Thursday, February 12, 2004


Where did this panel go wrong?
In order to stop the conflict, we must change the conversation.

Guest column by Beth Goldman, Ari Johnson, Hannah Lantos, Michaella Matt, Fatima Quraishi, Jake Rosenberg, Shira Wakschlag and Sarah Zakowski

People may have come to last Tuesday's (Feb. 3) panel, "Democracy and Peace: An Exploration of the Israeli−Palestinian Conflict," thinking it would be the same as any other panel that they had attended on the Israeli−Palestinian conflict: full of anger, bitter blaming, polarized presenters, and all of the usual arguments about the unambiguous evil of suicide bombers or settlers. Unfortunately, they were right.

We, the organizers, envisioned an event that would transform a divisive and bitterly emotional debate into an important new forum for intellectual exchange on a conflict that is in dire need of new ideas. We hoped to change the tone of the dialogue from a presentation of dogmatic and immutable positions into a constructive conversation with mutual understanding of each other's arguments and pain.

Those of us who organized the event are the leaders of a wide variety of student organizations, including Brown Students for Israel, Friends of Israel, the Muslim Students Association and Tikkun. Among these groups, we have supporters of the wall, opponents of the wall, supporters of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, supporters of the Palestinian cause, supporters of the current Israeli government and everything in between. And yet we came together regularly for the past six months to plan an event that, through its panel of diverse speakers and its higher goal of greater understanding, would satisfy our common ground: our shared concern for peace in the region.

We envisioned that our panelists, though not necessarily in agreement with each other, would explore together the challenges and aspirations of Israeli and Palestinian societies by delving wholeheartedly into the historical and contemporary role of democracy in the Israeli−Palestinian relationship. By bringing scholars together to discuss both Palestinian and Israeli democracies, we sought to create a compassionate intellectual atmosphere where the audience could learn about and discuss the trajectories of the Israeli and Palestinian people and identify areas for improvement and growth in the Israeli−Palestinian relationship.

We tried to express this vision to the panelists and to set up the structure of the panel in a way that would facilitate this kind of exploration. The scholars of Israeli politics were instructed to focus on ways in which to improve and solidify Israeli democracy, while the scholars of Palestinian politics were asked to focus on methods with which to develop Palestinian democracy. We instructed the speakers to address the past, present and future of Israeli and Palestinian democracies, rather than just to make policy recommendations.

Unfortunately, the panel did not realize our goals. The political perspectives were not balanced and the atmosphere of introspection and investigation never developed. We wanted to listen to panelists who would enable us to truly consider each point of view and understand and empathize where it was coming from. Instead, the presentations became polemical and at times bitterly emotional. Members of the audience responded to such emotional appeals on an equally combative and emotional key. As happens all too often at such events, we failed to communicate and found ourselves and the audience clapping for the people we agreed with and sitting sullenly silent waiting for the people we disagreed with to stop talking.

We struggled with this outcome. Why did we not get what we wanted? Why could we not change the dialogues, or lack thereof, at this university? Even within our group, we had very different reactions. Some of us thought the panel brought up essential and often unspoken questions underlying the Israeli−Palestinian conflict. Others among us felt disappointed to have put our names on the organizing list of a panel we felt to have been one−sided and misleading.

Regardless of the nuances in our reactions, we all agreed that the panel did not achieve our ideal of a discussion that encompassed a diversity of perspectives and not only listed demands for peace, but also embodied peace in its process. Some might argue that our expectations for a mutually compassionate and self−critical discussion of this conflict were unreasonable and naive. But we maintain that this is a vision we can and must continue to strive for. Bitter, emotional arguments about these issues reproduce and amplify the very conflict they attempt to resolve. Therefore, to help transform the conflict, we must first transform the conversation.

While the panel did not create the kind of discussion we had envisioned, we believe that our collaborative process in organizing this event should be a source of hope for those who share our yearning to transform the discussion on the Israeli−Palestinian conflict. In organizing this event, we began to talk to each other. We are bringing different ideas together, and we are trying to understand each other. We disagree. And yet we can create a new conversation.