Breaking an Israel Filter Bubble: My Conversation with an Israeli Settler

5497134432_9c680ecc8f_nTo what degree do you feel like you live in a bubble of people who are just like you?  How often do you encounter people who challenge your assumptions, stretch your understanding?

In his article, “How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble,” B.J. May writes “I live in a small town in Middle America. My closest coworkers are all men, all heterosexual, all white.

I had never given this filter bubble much thought, really. But as I increased my consumption of Twitter to better keep up on tech topics, I began to feel uneasy. There were clearly lots of diverse voices in the industry. Women talked about the wage gap, about sexism in the workplace. Black developers posted highly upsetting accounts of bias. People all over my industry were sharing stories of injustice and hatred, of unfair treatment and outright abuse.

I struggled to make sense of it all. I didn’t feel like I had experienced or seen any of these terrible things. Were they mistaken? Were they exaggerating? I had to decide what to do with this new information. Ignoring it didn’t work for me, and there was far too much of it for me to believe it was all bogus.”

B.J. May goes on to discover research about how to use twitter as a way to understand viewpoints that diverge from his own.  And he commits himself to the following exercise:

1) May finds active accounts run by people who are wildly dissimilar from him, and who talk frequently about the issues he hopes to understand.

2) He follows one of these people every day for 30 days, regardless of how much he dislikes what they say.

3) He does not engage with the writers of any of these accounts.  He does not debate them, argue, or interact in any way apart from just reading.  And…

4) May engages in self-study when he encounters foreign terms or concepts.

Early in the experiment, May feels uncomfortable.  But later in the month, the author finds that really listening to these diverse voices with an open mind promotes more than understanding.  What emerges?  Empathy, kindness, and a stronger belief that every human being has value.

Ever since I read the article “How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble,” a few months ago, I wondered how its message could carry throughout and also beyond the twittersphere.

And then, last week, I met someone who impressed me because he is really trying to break his filter bubble.

I was contacted by an Orthodox rabbi.  I’m not typically contacted by Orthodox rabbis (other than a few I already know).  This rabbi is an Israeli settler in the West Bank.  I have never been contacted by an Israeli settler.

This particular settler has spent two years as a shaliach in the Philadelphia suburbs, in an Orthodox yeshiva.  He is preparing to return to Israel this summer and realized that after two years in the US, he has been exposed only to Orthodox communities.  He sensed his experience was missing something.  He contacted me because he wanted to share, with a progressive Jewish community, his perspectives about Israeli life and the settlements, and he wanted to better understand perspectives that are present in progressive communities.

So I invited him to my office for a meeting.  I did not take it for granted that he agreed to meet in an office of a female rabbi in a Reform synagogue.

The conversation was interesting, just by virtue of the fact that is was taking place.  The conversation was fascinating because of what it revealed.  Each of us entered the meeting with assumptions about the other, that just were not true.  I confess to you, I pre-judged that we would disagree on every issue, and that he would not care about the principles that I find critically important.   My highest hope was that, as we shared our differences, the tone would remain civil.

So, did we disagree?  Absolutely.  On almost every issue.  And yet, we listened to each other carefully enough, to help us better understand the other’s position.

I asked Rabbi Goldberg about his commitment to the settlements: Why are they important to you?  He explained, I don’t think Americans understand how deep is the Israeli connection to the land.  To give up any part of what I relate to as Israel, he said, would be a profound loss.

So I asked, what about the Palestinians?  Don’t they deserve rights, opportunities and dignity?  (Now, I confess to you, a dark part of my bias: a part of me thought he was going to say “Why should care about the Arabs? Don’t they have enough land?  Did they help us some decades ago when 800,000 Jewish refugees were being thrown out of Middle Eastern countries?”  That’s not what he said.)  Rabbi Goldberg said, of course they deserve rights, opportunities and dignity.  Palestinians in the settlements should vote as full citizens and have full civil rights.  Do you think I don’t care about them?  No, I have a constant internal struggle about everyone’s needs.

I realized then that I had assumed that religious Israeli settlers, did not have an internal struggle.  I had never really spoken to a religious settler; I believed they cared only about the Torah’s message that Jews would have sovereignty over all the land of Israel, and I did not believe that their hearts went out to anyone else’s cause.  In my own way, I was dehumanizing right wing Orthodox Israelis.  Still so stuck in my bias, I asked Rabbi Goldberg: “are you unusual?”  He smiled.  No, he said, my community shares this internal struggle and concern.

He was so open, and I am a lover of questions, so I kept them coming.  (Now, I do not believe that today’s anti-Israel movements such as the anti-Semitic Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement would suddenly support Israel’s right to exist, were the settlements to be given to the Palestinians.  I do however believe that the more settlements are built up, the more we build an impediment to moving forward with any progress for peace. I also believe in the Palestinians’ right to their own state and that, peace proposals aside, giving up occupied territories is the right thing to do.)  So next I said, I hear you when you say your connection to the land is deep, but what if giving up some of the land, were to achieve a secure peace?  He responded, then I would support it!  (Then he added, but I don’t believe it will happen.  Effort after effort has failed; so I do not support a 2-State solution.)  Still it was for him an internal struggle.  I had no idea.

As our conversation continued, Rabbi Goldberg asked me questions as well.  It became clear that he brought his own pre-judgments.  Rabbi Goldberg had assumed that because I was a rabbi in a Reform synagogue, I must be a part of the far-left wing movements, who are against Israel’s right to exist.  He assumed that there were no pro-Israel Jews in progressive American communities. No, I explained, it’s not at all the case.  Our congregation is tremendously diverse, We may include members who find themselves on either extreme: some on the left may question Israel’s right to exist; some on the right may question the Palestinians’ right to a state.  But the mainstream population, leadership, study and work of our community include pro-Israel and pro-peace messages.  He had no idea.

I am so impressed by Rabbi Goldberg for seeking to break out of his bubble.

Perhaps, there are others among us who, like him, are seeking to break their filter bubbles.   Here at Rodeph Shalom, we are inviting Rabbi Goldberg and another young Israeli shaliach, Hila Huber.  These two friends have very different political views; yet have not in the past spoken in depth about them with each other. They will engage in a dialogue about their different perspectives on the settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We are not inviting scholars nor are we debating the facts.  We are listening to two friends share very different experiences, beliefs and perspectives; and we will also have the chance to share some our own.

During the experiment, we may feel uncomfortable.  But our hope is to find that really listening to these diverse voices with an open mind, will promote understanding.

Right now, the Jewish community is preparing for Pesach.  As we eat down our bread and clean out the cupboards, may we also strip down the chametz—the puffed up barriers, of our own relationship to the world, and prepare for a season of listening.  May we come to the retelling of the liberation story, with ears open to new understanding.

Tonight, with the Magaziner Family fund’s beautiful musical additions, we heard Haskivenu in a new way.  Tradition prescribes we recite Hashkivenu each night, and the words ring: Blessed are You, Adonai, Guardian of Israel, may Your shelter of peace be spread over us, over all Your people Israel, and over Jerusalem.  Amen.