Monday, February 8, 2010

Building Bridges through Dialogue

Written by Josh:

I felt so confused; the rapid switch from an Islamic-dominated community to the most zealous Jewish one. I stood there, wading in a sea of streimels (fur hats), long beards and black trench coats. And despite the fact that many would say these are "my people," others who hold and practice the same religion I was raised practicing, I felt like a foreigner.

Mea Shearim is well known for the religious vigor that is so present there. On the Jewish Sabbath, most of the streets are blocked off to restrict access to cars, and it is well known that if one attempts to drive through, their car will fall victim to angry shouts and perhaps even rocks pelted from angry Jewish youth.

We walk in the middle of the street, as do most individuals on Shabbat. Although we sport yarmulkas and button-down shirts, we fail to blend in with the ultra-Orthodox garb. We stick out like a sore thumb.

Naturally, some Yeshiva boys approach us, and commence a friendly conversation. We're from Baltimore, Maryland and they are from Brooklyn, New York. When asked "What do you think of Brooklyn?," one of the teenagers replies "Brooklyn is good and bad; it has a huge Jewish community, but it's also full of ni****s."

Woah. I'm taken aback. In the community I was raised in, the use of racist terminology is quite frowned upon. But all too often, in tightly knit and secluded communities such as this one, I find that racism and misunderstandings are the norm.

The bus back to Bethlehem gives me a lot of time for introspection. What is the cause and root that all this misunderstanding stems from?

Examine most of these isolated communities- be it in Israel or Palestine, in America or anywhere else in the world. People tend to isolate themselves with their own kind- Arabs with Arabs, Jews with Jews, whites with whites and blacks with blacks. There is hardly any interaction between different communities, and this I believe is one of the main reason for such misunderstandings.

Dialogue is so incredibly vital to create and maintain peaceful living between individuals who hold many differences. I'm glad to see that some people are now beginning to take the initiative to talk out differences with others.

We were recently contacted by a Palestinian Hebron-based organization named "Tashbeek" (Connection).
We enter a room filled with 25 Palestinian university age students. The course is free and fully voluntary, and to participate students are required to have adequate English skills. We discuss public speaking, and useful tips on speaking to Westerners. Knowing that we are Jewish, the organizers of Tashbeek stress that it is unacceptable to use the words "Jew" and "Israeli" interchangeably. This makes way for us to talk about our background.

Most of the students are surprised to find out that we are Jewish, as they have never had any interaction with Jews other than Israeli soldiers or Hebron's settlers. And yet, they are incredibly respectful towards us. We bring up the idea of a dialogue with American Jews, and we pass around a sheet for interested persons to write down their e-mails. Every single person sitting in the room writes down their information.
Within the next week or so, we hope to set up a dialogue between students in Hebron and students back home in America. And hopefully, we can do our share in building bridges, as opposed to erecting walls.


  1. I was not trying to present it that way. Of course there is undeniable hatred on both sides; the main source of which is the conflict. But I was raised in that community, and therefore see that community beyond the surface. While I'm sure much hatred does exist in this community, we have not seen anything first-hand. So far, everyone we have told we are Jewish has said they understand the distinction between religion and politics, though we cannot truly know what they feel deep down. Of course, if we did not think hatred existed on both sides, we would not have a problem going around saying our background. However, because of the situation and the steriotypes that may surround it about worldwide Jewry, I do not openly go around saying I am Jewish.

  2. Interesting. nice to hear you are safe.

  3. Awesome post, Josh! That's cool how you met Tashbeek and were able to present communication techniques to them. Certainly, I think it was a far more legitimate attempt at reaching out than your schoolhouse lesson (which was more like a set-up).

    Not all Arabs hate Israelis and Jews, but the problem is far more prevalent in political circles, where the decisions are made, and few, if any people, stand up to the Arab politicians (without violence, at any rate). Will you be able to meet the Palestinian leadership?

    Do the members of organizations like Tashbeek have any say in the political arena?

  4. You bring up some important things that social psychology tells us. People tend to stick to their in-group of those who share similar norms and backgrounds. Intergroup interactions can be anxiety producing and contribute to stereotyping, prejudice, and denigrating out-groups. The greatest way to combat these effects is simply exposure and interaction with a diverse group of people. Of course negative interactions will have the opposite effect, but if people come together, as you did, with goals of reaching a better understanding of each other, then slowly but surely those superordinate goals will be more important than whatever perceived differences keep people apart. You are truly building bridges through dialogue. Seems so simple, yet people are surprisingly resistant to it.