Israel-Gaza dialogue only works if it doesn’t go into substance

What’s happening in Israel and Gaza makes many people feel very sad, powerless and afraid. To accommodate these different emotions and perspectives, Studium Generale, ESA and TINT hosted a dialogue on the situation in the Middle East yesterday. The organizers had set out to create a safe environment in which everyone could speak up, without being judged. Murat Karatas and Tjeerd Ritmeester, both municipal council members on behalf of PvdA Eindhoven, took the floor to converse.

The same party, two completely different perspectives on the events that took place in Israel and Gaza over the past six weeks. Murat Karatas (on the right-hand side in the main photo) is a Muslim and of Turkish descent; Tjeerd Ritmeester is of Jewish origins. Although their view of the conflict couldn’t be more different, they have at least one thing in common: both men want to keep talking to each other, however difficult this may be.

It’s for this exact reason they take the stage in the Blauwe Zaal of the Auditorium on Thursday evening, in the presence of almost a hundred TU/e students, staff and Eindhoven residents. The conversation is carried out in Dutch, the language in which both men can best express their thoughts, which is crucial in such a sensitive issue. Lucas Asselbergs, head of Studium Generale, has assumed the role of moderator. The evening will be revolving around the following question: How do you maintain the dialogue, even if you don’t agree with one another?

Really listen to each other

Ritmeester and Karatas are aware of their viewpoints and emotions being so far apart that they’d be able to hurt each other to the very core of their beings. In order for the conversation not to veer off course, rules are needed. Asselbergs calls on everyone present to stay respectful above all. “Ask open questions, let each other finish and try to put your own opinion on hold for a moment,” he requests. The dialogue is not meant as a debate; finding the truth or a solution is not the intention. It’s simply an opportunity to express what the situation means to you. In so doing, it’s important to ignore the substance and the background of the conflict, he stresses. “Above all, let’s listen to one another and see what this brings us.”

Asselbergs kicks off the dialogue by asking of how both men experienced the events of October 7, when the Palestinian Hamas organization launched a largescale attack on Israel, which resulted in 1,200 casualties. Ritmeester indicates that for the first time in his life, he felt “physically sick” because of the attacks and their aftermath. Karatas also thought the events were surreal, but something else went through his head as well. “You know right away there will be a counterresponse. So you also think of the innocent people that will die.”

Shortly after the events, the two PvdA party members sought each other out to talk about the matter, they tell the audience. The conversation gets off to an awkward start, because they are both very careful and watch what they say “not to step on anyone’s toes”, but then they start feeling more comfortable and opening up to one another. They’re not in agreement about the cause of the conflict and what should be done to solve it, but they manage to keep talking to each other. Shared values help to maintain the dialogue. Karatas: “We both believe in compassion and peace, even though our emotions and perspectives differ.”

A safe environment

Both men agree that a whole lot happens inside of them the moment such a conflict escalates. They don’t always have an opportunity to vent all of those emotions. “There’s no topic quite as polarizing. There are only few places where you can safely show your emotions, where you can share them with each other,” Ritmeester says. Karatas also recognizes the caution with which this hugely sensitive subject is approached. “Initially I shared little on social media, for fear of how people would respond,” he admits.

Ritmeester thinks it’s unfortunate that the City of Eindhoven didn’t put up an Israeli flag following the events of October 7, deeming the matter too sensitive. “One day would’ve been enough.” It would have given people a place to express and share their sorrow, he thinks. He talked to Jewish people around him that struggled to show their emotions. “You feel alone.”

Asselbergs asks what advice the men have for people who feel a severe emotional impact from the events in Israel and Gaza. “Create an environment where you can safely share your emotions. It seems obvious, but unfortunately it’s often lacking. We’re all responsible for creating such an environment,” says Ritmeester. Karatas also misses that safe environment to express himself. He believes the western freedom of opinion is a myth. Sure, you can say anything, but only if you stay within certain frameworks that align with the standards and values determined by the majority. In his experience, if you’re part of a small group with a different outlook, freedom of opinion doesn’t apply to you. “Then they tell you: ‘you don’t belong in the west’,” he says. “That’s tough for me. It doesn’t make me feel safe or included.”


For the second part of the program, audience members get to ask questions or share their own emotions and perspectives. A student asks what the men think of the role the Dutch government has played in the conflict. Karatas is disappointed by its general attitude toward the situation. “I think it’s been very non-committal,” he says.

He thinks the unconditional support for Israel was out of place. “Then you close all avenues for dialogue.” He understands Israel and the Netherlands have a good relationship, but that shouldn’t mean you can’t criticize each other, he thinks. “If a good friend of mine does something that’s really not okay, I tell him. That’s what good friends do.”

The first drop

Both men succeed, by and large, to limiting themselves to their own emotions and experiences during the conversation. However, at the rare moments something relating to substance does come up, things start to become uncomfortable and the open dialogue threatens to turn into a debate. For instance when Karatas mentions the words “destruction” and “genocide”, words Ritmeester would never use for what’s currently happening in Gaza. When the Holocaust is used as an analogy for the situation in which the Palestinians find themselves, the tension also mounts. “We said we would never let this happen again, so why is it happening now?” Karatas wonders. “It really saddens me when the sentiments of the Second World War are reversed,” Ritmeester responds. Karatas notices he gets emotional and angry again when Ritmeester talks about the cause of the conflict. Afterwards they try to find one another again. ‘Let’s not go into the substance and focus on what connects us instead’, is the shared motto.

But how can you ever really take steps towards one another, really understand each other and find a solution, if you don’t talk about matters of substance, someone in the audience asks. Is this even possible? The men agree you can’t solve the conflict if you ignore the substance altogether. But you first need to have a dialogue like tonight’s, first look for what binds you. That’s a prerequisite for talking about substance later on. “This conversation is the first drop,” says Karatas. “But let’s not stop talking to each other. Let’s make sure that drop grows into a see, into an ocean.”

A video recording of the dialogue (excluding the interaction with the room in view of the privacy of the people in the audience) with English subtitles will be shared on the Studium Generale website next week. A separate dialogue evening in English on the same topic will take place on November 30. For more information, click here.


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