By KATE PYATYBRATOVA
This past May, Elias Botto told a group of students at Washington High School in Fremont his story.
Many years ago, Botto brought his father an Arabic tape titled, "We Shall Return." Nearing the end of the song, when the singer's voice exclaims, "We shall return, we shall return," Botto remembered entering his father's bedroom.
"There he was, half-sitting in bed, with his hands up in the air," Botto said. "Tears were running down his face." He was saying, 'Yes, God, we shall return.' This is the essence of the story that shall forever be imprinted in my heart and mind, no matter what the politicians or other people have to say about the Palestinian suffering."
Botto, 74, a Palestinian, was born in Jerusalem, when the British controlled it in the early 19305. After the state of Israel was formed, his family immigrated to the United States. Botto's bed-ridden father was never able to go to back to his ancestral home.
Botto is a member of the San Mateo-based Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue. The group believes that it is up to citizens, not just politicians, to create peace between Israel and Palestine. In recent years, the group has presented at high schools around the Bay Area to encourage students to listen to others in a compassionate manner.
Fourteen years and 169 meetings later, Dialogue has grown to include 30 permanent members. They are Jews, Muslims and Christians who are deeply interested in hearing one another's stories.
If the dialogue heats up, the neutral parties act as facilitators, co-founder Libby Traubman, 65, explained. Sometimes all conversation has to be stopped for people to cool down and they are asked to role-play, or describe how they feel about what they just heard.
Dr. Miriam Zimmerman, who is the president of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, and Botto's partner during the Washington High School Dialogue, was moved to tears by Botto's story. She could relate to him personally, because her own father was forced to leave Germany during the Nazi era. After sharing their memories, the two fell weeping into each other's arms.
"The fact that both of us faced that history of hatred, denial of spirituality, hunger, expulsion, then to come together as people gives me hope," she said.
Co-founder Len Traubman, 66, explained his main reason for starting Dialogue is that "an enemy is somebody whose story you have not heard."
Len Traubman, who is Jewish, is a retired pediatric dentist and author. He and wife Libby co-founded Dialogue because they wanted to find a common language with Palestinians.
Tensions between Israel and Palestine arose following World War II, when the United Nations created the state of Israel in the territory that was primarily occupied by Palestinians. As Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, flooded into Israel, numerous Palestinian families were displaced. These actions began a long history of misunderstanding, terrorism and violence.
Even though Dialogue was created to resolve differences between Palestinians and Israelis, they also want high school students to benefit from their techniques.
"Here we are in an American high school with a real opportunity," Len Traubman said after the Dialogue presentation at Washington High School. "[You] see two real adults, someone you can look up to, someone to emulate... [you can] learn a new way of living, of listening, of relating, and it can start right here today."
The students were encouraged to find a partner with whom they wanted to reconcile.
"I feel ashamed of myself because I have been kind of mean to her," said sophomore Rebekah Lee, referring to her partner and classmate. "I didn't realize how much we have in common. Now I feel we accept one another."
Other students also felt Dialogue was beneficial to overcoming their differences.
"I'm a Muslim Palestinian and my partner was Jewish," said sophomore Lyla Rayyan. "We thought we kind of clashed. Both of our families have gone through a lot of the same stuff. Both of us want a lot of the same things for our people. We have ideas for changing it. We have more in common than I thought."
The Traubmans are organizing a Palestinian-Jewish Peacemakers Camp Sept. 1-4. If you are interested in finding out more about this or other Dialogue activities, please visit Libby and Len Traubman's web site at http://traubman.igc.org/dg-prog.htm.
Author Kate Pyatybratova is a senior student at Washington High School, Fremont, California. She participated in the this classroom Dialogue experience.
Photos of this day are on the Web.