University hosts dialogue spaces about Israel and Palestine

and | Junior News Editors

Inside the Center for Diversity and Inclusion office (Elle Su | Student Life).

Washington University’s Dialogue Across Difference (DxD) department hosted 12 facilitated dialogue spaces throughout November to help students process the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine. 

The DxD program, which works to connect students through conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, hosted these spaces for the first time this semester. 17 students attended across the 12 sessions offered. Though turnout was low, students expressed their appreciation for the spaces. 

Jacob Chacko, who has served as the director of DxD since its inception a year and a half ago, said that the idea for dialogue spaces came as an extension of the eight-week course “Dialogue Across Difference” that intends to facilitate communication between students, which the department has offered for the past two semesters. 

“Ever since Oct. 7 and the crisis unfolding in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and Palestine, our [course] facilitators during our check-ins have been sharing with us [that] what’s happening around the world is absolutely coming up [in discussion] in our courses,” Chacko said.

He said that the goal for the dialogue spaces was to offer students not in the DxD course a forum to process their thoughts about the conflict while learning from their peers. Chacko also acknowledged that not everyone would be ready to have these conversations. 

“For some people, the hurt and the pain and grief and loss are very raw and very real,” Chacko said. “They may not be in a space or a place to want to dialogue and that’s valid, and some folks are, and so we’ve provided different types of dialogue spaces.” 

Although some of the groups were small, attendees were appreciative of the opportunity to discuss the conflict in a structured setting. Graduate student Zach Crabtree was grateful that the space offered a chance to hear a variety of perspectives. 

“You worry about being in an echo chamber,” he said. “Having spaces like this is really a benefit to us on campus; to be able to go and work through these things in a healthy manner.”

Crabtree lamented that only a few students showed up to their session. For a large part of his session, there was only one other student in the session, first-year Ari Lerner. 

“I’m sad that the turnout wasn’t as high,” said Crabtree. “I was honestly surprised, given the amount of emotion surrounding this issue, that I didn’t see more people there.”

Both Crabtree and Lerner noted that they felt the event could have been publicized more widely.

“I think the most upsetting thing to me was the fact that there were only four people,” said Lerner. “I think that would be helpful if it were more publicized, because going to a session like this can be really informative.”

Lerner understood recent political rallies surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as more attractive to students, but he wished more would take the time to attend dialogue spaces.

“Rallies get numbers, provocative measures get numbers,” he said. “I don’t find that these cross dialogues get as many numbers because it’s a longer, more tedious process that is more frustrating.”

There were four types of dialogue spaces: intra-group spaces, one of which was for students who identified as pro-Israel and another for students who identified as pro-Palestine, inter-group spaces for students with differing beliefs, and a space for students who did not have direct connections to the conflict through their identity but still wanted to talk about it. Chacko said DxD trusted students to select the best group themselves. 

Training and Curriculum Specialist for DxD Mari Torres, who was a facilitator for some of the dialogue spaces, said that there were procedures in place to address student concerns about safety. 

“Students didn’t know who they were signing up with,” Torres said. “We just gave them a time and a location, which wasn’t widely shared with people.” 

In addition, she said that there were guidelines about talking about the conversation outside of the space, including not allowing participants to use their phones in the session. 

“One of our community agreements was that what is said here stays here, what is learned here leaves here,” Torres said. “If someone shares something that’s personal, we are agreeing as a group to keep that in the space and no one’s going to talk about it on social media afterwards.”

Chacko said that even though some groups had multiple people from a similar background, attendees held a range of opinions. 

“There were some spaces where even though it was meant for intergroup, it was dominated by one particular community, but still of varying perspectives,” he said. “Just because folks hold similar social identities, they don’t always come with the same perspectives.”

The spaces were facilitated by staff, primarily from the Student Affairs department, who received training from the DxD program. Facilitators led students through structured activities, like placing themselves on a spectrum between “agree” to “disagree” after reading out certain statements.

“We tried to create a space that allows students to air out their feelings, but to also do it in a way that’s constructive, and to really let the students navigate the conversation themselves,” Torres said.

Torres said that the role of the facilitator was to provide community guidelines and offer questions but let students navigate the discussion themselves.

“We asked students anything from ‘where are you getting your information from?’ to ‘what messages have been supportive from either from your own community, from friends and family, from WashU administration?’and ‘what messages have not been supportive?’” Torres said. 

Lerner said that he was thankful the University supported having structured discussions. 

“I appreciated having the facilitators there,” Lerner said. “It sends the message that WashU cares about having healthy dialogue, and to me, that’s really important.”

Lerner and Crabtree ended up in discussion with each other in a free-form fashion. They said that there was a moment of tension when discussing the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“As much as that thing bothered me about [Crabtree’s] usage of that language, being able to still engage in dialogue after the session I think was really important,” Lerner said.

That moment did not deter the two from continuing their  discussion.

“We were able to talk and have respectful dialogue back and forth,” Crabtree said. “I think it would have been hard to have a hostile environment with the way that it was structured.”

Coming away from the conversation, Lerner and Crabtree said that their opinions were not necessarily changed, but that they gained an appreciation for their interlocutor’s beliefs. They ended up exchanging numbers, after have continued to converse over text.

Crabtree said that he met someone with a new perspective and he felt like they both learned from each other.

“I don’t think I was moved in terms of which side of the fence I fall, but I learned new things.”

Looking forward, while Chacko said the department does not have concrete plans set for more dialogue spaces, they are waiting for feedback from facilitators and students to figure out how to make the event as productive as possible.

One way of modifying the spaces, which could also improve turnout, was being clearer about the format in order to avoid students having unanswered concerns. 

“Something I would probably do differently in the future is just being very explicit about how we lead the space [ahead of time],” Chacko said. “Maybe like a video talking through so students can see, this is how the space is facilitated, and this is how we engage if it turns into like a debate [instead of] a dialogue.”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Anna Gonzalez said that her goal for the program is for students not to come in thinking that they know the answer, or that they are even looking for an answer, but instead to focus on how to connect with each other even when it is difficult. 

“Learning should be sometimes uncomfortable, because it’s a hard thing,” Gonzalez said. “You grew up in an environment that is maybe homogenous. It’s important to say that the world is huge and there are different ideas out there.”

She emphasized the importance of being able to listen to one another when engaging in respectful communication. 

“If they can come out of WashU in four years with that ability to just hear and to listen and learn and not always say ‘I know the perfect answer,’” Gonzalez said. “I think that’s when they can really fully immerse themselves in understanding and also appreciating the diversity around them.”

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