Middle East student dialogue: As an expert in deep conflict, what I’ve learned about making conversation possible


On a dreary winter evening in a university building basement in March 2015, I stood before some 100 students for a dialogue on the conflict in the Middle East. University of British Columbia (UBC) undergraduates were voting in a referendum to decide whether their student union should boycott products and divest from companies that support Israel’s occupation of Palestine — part of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Many students present were visibly Muslim or Jewish, or had ties to the region.

I thought of this recently as a group of prominent Canadians issued an open letter calling for politicians to address the rise of incivility and aggression in public discourse.

The letter rightly identifies post-secondary campuses as spaces for holding conversations on difficult and divisive issues like the Hamas-Israel war. But those of us working on campuses also know heated conversations can be extra heated where youthful certainty meets academic freedom.

In the United States, there has been a recent wave of universities and colleges stepping up civic education, often under the auspices of bridging differences. But Canada is also home to long-standing traditions of delivering this form of education.

Forms of “dialogic education” — where both students and teachers actively contribute ideas — are promising, especially when their possibilities and limitations are properly understood. These forms include campus conversations like the one I facilitated, and a formal training program, the “Semester in Dialogue” at my current institutional home at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

BDS dialogue

At the time of the BDS referendum at UBC, I was one of the only faculty members teaching in the area of conflict resolution (at the School of Community and Regional Planning). So I agreed to convene, not a panel, but an actual dialogue in which student activists would attempt to speak and listen to each other.

The night of the meeting, tensions were high on campus and palpable in the room as students gathered.

My heart pounded and some part of me questioned whether it was a mistake to have said yes to facilitating the event. Still, I knew given my area of research and teaching, there wasn’t an obvious better candidate. And at any rate, it was too late to run.

Experiential learning in dialogue

I’ve since become familiar with the 20+ year experiment known as the Semester in Dialogue organized by my colleagues at SFU. Between 2002 and 2023, this program immersed over 1,000 undergraduate students in the practice of dialogue on difficult, topical, local and global issues. Through my earlier teaching and experiences and this work, I’ve seen first-hand how young people capably pick up skills for civic conversations.

In a 2018 survey of Semester in Dialogue alumni, 95 per cent reported they could suspend judgement, engage in deep listening and remain open minded in conversations.

And what students learn at university they take into all areas of life. In the alumni survey, 93 per cent reported they used dialogue skills they acquired in the rest of their education, work, community and personal life.

Learning skills to dialogue is less like developing awareness and more like building a muscle. We cannot teach civility to students by having them read texts or listen to lectures and pass a test. We need experiential education.

In experiential education, instructors act less as all knowing experts, and more as facilitators, while campuses lean into their strength for place-based education where what is happening in community becomes the learning material in real time.

Secret ingredient: ‘Containers’

One secret ingredient to successfully working with groups concerned with contentious topics is creating physical and psychological conditions that make it easier to speak and listen with the goal of understanding. These are known as dialogic containers. Facilitators and participants intentionally build these, and they can include things like: how the room is set up; the level of hospitality in the space; explicit agreements participants in the group assent to about how to be together.

On the night of the BDS dialogue, I thought a lot about the container, including preparing myself intellectually and emotionally to facilitate. But in the group, we also spent nearly an hour building the container through negotiating group agreements.

Negotiating group agreements

There are many examples of standard group agreements, but I believe in making them from scratch every time, for each unique situation and group. Often groups make agreements about confidentiality and avoiding personal attacks.

The night of the 2015 BDS referendum, students negotiated some unique agreements, including:

  • That we would acknowledge the right to existence for both Palestinian and Israeli people and the right to existence of the States of Palestine and Israel, according to the 1967 borders. (This item, which is in the heart of much of the contention in the region, took the majority of the hour to negotiate. It wasn’t that everyone — or anyone — in the room was happy with it — but it was enough recognition, enough of a bridge, to make the conversation possible).
  • That if the conversation stretched past 8 p.m., we would order pizza and the options must include vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, Halal and Kosher. (I have always felt that the pizza agreement was a breakthrough because by the time you are talking about sharing food, much humanizing has happened.)

Flagging’ in real time

In other spaces, my students have negotiated:

  • an intention to avoid using supercharged labels thrown around on the internet (words like “race-baiter,” “snowflake” or “fascist”);
  • to replace an impulse to shout with a declaration of “I am not feeling heard”;
  • to have an observer raise a literal flag when a person was on the edge of stereotyping.

Not all situations are ripe for dialogue. Charged civil conversations on a university campus do not solve the big conflicts of our times, nor does a whole semester in dialogue.

Some critics even say that these initiatives divert attention, and take away the energy from pursuing justice, or that they “normalize” oppressive arrangements by sugarcoating them in dialogue.

Capacity to be together

But these initiatives do provide a space for students who have never been in conversation with each other to talk, to ask questions that they cannot ask anywhere else and to gain more nuanced perspectives.

The capacity to be together is important to pick up while we are students, lest we think that online screaming matches or acts of despair and total disengagement are our only options.

As difficult as it is to remain in conversation on something as divisive as the Hamas-Israel war, as an educator I hope we remain on the lookout for the right time to get back into talking with each other about this on our university campuses.

Author Bio: Aftab Erfan is Associate Member, School of Public Policy & Executive Director, Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University