A few weeks ago, I designed an experiment in my living room. The combination of ingredients had to be precise; my lab skills needed to be honed; and it had to be executed very carefully, lest it exploded. The task? Hosting a wide-ranging, salon-style discussion about Israel.
In the end, it was warm, but no one got burned. It was intense, but not too tense. It was lively, but not explosive. In short, it was a success.
Here, then, is a personal “how-to” on hosting an “Israel salon” in one’s living room, along with some reflections of particularly revealing points in our conversation that evening.
I invited around 18 people with the expectation I’d have 14 or so attendees. Some had PhDs, some had rabbinic ordination, but knowledge and immersion in the issues varied. Ages ranged. I wanted to ensure political diversity, so we weren’t all simply bound to agree with one another. I had gleaned potential participants’ views either from my own previous discussions with friends in passing, and/or friends’ posts on social media.
Second, I wanted to be sure that these individuals were ones I could trust to dialogue respectfully. I had to feel each was a mensch. Third, I didn’t simply want a clique. So, while I had some sort of relationship with each guest, and there were some cross-cutting friendships, others were new to one another. Some of the guests arrived in couples, others, solo. As for my own partnership, my husband offered to clean and cater (desserts, cheese and wine), while I led the proceedings.
I began the evening by handing out blank cards on which participants were invited to write a word or phrase that occurred to them about Israel and/or its conflict with the Palestinians. Cards were placed face-up on a table, and participants were asked to choose one that spoke to them somehow (not the one they’d written). We formed into groups of three or four and discussed the issues spurred by the cards.
Next was our group-wide discussion. For this, I actively facilitated the conversation, posing questions, mirroring ideas back to the group, adding facts or analysis where helpful, and, perhaps most importantly, keeping tabs on who was going to speak next. I began by asking the group to suggest things, ideas or places in Israel that gave them pleasure. We then offered up aspects of Israel that cause concern (the guidelines made clear that this need not be the “fault” of Israel). Then the meat of the discussion began.
We covered the ground of occupation; how we, as Diaspora Jews, relate to Israel as a home; whether Israel is or isn’t an apartheid state; whether Israel is held to a double standard; and the meanings and implications of the concept of Chosenness. Particularly fascinating were the varied reactions some participants had to the famous quote attributed to Golda Meir: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” The rest of the quote, which we didn’t actually cover, but probably should have, continues: “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”
Some of us thought that the quote is “ghastly” in its dichotomous moral stance on who is right and who is wrong in the conflict. Others viewed it as wise. One could imagine holding an entire evening unpacking an evocative phrase like that one.
At the end of the evening, I invited guests to provide brief plugs for any related groups or initiatives they were involved with. However, it was important to me that guests felt they were there to grapple with questions around Israeli policy, morality, and the Diaspora Jewish role in all of this, rather than to be spun in any way.
Judging by feedback I received, I think we had a deep discussion about an issue that is too often polarizing and unproductive. I look forward to the next opportunity, and hope others in the community might decide to take the model and run with it. Hint: email me – email@example.com – for my husband’s to-die-for rugelach recipe. Munching on rugelach while debating Israeli policy tends to soften positions.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.