7/21 — Leading a Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue

Aftab Erfan

Aftab Erfan

Aftab Erfan

The following story and the analytic endnote after the story are excerpted from the Postscript of William R. Torbert’s new book, Numbskull in the Theatre of Inquiry: Transforming Self, Friends, Organizations, and Social Science (Waterside Productions: Cardiff CA, 2021), available on Amazon.

The body of the book, written in the first-person, illustrates how Torbert’s life moved through the various developmental action-logics, including his discovery of the individual and organizational action-logics. The book’s appendixes, written in the third-person, summarize Torbert’s theories, particularly the developmental theory of social scientific paradigms. The Foreword, the Postscript, and the Endnotes offer the second-person voices of Torbert’s community of inquiry friends.

In particular, the Postscript consists of three stories from Aftab Erfan’s life, with Endnotes that offer developmental interpretations of each, indicating that the theory can apply, not only to an elderly, male WASP, but also to a young, female, Middle Eastern woman of color, and also, possibly, to you, ‘second-persons’ — this book’s readers.

In addition, this third of her three stories offers one of the book’s best illustrations of the Alchemical action-logic in social practice, including the use of tweets as feedback in the present.

The story begins: 

It’s late in the day and it’s beginning to drizzle. I’m walking through a little patch of forest next to campus to catch a bus home when my phone begins to ring. It’s a university number and I consider just ignoring it, because I’ve given enough already today to this institution that half nourishes and half exploits me. I nevertheless pick up.

On the other side of the line there is a young woman who introduces herself as Anna, one of the executives of the Alma Mater Society, the under-graduate student government. “Dr. Erfan,” she begins and I cringe at my official title that no one ever uses unless they really don’t know me. “I was told to call you by Alden at the Equity Office. He thought you might be able to help us.”

Alden is one of my allies on campus (before he leaves the university the next year). He’s looked through all the departments on campus and has determined that I am, in his words, “the only person” who can hold space for really difficult conversations – which seems strange since our university prides itself as the kind of global campus where faculty and staff and students should be having difficult topical conversations all the time. In future years it becomes my mission to equip more people at the university with dialogue tools, but at this moment I am just kind of excited, because I when Alden sends someone my way it’s almost guaranteed to be interesting. And this one certainly is.

“As you know, we’re about to have a student referendum on whether the university should sign onto the BDS movement,” Anna tells me. I don’t know anything about this, actually, because I am already one of those teachers who arrive just in time for class and leave as soon as possible afterwards, and don’t get entangled in campus life. Thankfully I know what BDS stands for: Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

Anna explains that any group on campus can initiate a referendum on a topic concerning the life of the university, if they can get enough signatures on a petition. In January this year, a Palestinian solidarity student group ran a successful petition, which requires that we now have this referendum on whether or not the university should boycott Israel. The voting is supposed to happen next Wednesday and the campus is totally polarized. She describes to me the tone of a series of articles and letters to the editor in the campus newspapers, which I will read once I get home, confirming her impression that we are on the verge of violence between Israeli and Palestinian students and their supporters. Will I agree to moderate some sort of conversation around this topic?

I pause on the side of the road, the rain now soaking my hair, as I consider the request, noticing immediately a sort of excitement in myself, almost right away accompanied by a feeling of “What’s wrong with me? This is such a painful situation for so many.”

A request to come anywhere near the most longstanding conflict of the century would have scared me off a few years ago. But I’ve had a few turns with it by now, from the relative comfort of 15 years in Canada, far from the actual deadliness of the Middle East.

Just recently I have facilitated a 20-hour process for the staff and board members of a local organization promoting queer rights that was forced (by its members) to make a decision on whether or not to join BDS. The conversation had been so difficult, I had lost so much sleep over it, thinking it would never come to anything. But at the end we had arrived at a consensus decision and a public statement. Even better, the working through the conflict had unified and energized the organization, bringing it together, not only intact but stronger than before. While we still had no idea how the statement would be received by the membership and the larger community, I was proud of the work we had done.

And here is Anna now, suggesting first that I moderate a panel discussion between four faculty members with different views on the topic. She expects a lot of students will turn up in the audience and suggests that we don’t allow any questions from the students because it will definitely turn nasty quickly. I have to smile to myself at the naïveté of her vision. I explain to her that I can’t in good conscience let a couple of hundred undergrads sit through a highly charged political debate without speaking a word, and then release them into the campus where they can get into fistfights and shouting matches. I suggest instead that I host a student forum: No faculty panel. Everyone who wants to speak gets to speak. I would need a room with a large open space in the middle so that we can move around as we have the conversation. I would also need a security guard outside of the room and a counselor sitting in the corner…

To my surprise Anna comes right around, agreeing to everything I am saying. I kind of wish she would push back a little. I often need the rub of resistance to know if my ideas are actually any good. I move spontaneously to arguing against myself, listing all the reasons I may actually be the wrong person for the job: I am Muslim by birth and automatically suspect of being biased, I am not up-to-date on the campus issues, I don’t have time to get to know any of the parties involved, I am a teacher here so there are power issues, I am particular about how I want the process done and unwilling to compromise or collaborate, and I am expensive. I can tell Anna is a little taken back by my anti-selling strategy. She waits until I am done arguing with myself. “We don’t have anybody else who can do this,” she says with confidence. And I am hired.

I have learned to explain my facilitation work to clients procedurally, not conceptually. I will tell them that we will begin with some framing remarks, a brief introduction to who is in the room, then we will stand in a circle, someone will say something and people will move towards them if they agree and away from them if they disagree. If the room polarizes we work with the conflict, and at the end we will distill the learnings and insights.

I will never tell them the secret to how I make this all work, which is my attitude of non-attachment, sometimes called “neutrality”. I don’t tell people about neutrality because it leads to too much critical questioning (including a good one third of my PhD dissertation defense meeting a couple years ago). People usually will say that it is impossible to be neutral, and sometimes that it is immoral to be neutral. But I haven’t found anything more powerful in the hands of a facilitator when there is real heat in a room. Neutrality means that I don’t take sides in the conflict, that I reflect and amplify everything that is being said equally, regardless of how unreasonable or politically incorrect it may appear to be. It means that I believe in the truth of every single statement, and that I don’t judge or correct anyone (unless of course people begin to get physically violent or cross some other obvious line — but this has nearly never happened). It also means I don’t speak my own mind or try to formulate any great solutions. It is almost like I give up my own voice and become a megaphone for other people. Then sometimes they can hear each other, which is just what’s needed to create a shift.

It turns out that becoming empty of voice, empty of opinion is incredibly difficult. For the couple of days before the BDS Student Forum, I do nothing but work on my neutrality. I pray and meditate, I ask my friends and colleagues for advice. But mostly I read through the student newspapers, finding every statement that challenges my neutrality, every person that scares me or worries me or excites me. And I use my techniques to take these situations one by one and work them until they have no impact on me, until I can feel a cool non-judgment towards the statement or the person.

The day before the Student Forum I work for a long time with my fear of who I think of as Muslim radicals: Muslim students who may come to the Forum and call it a fraud – because to be in conversation with Israelis is to be complicit in their crimes – and who will walk out and slam the door and write awful things about me in their next letter to the editor. I am scared of them and their ability to hijack the process, and I curse my mentor who tells me to go right into my fear. As I hang out in there at some point I hit a kind of mirror. I realize that I am a sort of radical. I have a habit of using strong and absolutist language when I am passionate about something. I have absolutely done my share of grandstanding and storming out in protest, slamming doors, standing for principles I have believed in. So much of my activist youth has been spent doing that. And as soon as I see it that way, my fear of the Muslim radical students melts away. They have a right to stand for their principles. If they storm out, it’s not about me. It’s their way of speaking, their way of having voice. If they can speak, in whatever voice is theirs, I have done my job.

No slamming of doors happens on the actual evening of the event. I walk into the Geography building where the session is being held, feeling centered but nevertheless with a lot of trembling in my heart. About 80 students and a handful of faculty and staff show up, which I think is pretty impressive for an event that was only advertised a couple of days ago. They sit with their friends and I notice a palpable unease in the room. Many of them are looking at their phones, perhaps to avoid eye contact with each other.

All I have done on the day of the event is embodiment exercises, mainly because I would freak myself out if I got any closer to the content. So as I stand in front of the room I am super aware of my physical presence in the space, and at the same time I have a spacy kind of feeling, almost like I am not there at all. I have a moment of thinking to myself, “I hope all my preparations were not bullshit!” Even if they were bullshit, I kind of have to go with them now. As I open the session I have an impulse to pray out loud. I pray that any good we generate in the course of our conversation will benefit the Middle East where it is most needed, and any suffering we generate stays here with us.

The group agreements and ground rules, which we take over an hour to draft together, are a good example of how ordinary and how extraordinary the night is, how serious and how light-hearted at the same time. The agreements are:

  1. Try and stick to the topic.
  2. Brainstorm burning questions before we start the debate so people can speak to each other’s curiosities.
  3. Acknowledge the right to existence for both Palestinian and Israeli people and the right to existence of the Palestinian and the Israeli states, according to the boarders drawn in 1967.
  4. If we go past 8pm, order pizza and the pizza options must include vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, Kosher, and Halal!

By the time we agree on the last ground rule there is already a kind of ease among us. Part of me feels that we should quit right then because our job is basically done. But the process goes on, far past 8pm.

Participants’ Tweets become an interesting record of what happens in the session. Some version of my opening prayer is reflected in a participant tweet from that moment (which I read the next day): “The facilitator’s prayer: that something good comes from this session. My prayer: that I don’t feel like shit by the end of the night.” Another tweet reads “Packed room at BDS Forum. Who needs to study for tomorrow’s exam, right?”

“AMS has already endorsed the No side, but putting on a good show tonight”, another cynically observes. As we get into the conversation, sound bites continue to stream out onto social media. “Jewish students concerned about vandalism if the BDS referendum is passed”, one tweet reads, referring to the many examples of serious damage to Jewish establishments on other university campuses where BDS has been adopted.

“Signing onto BDS = no more Coca-Cola? Not necessarily so”, says another tweet, reflecting an eloquent statement by a young Arab leader who explains that there is no single set of requirements for what needs to be boycotted under BDS and suggests that a student committee representing both sides of the conflict can sit together and define the requirements. “The facilitator has got game!”, declares another tweet, totally making me smile.

Within the first half hour of the session I do in fact feel on top of my game, once I can tell that the process will basically work as long as I stick to my simple structures and the discipline or hearing and reflecting everything I hear with neutrality. Within a few minutes of getting into the conversation the room is clearly polarized, with the Palestinian students and their supporters standing on one side, the Israeli students and their supporters on the other.

There is a large audience too – participants who refuse to participate and instead opt for fence sitting (a position I regret allowing but don’t have the mental capacity at the time to effectively discourage). In a minute I will give the Israeli students the floor to speak for as long as they want, and once they are finished I will give the floor to the Palestinian students to do the same, then I let them respond to each other. In some sense it is scary to stand in a room so starkly divided, but I tell myself that we have merely made an already existing division visible so we can work with it. What’s more incredible is that these students – including some who have lost multiple members of their families in the war, including several who have actually been soldiers in the war, possibly responsible for the deaths of those family members, are actually together in a room, talking.

The two sides of this conflict have not spoken to each for so long that they know almost nothing about each other, so every simple piece of information is nothing short of a revelation. The Palestinian students explain why they mounted the petition that brought forward the BDS referendum: they wanted to force a conversation about the conflict that is destroying their country. A young Rabbi says that he too wants conversation and describes the vision of the newly constructed Hillel House on campus as a place for peaceful dialogue. “Please come join us and talk to us”, he sweetly invites.

Later, a young teary woman in hijab describes why it is unimaginable for her to walk through the doors of the Hillel House, why it would never feel like a safe place for her to have dialogue (and we can all immediately see what she means). The leader of Palestinian solidarity group brings into life the experience of being in a conflict where the two sides are so uneven in terms of power and resources: “We’ve hardly been able to explain our pro-BDS campaign on campus because we’re running this on a budget of $300, out of our pockets. On the other hand, you are able to hang a $4,000 banner on the side of the Hillel House to tell everyone to say NO to BDS! How do we even have a chance of competing with that?”

At one point in the night the Israeli students harp on their fear of violence against their community if the YES to BDS side wins, to which one Palestinian man responds: “If that happens, if anyone tries to do any harm to you, we will come to you and we will stand with you”. As he says this the Palestinians come and stand with him, indicating their support of the statement. The moment is so powerful we all automatically pause. Then an Israeli man speaks: “And if you lose the referendum and get the backlash, we will do the same for you.”

 The entire experience is a little like that for me: on the one hand, no remarkable transformation is happening here; on the other hand, the fact that anything is happening at all is completely remarkable. People stay standing on their own side of the room. No one changes their mind and joins with their enemy. But they are hearing each other.

I linger a long time after the session is finished, shaking hands with over half of the participants who come up to me to say thank you. Anna tells me that the session exceeded all her expectations. “If it had gone any better we would have solved the Middle East conflict itself!” she tells me cheerfully and I think she actually means it.

As I walk to the bus stop now, I slowly let my neutrality cape drop away. Only now, as I find my own politics and my opinions again, do I feel truly impacted by what has been said in the session. I wonder if the YES-to-BDS side, the Palestinians side, to which I belong as a person with opinions, has any chance of winning in the referendum. I sense that it doesn’t – and I am proven right on Wednesday, when BDS is rejected on our campus by a fairly wide margin. I feel sad about this. I wonder if my work would have had more integrity had I spent my time campaigning for the side I believed in, instead of convening but staying out of a conversation (though of course the latter was what I was paid to do.)

I find a seat on the bus and cuddle with my thoughts, my sense of accomplishment as well as my sense of letting myself down by choosing a profession that gives voice to others but not to me. Then I notice that the leaders of Palestinian solidarity group are sitting in the row in front of me, apparently unaware of my presence. I lightly eavesdrop on their conversation, hoping to hear what they really thought about the session. Are they disappointed? Do they know they are going to lose? To my surprise, they are talking about chemistry and marine biology, preparing for tomorrow’s exam. (Endnote 28)

Endnote 28, Written by Members of the Action Inquiry Community

From the very first page of our narrator’s third story, we see signs of a late-action-logic, mutuality-seeking leadership approach: she prefers to create a peer-like atmosphere by being called by her first name, rather than hierarchically distinguished as “Dr.”; she also has a set of what can be called “transformational allies” on campus, of whom Alden is one.

As soon as she realizes the explosive issue she is being asked to assume responsibility for, she has a paradoxical, ‘simultaneously bi-polar’ experience of being excited by the opportunity and wondering what excitement at participating in such a painful situation means about her. Experiencing a conjunction of opposites and standing in the tension of opposites are attractive at the Alchemical action-logic. She recalls a similarly-difficult recent facilitation role she has played on behalf of a queer rights organization, realizing that there was not only a positive immediate outcome, but that the process seems to have strengthened the whole system in the longer run (late-action-logic leadership seeks to create positive outcomes across multiple time horizons). She again demonstrates her propensity for highlighting opposites and proceeding ironically, by first proposing a design for the Israeli-Palestinian evening directly opposite that proposed by her (prospective) client and then arguing why she is wrong for the job. She is offered the job on the spot!

In the following pages, she describes the kinds of procedures she develops for leading potentially explosive and potentially transformational events (exercising the power of what Torbert calls liberating disciplines). One step is to develop agreements and ground rules with the entire group at the outset of the evening (excercising shared visioning power). Another step is to draw everyone into making action commitments each time someone speaks, by having them move toward or away from the speaker to express agreement or disagreement. 

 Once the substantive discussion begins, her attention is meant to be focused entirely on creating a container for the entire group, which faces participants with constant choices about where to move (closer to or further from what somebody else says) and what to say. Meanwhile, she seeks to gain everyone’s trust by empathically and accurately reflecting and amplifying what each says (exercising praxis power). She is working at the meta-level, focusing on the shape and quality of the overall conversation, its inclusiveness of multiple perspectives.

She speaks of this as exercising “neutrality,” and we can see how this is true, but one could also argue that, whereas everyone else is almost entirely identified with one position or another, she and her procedures are advocating for a community inquiry that embraces all present. She abjures her own first-person voice, as well as her second-person relational voice, in favor of her third-person voice. (Late in the evening, she is, in effect, joined by the two Palestinian and Israeli students who commit to standing by the other side if anyone tries to harm them after the referendum.)

Before she describes the “liberating disciplines” she creates for the collective evening, our narrator has described the liberating and transforming disciplines of emotional and embodied contemplation she herself engages in during the prior week and during that particular day. At the Alchemical and Ironic action-logics, one fully recognizes the need for self-transformation before (and possibly during) any event that is intended to serve as a crucible for others’ transformation.

About the Author

Aftab Erfan was Director of Dialogue and Conflict Engagement at the University of British Columbia at the time of this story. She is currently Chief Equity Officer for the City of Vancouver, British Columbia.

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