Making peace in the living room

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When Hanan Rasheed was growing up, she didn’t know any Jews.

As a small girl in the West Bank village of Deir-Debwan, near Ramallah, “my definition of a Jew was a soldier with his gun, helmet and vest,” she recalled.

On the Israeli side, Dudy Tzfati, 40, grew up in Ramat Gan. Although he came into contact with Israeli Arab students at Hebrew University, he did not consider them friends.

“Even if they were friendly relations, they did not go much deeper to talk about what is it like to be a Palestinian in Israel, or identity or the conflict,” said Tzfati, who, after living in San Francisco for five years, is about to return to Israel.

Citing what he sees as an unequal balance of power that inherently defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Tzfati said, “We never got to really talk about these issues. My feeling was that Israeli-Palestinians did not really feel comfortable with me to really say what they felt.”

It was only here on neutral ground, miles away from home, that Tzfati was able to engage in honest conversation with Palestinians — and Rasheed with Israelis — about the conflict that has so greatly affected the lives of both peoples.

Getting together with a Palestinian for lunch in San Francisco was a watershed moment for Tzfati, who has just finished up a post-doctoral program in biochemistry and molecular biology at UCSF.

Rasheed, in her 40s and living in Danville, now counts many Jews among her friends — even a rabbi. Both are members of local Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups.

The first such area group began nearly 10 years ago, when Len and Libby Traubman opened their San Mateo home to a handful of Jews and Palestinians for coffee and dessert. That living room group continued to meet monthly. It still does, and it has since spawned seven other groups in the Bay Area, inspiring others throughout the world. While the Traubmans initially had difficulty finding Palestinians who were interested in dialoguing with Jews, they eventually built a group with equal numbers of both.

Surprisingly, the current 16-month-old intifada has not ruptured any of the groups. In fact, more have started. Interest in such interaction, both in the Bay Area and around the country, is higher than ever, said Len Traubman. Because the outbreak of violence in September 2000 caused such heightened interest locally, the Traubmans began a second San Francisco group.

“More and more, we are being asked into synagogues, campuses, colleges and high schools,” said Traubman. “The media calls us. These groups just seem to be a model of hope.”

Even with such events as the discovery of the weapons-filled ship linked to the Palestinian Authority, or the Israeli army razing Palestinian homes to the ground, local Jews and Palestinians feel the need to keep on talking.

“We do not go up and down with the headlines,” said Traubman.

“People certainly do come with heavy hearts,” said Libby Traubman. “Sometimes our meetings start with people feeling quite low and upset, but this sustains the hope when we’re together.”

As anti-nuclear activists, the Traubmans had long worked to encourage face-to-face interaction between Russians and Americans during the height of the Cold War. But with the Iron Curtain down, they set their sights on the Middle East.

“There are things that governments can do that people cannot, like forging binding agreements,” said Len Traubman, 62, a retired pediatric dentist. “And there are things that citizens free of government can do that the governments cannot, like changing human relationships.”

Together with wife Libby, 61, a retired social worker, Traubman set out to create a setting where Jews and Palestinians could talk to one another on equal footing.

Working on the premise that “the enemy’s story is the one you haven’t heard,” the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group was born. And as the Traubmans always emphasize, the point of dialogue is not to agree. It is to listen, and open one’s heart enough to truly hear the experience of the other.

In many cases, that is not easy. Even among the left-leaning Jews and left-leaning Palestinians who seek out such interaction, it can be difficult — if not impossible — to have a true meeting of the minds on certain issues.

As observed at several meetings, the Jew raised to take pride in the state Zionism created can find it excruciatingly painful to hear that to the Palestinian, that very same movement was responsible for forcing his family into exile.

And for the Palestinian it can be equally hurtful to hear that most Jews believe in the law of return — which grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew around the world. However, a Palestinian is denied the right of return to her ancestral home in Israel, even though in many cases, she still has the key.

When participants start out, usually their own narratives are the only ones they are familiar with. Both sides feel their own sense of victimization to the exclusion of the other’s. A Jew identifies with the Israeli who lives in fear of the next suicide bomber and wants to see an end to the violence. A Palestinian sees 34 years of injustice and occupation with no change and little means available to resist one of the most powerful armies in the world.

It can also be an exercise in frustration. To a Palestinian, a stone-throwing child killed by an Israeli soldier’s bullet — who is seen by the Jew as acting in self-defense — is in the same category as an Israeli civilian killed by a Palestinian who has strapped explosives to his body.

Participants say that it is one thing to read about Palestinian or Jewish opinion in the newspaper. It is another to hear it from the people sitting with you in your living room.

John Totah, 74, said that when he was working as a hairstylist, he had many Jewish customers.

“With the exception of a few, I tried to explain our situation, and they were absolutely willing to listen,” said Totah, a Palestinian who comes from a prominent Ramallah family. “They thought all Palestinians were criminals or terrorists. One said to me, ‘You don’t represent the Palestinians; they want to kill us. Most are terrorists.'”

Totah, who is Christian, joined the second San Francisco group when it formed 10 months ago.

“We have to change the attitude of people,” he said. “Each side sees the other as murderers.”

When asked what he hoped to accomplish in dialogue, Totah responded, “I hope it will lead to a change of heart in Israel. There needs to be more of this — people who work together in helping each other. It will take time, but eventually it will succeed because there is no room for ‘an eye for an eye’ or else we’ll all be blind.”

Elias Botto of San Mateo, an original group member, agreed. “If we were to see each other’s pain, there would be a lot of understanding,” he said. Botto, 69, is Palestinian and lives down the street from the Traubmans. He spent his childhood in Jerusalem, fleeing with his family to relatives in Bethlehem to avoid the 1948 war. “If we could make it a common kind of denominator, we could build a positive on it.”

After 10 years, Botto remains deeply involved with the group. “I wish Jews and Arabs and Palestinians would force themselves to partake in a dialogue group,” he said. “I’m sure their attitudes would change.”

The Traubmans, in turn, have transformed what began as a suburban living-room dialogue into a worldwide conversation. Through their Web site — — and various articles about them, the couple have become pioneers in the dialogue movement. A Google Web search for “Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue” brings up numerous references to the Traubmans.

Ask Len Traubman how many requests he’s fielded for help in starting a dialogue group and the numbers he quotes from his database are staggering. He and his wife have sent guidelines or offered ongoing support “to over 1,000 individuals in 600 institutions in over 400 cities, 38 states and 32 countries,” he said, adding there are five new dialogue groups in San Diego alone. “It’s increasing daily.”

When time allows, which is frequently, both Traubmans attend most local group meetings. He forwarded a sampling of the e-mails they get in an average day: queries about starting dialogue groups or progress on existing ones from Santa Cruz, Cincinnati, Brooklyn and Rome. Most of the organizers of the dialogue groups around the country keep in touch with the Traubmans by e-mail.

Most recently, Len Traubman talked to a staffer at the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council, who said that Jews were in search of such dialogue, especially post-Sept. 11. And last week, the Traubmans, Botto and Nahida Salem, another Palestinian member of the original group, consulted with a group starting in Nashville, using a Webcam.

The Traubmans also serve as consultants to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement body, which has recently added such dialogue to its agenda. The connection between the Traubmans and the UAHC was made by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

While the JCRC here is interested in establishing relationships with the Muslim community, thus far such work is mostly happening at the grassroots level.

“We have been referring people interested in this area to the Traubmans with greater frequency in the past few months,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC. “What I’ve been particularly impressed by is that, to the extent that I know about them they really represent a diversity of opinion and yet there is a strong commitment to civility within the groups, and I think they play a valuable role.”

Like the Traubmans, Botto, a retired medical technologist, has almost turned such work into a full-time job. In one recent week, he spoke to three different audiences. Such public talks are his favorite outcome from the living-room dialogues. “If I can make an iota of difference with all this, it’s worth every minute of it,” he said.

“You plant the seed, you keep watering it and nourishing it, and you hope it becomes a fruit bearing tree. Our job is only at the beginning.”

Tzfati, though, expressed his frustration that sometimes he felt all his energies put toward dialogue were for naught.

“Of course I’ve thought that maybe we’re not having an effect,” he said. “And it’s very frustrating when you see that the reality is only getting worse. You get to a point when you ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’ — spending so much time and energy.”

Yet if the effects of the many dialogues have not been felt in the Middle East, they have clearly changed the nature of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship in the Bay Area. In 1997, 420 people attended a “Building a Common Future” dinner in Millbrae that was an outgrowth of the original dialogue group. It was the largest gathering of Jews, Palestinians and others to ever take place in the United States.

And locally a community has sprung up around people engaged in dialogue. When a going-away party was held for Tzfati and his family recently, it was held at an Arab home, and there were just as many Arabs present as Jews.

The original group has marked many lifecycle events together, most notably, the death of one of its members. More recently, participants held a surprise baby shower for another member.

All told, the groups attract a significant number of people who are neither Jew nor Arab — either spouses of those who are, or those with longstanding ties to the region.

While dialogue has certainly opened the minds of those who participate, some emphasize that it alone is not enough.

Rasheed said that at the onset, the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group was modeled after the San Mateo group. But after a few meetings, it divided into two tracks: the dialogue track and the activist track.

Rasheed is part of the activist track, which has engaged in such activities as fund-raising for a Palestinian hospital in Hebron. “Talking isn’t going to solve the problem,” she said. “Some people are content with sitting there talking. With us, I like to see more things done. I am not here to add more friends to my social calendar. I am here as a Palestinian to show what’s going on in Palestine and the injustices happening there.”

Tzfati also said that “dialogue alone won’t solve the conflict. If you really want to make a difference, you have to address the reality and take a stand and try to do something real.”

For many of the seasoned dialogue veterans, such as Tzfati — a co-founder of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Scientists and Physicians — Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation has become their life’s work.

Botto recalled an encounter he had recently with a pro-settler Jewish college student who argued that God gave the West Bank to the Jews, and therefore it should remain in Jewish hands. During the break, Botto and his fellow panelists tried to reason with the student, but he did not want to listen.

“These are the last ones to get on board of moderation,” said Botto. “But I’ll bet you, once there’s peace, all those extremists will have to get on board. Somehow, sooner or later, the water will flow peacefully through its course. It has to — otherwise we’re doomed.”


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."