by: James Ford
TEANECK, N.J. (PIX11) — Possibly the most contentious verbal clash that anyone in the country, if not the world, is having right now is about the Israel-Gaza crisis. It’s been the subject of protests in cities and towns across the tri-state region and worldwide, and some of those protests have become violent. Some attempts at conversation have also become heated.
Two New Jersey teens, one Muslim and one Jewish, are attempting to tone down the emotion and increase understanding on the issue, through what they describe as a listening, questioning, and sharing event.
“I want it to be a conversation,” said Rawda Elbatrawish, a senior at Teaneck High School and one of the two organizers. “I want us to educate each other. I want us to come with each other. I want us to understand this isn’t religion versus religion. This is us coming together for understanding.”
Her friend, Liora Pelavin, is also coordinating the event, called “Through a Deeper Lens.” Pelavin elaborated on what she and Elbatrawish hope to see.
“Making sure you sit down to have this conversation, not to argue with the person, but to understand their point of view, I think is so important,” Pelavin said in an interview. “I think a lot of adults are coming to conversations preparing to argue, preparing to attack the other person. And I think that’s why we’re seeing them fail.”
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The two will be moderating the Wednesday evening event, which is restricted to people 25 years of age and younger. It comes a week after tense school board and town hall meetings with adults.
The event for young people is meant to be different, according to the two teen organizers.
“We are going to give guidelines about the conversation,” said Pelavin. “No personally attacking people, [and we’ll] be making sure it’s peaceful. And then if someone breaks those rules, we’ll send them off to another room to calm down.”
Elbatrawish, who first became friends with Pelavin through the school’s speech and debate club, said that the guidelines are based on values that the two organizers share.
“What we learned in speech and debate,” said Elbatrawish, “is that you can’t really prove your point unless you listen to the other side. So that’s kind of like the whole model for this event.”
Their school, Teaneck High, reflects the diversity of the town in which they live. There’s a wide variety of religions, from the Unitarianism to Bahai, is practiced in the town of 42,000, but the largest religious group is Jewish. They form the highest percentage of Jewish residents in the country to successfully elect a Muslim candidate for mayor, seven years ago.
Ethnically, Teaneck is 41% white, 25% Hispanic, 22% Black, and 10% Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It also reports that one of every 10 residents is of mixed racial heritage.
The principal of Teaneck High School, Pedro Valdes III, pointed out that the town, in which he himself grew up, has a history of residents choosing tolerance.
“Back in 1964 when we desegregated, and we were the first to do it in the nation, we’ve always done special things here,” he told PIX11 News.
Teaneck was the country’s first municipality to vote for desegregation. Valdes said that what Pelavin and Elbatrawish are planning is the latest chapter in open-minded collaboration there.
Their event, the two organizers said, will feature an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from Rutgers University, and a mental health counselor and her staff. The two organizers said that they want their event to set an example for others.
“We strictly mentioned this will be a civil conversation and will be [for] educational purposes only,” Elbatrawish said.
Her friend and co-moderator said that what they hope to achieve will potentially be duplicated elsewhere, and contrast with some other recent encounters over the Israel-Palestine issue.
“I think if they were going to sit down and actually want to understand the other side, we would see more productivity in these conversations, and more peace,” Pelavin said.
The two have worked hard together to create an event that had a long list of needs. They found a venue, the Ethical Culture Society of Teaneck, sponsors, and — in another indication of how charged the issue is, potentially — they arranged for police coverage for the Wednesday evening session.