The importance of dialogue, empathy

On Sept. 21, a close friend invited me to participate in a TalkIsrael dialogue event co-sponsored by Hillel, Muslim Students at the University of Miami (MSUM), Jews and Muslims (JAM), the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the I-Team. While I was intrigued by the event, I did not expect anything significant to occur there. After all, what could possibly be accomplished under a simple white tent on the Green?

I saw food, chairs, tables and a surprisingly large crowd of twenty people under the canvas. My good friends, Rabbis Robyn Fisher and Baruch Plotkin from Hillel, greeted me. After a brief exchange with them, I worked my way through the group to hug Sarah Hartnig. A hardworking diplomatic and outstanding person, Hartnig helped organize and promote the event. She is the Jewish president of JAM and was the sole reason why I was there. I also met the president of MSUM and the Muslim side of JAM, Fahim Adnan.  A creative and open-minded man, he contributed greatly to the set-up and dialogue of the event. My honorable friend Roiy Frenkel, an Israeli military veteran and student fellow at Hillel, was also present. He helped construct the tent and move the furniture to the Green. People of all faiths and nations of origin joined us in peaceful discourse about the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict that has consumed the world for millennia. By 2 p.m. (when I arrived), half of the discussion had already ended. What was left for me, though, was better than I had imagined.

I joined friends and strangers alike around a table, where we talked about diagrams. Each one depicted an abstract outline of the nation of Israel. As an exercise, we gave those pictures deep, personal meaning and then used them to answer questions about our perspectives of the Israel-Palestine question. The leader of the I-Team moderated the discussion. When asked about the media’s influence on the war, I referred to a sketch of a volcano. Someone else referred to a picture of a knife slicing through what appeared to be bread. To my surprise, everyone let me finish my thoughts. Everyone involved, regardless of creed or philosophy or agreement, demonstrated respect for the ideas of others.

TalkIsrael surprised me with its conclusion. Following a spectacular performance by the Hammond Scholars Choir, the peaceful discussion had evolved into a question-and-answer panel. Seven students — Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and American — answered our questions and shared the wisdom of their experiences with us.

This interfaith gathering reinforced the importance of dialogue and empathy in human relations to me. All of these great people united under a simple tent to teach me the lesson that great wisdom comes from patience, observation, and actively listening to others. By paying attention we can grow individually and with others. The University of Miami exposes us to incredible diversity — ethnic, religious and experiential. It’s foolish to discount the identities of others when discussing conflicts. However, we must balance the negative aspects of labels so we can move forward with issues at hand. Only by listening to those involved can we fully perceive and solve society’s problems.

Andrew Blitman is a senior majoring in marine affairs and biology.