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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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Open dialogue helps navigate Mideast conflict

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Talia Bensoussan, Special to The CJN

 

On March 13 at the McGill University Faculty of Law, more than 40 students attended a student-run initiative led by Max Libman and myself that promoted dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The roundtable discussion event was called “Perspectives: Fostering progressive and peaceful dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The program was initiated in response to extreme views, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, that had been expressed about Israeli Apartheid Week posters displayed around McGill’s campus. The posters presented a one-sided view of the conflict using statistics and graphic imagery about the situation in Gaza and the West Bank. They were on display all day without a spokesperson present to provide context to the words and pictures or alternate views about the conflict.

As first-year law students, Max and I felt strongly that rhetoric, on both sides of the debate, does nothing to promote the sort of progressive discussion that could help bring a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Together, we decided to hold an open dialogue in which students were welcome to share their ideas and perspectives about the conflict in the Middle East. All viewpoints were shared in a neutral setting with the goal of promoting peace, democracy and respect for others.

Law students with backgrounds in business, international development, peace and conflict studies, history, comparative religion and political science attended the discussion. Due to their varied academic backgrounds, students approached the conversation from different angles. For example, students with an economics or finance background spoke about the possibility of sustainable development programs in Gaza. Students who have studied history referred to Israel’s legitimate right to exist and to Jews’ historical connection to the land. Emphasis was placed on how a political conflict has become an everyday civilian preoccupation. Students creatively grappled with complex issues including a two-state solution, the right of return, the importance of economic development and the value of equality.

The format of the discussion fostered openness and respect. Tamim Al-Afghani, a fellow first-year law student, along with Max and myself, mediated the event. We began by setting out the rules of conduct in order to create an educational environment of collaboration and sharing instead of one of judgment. All perspectives were addressed to the mediators, who managed the flow of dialogue. Although many participants spoke passionately, there was no tolerance for aggressive language or prejudice and generalizations.

As one of the mediators, I was fortunate to be able to truly listen to all perspectives instead of focusing only on my own opinions. Over the course of the discussion, I learned much from my peers.

For example, I learned that language is extremely important when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Words have the ability to evoke emotions, but are also easily misconstrued. On the one hand, some individuals believe that the word “apartheid” is a misrepresentation of the situation in Israel, Gaza and West Bank, while others believe that it is precisely the right word for characterizing the political and social situation there. While some may feel offended by the severity of the word because of its association to South Africa, others believe it evokes the appropriate emotional reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I also learned that history cannot be removed from the conversation. It is virtually impossible to separate modern-day political tensions from their historical roots. That history, too, evokes emotional responses on both sides of the conflict. Most importantly, I learned that it is possible to conduct a constructive and respectful dialogue about the Middle East. Too often, it is the loudest, most extreme voices that are associated with the conflict. This event showed me that there are many voices in between that are reasonable, intelligent and respectful.

Max and I hope to continue these open discussions in other faculties of law and arts in Montreal in order to share our belief that dialogue, respectful communication, and acceptance are key to finding a just solution in the Middle East. By truly listening to views that differ from one’s own view, individuals can expand their knowledge base and increase their level of sensitivity to all sides of the conflict.

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