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Promoting Civil Discourse Hillel Co-Sponsors Student Summit on Capitol Hill

by Hillel News |Jul 29, 2010|Comments

(Reprinted with permission from Washington Jewish Week.)

By Adam Kredo
Staff Writer

Northwest students.
Northwest students share their life stories with one another during a Summit workshop.
Bill Babeaux says that his optimistic view about interfaith discourse on college campuses was shaped in part by one atypical episode.

While walking across the sprawling campus of Ohio State University, where he's a student, Babeaux recalled, he happened upon two opposing tents - one filled with Israel supporters, and another with pro-Palestinian activists.

"At first, as I approached, I thought, 'Man this is going to be intense,' " said the 21-year-old, explaining that he anticipated more of the "same ol' same ol,' " with students trading vicious barbs.

But as he stepped closer, Babeaux observed a more tranquil scene.

An Israel supporter "was just sitting" on the grass "talking with someone wearing a PLO [arm]band," he recalled. "They were just civilly talking and I realized, 'Wow, campuses are a great place where dialogue can sprout.' "

But Babeaux also understands that what he witnessed is rare. That's why he joined several hundred college interns last week for a daylong Capitol Hill summit aimed at cultivating civil discourse on college campuses.

Students at Thursday's Facing Change summit, organized in part by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, learned several rhetorical techniques meant to help neutralize the vitriol that often overtakes campus discussions surrounding hot-button political topics, including peace in the Middle East.

"I don't think the correct dialogue is being used [by students] because people are so focused on being 'anti' the other group," said Lyndsi Sherman, 20, who attends San Diego State University. "I'm really hoping to go back to my campus and change it."

But how?

"I don't know yet," said Sherman, explaining that speakers at the summit provided many lessons to mull.

Presenters, such as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism, emphasized the need to respect those with different viewpoints.

"You should always be ready to give respect to your interlocutors," said Krauthammer.

At the same time, the columnist, known for penning partisan pieces, urged students "not to compromise your own principles" during debate. That doesn't, however, mean dismissing another's viewpoint, he said: "Civil discourse involves acknowledging both sides and [the] flaws of your argument."

While taking audience questions, Krauthammer raised more than a few student eyebrows. Asked how to combat political apathy on campus, the longtime journalist responded: "I would be rather tolerant of apathy."

Some students, he continued, simply don't care to enter the political fray. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that," he noted.

In his remarks, Patel recalled a discussion in which a Christian speaker denounced Islam as a hateful religion that promotes violent extremism.

Immediately following those remarks, a Muslim speaker took the opposite rhetorical approach, praising Christianity and explaining that Islam promotes similar ideals.

"Guess who looked like a fool on stage," Patel said, explaining that ultimately, provocative speakers do a disservice to their cause.

Attendees also attended a congressional reception, co-hosted by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

Facing Change, said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Hillel's director of campus initiatives, was the first step in a larger Hillel project meant to promote civil discourse. This summer, Hillel is training small groups of students to become campus mediators. Called The Facing Change Project, the endeavor will formally launch this fall on eight college campuses across the country.

(Reprinted with permission from Washington Jewish Week.)

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