Interacting with those whose views we hate - opinion

Within the Israeli discussion, there were moments of despair but also moments of resolve.

 PRO-AND anti-Israel Jewish demonstrators face each other at a rally at New York’s Times Square in 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID 'DEE' DELGADO)
PRO-AND anti-Israel Jewish demonstrators face each other at a rally at New York’s Times Square in 2021.

To what extent are we willing to publicly interact with those with whom we vehemently disagree? Is there any consensus on that question among Israeli thought leaders, educators and activists?

We were curious about what would emerge from a candid conversation on this subject and assembled six highly regarded individuals for a sharing of perspectives. We specifically asked them to reveal their own red lines: with whom would they share a platform, whom would they assiduously avoid and why?

Heart of a Nation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that brings together American, Israeli and Palestinian changemakers who want to improve their own societies, has been exploring red lines for the past year. We’ve previously posed these questions to American Jewish thought leaders and young American activists. What follows, without attributing any of the comments cited, are insights that emerged from our discussion with Israeli leaders.

While all three of these discussions were fascinating and informative, the conversation among Israelis was the most emotionally fraught, by some distance; perhaps not surprisingly, given the societal and political context within which it took place. One participant said that the current situation in Israel makes him sick, so much so that he can barely discuss it anymore; another indicated that this was the most depressing situation she could recall in the past 20 years.

Words like “painful,” “dire,” and “crisis” peppered the conversation. The discussion mirrored the anxiety so evident in Israel today: that these are not normal times; that political disagreements are more consequential than ever before, filled with existential significance and even dread.

An emotional response turns critical

Despite the swirl of emotions, several significant conceptual issues emerged from these discussions. Some mirrored what we had heard in our previous forums: for example, “purpose versus price.” What might be achieved by engaging in a public conversation with someone, versus the potential consequences of legitimizing a position that was considered beyond the pale; this cost-benefit question was also raised by the American Jewish leaders.

On the other hand, one participant pushed the group to consider how dialogue with another person might lead that other person to think or act differently and therefore was always worth it, no matter the risks of legitimizing them; an opinion that the younger activists have also considered.

This tension between engagement with contentious individuals versus the concern about legitimizing noxious notions was a theme that the participants returned to throughout the discussion. One suggestion that emerged was to differentiate between the originators of opinions and positions considered outrageous or extreme and their supporters, whose pain, disenfranchisement or struggle may represent lived experiences that we should listen to, seek to understand and take seriously.

THIS WAS suggested by both sets of Americans, as well. For example, denying a platform to Trump acolytes but not dismissing as “deplorables” those who may have voted for the former US president.

There are many dimensions to this approach that deserve further thought and discussion.

Where should one draw the red line between those leaders seeking to stir up a constituency and the constituency itself? At what point does someone move from the “will talk with them” to the “won’t talk with them” bucket? What about someone who didn’t just vote for Ben-Gvir, for example, but, say, hung a banner supporting him from their balcony? Or someone who actively canvassed for him?

People’s attitudes, affinities and allegiances are rarely binary, they are points on a spectrum. At what point does an individual switch from being someone I want or need to listen to, to being someone I don’t want to legitimize by being in any kind of dialogue with them? And on a broader level, how does one navigate between the listening/learning mode and the persuading/advocating mode?

In a recent podcast, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has done considerable thinking and writing about political polarization, argued that you “can’t win a culture war by attacking the other side.” That may be true; but, how, then, does one win a culture war?

Within the Israeli discussion, there were moments of despair but also moments of resolve; calls to roll up one’s sleeves, double down on dialogue, reach across fault lines and sow the seeds for new coalitions in the future. For such efforts to succeed, more must be done to understand why such efforts have so far failed to influence the broader political culture, to develop new ways of broadening boutique dialogue programs and to better navigate oppositional resistance to these kinds of initiatives.

We may have to open ourselves up to the grievances and anxieties of those we disagree with, some asserted, and still find ways to respectfully but compellingly present alternative perspectives, and our own visions and prescriptions for change.

At Heart of a Nation, we’ve seen how this tension – the continuum of empathic listening, respectful dialogue and advocacy – is a shared challenge among Americans and Israelis, and also among activists of different generations. We will next raise these issues and questions with a diverse group of Palestinian leaders and share what we learn from that forum. We are committed to learning from each society and hope that the insights we glean will benefit us all.

Jonathan Kessler and Alex Sinclair are, respectively, founder/CEO, and a member of the  editorial committee of Heart of a Nation.