Arab, Jewish interns forge relations away from Mideast

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Jonathan Kessler, executive director of the Middle East Insight Policy Forum, believes such gatherings may be possible one day. He's already laying the groundwork.

This summer, he brought together Washington-based interns from Jewish and Arab-American organizations, think tanks and government offices for a series of roundtable discussions addressing a variety of issues related to the Middle East peace process.

More than 100 interns — most of them college students — took part in the forums, which were clearly targeted at the next generation of policy-makers and public opinion leaders.

"We have no doubt that these people who interact with each other as students will interact when they're in positions of influence, maybe even in positions of enormous influence," Kessler said.

The lunchtime gatherings, which spanned five weeks, included presentations from the White House liaisons to both the Jewish and Arab-American communities, representatives from the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jordan Information Bureau, key congressional aides, and a candid question-and-answer session with Aaron Miller, a senior member of the U.S. peace team.

More than anything, participants said, the sessions provided a safe environment and a unique opportunity to make personal connections and engage in wide-ranging discussions with people on opposite sides of the issue.

Many students, Kessler said, "stayed behind after the sessions ended to speak, in calm voices, sometimes for long periods of time."

While some discovered they had little more in common than a shared interest in the Middle East, Marissa Jacobs, a Lebanese-American interning at the Arab American Institute, said, "Just the fact that people are able to come here and want to be in the same room, there obviously has to be a goal reached already."

Jacobs, a student at Boston College, and Matt Kirschen, who attends Brandeis University, are planning to work together to start similar discussion forums at their own schools.