Diaspora Gathering

My wife and I just returned from spending over 2 weeks in Israel. This trip was not your typical tourist trip. In fact, with the exception of one night in Mitzpe Ramon, home to the gigantic and beautiful Ramon Craterwe spent every other night staying with family and friends.

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Sculpture overlooking the Ramon Crater

Our son, Josh, is in his second year of college at the TechnionIsrael’s Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and this was our first opportunity to visit him there. He plays hockey with the Haifa Hawks, and coincidentally, the first thing we did on our arrival was watch him play hockey.

Josh also led us on a walk on  the beach of the last Arabic town on the Israeli Mediterranean, Jisr al Zarkawhere beauty, history and poverty are all intertwined.

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Fisherman pulling in their net on the beach at Jisr al Zarka

In addition, my mother and her husband are spending the winter in Netanya, where they have spent every winter except last year for the past 12 years, and we spent most of our nights with them. It was a pleasure to spend quality time with them in the place that has become their home away from home.

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My mother Rachel and her husband Peter

As I reflect back on what was primarily a visiting trip, I realize that, like most Jews, while my family is spread around the world in what is known as the diaspora, as they fled oppression in Europe prior to the Holocaust, Israel is the place where some of the family with whom I am closest as well as childhood and college friends, have returned and made a life for themselves.

Part of my family fled Europe, but were not allowed into the United States to join the rest of their family in the 1930s, so they settled in Mexico. One of my Mexican cousins, Isaac (Pelon) Leventhal, immigrated to Israel when he was 18 years old in the early 1970s. After meeting him in Mexico City at his sister’s wedding just before he emigrated, I have visited him numerous times in Israel from 1976 through this most recent trip. As he and I have grown older, we have married and had children, and now he and his lovely wife Eli, have 8 grandchildren. Our son has had the opportunity to get to know these cousins better while he studies in Israel, and we were able to visit all of their homes and families during our stay. The warmth of my Israeli family will stay with me for the rest of my life even though time and distance separates us.

I even had the opportunity to visit friends on Kibbutz Ein Gev, where I volunteered during the winter of 1979-80, while my cousins Pelon & Eli lived there. Coincidentally, a friend from England, whom I volunteered with so many years ago, was visiting the kibbutz at the same time we were there and we had a small reunion with our friend and kibbutznik Uzi.

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At the end of our trip, we traveled to Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem to stay with an old college friend, Richard and his lovely wife Michal. They led us on a beautiful hike on Har Eitan, after which we traveled into the city of Jerusalem to visit an old childhood friend, Galia, and her husband Roni for lunch.

It is truly an understatement to describe Israel as one of the most controversial nations in the world. Almost everyone has strong feelings about it, both positive and negative, and while I love that Israel has provided refuge for millions of Jews, including family and friends, it saddens me that Israel has been unable to resolve its generations old conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Due to my love of Israel and hope for its survival as a just, peaceful and democratic state, I have taken on a leadership role in advocating for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by becoming Chair of the Madison chapter of J Street, which advocates for a two state solution to resolve the conflict. My advocacy is quite public so both my family and friends in Israel are quite aware of my positions, most of whom do not agree with me.

Despite our political disagreements, our love for each other is not diminished. In fact, my choice to repeatedly visit family and friends in Israel to maintain our relationships and better understand their lives there serves to enhance our relationship. On a few occasions during our recent trip, both friends and family were clear that they disagreed with my positions, but I often successfully found small, but important points where we did have common ground. Equally important, our disagreements never interfered with our ability to have warm and loving relationships.

As I reflect back on how my friends, family and I can agree to disagree, and not let that poison our relationships, I hope that the lessons I learned in Israel can be applied to the often poisonous political conflict in the US. After all, when friends and family can love each other despite their disagreements, one realizes that one warm hug can overcome virtually any political dispute.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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The Wisdom of Elder Dialogue

It has long been my firm belief that big problems cannot be solved without dialogue. Since my business, Systems Change Consulting, is to help solve big problems, I have spent the past two years working to expand the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayimhosted a few Jewish Dialogue sessions for our members, nearly 2 years ago, I recognized the need to expand this remarkable process, which allows for all opinions to be shared and understood by all participants, to the larger Madison Jewish community. To that end, I was able to convince the other 2 Madison synagogues, Temple Beth El and Beth Israel Center, as well as the Jewish Federation of Madison and the UW-Hillel to co-sponsor 3 dialogue sessions that were held during April-May, 2014.

Those sessions were so well received, that we submitted a Social Innovation grant to the Jewish Federation of Madison, which agreed to fund monthly dialogue sessions during 2015. These sessions have been held in a variety of locations around Madison and continue to be well received. Some of the sessions have targeted specific segments of Madison’s Jewish community, such as University of Wisconsin students and Board members of the sponsoring Jewish organizations.

But, last night’s session was truly remarkable. As many elders are unable to travel, we decided to convene a session at Capitol Lakes, an independent living retirement community. Unlike all of our other sessions, where we adhered to a fairly strict advance registration policy to ensure that the sessions did not get too large to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Capitol Lakes social worker informed us that advanced registration would not be practical there, and we could not exclude any of their residents who wanted to attend.

So, I worked closely with our Rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, and our facilitator, Harry Webne-Behrman, to modify our typical dialogue arrangement in order to prepare for what Capitol Lakes expected would be 30-35 attendees. Rather than place everyone in a circle, as was our usual practice, we decided to set up tables for 4 participants to talk with each other.

I arrived early to make sure the room was set up appropriately, and to make final plans with Harry. As elders often do, participants started showing up 20 minutes before the scheduled starting time. I had fascinating discussions with one gentleman from Ireland, who clearly remembers the radio announcement of the Germans invading Poland, and another who shared a joke about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As the room filled, we quickly realized that we needed to add more tables, as over 50 residents had joined us.

Cap Lakes Dialogue

Harry did his typically wonderful job informing everyone that the purpose of the session was to learn from and understand each other. After all, this was a dialogue, not a debate. The participants revealed themselves to include many who had been to Israel, some who had lived there, and many who had never travelled there. Their views were from across the political spectrum.

Participants included both Jews and non-Jews. At one point, one non-Jew asked whether she and other non-Jews were welcome, and we informed her that everyone was welcome. To my great pleasure, one of the Jewish participants told everyone that she felt the dialogue was enriched by having both Jews and non-Jews attend. Indeed, as Harry and I wandered around the room, we witnesses everyone deeply engaged in meaningful dialogue.

No, we did not bring peace to the Middle East last night. But 50 elders engaged in meaningful dialogue and learned a lot from each other. Many thought that educating Israeli and Palestinian youth together was the long-term answer, though others expressed skepticism that the current generation, with so much history of conflict, could provide appropriate educational models for the next generation. Fortunately, there are some successful examples of such Israeli-Palestinian schools, which were shared with the group.

It is my belief that through dialogue, these elders made achieving peace one step closer to reality. We have submitted a grant application to continue these dialogue sessions next year, when we hope to deepen the sessions to explore specific hot-button topics such as settlements, water rights, the Iran nuclear deal, and boycott, divestment and sanctions. If the grant is funded, I look forward to returning to Capitol Lakes once again to learn more from these elders.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Insight not Incite

Last night, I had the pleasure of engaging in dialogue with fellow leaders in the Madison Jewish community about the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I was reminded once again why it is so important to create safe space for meaningful dialogue.  This was the 3rd monthly session this year, with monthly dialogue sessions to continue throughout the year. Dates and registration information are available herecover_image_for_constant_contact_e

At the outset of last night’s session, our facilitator reminded the participants that through dialogue, our goal was to gain insight and not to incite, which felt highly appropriate given the inflammatory nature of so much that is said about this conflict, and about those who are trying so hard to solve it.

Earlier this week, I attended the 5th J Street Conference in Washington, DC. Together with over 3000 pro-peace, pro-democracy, pro-Israel attendees, including over 1000 college students, I gained tremendous insight about both the challenges and opportunities for peace.

The challenges, of course, include Prime Minister Netanyahu’s renouncement of a two-state solution (which he later backtracked on after securing his election victory) as well as deep fractures within Palestinian leadership. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 13 minute mark). But despite these challenges, opportunities abound, and were demonstrated profoundly in a few ways at the conference.

First, during Monday afternoon’s plenary session, two remarkable things happened.  As was well covered in the media worldwide, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, made clear that the United States friendship with Israel remains strong.  But, he also made clear that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories must end in order maintain the viability of  Israel as the secure, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. He received multiple standing ovations from the crowd. (A web cast of this session is available here.  Start watching at the 44 minute mark).

Later in that same plenary, Hilik Bar, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, sat side by side with Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s Chief negotiator.  They both spoke of their mutual desire to achieve a peaceful two state solution. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 2:05 hour:minute mark). These 2 statesmen continued their conversation during a packed workshop, during which it was clear that while they did not agree on everything, they did agree on the fundamental need to establish a Palestinian state for each nation’s mutual security. I would like to see them go on a world-wide Partners for Peace tour.

That evening, at dinner, former Secretary of State James Baker reaffirmed the longstanding bi-partisan support for Israel and for a 2 state solution.  He went on to support President Obama’s efforts to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran and chided those in Congress who have attempted to scuttle those sensitive negotiations. He reminded the audience that American opposition to Israel’s expanded settlement occupation of the West Bank has also been bi-partisan.  Indeed, when he was Secretary of State under the first President Bush, the United States withheld $10 million in loan guarantees to Israel when then Prime Minister Shamir insisted on expanding those settlements over US opposition. He added that Shamir’s actions were followed by his election defeat and the election of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 41 minute mark). Witnessing the staunch Republican Baker essentially agreeing with President Obama’s Chief of Staff made clear that these positions are indeed bi-partisan.

Yet, despite the ability of Republican and Democrat, Israeli and Palestinian to find ample room for agreement, journalists like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin choose to incite by describing J Street as “anti-Israel” when she blasted McDonough’s speech at the conference. Worse yet, conservative talk show host, Mark Levin, fueled more incite when slamming Sec. Baker’s J Street speech, described J Street as a “left wing hate group.”

As Chair of J Street Madison, with family and friends in Israel, I can assure you that my work with J Street is premised on both my love for Israel and J Street’s support for Israel’s long-term viability as the peaceful, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. Hate? I saw no hate at the J Street conference.  Only insight on how to solve the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Dialogue: Now more than ever

We live in perilous times.  On the domestic stage, Americans continue to protest police violence.  Around the world, terrorists continue to engage in horrific murderous acts like the Taliban’s recent rampage killing nearly 150 school children.

While such peril can and does easily lead to violent acts of retribution, attempts to justify torture, or on the personal level, sinking into depression, unless we choose to allow those who commit these horrific acts of unjustified violence to prevail, we must find ways to keep our sanity and allow the best parts of humanity to rise to the top.

At a basic level, if individuals, communities and nations are unable to talk with each other, then their ability to resolve grievances is severely compromised.  Today, we finally see the end of a failed policy through which the United States refused to talk with Cuba, as President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations after 50 years.  While each nation continues to have grievances with each other, with normal diplomatic relations, the opportunity now exists to solve problems rather than exacerbate them.

In the Middle East, we have seen that the inability of Israel and the Palestinians to successfully negotiate a resolution of their longstanding grievances has fanned the flames of violent acts committed by extremists on both sides.  The world watches anxiously as Israeli elections in March may determine whether a path towards a peaceful resolution can be achieved.

At the local level, I continue to work to engage in dialogue with whomever is willing on difficult topics.  In the Jewish community, talking about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians is a touchy subject, which splits friends and family.  Fortunately, as I have written previously, there is a way to engage in safe & meaningful dialogue, through the methods developed by the Jewish Dialogue Group.  Utilizing these methods of facilitated dialogue, I helped bring the Madison Jewish community together earlier this year for 3 such sessions co-sponsored by my own synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, Madison’s other two synagogues, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, the University of Wisconsin Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Madison.  Each session had about 12 participants, including members of all 3 synagogues, as well as unaffiliated Jews.  Feedback after the sessions was overwhelmingly positive with the only significant critique being that many wanted to participate in additional sessions.

cover_image_for_constant_contact_eGiven that success and the desire for ongoing dialogue, with my coordination, these same 5 organizations came together to obtain an Innovation grant from the Jewish Federation of Madison which will allow us to convene dialogue sessions on a monthly basis throughout 2015. We will gear some sessions for those who have never participated in such a dialogue and other sessions for those who want to deepen their experience by participating in additional sessions.  In addition, some sessions will target affinity groups, including young adults, college students, interfaith couples, Jewish institutional leadership and Camp Shalom staff.

The first 2 sessions are scheduled to take place at UW Hillel on:

  • January 28th-7-9 PM for young adults (20-30 something); and
  • February 12th-7-9 PM for college students.

Additional sessions will be announced in the coming weeks.

RSVPs are required and space is limited to 15 participants to ensure that all participants have a full chance to engage in meaningful dialogue.  You can get more information and register by e-mailing: office@shamayim.org .

From the local to the international, through dialogue, we can achieve peace & justice.

coexist

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

When Right and Wrong are not the Answer

As I watch with dismay the deteriorating situation in Gaza and Israel, I am further dismayed by the deteriorating level of discourse between those who support Israel and those who support the Palestinians.  As one author recently wrote:

there’s also an especially pernicious kind of tribalism that pervades the Israel-Palestine debate within the US-one that turns issues of fact into tests that determine whether or not you’re the right kind of person.

I have watched this kind of debate play out in my nearly 3 decades as a systems change civil rights attorney where one or both sides in litigation is more interested in vilifying the other side and making it pronounce its mea culpas than it is in resolving the dispute at hand.  In these cases, I need to remind my clients that civilized systems of justice were developed to replace vigilante justice and that they should keep their eye on the prize of solving the problem at hand rather than securing their pound of flesh. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Jewish.  I made my first visit to Israel in 1976, volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Gev (pictured below on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights which prior to 1967 allowed Syrians to literally drop bombs from the hill above it on the kibbutz below) working side-by-side with Israeli Jews and Arabs and non-Jewish volunteers from around the world during the winter of 1979-80, and have returned many times since to visit family and friends and attend 2 cousins’ weddings.

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I am also the Vice-President and one of the founding members of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and the chair of J Street‘s Madison chapter.  With both of these hats on, I have successfully helped to create safe space for meaningful dialogue in my community about this issue and continue to work to expand that dialogue.

But despite my efforts and those of many other peace loving individuals around the world, the debate remains largely unproductive at best and vicious at worst while Israel and Hamas continue to lob bombs at each other.  Historians and diplomats may one day be able to judge why this battle has remained so pernicious for so long but one thing remains clear: peace will not come to Israel and the Palestinians because one side convinces the other side that its version of history is right and its opponent’s version is wrong.

Indeed, perhaps because both sides insist that the other side capitulate to its version of history, the battle rages on.  The question, then, is how can this vicious cycle end?  After all, the killing and recrimination has gone on for decades and no solution seems at hand.

So, too, was the situation in Northern Ireland for decades where religious and nationalist warfare raged for decades killing thousands of people.  Ultimately, it was civilian mothers who founded the Community of Peace People in 1976 ultimately leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to the decades known as the “Troubles.” One thing worth noting is though the ongoing terrorism in Northern Ireland has ended, not all the conflict is over.  But despite the remaining disputes, overall peace presides in this once troubled land with significant economic benefit to the people in the region.

Resolving the Troubles in Northern Ireland did not resolve the historical debate over who was right and who was wrong.  Nor did it make Catholics & Protestants all love and forgive each other. So, too, peace will only come between Israel and the Palestinians when their people demand it from their leaders and both sides let go of insisting that they are right and the other side is wrong.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Creating Safe Space for Meaningful Dialogue

Sadly, we now live in a world in which those who engage in political debate often spend more time shouting at each other and insulting opposing views and opponents, than actually listening to and learning from each other.  In the American Jewish community, this lack of meaningful dialogue is particularly acute when the topic is Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. This problem has erupted in a major way in many college campus Hillel chapters.  At the University of California-Berkeley, the Jewish Student Union recently voted to deny membership to J Street U, marking a low point in refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Jews about Israel and its conflict with Palestinians.  However, not all Hillel chapters have been so closed minded.  Indeed, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel recently welcomed the establishment of a J Street U chapter.

Fortunately, there is an organization which is dedicated to providing a safe forum for Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians. The Jewish Dialogue Group trains facilitators to convene groups of Jews to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue about Israel & its conflict with the Palestinians.  It has no agenda to sway participants to one point of view or another.  Rather, its agenda is allow Jews to understand each other better and to learn from each other.  To that end it has published a Manual for Facilitators, Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which you can read and download for free, or purchase a printed copy. It has also recently published a, Guidebook for Deliberation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is also available as to read or download for free, or for purchase in print.

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Last year, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, convened a number of facilitated Jewish Dialogue sessions, and I was pleased to be able to attend one of them. The session provided what it promised, a safe and meaningful dialogue where participants not only learned each other’s views, but of equal importance, learned more about their own true feelings because they were able to express them safely in ways that may not have been available to them in the past.

Based on the success of my own congregation’s dialogue sessions, last fall, I made the decision to try to broaden Jewish Dialogue in Madison to the entire Jewish community.  I felt that the best way to do so was to obtain co-sponsorship of all the major Jewish organizations in Madison.  I am pleased to report that after many discussions, the Jewish Federation of Madison, UW-Hillel, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, have all agreed to join Shaarei Shamayim in co-sponsoring 3 Jewish Dialogue sessions in late April and early May.

The sessions are free, but in order to participate, one must register by April 1st. So, if you are Jewish and you live in the Madison area and can attend a Jewish Dialogue session on April 23, April 30, or May 1st, please register by April 1st.  I assure you that if you participate, you will grow from the experience and learn important skills about how to engage in safe and meaningful dialogue, something our world sorely needs at present.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.