Jews, Arabs blast stereotypes at discussion in Berkeley

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Stereotypes of Arabs and Jews run rampant:

Arab men yell at their wives.

Jews hate Palestinians.

Palestinians carry bombs.

Israelis are arrogant.

The Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East (WIDME) is in the business of busting such stereotypes. At a Berkeley discussion last week titled "Jews and Arabs: From Stereotyping to Understanding," a panel of six women — three of them Jewish, three Arab — took a hard look at such images.

"We all have our stereotypes," said panel chair Edith Coliver, a founding member of WIDME. "The urgent need is to acknowledge that we have them, to recognize them for what they are… to deal with them constructively, and to eliminate them."

An audience of about 60 people packed the small Home Room at U.C. Berkeley's International House residence hall for the event. Though some discussion concerned Jews, most addressed the images of Arabs, and how the stereotypes collapse when applied to real people.

"I have shared at times the stereotypes of Muslims as only extremists, and Hamas as only terrorists, and as Muslim women always being repressed," said panelist Judith Levy-Sender, a teacher at the Newcomer High School in San Francisco and the daughter of WIDME's late co-founder, Miriam Levy.

Panelist Afaf Dudum, a travel consultant of Lebanese and Palestinian ancestry, pointed to Arab stereotypes throughout American culture. In the four minutes of screen time given to an Arab character in "Father of the Bride II," she said, he verbally abuses his wife, litters someone else's lawn, nearly destroys a house and extorts money from the movie's main character.

Afaf Kanafani, the grandaughter of the grand mufti (Muslim leader) of Lebanon, added that stereotypes are not just offensive: They are sometimes used deliberately as tools of destruction. Stereotypes helped end the neighborliness between Jews and Arabs she remembered when Jews first began settling in Palestine.

Also participating in the WIDME panel were Lebanese-born arts administrator Samira Baroodi and nonprofit administrator Arlene Homburger.

A 20-year-old organization with more than 120 members throughout the Bay Area, WIDME regularly holds discussions on the human dimensions of the Middle East conflict. The meetings are not always smooth. The participants do not always agree.

"It has been somewhat difficult, because I become impatient sometimes," said Homburger, national vice president of the American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, an Arab-Jewish village in Israel.

"It is critical to stay the course, and not to be frightened or become discouraged when we have strong disagreements," Homburger said. "In fact it is wonderful that we can disagree."

During the discussion that followed, panelists and audience members focused on breaking the cycle of stereotypes that get passed from one generation to the next.

Audience member George Bozzini said Arabs and Jews are not the only victims. "I've been stereotyped. I get associated [with] the Mafia."

Levi-Sender discussed how educators can help change such perceptions. Bozzini emphasized that attitudes are more likely to be changed at home.

But audience member Joseph Lurie, executive director at International House, pointed out that discussion groups such as those sponsored by WIDME can effect change.

"While you all have different views, you obviously have been together a long time and are friends with each other," Lurie said.

"You are a magnificent example of where personal relationships are obviously having a political effect."