Much has happened since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7. As of Nov 16, over 12.4 thousand people have died from the conflict, including 1,200 Israelis and 11,240 Palestinians in Gaza; the U.S. has agreed to send $14.3 billion in foreign aid to Israel and $100 million for humanitarian aid in Gaza; countries in the West and South have seen a shadow cast on their relations, and hundreds of protests have erupted around the world, including on U.S. college campuses.
Without a doubt, this has all caused plenty of debate, disagreement and predictions of what the future holds. Not to mention, the emotions evoked by this war understandably provide for some pretty contentious interactions between those who are not directly affected by the war, let alone those who have family connections or have lived in the region. Something we’re not seeing–or seeing as often–however, are constructive conversations from those with differing perspectives about the current conflict taking place.
Conversations alone will not stop the bloodshed in the Middle East, but on the governmental level discussions are the first step of negotiations and a step toward peace. On the individual level, we don’t have the power to stop the war, but having conversations about it can begin to build our understanding of our collective humanity.
At my organization, BridgeUSA, students have been faced with the challenge of facilitating a dialogue on this pressing issue with peers of Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Israeli ties. I am proud to say that over the past month, 20 BridgeUSA chapters across 20 different college and high school campuses have successfully held discussions on the war.
At the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, our chapter leader Savannah reflected on their chapter’s discussion saying: “I think the discussion was one of the most productive we’ve hosted this semester. While not everyone agreed about what should be done in response to the war, the empathy for each other and the victims of the war was immeasurable.”
Our chapter at the University of Southern California debated whether to discuss the topic or not. After deciding to move forward with the idea, they found that an active moderation approach, which included sending out news sources ahead of time and encouraging others in the room to share their thoughts, helped constructively navigate the conversation.
Here are the approaches they’re using:
1. Empathy doesn’t mean agreeing
Let’s start with this: Having empathy for the fear, loss, pain and anger that someone has around the Israel-Palestine conflict does not mean you agree with their opinion. Acknowledging the emotions someone is feeling and the experiences they’ve had does not mean throwing out our own beliefs. Both can exist at the same time. This is important to remember.
It’s also crucial to note that people are not their governments—we may all have opinions on the Israeli government, Hamas, and the American government, but we can collectively mourn the innocent civilians who, in many cases, did not choose their country.
2. Discuss subtopics within the broader conversation
To step into a conversation about Israel and Palestine is to step into centuries of history, land disputes, religious beliefs and cultural attitudes. Unless you’ve spent countless hours (or years) studying the conflict, you are likely to miss something in the broader conversation, especially if you don’t have personal ties to or experiences with the land, its people or its religions.
Instead, try looking at subtopics under this wider umbrella. What should the U.S.’s role be in this conflict, if any? What does this conflict mean for countries on the international scale? Should universities be limiting student speech on this issue? How do we tackle anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our own communities? How do divisions in the U.S. impact our ability to support abroad?
These questions aren’t necessarily easier to answer, but they are a way to touch on the war without diving into the deep end.
3. Invite nuance into the conversation
Mainstream dialogue has taught us that nuance is not where you want to be. Our system rewards ‘right or wrong’, ‘this or that’, ‘us or them’ approaches to issues. It’s this simplistic, binary thinking that creates more division. But the Israel/Palestine conflict does not fit into a binary framework; there are centuries of history behind the conflict.
We should be able to say there’s context to every conflict. We should be able to grieve for lives lost without having to worry about politics. Advocate for your perspective, if you have one, but do not strip away the complexity of the war.
4. Find and cite reputable sources, information
Wartime is the optimal time for mis- and disinformation to spread. Especially in the age of technology. (Does anyone else remember the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’? Yeah, that was my favorite.) In the days following Oct 7, several news outlets reported that Hamas fighters had beheaded and burned 40 babies in Israel. Then a little over a week later, another report circled that an Israeli rocket had targeted al-Ahli hospital in Gaza.
With an onslaught of unbridled emotion, biased reporting, citizen-journalism and analysis, and the fast-paced 24-hour news cycle, having fact-based information and sources is vital to this discussion. And that’s a hard thing to manage.
Use AllSides Balanced News to get a summary of what people are saying on all sides of the situation and check out AllSides’ Israel-Hamas war live blog for misinformation checks. Here are some other sources to check out for firsthand reporting on the war.
5. Focus on shared humanity
We're seeing the outcome of two groups pitted against each other throughout history. We are witnessing an extreme manifestation of what occurs when humanity breaks down. Of all the disagreement surrounding this conflict, there is a common ground that the majority of people on all sides will agree on: They don’t want to see innocent men, women and children die.
On Oct 16, Reuters released a poll showing 78% of respondents–including 94% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans–supported creating a plan to allow civilians fleeing Gaza to move to a safe country.
It’s easy to lose sight of what unites us on this issue when most of our interactions take place online. Remember there are real people impacted by this immediate conflict, and millions more around the world affected by its reach. We can agree that we don’t want to see them or any other innocent person harmed or killed from this war.
6. The goal of the conversation is not a resolution to the conflict, but understanding
As always with difficult conversations, the goal shouldn’t be to change minds or force common ground. And in this case, it also isn’t to solve a deep-rooted and decades-long conflict. The goal is to understand the person you’re talking to. When we are able to understand someone different from us, we are more likely to consider them in our decision making, integrate new solutions and ideas into our problem-solving, lessen violence and hostility, and grow as a community.
Since Oct 7, two prominent camps have taken over the conversation on Israel-Gaza: those who are Pro-Israel and those who are Pro-Palestine. Whether you belong to one of these voices, or are still finding your own, conversations across the two are imperative for gaining a better understanding of the situation and challenging violence as a response.
The last thing I’ll say is there is an innate belief that when we allow ourselves to hear from different sides, we are giving validity to their argument, and therefore giving a perceived validity to genocide, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, the murder of innocent civilians, including children, etc. This isn’t true!
These discussions are the first step to navigating current and future challenges and conflicts. They are an opportunity to challenge current approaches to hate and disagreement, and an alternative to hurt and violence. They are not meant to force agreement or common ground, but be a tool for better understanding one another going forward. If we don’t have these conversations we will not be able to craft mutually beneficial solutions, large or small, because first we must understand what the other side wants and where their beliefs come from.