Loving and Organizing Your Family and Friends This Thanksgiving

by Geoffrey Adelsberg and Faith Carol Newton

This is an article for Jews and allies who are desperate for a ceasefire in Israel/Palestine and who are anxious about breaking bread with family and friends. Anxiety levels are high because we know that our views put some of our dearest relationships at risk. 

Anxiety arises because we know how painful it is to feel angry in the midst of political disagreements. We often assume that there are two options: avoid conflict with gritted teeth or delve right in, escalate like hell, and walk away bruised and somewhat regretful. 

We believe there is another way. This article offers ideas to begin the process of creating solidarity with our loved ones over Israel/Palestine and the current war and live in integrity with our values without descending into a stressful fight over history and politics. 

Geoff is a philosopher and left Jewish activist and organizer dedicated to envisioning transformative visions of responsibility and accountability for harm. Faith is a non-Jewish animist spiritual counselor with a background in somatic depth psychology. We are married. This article is influenced by our shared interests in attachment theory and nonviolent communication. It is an outgrowth of many years of thinking together about liberation, conflict, and responsibility. 

When we describe conflict work with our loved ones as organizing, we mean that it is a process of building our movement for a ceasefire through relationship-building. We know that this work is slow with people who are not aligned with our visions; however, the love we have for family and friends and their love for us can open unexpected pathways for compassion and connection. Meeting people where they are in a spirit of curiosity and collaboration can deepen the possibilities for support for our movement. 

To do this, we use frames that allow us to hold the situation from a place of compassion for ourselves and others. As much as we would love to be offering a guide to getting all your family and friends on the streets advocating for a ceasefire, Thanksgiving is just one day. The frames are meant to keep you well amid challenges and offer guidance on creating a circumstance where your views and perspectives can be heard. 

First Frame: Spectrum of Allies

 The spectrum of allies is an organizer’s tactic to understand those who hold distinct positions on issues that matter. When we use the spectrum of allies tool, we categorize people and their views according to active opposition, passive opposition, neutral, passive allies, and active allies. On the topic of ceasefire:

  • Active opposition to a ceasefire uses their power and resources to support the Israeli war effort. 
  • Passive opposition believes that the Israeli war effort is right but does not marshal resources on its behalf. 
  • Neutrals are undecided and often see the merits on both sides without identifying with either. 
  • Passive allies believe in a ceasefire, but do not speak or act on this belief. 
  • Active allies are those who devote resources to supporting a ceasefire.  

The magic of the spectrum of allies lies in its underlying theory: Our job is to move people one step closer to our position rather than to transform them into active allies. 

When we hear perspectives we strongly disagree with, we often counter with a plain expression of an opposing view, feeling that silence equals complicity. We know how this goes: No matter how well considered your argument is, defensiveness and retrenchment are nearly guaranteed. The spectrum of allies tool shows us the productive space between silence and statements of opposition. 

Here’s how we can use this tool:

  1. Care for ourselves by honoring our feelings and reconnect with the values at stake behind such feelings–values such as safety, liberation, mutuality, and cooperation.
  2. Focus on asking questions with genuine curiosity, staying with the experience of our loved one. We might ask them to say more about why they believe this military solution is the right one. We might hear that it is necessary to project strength because Israel’s very existence is under threat. 
  3. Identify your loved one’s values. For example, if we hear that Israel’s existence is under threat, we can identify in that statement a value for Israelis to be safe. Acknowledging that you hear that value is the first step to helping your loved ones relax their defenses.
  4. Acknowledge and expand on common values. You too want Israelis to be safe. Sharing that can create openness for you to express something true for you, such as, “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen Israel use their military in this way, and I haven’t seen the kind of safety for Israelis that I’d like to see.”
  5. If you feel your loved one feels heard and is regulated? (see Frame 2), you might request compassion towards your own perspectives (see Frame 3, # 4). Your loved ones’ safety is dependent on denying the humanity of certain groups at the moment (see Frames 2 & 3), but their love for you and recognition of your humanity can make you into a bridge towards a larger scope of possibility.
  6. Remember that the goal is to move people a single step towards your position. Loosening a grip on a dogmatic position or bringing in a new perspective on an issue is itself a win.

Second frame: Windows of Tolerance

Windows of Tolerance is a somatic psychological concept that points to the necessity of nervous system regulation for demanding cognitive tasks like learning and reimagining beliefs. Nervous system overwhelm can make genuine conversation difficult. We can use this concept to understand whether we or others are in such a state, and how to respond.

The window of tolerance theory suggests our capacity to think, learn, connect, and collaborate with others is increased when we are in a range of comfortable nervous system arousal, neither under nor over-aroused. When we are over-aroused, there are too many stimuli (relational, emotional, or sensory) for our nervous systems to handle. When we are under-aroused, there are too few stimuli for our nervous systems to feel safe within. We are more capable of connection and healthy attachment in our window of tolerance, the sweet spot between under and over-arousal. When we are totally outside our window of tolerance, however, we are in survival mode—resorting to the damage control responses of flight, flight, fawn, and freeze to keep us safe. 

The magic of the windows of tolerance concept is how it points to a nonjudgmental attitude towards nervous system overwhelm. It can bring us out of the idea that we might be able to change someone’s mind by making them feel the pain that we’re feeling. It is tempting to want to share an image of violence that will speak to our feeling of urgency. But, if we are attentive to windows of tolerance, we can see the ineffectiveness of trying to bring others into our reality through brute force.

When we realize in a conversation with a loved one that they are in a state of emotional overwhelm, a trauma response, or outside of the window of tolerance, it may be important to recognize that the person in question is unable to have the type of conversation you are interested in. However, as your loved one, tuning in with them can help them to relax enough to have a more generative conversation. Sometimes instead of pushing, we need to soften, and let others come to us.

What does it look like to bring the insights of the windows of tolerance into your discussions with loved ones?

  1. Again, start with yourself: connect with people who can validate your values. The more connected we feel, the more capable we are of holding ourselves in our window of tolerance in the midst of challenging circumstances. When we stay in our own window, relational neuroscience tells us, our loved ones are more capable of staying in theirs.
  2. If you are struggling to stay in your tolerance window, simple tools like breathing deeply, feeling your feet, focusing on every instance of a particular color in the room, or describing your surroundings to yourself can help bring you into the present moment. Some signs you may be struggling with nervous system dysregulation are
    1. trouble breathing deeply
    2. disconnection from your body
    3. accelerated heart rate
    4. increased muscle tension
    5. extreme judgments towards yourself or others
  3. If you’re feeling capable and strong in your self-regulation, you may choose to give validation and compassion to your loved ones (as discussed in #2 of the first frame). Compassion, curiosity, and collaboration can help people be more receptive, and reinforce your connection. When people feel connected, they are also more likely to enter their window of tolerance and be able to think more complexly. 
  4. If it feels like the connection is strong, this is a good time to ask for compassion for your own perspectives, fears, and hopes. (Frame 3 #4). You are the bridge between their current beliefs and compassion for Palestine. Having compassion for you might be a good starting place. 
  5. Notice when people show you that they are outside their window of tolerance through expressing rigidity, panicking, or shutting down. 
    1. This information can help you to make a decision about what kind of conversation is actually possible in the moment: One where you bring them one step closer to your views through sharing them, or where you open the possibility for that step through connecting with them and showing compassion where it is needed. 
    2. Remember that people outside of their threshold are less capable of complex thought and mature emotionality. You are not getting the best version of them in that state. Not expecting it can help you accept them where they are, and bring about changes to that state.
    3. A great way to help our loved ones re-enter their threshold window other than showing compassion/validation, is to remind them of their connection with us. Your loved one is dealing with fear. Remind them of the trust you have built together, through memories or stories, or taking time to do a favored activity together. 
  6. If you need to leave the conversation, here are some examples on how to do so.
    1. “I’m noticing this conversation is feeling really overwhelming. I still want to connect with you though, can we shift to another topic or activity?”
    2. “I’m struggling with my own emotions right now. I would like to continue this conversation, but could we take a break? I think we could have a more productive conversation once I’ve had some space.”
  7. If leaving the conversation in some way is your only option, and continuing feels impossible, make space in the following week to mourn the hope that you had that you might be able to connect with this person and imagine a less violent and hopeless future for Israel/Palestine. Remember that change happens over time, and once your loved one is in a more regulated state, they may be more receptive to hearing about your own perspectives.

Frame Three: Towards Transformative Justice and Beyond Good and Evil

So far, we have recommended compassion, curiosity, and collaboration as a means of moving through the defenses of our loved ones. Truthfully, these strategies often do not lead to the kind of collaboration and understanding we’d like (at least at first). Compassion is not something Jewish people are used to receiving in dialogues about Israel/Palestine. 

In response to your compassion, you may hear long-winded historical lectures. In our family, this tends to be an account of goodwill Israeli attempts at peace thwarted by unreasonable Arab/Palestinian leadership. Such lectures tend to push everyone out of their windows of tolerance. In response, we often want to send facts, articles, videos, and interviews to set the record straight. “Israel is not merely a victim!” or “Palestinians are the true victims!” When we respond in this way, we are fighting on the same terrain of victim/perpetrator binaries that many of our loved ones remain mired in. 

When we hear our loved ones talking about Israel, we hear desperation for validation of Israel’s goodness. For them, Israel’s existence is Jewish safety and continued existence. Threats to Israel are threats to Jews everywhere. If Israel is somehow bad, that means that attacks on Israel are justified. Indeed, the Israeli policy of “mowing the grass” inflicts disproportionate casualties in response to even the most ineffectual of Hamas’ attacks. Within this militarized logic, it makes sense to assume that admission of unjustified attacks by the Israeli military would justify massive death to Israelis. Within this logic, it becomes very difficult to criticize the Gazan death toll. It becomes tempting to imagine that the brutal images we are seeing from Gaza are merely Hamas’ propaganda.

Transformative justice (TJ) points us to our larger struggle: A world where doing harm does not make us liable for death and a loss of self-determination. TJ seeks non-punitive and collective responses to harm. When we use TJ, we work to address the root causes of harm while offering support for the wellbeing and self-determination of those who experience and cause harm. A fundamental principle of TJ is that—especially in this society—we have all experienced harm and caused harm though, not all equally. 

What might it look like to move towards a world where we can accept that harm is done, but does not justify harm as a response? It’s extraordinarily difficult to admit wrongdoing when you expect such deprivation in return. How can we model this new world?

  1. Once again, we start with ourselves. We honor our own complexity, the ways in which our actions can result in harm and community support, the ways in which we have both done harm and experienced it. Holding your own fullness in this way will help you to model it, and offer it to others.
  2. Consider what kinds of needs your loved ones might be meeting while speaking in this way. Do they want control over a difficult situation? Do they want others to see them as the kind and gentle people they believe themselves to be? Remembering times when you felt similarly may be helpful.
  3. When we see our loved ones caught in the perpetrator/victim trap, you can be assured that they feel unsafe, and are likely outside of their window of tolerance. Rather than jump into the trap with them, pause, and connect with what you are needing to both honor your values and be connected to your love for them. 
  4. If you’re feeling good in yourself, you can try to move the conversation away from overarching judgments of good and bad. Once again, compassion is the path. Listen to the values behind their views and ask them if they are willing to listen to yours. Speak to your views through a lens of what you’re feeling and what you value instead of who you believe is right and wrong. For example: “I am deeply disappointed right now because equality matters a lot to me. Right now, I am not seeing equal consideration of Israeli and Palestinian life.” 
  5. If you’re struggling at this moment, the intervention does not have to be immediate. It is powerful in itself to notice and refrain from recourse to victim/perpetrator binaries within yourself and in your communities. When we ask, especially among others, what it might look like to acknowledge everyone’s complexity without forgoing accountability and support, we plant seeds for another kind of world.


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