The last time we spoke to Harvard student Shira Hoffer, she had just launched the Hotline for Israel/Palestine to foster an environment where students could participate in meaningful dialogue about the war in Gaza. It was almost by accident: she put her own phone number at the bottom of an October email, encouraging other students to text her if they had questions about the conflict.

That last interview was in November. Quite a lot has happened since then — in terms of the conflict, on-campus protests and for Shira herself. Since its launch, the texting hotline has answered hundreds of questions and provided resources for those who want to get a better understanding of the conflict without hostility or being labeled antisemitic or Islamophobic.

But with higher education becoming even more of a culture-war battleground, Hoffer decided to take things a step further by launching a nonprofit called the Institute for Multipartisan Education. She joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the nonprofit’s goals and what the future has in store. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Let’s first do a compressed version of the last several months. I have to imagine that as the war intensified, things probably got more intense for the hotline. How was it going there [over] the last few months?

Shira Hoffer: Yeah, it’s been a funny combination, where it’s both intensified as we’ve gotten more questions, and we’ve also had a decline in questions, as I think people are starting to solidify their positions.

I feel like, at the beginning, there was a lot of chaos and confusion, and people didn’t know what was happening and how to feel about it. Now, I think — and I’m a bit sad to see — that it seems like people are really quite solidified in their positions, and then they don’t feel like they have questions.

But I think that everybody has questions in their heart of hearts, and I would love to see more people asking them.

“It’s both intensified as we’ve gotten more questions, and we’ve also had a decline in questions, as I think people are starting to solidify their positions.”
Shira Hoffer

Rath: That sort of sounds good and bad, in a way; people are feeling informed but also solidified in their positions. Was that part of the reason why you wanted to take an additional step further with the Institute for Multipartisan Education?

Hoffer: Yeah, I wanted to branch out beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and think, in general, about the environment on college campuses today. I think that protests are an amazing way of making change, I think that civil disobedience is a noble endeavor. But I think that none of that really makes change without dialogue.

I think that people lack the skills and the desire to engage in that dialogue, sometimes — to the detriment of their own causes. So, I wanted to branch out in that direction.

Rath: Tell us about how the institute will do that.

Hoffer: We’re really in a research-and-development phase right now, but we’re looking to put together a sort of fellowship that will engage campuses in a sustainable way, empower student leadership and make curious and constructive disagreement feel relevant to every student — something that they should be invested in for their own reasons, whatever that may be.

Rath: I’m curious — as the dialogue has become, frankly, more contentious in recent days, has there been any backlash to trying to do the work that you’re doing?

Hoffer: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s been any more backlash recently. I think — maybe I told you this back in November — we’ve gotten backlash from Palestinians and from Israelis, saying that we’re platforming the other side and we’re giving a platform for violence or for hatred.

I think the criticism on both sides means that maybe we’re doing something right? We’re invested fundamentally in education and in people having an informed perspective, whatever that perspective might be.

I think this notion that engaging with the other side implicitly condones their perspective or morally equates them is dangerous because it means that we don’t actually understand each other. I don’t think it’s possible to make any sort of change without understanding.

Rath: Take us back to the research and development you talked about that you’re doing right now. What are you trying to determine to be able to encourage this dialogue?

Hoffer: It’s really important to me to have an academic understanding of the ins and outs of curious and constructive engagement and what it means, intellectually, to engage — what happens literally in your brain.

But then, also, how did the ramifications play out in different communities and, in particular, marginalized communities? So we’re really looking at the literature that’s out there around this topic — I’m also writing my senior thesis on this topic, by the way — and we’re looking to put together the handbook that will serve as the backbone for our fellowship, which will hopefully pilot in 16 months.

Rath: Break that down a bit more, because I think people might not be clear necessarily on what “multipartisan” means in your approach. These conversations are so siloed, it seems that different sides aren’t really talking that much.

Hoffer: Yeah. I love the word “multipartisan.” It comes from mediation — my background is in mediation. It’s this idea that mediators aren’t meant to be apathetic insofar as we should feel and care for the people that we’re talking about.

But we also shouldn’t be partial to one side, and so people say that we should be “multi-partial” or “multipartisan,” and I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.

I also think that the idea of “bipartisan” is unnecessarily reductive — or maybe even harmful — because I don’t think that there are only two sides to any issue. I think that all issues are much more nuanced than that. That’s why we opted for the prefix “multi” instead of “bi.”

Rath: Is part of the point here to try and kind of cultivate that mindset, that multipartisan approach?

Hoffer: Yeah, I think that people get quite — and I mean, I’m guilty of it myself — caught up in the emotion of it, and therefore, it’s very hard to think about not only what you might be missing but also why the other person feels what they feel, which therefore leads them to the conclusion that they have.

In conflict resolution, there’s this notion of interests versus positions. Positions are what you believe in; your interests are why you believe it. We have this notion of moving from positions to interests, trying to understand really why people feel the way that they do.

I think this concept is really applicable on a day-to-day basis — that maybe you’re not going to change your mind at all, but you genuinely want to know why somebody disagrees with you. Asking that “why?” question — I think if we all did it a little bit more, we would really start to understand each other in a deeper way, and we might be able to bridge some divides.

Rath: You’re still a student while you’re doing this work. We’re just about into the summer now: I’m curious where your mind is at in terms of where you expect things will be in the fall, when students return, and where you’d like to see things go at that pint?

Hoffer: I’m hoping that the summer can be a time for people to take a deep breath, engage themselves in whatever they’re planning to engage in, and come back to campus with an open mind. I think the idea of the benefit of the doubt is something that’s lost too much today.

I’m planning on coming back to campus — despite my frustrations throughout this semester — thinking that everybody’s trying to do better. And I would suggest that all of my peers, and all college students, approach campus that way because, when people come in defensive, I think that only creates more conflict. But this is a national problem, and this is a problem that so many people are trying to address, and so I’m hoping that we can have a fresh start.