Researchers train Jewish leaders to argue constructively about Israel

 The authors take no stance on these issues and are not aligned with any organization. They are simply facilitating conversations with professionals with the tools they have designed for healthy arguments. 

By World Israel News Staff

A major Jewish organization in the UK tweets that a member of the new Israeli government would not be welcome in their community. Sound plausible? In fact, it’s exactly the type of situation that two educators are teaching Jewish leaders to navigate.

Israel-based educators and researchers Abi Dauber Stern and Robbie Gringras have been using their expertise over the past few years to train Jewish leaders around the world to engage in constructive and healthy arguments about contentious issues relating to Israel.

The two colleagues use fictional, reality-based “argument-stories” to facilitate difficult conversations.

Last May, they launched, “For the Sake of Argument,” an educational initiative that offers a fresh approach to arguing. They now travel to communities and educational settings around the world training others to lean into the arguments that arise when complexities are addressed rather than shy away from them.

Most recently, since the last Israeli national election resulted in the most right-wing government in the history of the country, Dauber Stern and Gringras have been focusing particularly on helping Diaspora Jewish leaders, many of whom disagree with the platform, to deal with this new reality.

In this regard, they have just released their latest “argument-story” called, “Tweeting Israel,” about the backlash that ensues when a fictional CEO of a Jewish Federation tweets about a far-right Israeli politician not being welcome in his community.

Hundreds of leaders in the U.S. and the UK have pledged to block certain Israeli government officials from speaking in their communities. Right or wrong, many professional and lay leaders are concerned that policy changes regarding religious pluralism, conversion, and LGBTQ+ rights will negatively affect their relationship to the State of Israel – although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to uphold the status quo regarding immigration to Israel and recognition of all Jewish denominations, as well as appointing an openly gay Likud member to the prestigious position of Knesset speaker.

“If these conversations are not conducted well, these issues have the potential to break apart the fabric of organizational life and tear apart communities,” Dauber Sterne says.

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“We are not trying to get everyone to agree; we know that’s not going to happen. We are trying to help people understand how others come to their decisions so that they can understand and learn from each other,” the colleagues said.

“By the time we reached the point of publishing the book, there was a growing realization that we needed to supplement the stories with a way of arguing,” Gringras told World Israel News in a telephone interview.

“There have always been reasons to argue,” he said. “I don’t think the relationship between world Jewry and Israel has ever been entirely smooth.  But our ability to disagree without shunning or avoiding each other… It’s gotten worse over the decades. Why?

“There are all sorts of theories, and they’re probably all a little bit right.”

Juggling with differences of opinion

For example, “there’s certainly an element of developing my identity and my ability to discourse through a lot of online interaction, which means that I can find a community of friends who entirely agree with me, which not only strengthens my own specific conviction but it also means I have far less practice with being in communication with somebody with whom I disagree.

“I think there has also been a growing desire to put safety rails around our conversations so as to reduce harm, which is extremely valuable and can sometimes dampen down our ability to touch on stuff which is disagreeable to others.

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“And I think it’s become more and more difficult to differentiate between when you disagree with me and when you find me disagreeable. Whether you don’t like my opinions or you don’t like me. And it can go in both directions. Sometimes I’m afraid that when you’re critiquing my opinion, you’re critiquing me. And sometimes that’s true, that we judge people on their opinions.”

Their latest story, based on a true situation in the UK, deals with the values held by a significant portion of world Jewry that conflict with those of several of Israel’s new government ministers and their platform. How does the organized Jewish community juggle with those differences?

“We fictionalized it,” setting the story in the U.S., where the project is based, Gringras explains. “What we do is provide the story and background for the story, and it’s very much up to the people talking through the story or reading it or working with it if they read the background material. But for this particular story, it quotes directly what happened…

“It’s really important for us to deliberate amongst ourselves about what we think is right about it or wrong. Our challenge is that there’s a lot to deliberate about and that much shrinking space to talk. So all these stories are with no intention to suggest what is the right thing to do. Each story presents a challenge, a clash of values,” and will not necessarily find a solution.

“It’s there in order to provoke, to complexify an argument so that we can have these conversations. There’s a very clear theory that until you actually clarify what you disagree about, you’re never going to actually be able to reach a deep agreement.

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“So what often happens, especially in the organized Jewish world,” he continues, “is that we will jump to try and find a solution without digging into what we actually believe and feel. If we deliberate further, we may come up with that solution and at least we will better understand each other even if we don’t agree with each other.”

Moving beyond the Jewish world

“We’re exploring two things, basically,” Gringras said. “We’re exploring how we can teach people to argue and how we can teach through argument. And so we’ve started with how can you teach about Israel through argument, and that’s stage one. That’s the field we know best. Our aim most certainly is to explore beyond Israel education and beyond the Jewish world at some point.

“We’re sharpening our skills in the area we know best…Together with the Jim Joseph Foundation, we’re doing a great deal of applied research out in the field and in workshops, evaluating what’s going on so that we can be specific and say, here’s what a healthy argument looks like…and then let’s see whether we can apply this to other subjects, other countries.”

Will the rift get worse between Israel and the Diaspora?

“I think we’ll have to redefine what we mean by a relationship and what we mean by a strong relationship,” Gringras said.

“The relationship between Israelis and Jews around the world is going to have get more resilient. My feeling is that we need to get better at arguing openly with each other,” rather than shunning each other.  “As you know, even a marriage is stronger when we’re able to also deal with our differences and our disagreements.”