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Diamond: The value of dialogue…with strings attached

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Dialogue is important. Without dialogue, concerns become fears, fears become magnified and discord often results. Dialogue necessarily involves both speaking and listening. It is from listening that we learn, and though we often don’t realize this, we learn the most from those with whom we disagree.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. It is rampant on the far left and the cancer is spreading into the mainstream left. This can be seen in the Democratic Party in the United States, where six of the seven senators who voted against an anti-BDS resolution are running for the presidency, and in the U.K. Labour Party, where Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism is out there for all to see. And of course, there are the usual suspects on the far right and in some Muslim quarters.

Jews in Canada have been fortunate, but we remain the most targeted ethnic group for hate crimes by a large margin.  Some in our community espouse dialogue as a useful tool to bring people together and engage with members of other ethnic groups, in an attempt to stem the growth of anti-Semitic thinking and behaviour.

I was particularly moved by the number of non-Jewish Torontonians who came out in support of our community on the Shabbat following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Their circles of support remind us that effective dialogue is possible. But should there be some underlying preconditions to interfaith dialogue?

Effective dialogue requires trust – trust that the person you are interacting with is telling you the truth and not behaving strategically. As an example, many Muslim leaders around the world have been justifiably accused of saying one thing for Western consumption and something quite different in Arabic to their own people. One cannot have a dialogue with such people, because they cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

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So the first precondition to any dialogue is believing that you will hear the truth. For our Jewish community, I think it’s reasonable to attach additional conditions for dialogues that take place between our leaders and those of other ethnic communities. This is particularly so when engaging in dialogue with leaders in the Muslim community, because the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has naturally coloured and intensified the relationship. Such conditions would include:

1. the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state;

2. the right of Israel to defend itself; and

3. an agreement that Israel should be treated in the same way as other countries and held to the same standards. To do otherwise is fundamentally anti-Semitic.

At this point, one might be ask: Why set out these pre-conditions for dialogue in advance? Do you not risk stopping the dialogue in its tracks? Perhaps, but what these conditions do is set out an initial list of discussion points that themselves will require dialogue and resolution before the discussion has formally started. It turns the dialogue into a two-stage process, where if Stage 1 is achieved, Stage 2 is likely to be far more valuable.

And if Stage 1 cannot be resolved successfully, is there really any point in further dialogue with someone who does not believe Israel has a right to exist, or defend itself, or be treated the same as other states?

Indeed, when Jewish community leaders engage in dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, or any other, community, without first reviewing their basic premises and underlying assumptions, those leaders risk legitimizing the other side’s views, and undermining our community as a result. To put this another way: if the person with whom you are engaged in dialogue is not prepared to accept those three basic premises, what potential gain is there to be had?

And by discussing, or perhaps debating, the validity of those three premises at the first stage of the process, whether one goes forward or not, you will learn the other person’s true views, and may even have an impact on them. Indeed, dialogue focused on a review of such conditions has value in and of itself, even if the process stops at that point.