together in the coming months in order to come up with a viable constitutional framework. This would free the Knesset to focus on the issues that relate to many Israelis every day – the high cost of living, Iran, security, health, education and more.” 

“The talks [mediated by President Herzog] could lead to a breakthrough and wide consensus, in which case the sides will likely continue to work together in the coming months in order to come up with a viable constitutional framework. This would free the Knesset to focus on the issues that relate to many Israelis every day – the high cost of living, Iran, security, health, education and more.”

Eliav Breuer

In the summer of 1973, the government of Golda Meir was distracted by terrorist incidents. It failed to pay attention to the preparations for a surprise attack on our borders. The result cost many young lives.

For a small country like Israel, in a bad neighborhood, distraction is very dangerous. And our current far-right government and its prime minister are not paying attention to the cost of living, flight of capital, and other strategic threats. As Linda Loman says in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid!”

I fondly recall the American Jewish stand-up comedian Joan Rivers, who died in 2014. She always began her routine with a question: Can we talk? 

For her, that was an invitation to listen. Her audiences shouted things on their mind. She responded. It was a dialogue.

To those who seek judicial reform (Right) and those who oppose it (Left) – can we talk? And – will you listen?  ■

The Ten Commandments for Secure Dialogue

  1. We will allow all voices to be heard with equal time for each.
  2. We will talk about ourselves, our experiences and beliefs and avoid talking about others.
  3. We will avoid generalizations about “things in general.” 
  4. We will listen intently through a desire to understand the beliefs and concerns of others.
  5. We will try our best to clarify the intent of others’ words and avoid making assumptions about their intentions.
  6. We will listen without interruption.
  7. We will maintain eye contact and be attentive to body language.
  8. There is no obligation to speak; we can ask simply to listen.
  9. We will avoid disdain and judgment of any kind.
  10. We will be restrained and listen even when (especially when) what is said is hard for us to hear.

(Based on Shalif, Y., Levitan, I. and Paran, R. (2007). Kesher: Care-full Listening and Conversations: Creating Dialogue between members of conflicting Multi-Cultural groups)

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at