420 Jewish and Palestinian Americans, and others, met for dinner
and dialogue near San Francisco on November 15, 1997, to begin
changing the nature of their relationships. This is this story, as
reported by Walt Hays in Timeline, March/April 1998.

Another Step in the Public Peace Process

   The Story
   Ambassador Dennis Ross: His talk and contribution to the event
   Ronald Young: A talk by the Executive Director, U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East
   The 24-page "Evening Program and Reconciliation Resource" booklet: How to order it
   Other Dialogue Groups

The Story

"Peace is not about politics, it's about people." That was how Ambassador Dennis Ross, U.S. Department of State Special Middle East Coordinator, affirmed the commitment of 420 Jews, Palestinians and "others" (supporters of peace who are neither Jewish nor Palestinian) who attended a dinner held near San Francisco in November 1997.
Entitled "Building A Common Future," the dinner is thought to be the largest gathering of its kind ever held in the U.S. The program featured dialogue between American Jews and Palestinians over dinner, entertainment by a Jewish storyteller and a Palestinian musician, moving stories of other reconciliation projects all over the country, informative speeches about the conflict and possibilities for its resolution, and an invitation for all present to further the reconciliation process through smaller dinner meetings starting in February. All in all, as noted by Ambassador Ross, while peace must ultimately be made in Israel/Palestine, convocations such as the November event are an important model of how the two peoples can build the bonds that make peace possible.
The dinner was an outgrowth of a long history in the Foundation for Global Community. Back in 1991, when we were called Beyond War, the Foundationís Middle East Task Force sponsored a conference at our retreat center in California attended by eleven prominent Israelis and Palestinians, including a representative of the PLO. With the help of Dr. Harold Saunders, who as an Assistant Secretary of State had helped facilitate the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the conference participants drafted a model peace agreement and also introduced the concept of the "public" peace process, in which citizens build the personal relationships that are a prerequisite for political peacemaking. Three Foundation volunteers, Len and Libby Traubman and Carol Kittermaster, decided that one way to continue the public peace process in this country would be to start a dialogue between American Jews and Palestinians. The initial meetings were difficult, as people from each group were more intent on sharing their pain than listening to that of the other. But once the participants moved beyond stereotypes and encountered each other as people, they bondedóto the point where a steady group of about 30 people, calling themselves the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, has now met monthly for over five years and was able to plan and execute an event like the November dinner.
About two years ago the group became concerned that we had become so comfortable with each other that we were in danger of becoming more of a social club than workers for peace. With that realization, we began to intersperse our discussions with various efforts at outreach. Two of the projects involved raising money and giving donated medical equipment to help needy institutions in Israel and the Occupied Territories, first for small hospitals and later for schools.
By Spring 1997 we were ready to try something bigger. Brainstorming sessions elicited the idea of a dinner-dialogue with a major speaker, but the questions were whether a small group like ours could (a) attract such a speaker, and (b) carry off such a giant undertaking. In answer to the first question, it turned out that Ambassador Ross had grown up in the Bay Area, and two of our Jewish members, Eric and Hilde Gattmann, knew his mother. So we decided to invite him and ask his mother to help us. To our shock and surprise, he accepted, thereby immediately moving the question of our ability to execute the event from the abstract to the very real.
Scary decisions then had to be made, like how large a room to reserve and how many guests to guarantee. The decision to go for 400 ratcheted our commitment even higher, because we were now forced to confront the reality of getting people there and handling all the logistics. In response to that challenge, everyone went to work. In addition to planning the program and inviting everyone we could think of, we each took on specific assignments. For example, Donald Stone put together a slide show of Israelis and Palestinians, entitled "The Faces of Our People"; Carol Kittermaster talked a friend into letting her prune enough off her olive trees to put branches on each dinner table; and Nahida Salem translated key phrases into Arabic. Many people spent hours fulfilling various other tasks.
The Traubmans chaired the event, and, among other things, turned their dining room into a grand central station for dealing with tickets and seat assignments. Len, who lives a dual existence as a pediatric dentist during the day and Internet surfer at night, advertised the dinner to peace advocates all over the world, magnifying its inspirational impact and attracting guests from ten states, as well as one all the way from Gaza. He also put together an inspirational, 24-page "Evening Program and Reconcilation Resource." (See note at end of article for how to obtain a copy.)
As ticket orders began to roll in, it soon became apparent that Palestinians were so disillusioned with the peace process that it would be much harder to attract them than Jews. (Many in the West Bank feel that they are worse off than they were under Israeli military occupation, because they now live in isolated towns with harsh restrictions on travel.) Accordingly, the decision was made to put all Jewish orders over 200 temporarily on a waiting list, to see if we could attract an equal number of Palestinians. To accomplish the latter objective, Palestinian member Nadim Zarour invited several key local leaders to one of our meetings, where we convinced them that we were sincere in our dedication to an even-handed U.S. policy. As a result, we were able to obtain the cosponsorship of the Palestinian American Congress as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council. Finally, through the heroic efforts of our Arab members, the final count included 150 Palestinians.
The dinner had the dual purpose of stimulating further dialogue between American Jews and Palestinians and supporting Ambassador Rossí peace efforts. The key draw was Rossí acceptance of our invitation to speak. However, knowing that the volatility of the peace process might result in his being called away at the last minute, we asked Ronald Young, Director of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, who had agreed to serve as master of ceremonies, to step in as the principal speaker in that event.
Our precautions paid off, because at the time of our dinner, Ambassador Ross was called to Europe to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat. To underline his support of the event, however, Ross not only called from London with a message that was taped and played at the Saturday evening dinner, but also returned to speak to us on Monday morning. So those who were able to attend both events heard a powerful speech by Young as well as Ross.
Palestinian Elias Botto began the evening by inviting the guests to "open your hearts and minds to what unites us, not what divides us," remembering that both peoples are children of Abraham. The setting was perfect for a positive response to that appeal, because each table had been lovingly decorated with a round mirror in the center, surrounded by olive branches entwined with two paper doves. In that context, Libby Traubman brought the mood to a deeper level by asking a Jew and a Palestinian to light the two votive candles at each table as a symbol of our common goal of enhancing the light of mutual understanding.
Palestinians and Jews were assigned to every table, and suggested questions were discussed over dinner with the aim of having all guests share something about their backgrounds. Then, as a cultural offering, Shai Schwartz, an Israeli Jewish storyteller from Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, told a fitting tale about two men who asked a wise man to resolve their dispute over land, only to be told that the land did not belong to either, but rather they belonged to it. His friend Nazih Mughrabi, a young Palestinian from Jerusalem, played haunting music to accompany Shaiís story, and then played and sang his own beautiful Song of Peace.
The program next recognized the efforts of ten other reconciliation groups around the country, giving a brief description of each and its activities. (See end of article for a list of the groups and their locations.) Two women from Seeking Common Ground were selected to speak for all of them. Under its program Building Bridges for Peace, Jewish and Palestinian teenage girls from Israel/Palestine attend a summer camp in Colorado and then continue to meet on returning home. Speaking for the group were Melodye Feldman, an American Jew who founded the group and lives in Denver with her husband and son, and Deana Ahmad, an American Palestinian and freshman in college who attended the first camp and now helps run it.
Together the two women presented an inspiring account of how dialogue can break down barriers. Deana described her personal transformation from a teenager resisting her parentsí decision to invite three Jewish girls into their home, to spending long nights with those girls talking, yelling, crying and eventually laughing, to waking up at the camp with their heads on each otherís shoulders and realizing that they had accepted each other as people. Melodye then explained how the process works, noting that it is not contact alone that melts stereotypes, but contact that is "personal and intentional," with emphasis on learning to listen, until a person who was once an abstract enemy acquires a human face and name.
The program then moved to the principal speakers. We explained that Ambassador Ross had been forced to cancel in order to carry on the very work for which we were honoring him and played the tape of his phone call from London. Ronald Young was then introduced and spoke convincingly about possible solutions to the toughest issues in the conflict, and also appealed to the participants to be "passionate for moderation." (See separate articles for highlights of Youngís talk, as well as that made by Ambassador Ross on Monday.)
Following the speeches, Len Traubman and Nahida Salem came to the podium to invite the guests to continue the dialogue process. Len acknowledged that reaching out to those on the other side can be hard, even causing loss of friends in oneís own circle, but he analogized it to Abrahamís decision to leave his comfortable home in Ur and take the risk of moving to a then unknown land. In the same vein, he said that the time has come for the two groups to "invite the other into their tents." Specifically, he urged every guest to sign up for a four-week experience of reciprocal meal-sharing.
Nahida repeated the invitation, in both English and Arabic, and also related the evolution of her acceptance of the dialogue group. When she came to the U.S. from the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, when Israel occupied it after the Six-Day War of 1967, she was full of anger at Jews. Later, however, when she married and she and her husband Adham purchased a delicatessen from a Jewish man, he treated them with such love and devotion that she began to realize that not every Jew was a cruel conqueror. Even then, when invited to join the dialogue group, she felt very uncomfortable at the thought of inviting Jews to her home. But she decided to give it a try, and now counts the Jews in the group as close friends.
The response to the invitations was gratifyingómore than 100 people signed up, and our groupís next task is to implement the meal-sharing program.
To close the evening, Nazih Malak, the youngest member of the Dialogue Group, shared a prayer he had been inspired to write. A Muslim man with a Palestinian father, a Lebanese mother, and a Jewish aunt, he was the perfect choice. The key phrase in his prayer was a plea that we all shareó"May the wings of peace fly over the Holy LandóPeace, Shalom, Salaam!"

Ambassador Dennis Ross
Special Middle East Coordinator, U.S. Department of State

Ambassador Dennis Rossí principal remarks were delivered on Monday morning to about 150 people. He described the current crisis of confidence in the peace process and U.S. efforts to overcome it. He also spoke personally about the source of his long-term commitment to the effort, and took pains to affirm the importance of the public (citizen) peace process, including the dinner and related efforts.
On the personal level, Ross noted that he is often asked why he "sticks" with this conflict, given its difficulty and the existence of superficially more appealing options. His answer was eloquent: "The simplest [answer] is that for me, this is a conflict with a human face. You canít work on something like this as long as I have and come to know the people on both sides as well as I have, without being able to connect to them as people, to understand their hopes...fears [and] aspirations, and to understand how much they want a different future."
On the current crisis, Ross first acknowledged that 1997 was not a good year for Middle East peacemaking, with a seven-month hiatus in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The problem, as he sees it, was that both parties lost confidence in the core understandings of the Oslo Accord of September 1993 that resulted in the famous handshake between then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Arafat. Those understandings were that Israel would gain security, and the Palestinians would gain two things in exchangeóthe right to govern themselves and a "credible negotiating pathway" to achieve their political aspirations. Negotiations broke down because neither side felt it was receiving what was promised, with Israel suffering suicide bombings and the Palestinians feeling betrayed by further settlements and other preemptive actions by Israel.
Negotiations resumed in October at the prodding of the U.S., and since then Ross and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have been striving to get the process back on track, working at two levels. First, they want the parties to produce some tangible results from the Oslo Accord, in which they agreed that certain things would happen but left the specifics to be worked out; for example, an airport and seaport in Gaza, safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, terms of trade, and "industrial zones" for Palestinians. The idea behind the zones, first proposed by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, is to reduce Palestinian dependence on working in Israel, which makes them extremely vulnerable to border closures and has led to a 35 percent decline in their per capita income since the Oslo Accordóthe opposite of what was hoped for. According to Ross, the details of the Gaza industrial zone are almost worked out, and it looks as if it will not only employ a lot of Palestinians but also attract both Palestinian and Israeli capital, leading to promising joint ventures.
On the second level, the U.S. has a four-part agenda for moving the process further: bolstering security; giving definition to the meaning of "time-out" for bad behavior by either side; resolving the issue of further redeployment of Israeli troops out of occupied territories; and an accelerated approach to a permanent agreement.
Ross gave a vivid description of what is necessary to restore the trust that led to Oslo and is a prerequisite for a sustainable peace. First, he said the parties have to have a sense of partnership. In his words: "Youíre building a common future. Youíre not building competing futures. Youíre no longer adversaries. In that case, it means that your partner has interests [and] needs, and before you act...you think about how it affects your partner. Because if it hurts [or] weakens your partner, it weakens you."
Secondly, partnership requires empathy: "Empathy to understand what the other side is going through. Empathy to under-stand how a particular problem is going to be perceived....Empathy to understand the need for what I call Ďexplanationí on the other side....[T]hey have to explain the agreement to their own constituencies. And empathy is putting yourself in a position where you understand your partnerís need for an explanation."
In order to attain a sense of partnership and empathy, personal bonds must be established between leaders, between negotiatorsóand finally between peoples. As an example, Ross cited the "extraordinary process" that led to the Interim Agreement, which led to redeployment of Israeli troops out of the major cities of the West Bank. According to Ross, the current map of the West Bank embodies an outcome that neither side envisioned when they started: "The Palestinians had one view of what the security arrangements ought to be...[and] the Israelis had a different view that was 180 degrees apart from that. The negotiating process and the bonds that the negotiators built between each other...produced an out-come that neither envisioned....[Those bonds build] a level of trust between them that allows them, first of all, to unburden them-selves to each other, and to genuinely say, when they are in an informal setting, ĎI can do this but I canít do that. Explain to me what it is that you need, and then letís figure out a way to accommodate your needs and my needs.í Believe me, the Interim Agreement is [one] of ingenious solutions, [and] ingenious solutions emerge from bonding."
Referring back to the dinner, Ross declared that no negotiated agreement will succeed without the people-to-people bonding that such dialogues help create: "That is why I think this group is so important. Not because you are a substitute for what Israelis and Palestinians will do out there, but because you can reinforce the notion of people-to-people ties [which] are ultimately what this is about. If people like me succeed in building political frameworks that donít produce the people-to-people ties, weíve failed. Because whatever we negotiate in the end will not be sustainable. It isnít just the negotiators that have to believe in what they have done, itís the people they represent who have to believe in what they have done."

Ronald Young

Ronald Young is Director of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, which represents 2300 American Jews, Muslims, and Christians in initiating programs of dialogue, education, and advocacy across America. Prior to founding that organization, Ron and his wife spent 1982-85 in Amman, Jordan, as Middle East representatives of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) where they traveled widely and met most of the key players. Ron has supported the peacemaking efforts of the Foundation from the beginning.
In his remarks, Young said he agrees with Ambassador Ross that the peace process is currently in crisis, and that public involvement here in the U.S. may be at least as important as it is in Israel/Palestine. He noted that while Secretary Albright and Ambassador Ross are pushing the process as hard as they can, Congress often acts in ways that are more right-wing than majority Jewish opinion both here and in Israel, by passing resolutions that either support hardline Israeli policies or undermine Palestinian progress.
Leaders in the area are much more willing to consider compromise, according to Young, because they live every day with the burden of the conflict and know they have no other choice. With his intimate acquaintance with such leaders, Young gave examples of possible solutions to major issues that are actually under discussion, as follows:
Security and Borders: Currently, the Palestinians control only five percent of the West Bank, with the rest under either joint or Israeli control, which leads to restrictions and delays that make commerce and daily life virtually unbearable. But since 80 percent of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are located in the 5 to 10 percent of the land closest to the "Green Line" (the border with Israel), one concept under discussion involves allowing Israel to annex that land and compensating the Palestinians by assuring contiguous territory and adding equivalent territory to Gaza.
Refugees: Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars are still living in camps in both Palestine and neighboring Arab countries. Their status needs to be acknowledged, but after this much time, and given Israeli concerns about demographics, most are unlikely to be allowed to return to their original homes. One possible solution would be to offer compensation to them (as well as to Jewish refugees from Arab countries) and to negotiate a gradual resettlement in Palestinian territory.
Jerusalem: This is the most emotional issue of all, and Young acknowledged that both sides might have to use force to compel their respective extremists to accept any compromise. However, leaders have discussed solutions with the following elements: (1) The city would remain undivided; (2) religious groups would retain special powers over their sacred sites; (3) the city would be organized into boroughs based on common interests (even some Jewish neighborhoods are very different from each other); and (4) each group would have its capital in the city, through creation of "capital districts."
Despite the existence of such possibilities, Young recommended that U.S. citizens not advocate specific solutions. Instead, we should constantly emphasize three points: (1) The parties must negotiate; (2) there are solutions that will satisfy all legitimate interests; and (3) the U.S. must play a creative, even-handed role. The problem, according to Young, is that Congress too often hears only from people with extreme views. He therefore concluded by urging the audience to be "passionate for moderation."

For more information on the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, contact the committee at:
922 131st Street, N.W., Marysville, WA 98271.
Tel/Fax: (360)652-4285 -- E-mail: USICPME@aol.com

Evening Program and Reconciliation Resource

The 24-page "Evening Program and Reconciliation Resource" document for the dinner contains advice about listening and dialogue, Secretary Harold Saunderís summary of the five stages of the Public Peace Process, inspiring quotes from Jewish and Arab poets and philosphers, and copies of articles about successful dialogues. Several hundred of these booklets have been mailed wordwide to interested parties. You may obtain a free copy by writing to Middle East Dialogue, Foundation for Global Community, 222 High Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301.
Also available from the same source, for $23.50 (includes shipping and handling), are copies of the book entitled Building A Common Future: The Public Peace Process In Action, a compendium of materials on the Foundationís Middle East and Armenia-Azerbaijan Projects. More information about the November Dinner and the Dialogue Group is available on the Web at http://www.igc.org/traubman/.

Other Dialogue Groups

In addition to Seeking Common Ground from Denver, CO, nine other citizen reconciliation groups involving American Jews and Arabs were honored at the November 15 dinner: Building Bridges from Duluth, MN; the Compassionate Listening Project from Indianola, WA; the Cousins Club of Orange County, CA; Interfaith Witness for Peace in the Middle East from the San Francisco Peninsula; the Jewish-Arab-Muslim American Association (JAMAA) from Santa Clara County, CA; the Middle East Peace Program of the American Friends Service Committee; Project Understanding from New Jersey; Seeds of Peace from Maine; and the Womenís Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East (WIDME) from San Francisco.


This article was written by Walt Hays. A retired trial lawyer and practicing mediator, Walt and his wife, Kay, were members of the Foundationís Middle East Task Force for many years. They were invited to join the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group at its inception in 1992. (See Timeline May/June 1996.) Walt has facilitated many meetings of the Group from a neutral position as neither Palestinian nor Jew and wrote this report of the Dialogue Groupís evolution and sponsorship of an historic event.
It is reprinted from Timeline, March/April 1998, a publication of the Foundation for Global Community.
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