Founded in 2005 on the premise that listening and learning are in short supply in encounters between Israel’s supporters and Palestinians, Encounter — with a capital E — so far has brought nearly 2,700 American Jewish leaders to visit Palestinian communities in Israel to listen to, and learn from, each other.
Its most recent cohort included Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, the religious leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, and Andrew Silow-Carroll, the editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Both live in Teaneck. Both found the trip a positive experience, and both came back with a deeper understanding of the nuances that mark and complicate relations between the two communities.
It was an intensive several-day visit, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, which took place April 8 through April 11. Encounter invited him to participate — all expenses paid. This was his second such experience, though “the first time I attended as a regular participant, and this time I was a facilitator, helping to run parts of the program,” he said. Participants are selected by the organization, based on referrals.
Rabbi Pitkowsky stressed that Encounter does not posit a specific political viewpoint, nor is it affiliated with any political party. Rather, as described on its website, the nonprofit educational institution “invites Jewish leaders to expand their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to be a positive force for communal change.”
“They believe that it is important for American Jewish leaders to interact with Palestinians, and to hear their stories, their narratives,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We may not agree with them. But whatever our beliefs are, we should speak to people deeply affected” by the current situation.
“I think the goal is to broaden the participants’ perspective of an issue in which they are deeply invested,” Mr. Silow-Carroll said. “I think most Jewish leaders know a lot about the many Jewish sides of the conflict, and much less about any of the Palestinian sides.
“For me, it was definitely valuable,” he added. “You can’t write credibly about the Other until you walk a bit in their shoes, no matter how briefly. Getting to understand the Palestinians’ perspective isn’t subversive, and it shouldn’t be seen as courageous. It is what you have to do if you are to contribute anything, however small, to a better future for the Jews and the Arabs.”
Encounter hopes that these exchanges will further the cause of peace. “Where Israel was once a unifying Jewish communal force, the subject of the conflict is now one of the most divisive and polarizing in American Jewish life,” the group has posted on its website. “Our community needs leaders who can engage differently.”
“I have faith that knowledge is power,” Mr. Silow-Carroll said. “But it is really up to the individuals who take part to decide how they want to use the information they gathered in the work they do as Jewish leaders and influentials.”
“Participants were not mostly rabbis, but all Jewish leaders,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “Encounter retooled its earlier program, so that instead of bringing the average civilian Jew for a one-day program, it now focuses on Jewish leaders, lay and professional, from Hillels, federations, JCRCs, etc., as a way to get at the people who are the opinion makers and who set the tone for the community.
“The goal is for these American Jewish leaders, whom Encounter has invested in, to bring the complexity and nuance of these conversations back to the American Jewish community, in whatever way we have and whatever our political views.”
He could not name the other participants. “Encounter rules are that we are not allowed to identify anyone else who came with us,” he said. “You need explicit permission.” This, he explained, is because some communal leaders fear they would be fired or blacklisted for participating in the program.
He noted also that the meetings did not include interactions with settlers because “it is Encounter’s belief that most of us have grown up with that narrative, and we would be able to meet with the settlers on our own to hear their perspective.” On the other hand, “most of us would not feel comfortable going to Ramallah on our own.”
It was not always easy to sit back and listen to the Palestinian views, Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “Some found it hard not to immediately react. Some hard things were said.” His group spent a fair amount of time around Bethlehem, attending meetings in a small village outside the Gush Etzion bloc and at the Aida refugee camp, he said. They also went to Ramallah and various neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Their Palestinian counterparts were diverse, ranging from the head of a village to people known for their postings on social media or for their organizational affiliations.
“We met with people from Combatants for Peace, an organization of people who formerly believed in violence but now believe that violence is not the answer,” he said. But, he added, they also met with several members of organizations who believe that violent resistance may be warranted.
“The guidelines were that we could ask speakers any personal questions we wanted. For example, ‘What do you think about what I just said?’ We were not supposed to ask them to represent all Palestinians. We were not to engage in a debate. This is not a dialogue program. We were there to hear their narrative.”
For his part, Mr. Silow-Carroll was comfortable with those guidelines. “I’m a journalist,” he said. “It is my job to listen and to probe for information and clarification. If you go into an interview looking to win a debate, you are not going to learn anything.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he also was able to function within the guidelines, “letting them say what they want to say” and understanding the notion of “trying to feel for a few moments what it must be like” to live in their situation. He did note, however, that some of what he heard made him uncomfortable.
Still, he said, he was able “to take it in and decompress later.” In that regard, participants were aided by small group meetings each day to process the day’s events. He facilitated one of those groups.
Rabbi Pitkowsky is not yet sure how he will share his experiences with his own congregation. After his last trip, about a year and a half ago, he both spoke from the bima and presented an educational program to interested congregants on a Sunday morning.
For Rabbi Pitkowsky, the Encounter trip was positive in two ways. First, “There was a wonderful group of some 35 Jewish leaders from all over the country and the denominational divide,” he said. “We spent time together, which happens rarely.
“Second, we were exposed to voices and narratives we would never hear,” he continued. You see things in a different way, even near places you think you know well. And that, he said, “is powerful.”
Did anything surprise him? “It was surprising to learn how little the Palestinians we met cared about the Israeli election, which was going on at that time,” he said. “They explained that the people who would probably get a lot of votes didn’t differ much on the Palestinian issue and they had no hope that things would change. They did care about the Knesset, but didn’t think the people they liked would be elected any time soon.”
Mr. Silow-Carroll said he was surprised “by the size and relative sophistication of Ramallah, which reminded me a lot of what Tel Aviv looked like 30 years ago. If your sole exposure to the city is ‘Fauda,’ you’d think it was a maze of terrorists’ nests and ominous allies. And who knows, it may be. But you could also see people going about their lives and livelihoods, trying to make the best of a challenging situation and do what’s best for their families.”
“Speaking personally, I felt my horizons broaden. sometimes narrowly, sometimes expansively, and in one case literally,” he added. “For example, I consider myself well-versed in the issue and the region, but by visiting Ramallah and Bethlehem and Kufr Aqab I gained an understanding of the geography along the 1967 Green Line that I had not quite grasped, mostly seeing it from the Israeli side or drawn on a map. That won’t determine what I consider a just resolution to the conflict, but it opened my eyes to the complexities of trying to share the land between two peoples who live cheek by jowl.”