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An Interview with Emma N. Pettit: Four Lessons from Interfaith Work that I Use Daily

"These interfaith and inter-religious spheres taught me four lessons I think of each day in my current Sustained Dialogue work." When I was a senior at Mount Holyoke College, I got an email that a new dialogue group on religion had lost a moderator and could I fill in? I was terrified of the topic, but I trusted my advisors and my co-moderator – an awesome person who later went to divinity school– so I said yes.

We asked current SDI Program Director Emma Naliboff Pettit, to take some time to share the lessons learned from her years leading and participating in cross-faith dialogues between Jews and Muslims. Emma shares:
When I was a senior at Mount Holyoke College, I got an email that a new dialogue group on religion had lost a moderator and could I fill in? I was terrified of the topic, but I trusted my advisors and my co-moderator – an awesome person who later went to divinity school– so I said yes.

At that time in my life, seeing myself as a social justice person was really important to me, and that semester showed me where I had some big gaps. In that group, I immediately learned that any prejudices against people who identified as spiritual or religious would hold me back.  I listened deeply to the young woman who was actively seeking out Catholicism for the first time in her life. I paid attention to the person who lost her faith after a parent died, then fought tooth and nail to get it back again. I learned that I had a lot to learn.

After graduation, stuck in a soul-sucking first job in Los Angeles, I joined a dialogue group for Muslim and Jewish young professionals called NewGround. The cohort I joined met after work for a year to talk about our identities and the different ways we practiced (and didn’t practice) our religions. We went on retreats – including an introduction to Judaism and Islam, which was the first time I’d ever wept in front of a dialogue group. The other was about Israel and Palestine. We came out of that retreat even closer than we’d been before. If that’s not a testament to the power of a sustained dialogue process, I don’t know what would be.

At the second retreat, I looked around and realized that all of the other Jewish participants were able to use “I” statements about Israel because they’d been there or had lived there. The strong opinions I’d spent my whole life generating were less useful than I’d thought – I didn’t have a single “I” statement to share. So I applied to an Arab/Jewish coexistence program in Israel to get myself some. I lived in Yafo – the Arab quarter of Tel Aviv – for months as a part of a program called Tikkun Olam, promoting Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab coexistence.

These interfaith and inter-religious spheres taught me four lessons I think of each day in my current Sustained Dialogue work.

1. Facts are a trap.

While in Yafo, we went on a tour of the city that was led by two guides – one Israeli and one Palestinian. We stopped at three different locations in the city, and at each one, the guides took turns telling the middle-of-the-road narrative of that place according to their culture. At times, the stories directly contradicted each other (“Palestinian families were forcibly ejected from this apartment building in 1948” vs. “Jewish people fleeing after the Holocaust moved into willingly abandoned buildings to create modern-day Yafo”) while other stories painted the same physical place into completely different eras.

At the port of Yafo, for example, the Israeli guide told us about how this was the port that Jonah left from before he was swallowed by the whale in biblical times. This really matters to a lot of the Jews in Tel Aviv. It roots them in Yafo, ties them to the place. The Palestinian guide told us about how this was the port that Palestinians had to leave from in 1948 after the Jews took over the area and forcibly evicted them from their homes and their city. This really matters to the Arabs who still live within Israel, as well as those who live in Palestine and across the diaspora.

So facts are a trap. This port and this city, these singular physical locations, are a source of jubilation, heritage, history, eviction, and genocide. Arguing the facts of the port, the facts of what happened in Yafo in 1948, won’t get you anywhere, because each side has its own story. And the stories don’t even have to directly contradict each other – some of these events took place centuries apart – they just support different arguments in different fights that are all part of one huge conflict. They don’t get you anywhere.

So I haven’t found it very helpful to try to convince other people that what they think to be true is actually wrong. This fact might be “right” in one context and “wrong” in another. What is compelling are personal stories: people’s experiences, their feelings, and how those experiences have shaped them. A person who comes to the port and feels deeply connected to their history, who feels spiritually uplifted by visiting the port, isn’t “wrong.” They are just seeing it only from their own perspective.

In this time in the US when “fake news” and “alternative facts” have come into our national conversation, I think this point is more important than ever. Facts have always been manipulated and spun. As someone who personally loves facts and data and spreadsheets, this is hard for me to let go of. But, in dialogue, doubling down on facts without hearing deeply what experiences this person has had and how that’s impacted them, isn’t going to get us very far. Facts can be fought with facts; opinions can be fought with opinions. But if I try to see and hear the people in front of me – not just their opinions but their experiences and feelings, then I can really learn from them, and learn more about myself and my community in the process.

2. Words matter, but they are also useless.

At the second NewGround retreat, we did a word-association activity. The keywords we were associating with were things like “resistance,” “occupation,” “1948,” and “Zionist.” On the paper for “Zionist,” someone had written: “nazi.” The anonymous word next to it was “me.”

This was one of the best moments in dialogue I’ve ever had. Feelings were high, and I was terrified. But it was amazing. The people who wrote both of those talked about the personal experiences that had brought them that first gut association, and they listened really profoundly to each other. Others in the circle spoke as well: some talked about how they’ve seen the word “nazi” be a conversation-ender and suggested other phrases that might get the point across without creating a knee-jerk reaction. Others talked about how the term “Zionist” was claimed by the people who evicted their families from Palestine and turned them into refugees. I learned more in that moment – about the people around me, about myself, about this conflict – than I could have in any class or any book.

The words we use matter. A lot. But they are also completely useless. Israelis and Palestinians call the same day either “Independence Day” or “The Nakba” which means “The Catastrophe.” I heard people call the border between the West Bank and Israel “the fence” and “the wall” and “the apartheid wall.” So it’s not like you can just pick one and stick with it. I couldn’t say, “hey, that sounds complicated, let’s all agree to just call it whatever the moderator feels like and move on.” If a group is going to talk about that border, it probably needs a full meeting just around the terms to use. And that’s good! The words we use matter. They are complex and layered and not at all neutral.

So when we talk about words like “healthcare,” “bathrooms,” “women’s rights,” and “trade,” not to mention words like “Black lives matter,” and “intersectionality,” we can’t use them without talking about them really deeply. My dialogue group in college spent the first several weeks deciding what to call our topic. We settled on RSBF?xxx which stood for Religion/Spirituality/Belief/Faith/Agnosticism/Atheism/Everything. There is no word that is neutral, and that really matters.

3. Nothing is ever about just one thing.

Protests on campus aren’t just about race. This election wasn’t just about the economy, or emails, or small government, or sexism, or race. Trans rights aren’t just about gender – equal rights for transgender people is about economics, race, sexual orientation, physical safety, bathrooms, dorm rooms, computer systems, policing, geography, health care, and more.

The conflict in Israel and Palestine isn’t just about religion or just about ethnicity or just about history. It’s about literally everything. In NewGround we didn’t just talk about religion. We had to talk about ethnicity and language and diaspora and economics and gender and sexual orientation and race and mental health. Every issue is complex and every issue hits more than just one or two social identities.

Something I learned in Yafo is that everything is connected and everything is complicated by being connected to everything else. So when someone says to me, “well, isn’t it really all about X,” no matter what X is, I know it’s a trap. Yes, X may be really, really important, but saying it is more important than Z (so why even talk about Z) is simplifying something that probably shouldn’t be simplified. My brain likes things to be simple, but that’s a trap. It’s a lie that can feel really comforting, but it’s a lie nonetheless.

I had thought that Israeli/Palestinian conflict was a religious issue, because, as a Jew, I had always talked about it in the context of Judaism. But a Muslim participant at NewGround said he was frustrated that people asked him about it all the time. He said that he didn’t identify as Arab, and, to him, this was an ethnic issue, not a religious one. His Muslim identity had little, if anything, to do with Palestine. This was a revelation to me, because I’d been thinking about it too narrowly. For me, yes, it intersected primarily with my religion. But nothing is ever about just one thing and I needed to remember that.

4. Relationships really, really matter.

And not just romantic ones. I mean, yes, I DID meet my wife on my program in Israel, thank you for asking. But relationships between people and groups in conflict matter more than anything. We could never have had dialogue about the word “Zionist” without having built relationships with each other for the preceding months. We would have had a terrible fight – it would have destroyed our group if we hadn’t been willing to set aside our opinions, even just for a moment, to care about the people in front of us. But we did, and it made us so much stronger as a group. And, to use an “I” statement, it made me much more committed to the work of dialogue, coexistence, and conflict resolution than I had been before. I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t work at Sustained Dialogue if we hadn’t had that dialogue on that day.

The Israeli and Palestinian dialogue participants that I met who had to go through a checkpoint between East and West Jerusalem just to dialogue with each other only did it because they were building relationships that they cared about. They learned to value each other as people in ways they had never been able to before. They could easily have gone their entire lives without becoming friends with someone from another side of the conflict, as many of their neighbors and relatives will. And it was hard, it took work, it required them to put their bodies in jeopardy. But they did it, and it changed their lives.

And this is the beauty of Hal Saunders’ SD process. Relationships – not facts, not opinions, not blame – are at the center. Someone in NewGround said that praying five times a day was one of the most important things in his life. If I hadn’t been trying to build a relationship with him, I could have disregarded that because it was so far from my own experience of religion. But I had started to care about him already – he was the person who talked to me on the first day when I was nervous, he walked me to my car when it was really dark in the parking lot, he was the first to put his arm around me the time I cried in front of everyone – so I took it seriously when he said that. It mattered to him, so it mattered to me. Not in the way where I was going to start to pray five times a day, or even once a day, but in the way where I understood and respected that about him and, if I’d needed to, I would have fought by his side to make sure he had the time and space to do so.


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