Published Thursday, March 29, 2001, in the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News

Palestinians, Jews can unlearn old habits

By Lionel Traubman and Nahida Salem

     MANY Israelis and Palestinians, seeking peace with war-like means, still choose to recycle old professional politicians raised in violence. Like their peoples, these old soldier-leaders mirror each other. In challenging times, they unthinkingly revert to the way of the tribe -- withdrawing, blaming, threatening, attacking.
     Never truly hearing or knowing each other, the people tragically conclude that there is ``nothing to lose'' and ``no alternative but to fight.'' War, the time-proven failure, becomes the ultimate arbiter. It is the obsolete idea -- the illusion of individual survival -- that cannot work. It is old thinking.
     Albert Einstein said: ``We cannot solve today's problems with the same kind of thinking that produced them.''
     So eight years ago we began thinking ``new'' and nervously convened a Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group on the Peninsula. Gathering face-to-face, we listened -- really listened -- to each other's stories and finally began to see one another as human and equal.
     We discovered that we can begin to want the best for each other, equally. Strangers became friends; ``enemies'' became partners in concrete projects to invigorate public peace-building, here and overseas.
     Today, after 105 meetings, we 30 women and men -- Jews, Muslims and Christians, Holocaust survivors and 20th-generation Palestinians -- realize that ``an enemy is one whose story we have not heard.''
     Building on this success, now there are five dialogue groups here, with the newest in Silicon Valley. With more around North America and Israel, in homes and on campuses, the circle is growing. We believe this is a missing part of the peace process.
     These groups don't just talk; they act. We -- Arabs and Jews -- have worked together to put on dozens of educational forums in schools, neighborhood groups and religious centers. Overcoming the ``impossible,'' we held a historic dinner-dialogue for 420 Jewish and Palestinian Americans. It changed some lives. And, yes, we have gathered supplies and funding for Palestinian and Israeli schools and hospitals in need, always equally.
     But the true ``action'' of dialogue is building expanding circles of new relationships between ``enemies,'' and refusing to live with old stereotypes. We discard inherited, obsolete agendas built on half-truths about history and each other. We discover together a new social intelligence and creativity for which our people are really crying.
     Does it matter what ordinary citizens do? Yes, according to Harold Saunders, former U.S. assistant secretary of state and negotiator of the Camp David Accords: ``There are some things only governments can do, such as negotiating binding agreements. But there are some things that only citizens outside government can do, such as changing human relationships.''
     Saunders, a career diplomat, defined this ``public peace process'' that must come to life among citizens. It provides the only environment -- authentic, human relationships of good will -- in which the official peace process can go to completion.
     Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, in Hartford, Conn., defines the place to where we Jews and Palestinians must take ourselves: ``There are two stories here and there is a quality of transcendence -- seeing beyond the `Jewish Narrative' or the `Palestinian Narrative' -- to a perspective that can humanize both sides and hear the `other' story. A transcender after all has abandoned the exclusive quality of his or her narrative of origin.''
     Our handful of Palestinians and Jews knows it is possible to transcend, to change, to live our lives together and for each other, equally. We have shared birth, marriage and death. We have eaten and danced and laughed. And we have cried together, especially recently.
     We have fought, listened, and learned. And un-learned old habits. And moved out to our community, all the time overcoming fear for the sake of building our common future. Through eight successful years we have learned this: It's up to us, the people.
     Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Middle Eastern teacher, said: ``Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.'' For change, for something very new, it is time to sit down together, many of us.
     To our fellow children of Abraham, we recommend what works in real life: Gather face-to-face in a spirit of good will. Start with compassionate listening. With sustained dialogue is the promise of discovering a new social intelligence, a way through, and the equal humanity of our two fine peoples who are, after all, one -- neighbors forever.

Nahida Salem, a restaurant owner and first woman president of the Ramallah Club, lives in Belmont. Lionel Traubman is a retired San Francisco pediatric dentist and co-founder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group. More information is on the Internet at

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