An Israeli Jew and Israeli Arab came to Penn State this week to demonstrate their method of peaceful dialogue between Israelis and Arabs.
Shachar Yanai, an Israeli, and Farhat Agbaria, a Palestinian, have been friends for 10 years. Coming from backgrounds that have seen years of conflict and tension, Agbaria and Yanai have looked past their differences and have been working together to create peace in the Middle East.
Their relationship began in 2005, when both started working at the Givat Haviva seminar and conference center, a campus in Israel. Their relationship developed from working together 10 hours a day, fundraising, traveling around the world and sharing hotel rooms.
“We had a team of about 40 facilitators, and we want to model for them how to work together, be role models,” Yanai said. “If you can’t work together then your team won’t believe in you, especially in difficult situations.”
They were brought to Penn State by the World in Conversation organization on campus. They demonstrated one of their dialogues with Penn State students from the Lions 4 Israel club and the Justice for Palestine club. They also visited classes to teach their experience on the conflict and trained World in Conversation facilitators.
While Yanai gave an interview, Agbaria was in a class.
“We both come from a background of tolerance, and both had an open mind,” Yanai said. “We had the right intentions; we are working in this field because of our intentions. This made getting along much easier.”
Most of their work is done through dialogues, conversations between two different sides.
For five years they have held two-day retreats, attended each year by 3,000 Israeli Jewish and Arab high school students. During the retreats they hold a dialogue where the students touch on issues relating to their different identities and the wars between Israel and the Palestinians.
On Tuesday evening, Penn State students debated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 75 minutes in front of an audience of around 100 in Foster Auditorium. Agbaria and Yanai would intervene between students and guide them to the right questions to ask so that they would get a better understanding of the others’ background.
“The dialogue last night was experimental. You should never do a dialogue in public — the participants start performing for the public,” Sam Richards, director of development for World in Conversation, said Wednesday. “The team put this together to demonstrate to the community not about the issues but about the power of dialogue.”
World in Conversation brings together groups of people with backgrounds that have seen tensions, conflict and war. They sit down and have a dialogue and a chance to experience other people’s ideas.
“Here at World in Conversation we are bringing together NATO cadets — college-age students at military academies — and civilians in Afghanistan to talk,” Richards said. “We just talk about our differences. You don’t really have opportunities to really sit down with these people, and that’s what we do.”
There have not been immediate results from the dialogues promoted by Agbaria and Yanai, as evidenced by the Israeli-Gaza conflict this summer that killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority of whom lived in Gaza. But the two men believe dialogue has the power to create diplomacy.
“The goals are different for both sides, but in the end it is creating a more just society that’s built on trust,” said Yanai. “The moment you start to build trust, a form of empathy, start thinking critically and understand, then you can start to look at changing reality.”