Mideast group hosts dialogue to confront painful scars

When Dudy Tzfati was growing up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, he used to visit friends in Jerusalem. Some of them lived in what he and his friends called "Arab homes," houses that were highly desirable, and expensive.

"Maybe it occurred to me in some small way that Arabs used to live there," he said. "But it never occurred to me that somewhere in the world there is a Palestinian family who considers that their home."

This realization only came after Tzfati, who is Jewish, moved to the Bay Area. It was here that he first spoke to a Palestinian in a way he never had in Israel. "I met a Palestinian who still has a key" to his home, he said.

Tzfati made his remarks with a Palestinian Christian at his side, Elias Botto of San Mateo. Both belong to the Alliance of Middle Eastern Scientists and Physicians, and spoke recently at the annual luncheon of the Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East (WIDME), held at the Concordia-Argonaut Club in San Francisco.

Moderated by Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community, the dialogue also included Iftekhar Hai, interfaith director of the Islamic Society of San Francisco.

An Indian-born Muslim, Hai related an anecdote from his early days in San Francisco, when he helped his building owner — an elderly Jewish woman — with household chores and errands in exchange for rent. "It was my first introduction to a Jew, and we got along really well," he said.

The importance of getting to know people as individuals is a concept that WIDME members have embraced for some 30 years. The group includes Jews, Muslims and Christians who get together regularly for discussions. "We are an educational group; we don't do advocacy," said Lorraine Honig of San Francisco, the immediate past president.

Still, it was clear from the question-and-answer session following the talk, that some new thoughts had been introduced to those attending the luncheon.

For example, when Tzfati remarked that many Israelis feel they are victims, one audience member said she failed to see how. "The fear is real, and we can't dismiss it," he said.

While both populations still collectively suffer from traumatic events of more than 50 years ago — the Holocaust for Jews and the founding of the state of Israel for Palestinians — he said, the fear of Palestinian terrorism, such as suicide bombings, remains deeply imbedded in the Israeli psyche.

Botto, on the other hand, expressed frustration at hearing that Israeli Jews considered themselves victims.

Born in Jerusalem, Botto and his family fled to relatives in Bethlehem during the War of Independence. "Israel has to recognize that they did the Palestinians wrong — it's the biggest psychological problem Israel has," he said.

If Palestinians haven't exactly made peace with Israel's existence, Botto said, they have come to realize that it is here to stay. But to literally make peace with the Jewish state, he said, the Palestinians need to hear Israel take responsibility for their displacement.

"Israel has to say, 'Yes, I victimized you, Elias.' If all my human rights and civil rights are met in the land next to Israel, I have no reason to hate the Jew."

Today, an Iraqi Jew lives in the Jerusalem home owned by Botto's family. Though he still holds the deed to the home, Botto knows he will never live there again.

Nevertheless, he said, "When you talk about the Jewish right of return after 3,000 years, you can't deny me the right to return to my home of 52 years ago."

Hai complimented the Jewish people for their activism on civil rights, but then immediately asked, "Why do those same Jews, who stand so much for civil justice, why can't you see the kind of suffering the Palestinians are going through?"

Tzfati said what pained him the most about current events in Israel, more than the bloodshed itself, was "the inability to see the human side of what they call their enemy."

He also said Israel is in more need of guidance than financial support. "The Bay Area can play a very important role in bringing progressive programs to Israel." He added that women's peace groups were among the most effective in Israel because they "have access to the more human side of the conflict."

Baugh, noting that the panelists were chosen because they represented three different faiths, said although this wasn't a feel-good program, it was one in which people could listen to each other.

And Botto concluded by pointing out that Jews and Arabs "are all the same stock. We are all Semites," he said. "It is the same God we are talking about."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."