Palestinian-Jewish quilt offers pattern for peace, social change

As Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat try to cobble together a lasting agreement, an international group of Palestinians and Jews has already stitched the final details on a much warmer accord.

The Middle East Peace Quilt, consisting of almost 30 panels made by more than 300 contributors, is currently on display at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco through July 14. A free reception will be held Thursday evening at the JCC, where the Middle Eastern group Almarjanah Ensemble will perform.

The quilt represents a different way of talking peace, according to Elizabeth Shefrin, a Jewish fabric artist who came up with the concept of the quilt. Shefrin, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, teaches a course called "Stitching for Social Change."

"If you pay attention to the mainstream media, you'd just think that Jews and Arabs hated each other," she said. "But in reality, there's an enormous peace movement that we don't hear about. And part of the quilt's beauty is that people who can get stuck communicating with words can use the quilt to express their hope for that movement."

The beauty of the quilt is that it's much more than a piece of art, according to Len Traubman of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Francisco, which is co-presenting the exhibit with the JCC.

"I don't think the quilt alone is an expression," said Traubman, who lives in San Mateo. "What I hope is that people will gather face to face to look at the quilt — and that's really when hearts and minds will begin to change."

Such change was a long time coming for Jerusalem-born Hiyam Deeby, who lives in Vancouver.

Deeby made a panel for the quilt consisting of the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace, however, she "used to have a lot of hatred in her heart for Jews.

"My dreams were shattered by the 1967 war," said Deeby. "After that, I was a second-class citizen in my own homeland."

She moved to Canada, dedicating years to Palestinian causes, and joining a Jewish and Palestinian women's group in 1990. The group changed her perspective, providing the emotional framework for her contribution to the quilt.

"I didn't want to preach about love and tolerance to my kids, and carry around all this hatred," said Deeby. "By joining the discussion group, I really confronted my own prejudices, and challenged other people's prejudices."

To illustrate that point, Deeby said that many years ago her son was told that "all Palestinians were terrorists" by another classmate. Deeby confronted the mother of the classmate, had a talk with her and the two are now the best of friends.

"But there were many years of agony and many years of pain before I realized that hatred only breeds hatred."

Getting beyond hateful assumptions represents the crux of the quilt, according to Amy Tobin, manager of cultural arts and community development at the JCC.

"The images that really speak to me are the ones that show a similarity between Jewish and Palestinian groups," said Tobin. "For example, when we see pictures of Palestinians and Jews together, they can appear to be family — and I think it's those similarities we should be paying attention to. The quilt is about initiating a conversation."

Saïd Nuseibeh, a Palestinian who is in the dialogue group, shared Tobin's opinion — with a few reservations.

"People will approach the quilt with emotional and political needs, and there's hope, frustration and expectation, all rolled into one," said Nuseibeh, who lives in San Francisco.

Nuseibeh, whose father was born in Jerusalem, recalled his first meeting with the group. He asked himself, "What's the point of all this dialogue stuff?"

"A lot of Palestinians are sensitive to the balance of power being tipped against them," he said.

Although Nuseibeh approached the group with cynicism and skepticism, he added hope to the mix, which he calls a "counterbalance."

The same dichotomy applies to the quilt, he said.

"The quilt is more of an emblem for what it represents than for what it actually is. It's kind of exciting to bring out our fears and frustrations and hold them up to the light of day. It's a way of saying that we have them…now what do we do about them?

"Because as bad as it is between Jews and Palestinians, this century of conflict is an extraordinary blemish for the human race."