Jews, Arabs turn conflict to dialogue at U.C. forum

U.C. Berkeley is not exactly known for its harmonious relations between Jewish and Arab students. In fact, it is widely considered one of the most hostile environments in the country.

But that image was shattered on Sunday, with more than 300 students and community members attending a conference called "Humanizing the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Day of Mutual Recognition" at the International House.

Sponsored by Berkeley Tikkun along with a number of co-sponsors, the program was designed to give a human face to the Middle East conflict. Organizers also wanted to create dialogue in a setting where participants would listen to one another, rather than debating who has suffered more, while tabling in Sproul Plaza.

Keynote speakers included Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, and Mohammed Al-Atar, a Palestinian-born activist who helped found a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group in his adopted home of San Antonio, Texas. Al-Atar, who has a tattoo of a Kalashnikov rifle on his forearm, had the audience spellbound with his emotional story of how he came to learn about the Holocaust and along with it, how the Jews, whom he had learned to hate as his enemy, had also suffered.

But as the day was meant mostly to create a venue for students to talk to each other, the first panel of speakers were all students from U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University: two Israeli-born, one Palestinian-born, two Arab Americans and one American Jew.

All six spoke from the heart, talking about the fear and even hatred, in some cases, they felt for the other side. And all six spoke of the event — a watershed moment in most cases — that changed their lives and made them want to devote much of their energies toward dialogue.

For Muna Aghawani, a second-year graduate student at SFSU, that moment came at a summer camp in Denver for Palestinian and Israeli girls.

Born in Ramallah to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, she was brought up primarily in Syria and Tunisia, but "my spiritual home was Palestine," she said.

When she heard about the summer camp, her motivation was clear: "I wanted to tell the Israeli girls how horrible they were. I was shocked we had to share cabins with them."

In her first dialogue session, Aghawani told her Israeli counterpart that to her, "Israel means a big soldier with a gun."

The Israeli responded with her fears of Palestinians, a fear that Aghawani had never before considered. "I didn't see her as a soldier; I saw her as a girl just like me who was scared."

For Israeli fifth-year graduate student Shakhar Rahav, it took coming to Berkeley, though his political consciousness was formed at the time of the Lebanon War, and it continued when he began his own military service during the first intifada.

"On Saturday nights we'd participate in anti-government rallies, and then on Monday we'd be back policing the streets of Gaza," he said of he and his like-minded friends.

When he got to U.C. Berkeley, he took a class with a Palestinian professor. While criticism of Israel was not new to him, he said, "For the first time I was not listening to a debate between Israeli hawks and Israeli doves, but between Israelis and Palestinians."

"Listening to the other side can be very difficult," Rahav continued, "but it must be done if we will have a solution not based on violence but understanding."

Mehammed Mack, a second-year philosophy student of Saudi Arabian Bedouin ancestry, grew up mostly in Egypt. As a high school student, he became obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that continued when he arrived at Berkeley.

Mack's response was to join Students for Justice in Palestine, of which he is still a member. But in the summer of 2002, he interned at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C.

"It was a revelation to me to discover the Israeli left and Jewish anti-occupation voices," he said. "I was fascinated by them, I saw them as heroes who could step outside themselves and transcend their national identity."

When he heard about Berkeley Tikkun, at first he was reluctant to join, thinking it was only for Jews. But then he had a change of heart. "I did it for my own psychological well-being," he said, "so I would not learn to demonize the other."

Mack said his activism has even affected his mother's views about the conflict. On a recent visit to Beirut, he spoke to her about it.

"She told me that although she could not bring herself to make peace with Israel or the Israelis, she was very proud of her son who could."

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."