In moments like these, are conversations about Israel really possible?
Two authors claim "yes" and in a new book, aim to show us how. A conversation with Abi Dauber Sterne.
Abi Dauber Sterne is a Jewish educator, organizational leader and the co-author, with Robbie Gringras, of Stories for the Sake of Argument. Their new book is a compilation of 24 short stories that are designed to get people arguing, but also engaging with, the tough issues that face Israel and the Jewish world.
In the words of the book’s website, “Stories for the Sake of Argument is designed to spark disagreements about key issues facing Israel and the Jewish world. From religious freedom to identity politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to COVID-19, gender equality to Israel-Diaspora relations, each story tackles a different issue, sets up a powerful clash of values, and leaves you with an unresolved dilemma to discuss.”
We sat down with Abi to discuss why we need to engage in difficult conversations with people from across political and ideological divides, and also, just as important if not more so, how we do this.
Stories for the Sake of Argument is available on Amazon.
The link above will take you to our conversation, being made available today, along with a transcript for those who prefer to read, to paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
Abi Dauber Sterne is the co-author with Robbie Gringras of a brand-new book called “Stories for the Sake of Argument: Stories to Get You Arguing with Your Family, Friends, and Communities and That's a Good Thing!” So, for the Sake of Argument is obviously a play on “for the sake of heaven” in Jewish life because that's a very famous Talmudic phrase. So, before we get started, just a brief word about Abi. Abi has worked in the United States, in Israel, as an educator, as an organizational leader for more than 20 years. She had a very senior position at Hillel International in Washington, DC. Then she and her husband and kids made Aliyah. And she worked for a long while at the Jewish Agency for Israel's Makom- Israel’s Education Lab.
I was in the company of the book for a wonderful Shabbat afternoon a few weeks ago, so I had a chance to make my way through it. Where did this all come from? I'm sure there are multiple moments in your life when you begin to gather steam and you say, “Oh, we need to do this.” But what's going on out there that made you think you need to write this book?
Well, first let's start with the basics of stories. Why stories in the first place? My co-author, Robbie Gringras, who's a super creative educator and experiential in the way he teaches things himself as an actor and playwright and stories are part of who he is. And it started very much from a place of, well, that's what I do, is I write stories. And he had played with some of these ideas before. But more deeply than that, the question of why arguments, we could write all sorts of stories, why stories that people should argue over. What we discovered in several different places was that perhaps the hardest thing for people to do, especially at a young people, say, thirties and under, among the hardest things to do is to argue and to argue well. I believe it's a generational thing because people are used to Tweeting to Whatsapping, Snapchatting, Instagramming, which requires no words, just pictures. All right? So, the fewer words the better.
The other reason, which is maybe more interesting, is there's this thing called safe space that's become very important particularly on college campuses, but also youth movements in many different organizational settings. Creating a safe space, a place where people feel comfortable to speak with one another, to be in community together, is an important modality that people use. And the cost, it seems, or one of the costs of these safe spaces is there are certain guidelines in safe spaces that prevent a real exchange of ideas. And one of those guidelines that we're quite responsive to in this book and in the way we're thinking about arguments, is there's a rule or guideline for safe spaces, which is called say “yes, and”. If you say something that I don't particularly agree with, I'll say “yes, and…”
And whoever came up with “yes, and…” has clearly never studied Talmud, correct?
Yes, and it comes from improvisation. Okay, so when you improvise you actually change the subject. You start off talking about one thing and you say “yes, and…” and then you can change the topic. And that was adopted to safe spaces. Now, it is very useful when you want to avoid an argument, but if you actually want to disagree with somebody because you disagree with somebody, there isn't appropriate language for it. And so, what's happened is especially young people have gotten used to these safe spaces where they always say “yes, and…” and they're taught not to say no. This is also a response to that, to say, actually, how do we say no, but in a productive, respectful way? The other anecdote I'll tell about where this book came from or the moment it really became solidified was Robbie and I were teaching a group of Moishe House residents. Moishe House is an organization that has young adults who live together in apartments and community. And they're paid essentially, they're given some funding to run Jewish programming, and they have a guideline for their houses. They're pluralists. So, people have many different Shabbat practices, among other practices, obviously. And if I encounter somebody who's doing something on Shabbat that I don't understand, and I ask them, “Why do you do that on Shabbat?” And the other person says they just really didn't want to talk about it, just leave me alone, they say, “Shabbas yo”. And that's the indication that they don't want to talk about it. Just accept me as I am.
Where the yo comes from?
No idea. Just like hipster language. I don't know. And so, it's a conversation stopper. It's saying “I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to get into the complicated stuff.” When Robbie and I began teaching this group of Moishe Housers about Israel, and we wanted them to run programs, we brought a few small stories that we wanted them to discuss. And there was complete silence in the room. Nobody would talk. Robbie and I looked at each other and said, “How can they not be talking? These things are volatile. And other people would be screaming, why are they so quiet?”
Wow. Okay, so tell me a little bit about the generation of the book and how long you worked on it and how it all came to be.
Yeah, so, like many things over the last two years, we started during COVID, amazingly enough, and it was written while I was still working at the Jewish Agency. And there were some funds left from another grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. And they asked what I'd like to do with it. And this is one of the things I pitched. And they said, sure, go ahead, go write this thing. And I started writing. I started writing when I was in quarantine with my then nine-year-old daughter, and I was sleeping on the bottom bunk bed for eleven nights. And I started writing. And Robbie and I would write stories and send them back to each other and talk over them from start to finish. It took about a year and a half to get out, and some of that there were maybe two stories that existed beforehand that Robbie had written as part of other stuff that we said, “Wow, these really work right here.” And so that's where it came from.
These short stories are actually a page and a half or two pages. And what I was so struck by when I read these stories and read the book, was that these stories are unbelievably quick, and yet they do manage to pack in so many issues of judgment and morality and caring and concern, and it depends on which story you're talking about. It's fascinating. Like a tiny little anecdote can really pack a huge punch as people begin to talk about it. So, we'll talk about how people are supposed to use the book. But first, let's talk about the three different kinds of stories in the book, and they are all color coded. So blue ones are warmups, and yellow ones are allegory. And red ones are Israel. How are people supposed to use these stories differently? And then you have other stuff, too, you can talk about like guiding questions and there's background and there's questions for further exploration. There's a story. Tell us about three kinds of stories and then what kind of materials people find with each of these stories. What do they do with it?
Great. So, the warmups are usually very light. There are issues that aren't particularly contentious. So, one of the lightest stories is called “The Cat Lady”. And the cat lady is a woman who lives on a moshav in an Israeli town, and she feeds all the cats, and then more cats come, and this moshav gets very upset that there are these cats, and what do they do? This poor lady who these cats are her only friends. Do they tell her she has to stop feeding them or actually say, “This makes a woman happy; we should let her feed them.” So, it's not a particularly contentious issue unless you live there, perhaps. But if you're just a normal person, it's not something that's going to get you. Okay, so those are the warmups, particularly if you're using this in a group setting, which is how the book is intended, if you don't want to get to something too contentious. The warmups are good to get people just used to the idea that we're going to disagree, and we'll have different takes on something. They're also good for younger kids. So, this book is good in general, we say high school and up, but there are a few stories that younger kids can access, and the warmups are generally ones that younger kids can access. The allegories are just that. There are stories that you have to know that they're about Israel. There's a story about two brothers who inherit the family home. One brother lives abroad and one brother lives where the family home is. The brother who lives abroad pays for all sorts of upkeep of the house. And then when the brother visits the actual house, he's very upset to see what his brother has done with the family home. And of course, if you think about it and if you read the background that we provide, is an allegory for Jews living outside of Israel and Jews living in Israel, and the relationship that we have and the tensions of who gets to decide and who gets to have opinions, etc. But that's an allegory. And the purpose of the allegories is we think it really helps get us out of very fixed thinking. If you're first thinking about an analogous case before you're getting into the actual case, it's interesting to test whether your ideas shift and change your opinion. Shift and change when you switch. So that's the difference, right? And when we've led workshops, we often lead those twice, right? We'll lead it once with the plain meaning of the story, and then we say, “Okay, now here's the allegory loud. Let's talk about it, argue over it.”
The reason we didn't mention Israel in the title is because the vision of this work, both the book and what we're working on now, is that we help people to learn and discuss all matters of complexity. So that's going to have to do with American politics, slavery in the US, not that we can excuse slavery, but we can explain it in ways historically and how do we teach it and how do we talk about it. All sorts of complex issues of history and current events need a new way to be taught, a way to engage with differently. And so, this is our starting point with Israel because it's what we know best, but we hope to expand to other subject matters as well.
Okay, so we have the warmups, we have the allegories, and then we get to the ones in red. And how are these different from the allegories?
So, especially given that you've said they're all about Israel, the ones that we label as Israel are the ones that are the most hot button issues that get right to the heart of the most challenging issues. For example, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem trying to decide whether or not to vote in municipal elections in Jerusalem. Without getting into the details here, residents of East Jerusalem cannot vote in national elections in Israel, but can vote in municipal elections, but generally, the population does not vote. And this is a story of someone's individual struggle with should he/she vote or should he/she not vote, which is very real. And that story in particular, by the way, we had a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem read it to make sure that we had understood the nuances as well. So that's one example. Another example is a story about a granddaughter visiting her grandmother in Haifa and she visits on Shabbat, and she usually takes buses because there are buses on Shabbat in Haifa. But the issues of buses on Shabbat in this country is one that is often argued over and comes up in elections and comes up at different points because it's a Jewish country. Should we really have busses on Shabbat? What standards of being a Jewish country should we have? And so that's very much, again, at the heart of some of the issues that come up here in Israel.
And the grandmother, if I remember, really doesn't want her to take the bus.
She does not want her to take the bus. But she's okay with her taking taxis. Actually, there's a distinction there between individual choice and national decisions that we try and get into through that story.
Ironically, of course, the taxi is something that fewer people can afford, and the bus is something that everybody can afford. You can also get into disparities and wealth become part of the usual discussion of Shabbat and all of that…. Tell us a little bit about the stuff that you guys provide after each story.
So first there are discussion questions. So, this book is really, as I said, intended for groups small and large to talk about the stories. We give some guiding questions for people to help them get into some of the issues that we're raising through the stories. And then we have background material. Where does the story come from? All the stories, whether true or allegorical, come either from an actual real example that happened that we're just retelling in a story, or they come from an allegory issues that have come up, but we want to explain what that allegory is. Or it's a conglomerate of several stories that we've put together. And so, we give the background, we give some of the political history, we give some of the cultural history. Sometimes we make comparisons to other countries, the United States, etc. We compare Mexico and Texas. And so that's what the background is, to help enlighten and give a little depth to the story. And I'll just add that one of the goals of the background, the goal of the book is both to teach how to argue but is also to teach about Israel. And it's in those background pieces that once you've read the story, what we're seeing is that people are like, “I actually like to understand that. Why is it that way?” And then they have a short page and a half, two pages of some background that teaches them about Israel.
It's fascinating because we really are having these conversations or arguments about Israel almost entirely unencumbered by any knowledge whatsoever. Seriously. People just don't know the history of how certain things started or why it started. And there's always good reasons for things happening and very bad reasons for things happening, and justifiable things and unjustifiable things. They did happen for a reason, and that doesn't make them right or wrong, but it just means it's kind of know when it started, how it started, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There's a reason that people in East Jerusalem can vote in municipal elections, but not in national elections. There is a reason that Israel captured Jerusalem in the Six Day War but gave the Waqf control over the Temple Mount. But I think the work that we both do, we see whenever we're talking about Israel, there's just a tremendous void in terms of what people know. So even if it's only a couple of pages here, you're at least introducing this idea that you might want to actually sort of know what happened.
And that is, by the way, when you asked me where did the book come from, it’s very much the acknowledgement and awareness that most people don't know history, don't have content, and they're not necessarily interested in learning it. And so, as educators, one of our questions is how do we get people to be more interested? And what we realized is actually the things we argue about are the things we're most passionate about. And once we can harness that passion, people might be more likely to learn. And so that's sort of what we're trying to do here, read a short story and then we'll give you a little bit of information, or maybe we'll give you a little bit of information and then read the short story. But that's part of what we're going.
And what are you hearing from the field?
Well, we got a grant of over a million dollars from the Jim Joseph Foundation to develop this book further, to develop the pedagogy to research how this idea of what I call teaching towards the argument rather than teaching towards the consensus, how that idea works, in what ways does it work, how does it change the way we have conversations, how does it change the way we teach, et cetera. So, funding that's one big thing from the field. We've probably trained close to 200 people at this point- very short trainings. We've had two to four sessions with educators of all kinds, and it sounds like they're starting to use it. They're using it in their Hebrew schools. A group from Hillel will be using it on different campuses. There is a JCC that wants to create a citywide reading group around this book as a way of engaging around the stories. So, people are using it in very different ways. Moishe House is going to be here in Israel, I think, in the next few weeks. And Robbie will be leading a seminar for them, which will include this book.
The rhetoric we use increasingly, I mean, it's always been true, but especially now, there's so much rhetoric that we use that obfuscates. And I think one of the things we're trying to do is actually name when it's hard, name when there's a conflict, name when you're conflicted. It's okay if you're conflicted. Right? You don't just need to speak in the platitudes or in generalization.
Okay, so I want to ask you one question. People are probably scratching their heads and saying, “This is really cool, right? Abi or Robbie are going to go to Moishe House or they're going to sit with a Hillel group, they're going to sit with the JCC, and they are going to make headway here with certain kinds of people.” But the larger environment is so toxic, it is so shut down. And it's not only about Israel now, everything has become we can't talk about it. And when I go to the States, I just find nobody talks about anything anymore because people either are going to exactly mimic each other, in which case, what's the point of talking? Or they're so afraid of offending or being offended. Can this be changed?
Gosh, that requires a big sigh. I think we're all asking ourselves that about a lot of things these days of what can be changed, how do we change it, and what are the inflection points for changing it if we can? So, I'll first say there are a lot of people working on issues relating to dialogue, to community building, to bridge building in the Jewish community, in the general world. I could list off authors in groups and organizations that are doing related work. And so, my hope is that collectively we will make a dent. We've taken a sort of narrower lane or a very specific area to try and make a dent because I agree with you to imagine changing all of that feels rather daunting. We're focused very much on educational settings, education broadly speaking to be formal education as in schools but also informal as in youth movements and camps. But one of the questions that we're asking which I think is different than a lot of people is not just how do we have conversations across political and ideological divides? Not just how do we build community and stop polarization which I want to do all of that but what we're really asking is how do we teach material that inherently is conflictual? How do we teach the material and not avoid that material but actually how do we engage with that material with the deep belief that if we engage with that material and model it in educational settings it will change the way people ultimately in the long term are able to talk about difficult issues. And so one of the things that we're also trying to do is trying to invent a new way to teach at least some material and so we're hoping to make a dent in the educational world which feels slightly more manageable than the whole world but only slightly.
But it's also key to the whole world. People learned to not have arguments somewhere. I mean when colleges have safe spaces what they're saying basically is the place that you go for four years which should be the epitome of your engaging with tough issues is now a place where you can escape tough issues. When you give trigger warnings for the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Bible which have very painful subjects what you're saying is that basically you should be able to read books and not engage with pain, which to me is exactly the opposite of the reason that the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Bible all exist because we're supposed to encounter those things and they can be very painful because we can have issues in our own lives that these things really do bring up and it can be agonizing but when that becomes a reason for entire swathes of society not talk about anything that matters we're not going to make the change in the whole world that we need.
I was just reading an article by Jonathan Height and his co-author, and he talks about that this whole trigger warning idea started and well trigger warnings are really important for people who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. What turns out is they've taken the language, or we've taken the language of PTSD and the trigger warnings and applied it to everything that if I feel hurt, you shouldn't talk about it. And actually, what that's done, in some ways, is it's made us overly sensitive and unable to cope when we're feeling a little hurt. And so, it's shut people down increasingly. And one of the things that we need to do is find ways of actually bringing back some of the hard material and helping people hold the hurt, because that's actually how real life is, right?
And also, by the way, it cheapens the genuine trauma that PTSD is all about. I thought it was very interesting here in Israeli… before Yom Haatzmaut… in Tel Aviv they decided and in a few other cities, they decided not to have fireworks because there were soldiers who said that the fireworks brought back explosions. And I was actually struck by how in this country, where Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day is a really serious thing and people, I did not think people were going to take kindly to tempering with their celebration. But the cities responded. They had regions of the city without fireworks. And there were places that if you wanted to celebrate outside with thousands of people and not hear fireworks, that you could go. And I thought that was actually kind of amazing, and that's kind of taking what's a genuine trigger, what's a genuine PTSD thing seriously without cheapening it by making it too broad. But to go back to the original issue, we're afraid of offending people. We're afraid of treading on toes. And so, in a world in which so much is at stake, liberal democracy, democracy in general, respect for the individual, the gender issue, you name it, we need more than ever to talk about things. And this is a book that for those people who are fortunate enough to see it, read it, use it, it can make an enormous amount of difference. So, to both you and Robbie, who I've also known for many years, thank you for writing such a great book.
Thank you. Can I end with a quote by Ian Leslie?
He wrote a book called “Conflicted”, and he said, the only thing worse than having toxic arguments is not having argument at all.
Which is exactly where we're at, which is exactly why the book is so important. “Stories for the sake of argument: Stories to get you arguing with your family, friends and community and that's a good thing!”, Available on Amazon by Robbie Gringras and Abby Dauber Sterne. Thanks so much for the conversation.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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