Reflection on the Israel:Palestine Event

Laur Hesse Fisher • August 8, 2014 • Boston, Event Summary

On Tuesday, August 6th, Workbar hosted Professor Lenore G. Martin, Ph.D., for the Civic Series’ largest event so far – 29 attendees! Dr. Martin is Professor of Political Science at Emmanuel College, an Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs of Harvard University, and co-chair of the Center’s Middle East Seminar. She was joined by Herbert C. Kelman, Ph.D.; Professor Kelman is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the former Director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the Weatherhead Center. Professor Martin gave a presentation and facilitated a discussion on the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, while Professor Kelman periodically enhanced the conversation with his expertise.

At past events, Laur Fisher, the program organizer, began the evening by welcoming guests and explaining the impetus behind the Civic Series. On this evening, she did the same, but went a step further to create a safe space for discussion by reviewing ground rules and projecting them onto the PowerPoint so that everyone would have a chance to hear, read, understand, and assent. New rules this session included “Be Curious. Be Open” and “Ask for understanding.” Because the situation in Israel and Palestine is such an emotional one for so many, many with personal, religious, or spiritual stakes in the matter, Laur encouraged the group present to model civil discourse, even when disagreements inevitably arise. If we can’t engage in curious and open conversation in a seminar room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Laur asked, how can we expect Israelis and Palestinians, those deeply and immediately involved in the conflict, to do the same?

By opening the Civic Series in this way, Laur created the intention of the evening: that those present, even those with lots of previous knowledge, could gain a deeper understanding of the complex circumstances that have led up to, and surround, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Professor Martin also did a phenomenal job of presenting the history of the conflict – its actors and geography – in a manner that was both understandable for those with less knowledge, and engaging for those with more. During the presentation portion of the evening, she entertained only questions of understanding so that she could move through the material quickly and leave ample time for discussion (not debate, as another ground rule urged).

At the beginning of the evening, Laur had shared that, back when she was in high school, she was afraid to talk about international issues for fear that she didn’t know enough and would appear stupid or ignorant to her classmates. So she stopped talking. But years later, she created the Civic Series to, among other aims, address the silence that can surround profoundly challenging social and political issues. The Civic Series is all about active learning, and with that in mind, Professor Martin ended her presentation with a slide that said: “Thank you. Now let’s talk!” A lively discussion followed.

On a personal note, I wanted to share that I found this Civic Series talk to be wonderfully informative and invigorating. The tone of the room, largely set by Laur and Professor Martin, was one of commitment, engagement, curiosity, and openness – such an energizing experience, especially when I had been expecting tension and combativeness that so often accompanies discussions on this issue. I would describe Professor Martin’s approach as unbiased, but deeply committed to peace (which she asserts can be achieved through a two-state solution). As an American Jew grappling with my relationship to Israel, as a part of my Jewish identity, I was very grateful for this opportunity to get some of my questions answered, without fear of looking stupid or being attacked. I took away a lot from this event, and feel much more prepared to talk with friends and colleagues about what’s going on. I thank Professor Martin, too, for sharing her belief that there is reason to hope for peace.

I hope you’ll join the next event on Wednesday, August 27th, on the American prison system. And please get in touch with Laur if you’d like host a Civic Series!

israel-palestine-photo

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