Hundreds of Jews, Palestinians get taste of unity here

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One table held two Israeli Jews, a Palestinian Muslim, an Israeli-American Jew, two Palestinian-American Muslims, an American Jew and two Quakers.

Symbols of peace were everywhere. A large banner with a photo of a borderless, bluish-green globe hung on one wall. Table centerpieces consisted of white paper doves and real olive branches. Name tags included phrases in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Touted as the largest event of its kind ever in the United States, about 420 people — including 225 Jews and 150 Palestinians — attended “Building a Common Future” in Millbrae on Saturday night.

“It’s time we…see each other as equals. We are the children of Abraham — Palestinians and Jews,” Elias Botto, one of the organizers, told the participants seated for dinner at the Clarion Hotel.

The event’s purpose was to spread the belief that Jews and Palestinians must meet face-to-face to overcome stereotypes, taboos and psychological barriers. It was also designed to reinforce the idea that the Oslo peace process can only succeed with grassroots support.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the international community. What we do will eventually trickle through,” said Shayne Hughes of Tiburon, who works with At the Heart of Communication, an international group that promotes reconciliation projects.

For many, like Jack Zarour and Ed Salah of Campbell, this was the first time they had attended anything like it. But they were curious.

The two Palestinian-American friends came with their wives to meet individuals with similar viewpoints.

“You want to talk to people who are even-minded and fair-minded,” Salah said.

In some ways, the event was akin to entering a parallel universe — one where voices of moderation and hope for Middle East peace didn’t seem hopelessly naive.

“We need to move from blaming and criticizing to trying to find some common ground,” said Will Wahbeh, a Palestinian-American who lives in Castro Valley.

“I feel so sad for us. We’re cousins,” said Hanan Rasheed, a Palestinian-American who grew up near Ramallah and now lives in Danville.

Rasheed wasn’t the only one who referred to Jews and Palestinians as cousins that night. In fact, without eyeing name tags, it was often difficult to tell the Jews and Palestinians apart.

Such remarks and observations were the norm at the event, which celebrated the fifth anniversary of monthly meetings of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.

The Peninsula-based grassroots group, the main sponsor of the event, has only about 30 members. But they hoped the event could spread their message to a broader audience.

“I would like you to open your hearts and minds and look at what unites us rather than what divides us,” Botto, a Palestinian-American member of the group, told the attendees.

Nahiba Salem, another Palestinian-American member of the dialogue group, also promoted reconciliation.

The area, she told the audience, “is a big enough land for two states and two peoples.”

The Palestinian American Congress, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the Palo Alto-based Foundation for Global Community were co-sponsors of the event.

The headliner for the evening, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, had to cancel at the last minute. He was delayed in Switzerland, where he was meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the 4-1/2 hour event went ahead as planned, using a message from Ross taped on an answering machine.

Even the event’s planners were a bit surprised at the turnout. The vast majority of the participants came from the Bay Area but some flew in from as far away as Colorado, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

“This is absolutely overwhelming,” Libby Traubman, a founding member of the dialogue group, announced as she surveyed the packed ballroom. “I can’t believe we’re all here together.”

Like most of its efforts, the group’s plan for the evening was carefully structured. Seating charts for each of the tables of 10 deliberately mixed Jews and Palestinians.

To foster more than polite dinner chitchat, participants were asked to share information about their background and reason for attending.

“Tonight, stretch yourself a little bit,” Traubman said. “Listening is one of the strongest acts of love.”

Even the entertainment served the evening’s purpose of proving that Jews and Palestinians can work together.

Nazih Moughrabi, a Palestinian musician, and Shai Schwartz, an Israeli storyteller, performed. Both live on Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a village in Israel where Jews and Palestinians live side-by-side. Their message: The land belongs to neither of the two groups.

“You two belong to it,” Schwartz said.

Ronald Young, a Christian who is executive director of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, filled in as keynote speaker.

“We shouldn’t think that there are dinners like this in 50 cities across the country,” Young said, standing at a podium draped with olive branches.

“We need to be encouraged by the voices of moderation in the community that is not our own.”

Young ended his speech with one of the evening’s most intriguing challenges.

He called on participants to plan an event for the spring that would commemorate the founding of Israel 50 years ago and support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The event also honored 10 grassroots groups across the United States that promote coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, such as Building Bridges for Peace.

Deana Ahmad, a Palestinian-American who took part in the program’s summer camp, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian and American teenage girls, said the experience changed her life.

“We hated them without knowing them,” said Ahmad, who lives in Denver and now attends college. After attending the camp, “we saw each other not as the enemy but as human beings.”

Although Ross couldn’t make it, Libby and Len Traubman played the message he had left on their home answering machine. Slightly embarrassed, the couple explained that their answering machine emits a loud beep every 15 seconds.

“I believe in what you’re doing,” Ross said between the beeps. “Peace in the Middle East must be something beyond peace between leaders.”

He asserted that the current impasse in the peace process was due to a lack of trust.

Jewish-Palestinian dialogue in the United States doesn’t directly impact the Mideast peace process, Ross said, “but it can be a model” on how to build trust and human bonds.

After listening to his short speech, participants spent a few moments in silence to pray for Ross’ efforts.

Len Traubman, a founding member of the dialogue group, invited those attending to sign up for another short-term project sponsored by his group.

Starting in January, the project will bring together four households, both Jews and Palestinians. They will eat dinner in each other’s homes four times and share their personal stories.

Though some might question the concept of Saturday’s event when the peace process is virtually at a standstill, Lynn Feinerman believed the opposite.

“It’s the perfect time because it’s the worst hour in the peace process,” said Feinerman, a Jew who lives in Tiburon. “Those of us who work for the peace process…need something more than hope. We need to be reminded we can’t desist from the work.”

While many participants were attending such an event for the first time, not all were shocked at the idea of Jews and Palestinians coming together.

Danville resident Rasheed, a Muslim born near Ramallah whose family fled during the 1967 Six-Day War, said she now has many Jewish friends and celebrates Chanukah with them every year.

“If we can do it, other people can do it, too.”For information on the meal-sharing project, call Len and Libby Traubman at (650) 574-8303.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.