Can a program that united divided Israelis work in the US?

Members of Women Wage Peace, an Israeli grassroots peace movement, take part in a rally calling for coexistence and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along Jerusalem’s Old City walls, on May 19, 2021. – Intra-communal violence has flared in Israel as unrest has spiralled into a conflict in which the Islamist group Hamas has fired rockets from Gaza, and Israel has launched air strikes. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — An eight-week intensive dialogue program has helped bridge the gap between teenage Israeli Arabs and Jews, establishing a model that could be used to reduce polarization in other countries like the U.S.

Israeli psychologist Ruth Feldman and her research team designed an intervention to build bonds between Israeli Jewish and Arab teens who were at odds, called Tools of Dialogue. It’s considered an intervention, and the model can be applied to any groups that have strained relations.

Unlike Israelis and Palestinians, who are divided by military checkpoints and separate legal arrangements, Israeli Jews and Arabs are both citizens of Israel. Yet the groups are known to have little positive interaction with each other.

“They don’t usually intermingle very much. Sometimes when they’re older, they meet in universities. But children who are high school age don’t usually have any chance to meet each other or interact with each other,” Feldman said. “Societies are pretty segregated.”

That segregation exists alongside deep animosity. A survey last year found that 60% of Israeli Jews believe it’s better if Jews and Arabs live apart, and support for intermarriage between the two groups is low.

Feldman and her group looked at a politically diverse group of teens ages 16 to 18 to participate in their eight-week program. They participated in group activities such as reading sacred texts, engaging in intense conversations, listening to songs and playing games.

The researchers aimed to impact the workings of their brains, making them feel more affiliated with one another.

“We focused not on content but on behavioral strategies of respectful dialogue,” Feldman said. “How you’re able to build a dialogue on someone whether you agree or don’t agree with his opinion.”

They measured the teens’ stress hormones before and after the sessions.

“We wanted to show that we reduced stress hormones — and indeed, we did,” Feldman said.

The researchers also found that teens were more likely to endorse more than one perspective and give credibility to the other side’s beliefs after the eight-week program.

Additional research about dialogue between groups on opposing sides has shown similar results. For instance, the U.S.-based depolarization group Braver Angels regularly holds events designed to bring people on different sides of the political aisle together for dialogue. Research has shown that the group’s activities reduce polarization.

Feldman believes this model could be adapted for use in other contexts, like a dialogue between whites and African Americans in the U.S. — with specific changes like altering the texts.

“But the ideas and the organization, the way of building the sessions, and the doing things together … we believe should remain the same,” she said.

She did acknowledge that the intervention as it was performed was costly. It involved lengthy time commitments from the participants and could be challenging to implement.

“(I) imagine not every company or not every situation can allow about three hours of meeting for a time and extensive testing before and extensive testing after,” she conceded, adding that perhaps a shorter version could be used in the future.

Feldman is also pessimistic about the near-term future of Tools of Dialogue in Israel. She noted that the current government does not support these kinds of programs, which would make it difficult to expand their use in places like schools.

But for the participants, the results have appeared to be long-lasting. Feldman and her colleagues followed up with the study’s participants seven years later. They found that the teens who had gone through the intervention had greater support for peacebuilding as adults.

“They were more active in peacebuilding (efforts,) they believed peace was possible, they were willing to see the other side, if not totally agree with the behavior of the other side, but to see that the other side has a point,” Feldman said.


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