The Dialogue Project is an initiative of the Friends of the Arava Institute that brings Middle Eastern Arava Institute alumni to colleges and communities across North America to share their narratives and their experiences at the Institute. In the fall of 2020, the speakers are recent alumni Shadi al-Zanoon, Guy Yakir, Reema Diab, and Moshe Farber, as well as Friends of the Arava Institute staff member and fellow alumna, Frances Gould. Due to global travel restrictions, they have connected directly from their respective homes and university dorms in the Middle East to a series of virtual panels and more in-depth workshops with North American colleges, Hillels, environmental student organizations, and congregations.
As these alumni continue their online tour, we asked them some questions about what the experience has meant to them.
Why did you want to join the Dialogue Project team?
Shadi: The Arava Institute is an incredibly special and important place, and it was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. The Dialogue Project has given me space to share my experience with people who may share the same values, and who also may be interested in studying at the Arava Institute.
Moshe: I am always looking to share my experience at the Arava Institute with people because of the positive impact it had on my life and my way of thinking.
How has it been talking with North American audiences, specifically on Zoom? What has the overall reaction been?
Reema: At the beginning of each session I like to see the faces of people whose vision about the importance of dialogue would change, even if just a tiny bit, after the workshop. Somehow, each session had special characteristics based on who the attendees were. Each group asked different types of questions and responses to the conversation and stories we shared.
Guy: We have been talking to people from all over the continent, of different ages and very different backgrounds. People reacted with curiosity, and we also had the privilege to hear some interesting insights into their experience with conflict. Overall, I would say it was an incredible learning experience for both sides.
Shadi: I wish if I could have met everyone in person, but overall, the audiences have been very attentive and interested. Their questions also helped me to connect with them better over Zoom. Frances was the captain of the ship, and she helped us all check in, connect, and stay focused.
What message are you trying to send?
Guy: We tell stories all the time, but we never think about how they will be received or what our aim is. Dialogue comes to give a bigger purpose to our own stories and our own individual narrative. Engaging in dialogue is that simple, yet also so powerful, when used to break the single-story narrative most of us grew up on.
Moshe: I think the message I am trying to send, and this is not only in the Dialogue Project itself but also in my day-to-day life, is that dialogue is key to bridging gaps. Hearing people’s perspectives is extremely important in understanding each other, especially in conflicts. Without hearing and listening to one another, it is very easy to stay within your stories and your narrative, but once you are faced with listening to the other you begin to understand. As my friend and partner in the Dialogue Project, Shadi, likes to say, “we are all products of our environment.” After dialogue, which is done in such an intense and meaningful way at the Arava Institute, you begin to break the boundaries of the environment that you grew up in, and slowly you start bridging the gaps between people both physically by creating friendship, and mentally by hearing the other narratives.
Shadi: Our beliefs, narratives and identities aren’t only different, but also conflicted with one another. I support any chance for communication, which can help us recognize all sides of our stories. We don’t have to agree on everything, but I believe listening to each other is a survival tool and essential for us to live together. I hope to see dialogue being used to make the world a better place, and despite our differences, I truly hope we always can communicate and move forward together.
Reema: Truth is present in every point of view, although it differs in one way or another for each person. We need to see this more with wide, open eyes, and without controversy and sticking to our opinions without consideration of other ideas. And if there is one thing that I learned during my time in the Arava Institute, it is the need for acceptance of others regardless of the differences between us. Dialogue is the only way for us to come in contact with the ‘whole’ of which we all are a part.
What is the importance of spreading this message now, during this current period? What do you hope audiences will take away from these panels and workshops?
Reema: During this period when many of us are having to work from home, and challenging situations are happening to the whole world, it’s just amazing to have some shared ideas to improve our ways of thinking. What I hope from the audiences having meaningful conversations is for them to realize that dialogue can be challenging even at the best of times. But when we want to speak about something that matters, dialogue can change how we see and live through everything, especially during the pandemic.
Guy: I noticed that as COVID-19 developed and that physically being in the same place at the same time was lost, we stopped this constant race of “doing” and focused all our efforts on our communication abilities, as they were the only tools left. This made us pay greater attention to the way we pass and receive information. So yes, maybe all these big projects are on hold now, but greater progress is being made through simple connections over Zoom. These technologies break borders and connect people across the world.
Moshe: I think now, when people across the world are very separated, it is so important to spread the message of dialogue, be it politically where people are becoming very separated from one another because of political views, or because of the coronavirus, which enhances our separation. Whether it is formal or informal dialogue, whether it is between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, left-wingers and right-wingers, religious and seculars, immigrants and natives of a certain country… it doesn’t matter where you are in the world or what your political views are. Listening to the other is so important and, as I said, is key to bridging the gaps between us. This is what we did at the Arava Institute and what we are continuing to do. This is what I hope our audience leaves with.