A college campus is a cornucopia of millions of different microcosms of humanity. Each student serves as a unique thread in the intricate tapestry that is the student body. Yet, within the greater tapestry, there are many smaller patterns. The patterns often clash, both aesthetically and literally. The diversity of the campus serves as the wheels that let the campus run; yet sometimes, it causes collisions in which the students run into themselves. As someone who cares passionately about creating more productive conversations across disagreement, I know those collisions are our greatest challenge and also our greatest opportunity.
During my first quarter at UCLA, I experienced one of these collisions. As a fellow of Resetting the Table, a new program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) co-sponsored by Hillel International, I have been trained in how to effectively engage with students whose opinions are different than mine. I learned that the first step to engaging in constructive dialogue is taking the time to recognize the person you are engaging with; not as an argument to be torn to shreds, nor as an adversary looking to slip you up and not as a manifestation of a belief contrary to yours. It is essential to see the person as a reflection of yourself; a person who wishes to be heard. A person, who like you, has a very real stake in whatever issue you may be discussing. A person with a story worthy of being shared and worthy of being heard. I learned to seek to listen, and then to be heard.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes the mind is comprised of two facets, the conscious/reasoned process and the automatic/implicit process, which parallel the model of rider and elephant. Our elephants are our motivations, leading us in every which way. We cannot control them; they are the parts of our identities and our perceptions of the world around us which shape who we are in the very depths of our being. The rider attempts to control the elephants, but all he can do is to justify its movements.
When trying to engage with others whose ideas are different than our own, we should not seek to reason with the rider. Rather, we should challenge ourselves to dig deep and try to better understand each other’s elephants. Only once we are able to understand each other’s motivations can we truly begin a discourse which may eventually lead to disagreement, and ultimately reconciliation and resolution.
During Palestine Awareness Week, I attempted to test these ideas and skills by speaking with a student leader of Students for Justice in Palestine in hopes of better understanding her narrative and its context within the greater Palestinian narrative. My endeavor to meet that student halfway was met with hostility and animosity, as that student was not able to differentiate my affiliation with UCLA’s pro-Israel community from my identity as a student and a person who was just as interested in the conflict, and its resolution, as she was. This experience prompted me to write my first op-ed for UCLA’s Daily Bruin. The piece was a call to action. It charged two different communities which had both contributed to a tangibly hostile, polarized, destructive campus climate to take responsibility for their actions, let go of the past and engage with one another, not as sides, but as people.
“I came to UCLA to meet other students like myself who understand what it means to be passionate about something. I came to UCLA to work with students who are just as determined about leaving a positive legacy on this campus as I am. I came to UCLA to define myself, not to let others define me.
I want to know you, not as manifestations of a viewpoint that is different than mine, but as students who are just as passionate about bringing peace to the people of Israel and Palestine and the greater Middle East, as I am. And I sincerely hope that you want to get to know me, too.
Let’s put down the resolutions. Let’s cast away the animosity. Let’s tear down the walls. Let’s talk.”
It has been exactly three months since that piece was published. In that time, a divestment resolution has been passed by UCLA’s Undergraduate student government and by the University of California Student Association — which simultaneously voted to divest from 6 other countries including Mexico, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and the United States. That’s two resolutions. Two missed opportunities for dialogue. Two instances in which two communities which so desperately need to engage in dialogue were pitted against each other in a brawl of hatred and intolerance.
Divestment is a distraction. It is a counterproductive response to a very real fear that we are not ready to engage with one another to address issues that are not black and white. But the truth is, nothing is black and white. And the sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we will be able to find a solution to this conflict which has plagued our peoples for far too long.
When I was initially asked to write this blog post, I was instructed to address the prompt of “how to disagree.” Unfortunately, on college campuses across the country, it is hard to get to the point of disagreeing honestly and directly with each other because there are so many obstacles inhibiting the initiation of dialogue. Disagreement implies that some sort of discourse has taken place and the agents involved do not see eye to eye. At this point, we aren’t even looking in the same direction, let alone speaking face-to-face. Disagreement is important. Disagreement is natural. Disagreement is the only way to reconciliation.
Israeli Prime Minister and champion of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Yitzhak Rabin (z’’l) once said, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” We’ve got the enemy thing down, when do we start working towards the peace part?
This year, as part of the Resetting the Table Fellowship, I am dedicating myself to talking to anyone who will talk to me. I am working to create channels of dialogue among student groups who have not taken the time to speak face-to-face, let alone disagree in a productive and healthy way. Though the barriers are immense and it is easy to get discouraged, I know it is worth fighting for. And together, we will learn that we must seek to listen, and then to be heard.
Arielle Yael Mokhtarzadeh is a first year at UCLA. She currently serves as a board member of Bruins for Israel, a Resetting the Table Fellow at UCLA, and a staff writer for UCLA's Jewish Newsmagazine Ha'am. She lives her life according to Pslam 34:14: "Seek peace and pursue it." She is excited to employ her passion for writing in the pursuit of peace.