OPINION: Why we must never avoid talking about Israel and the Palestinians

OPINION: Why we must never avoid talking about Israel and the Palestinians

Richard Ferrer has become a leading voice on Jewish communal issues since becoming editor of the Jewish News in 2009, writing about contemporary Jewish life for a national audience. He edited the Boston Jewish Advocate, America's oldest Jewish newspaper and created the Channel 4 series Jewish Mum of the Year.

josh cassJosh Cass, Director, Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine

For six years, Fodip, the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine, has been building trust and creating safe spaces in places of worship, youth groups and schools around the country for dialogue to take place between Jews, Christians and Muslims on the subject of Israel and Palestine.

As an organisation, we do this because we believe that preventing events and tensions in the Middle East from spilling over into our communities and damaging Muslim-Jewish relations here in the UK requires us to be able to talk about the situation. We applaud the efforts made by organisations such as Mitzvah Day in creating spaces where members of the Jewish community can meet those from other faith communities and work together on projects for the greater good.

It is fantastic that so many people are getting involved with projects such as those described by Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer last month. Nonetheless, this is the first step in a wider process, one which must include talking about the situation in the Middle East because, as Ferrer correctly pointed out, there is an elephant in the room and it needs to be addressed.

At Fodip, our approach to dialogue is different to others. Rather than focusing the conversation on what is going on in Israel and Palestine, we encourage people to reflect on why they feel the way that they do about the situation. This means listening to other people about why the situation has significance for them personally. We then support them to reflect on what they hear and to think about ways in which they can work together.

In our experience, that is exactly what people want: to talk about their experiences, to be listened to, to learn something new and, with that new information and new relationships, do something practical. Of course, it is not always easy; people clearly have very different experiences of the situation, but in all the years that we have been doing this work, one thing is clear: people really want to understand the relationship that we as individual Jews have with Israel.

They do not want to attack or undermine, but to understand. And therein lies the problem, because this kind of dialogue is tough. It requires people to be emotionally open and honest with other people, often people very different to themselves. As with anything difficult, the easier approach is to avoid, to not engage, or to use Ferrer’s analogy, to not talk about the war. And there the matter would stop.

We could all go about our interfaith business, planting trees, or making sandwiches for shelters, if it were not for the fact that, inevitably, it does come up. Someone asks the question and the awkward silence descends. So what do we do? Do we pull up the drawbridge and say that, since we can’t control the conversation, the best thing is that we don’t engage? Or do we find ways in which we can have the conversation in a way that is authentic, meaningful and safe?

That is why the statement made by the Board of Deputies and the Muslim Council of Britain was so heartening. Dialogue is a risky process; trust needs to be built between people to the point that they feel able to talk openly about subjects that are important to them. Within organisations, that is even harder.

One can only imagine how difficult the process was, how individuals within both organisations struggled over language and the emotions to which the process gave rise. For that reason, both the Board and the MCB deserve congratulations for their efforts. They have shown that it is possible to talk about the situation.

At Fodip, we hope that this leads to more people finding similar courage to sit down with someone different to themselves and to tell them their personal stories of Israel. Stories about friends we know, family who fled there, the place of Israel in our Judaism.

Dialogue is not a perfect process; it is messy and organic. But to prevent community tensions from boiling over and in order to ensure we can call on friends in other communities when we need help, we must have the language and the skills to talk to one another about anything, including the most sensitive subject.

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