In Praise of Active Listening

We have grown used to the fact that there are many opinions in America about Israel’s actions, both from within our community and without. The settlements, possible peace negotiations and the country’s upcoming elections are a few hot button topics. Whether Israel’s future should be as a one- or two-state entity is a hotter one still.

These are complex political issues that deserve enthusiastic debate. All sides have a right to state their points of view, to argue, to express disagreement, to give reasons, to provide evidence and ultimately to try to persuade. Few disputes are black and white; it is the fleshing out of the gray area that is at the heart of our democratic freedom of speech.

All sides also have the obligation to listen to the other’s point of view. It is as important to understand why people hold different opinions as it is to hear them. After all, how can we truly grasp the issues and discuss them in a constructive and civil manner if we do not expose ourselves to thoughtful people with whom we disagree?

No side, however, has a right to vilify, belittle or marginalize the other. When Jews turn against Jews under the guise of the “pro-Israel/anti-Israel” litmus test, we do to ourselves what we would not let others do to us. We become a people divided.

That division is exacerbated when we add American politics into the mix. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to the U.S. Republican-majority Congress at Speaker Boehner’s invitation has created yet another opportunity for Jews to draw lines of separation. The media is rife with strident pieces equating Republicans with pro-Israelis and Democrats with anti-Israelis. These impassioned attacks leave no room for reasoned and reasonable discussion.

With media available in so many formats, it has never been easier to access information. While we may gravitate towards sources that philosophically agree with us, it behooves us to broaden our horizons and listen to people on all sides of the political spectrum. Not only does this bolster our own arguments, it also trains us in the crucial skill of active listening.

Rather than listening in order to react and argue back, the active listener makes a conscious effort to hear and understand what people are saying. A communication skill that can be learned and must be practiced, active listening is a key component to civil discourse and productive conversation.

We have deliberately offered two opposite opinions about Netanyahu’s March 3 visit on the facing page. We invite you to open your mind, open your ears, actively listen and then let us know what you think.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 26, 2015

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