Published in The Jewish Voice, July 1998

Dialogue group bridges violence in Middle-East

by Rina Szwarc

        "Tonight we share our hopes and breathe new life into our dreams. Tonight we hope to light a spark for peace."
        So said Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Bet Haverim Congregation in Davis, Friday, May 29. The evening was a combination of a slide and music presentation dedicated to peace between Israelis and Palestinians that segued into the Shabbat evening services. The focus of these prayers centered on the San Mateo Jewish- Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, whose members came to share their experiences that night.
        The music preceding the service included a roster of folk songs from the 1960s that included "(Ain't gonna) Study War No More," and "If I Had a Hammer." Participants sang along with help from the main musical presenter Sarah Pattison, who accompanied everyone on her guitar. The harmonies also included 1960s Israeli songs such as "Shir LaShalom (Song of peace)." There was also "Eli Eli," with lyrics in Arabic, Hebrew and English that invoked peace.
        People at the event also read poetry. One of the pieces was "When will it come the day," by Mahmud Abu Radi of the village of Kfar Sachnin in Israel.
        Read by Nazih Malak, one of the participants of the dialogue group, the poem echoed the 12-year-old author's hopes for a more serene future.
        "When will peace take over," said one stanza. "When will it come, the day? When with armies and bombs will they do away; when will all this hostility cease? A day on which battleships will become palaces of leisure and fun, floating on the seas.
        Following the service, a six-person panel of Jews and Palestinians shared their stories of how and why they began the dialogue group despite being ostracized by friends and family for consorting with what had been perceived as the "enemy."
        A sense of fate or luck was one thread running through the stories. The Rabbi told the story of how he received an e-mail about the Bay Area group and realized the man behind this was his childhood dentist, Len Traubman. Fueled by that familiar connection, he contacted Traubman to speak at Bet Haverim about the organization that he started with his wife Libby in 1992.
        The Traubmans are no strangers to peace work. In 1991, they started a "Beyond War" group between Israelis and Palestinians that resulted in the participants signing a document entitled "Framework for a Public Peace Process."
        "There is nothing like the face-to-face element," said Len Traubman. "We think that is the missing link in the peace process.
        Jews on the panel said that what they learned from the group was how to transcend what they called false stereotypes and history.
        "It's been quite an experience being in this group for me," said Donald Stone, a retired neurologist.
        Stone said his visit to Gaza and Jerusalem in 1994 made him realize the history painted by author Leon Uris in his books "Exodus" and "The Haj" is false. Uris' novels painted a picture of Arabs as racist, superstitious, religious fanatics. Another theme the panelists raised is a plea for justice.
        "There has to be justice for both sides," Stone said.
        Elias Botto, a successful San Francisco garment manufacturer, agreed. He spoke about how his family left their home during the 1948 war between Arabs and Jews. He described his mother's anguish at leaving their home in what is now Israel.
        "I really still own that house, yet someone else is living in it," he said. "With the peace process, I am willing to share the house. Now help me live in the other half which I share."
        The panel also spoke about overcoming hostility from their own groups.
        "I was an outcast in the Palestinian community," said Nadim Zarour. "When we found Jews who would listen to us, they were called names (by their community) as well."
        Zarour said his family lived in Ramallah, where they had a history dating back six centuries. They were not -- as is often brought up in Israeli history -- attracted to the area by the economic opportunities afforded by early Zionism. He said telling his story often led to conflicts within the dialogue group, especially when he described 418 Arab villages whose people had been forced to leave in 1948 by Jewish troops.
        "Even if you don't want to hear it," he said, "you have to hear it."
        Sandra Kahn, a Jew whose family had fled Russia for Mexico City, said her work on the panel has changed her view of what she had learned as a child about Palestinians voluntarily leaving their homes.
        "At least they can have part of their land now, part of Palestine," she said.
        Nazih Malak was born in Lebanon and has a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother. He spoke about his take on history, growing up in civil war torn Lebanon as a Palestinian.
        "You have the Syrian militia, who hated your guts, the Lebanese who hate you too, as well as killing each other," he said.
        He said he saw Jews and Palestinians as natural allies because of the suffering in their recent histories and their quest for a democracy.
        "I don't want a Palestinian state that is run by Iraq, Iran, Lebanon or Libya," he said.
        There was some disagreement from members in the audience, especially since many of the speakers blamed the failure of the peace process on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
        One audience member said the view held by Netanyahu is not necessarily representative of every Israeli.
        "I don't think you realize Israel is a democracy," Zippora Weinbaum said. "In Israel, we meet with Arabs all the time. You are perpetuating another myth about Israel. There is not just one side."
        Lisa Lawson, another audience member, applauded the bravery of the dialogue group. She said she taught English in a Jewish town next to Nazareth in the mid-1970s. The climate back then among Jews and Palestinians was one of cooperation and appreciation, much like that of the panelists. The relationship between the two groups was so friendly that Jews often went to Arab doctors.
        The panelists indicated their work had borne fruit. Elise Stone, wife of Donald and health education coordinator for the California Poison Control System -- San Francisco division, said she's been able to do joint medical projects with Jews and Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem. Her e-mail on the subject overflows, but "the best message" came from a Rabbi in one of the Jewish settlements wanting to know how to start a dialogue group.
        David Mandel, a member of the Sacramento-area Middle East Peace Project, invited area residents to help him with his Palestinian- Jewish dialogue group here. Those interested can call him at (916) 446-5066.
        For additional information, call Rabbi Greg Wolfe, (530) 758- 0842 and be sure to check out the Traubmans' website (

The Jewish Voice is the monthly publication of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.

Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group
1448 Cedarwood Drive, San Mateo, CA 94403
Voice: (650) 574-8303 Fax:(650) 573-1217

Return to Family Homepage
Return to Main Homepage