Recently a reporter from the Daily Star of Beirut, Lebanon, interviewed several of us in the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.  Her article was published today.  There are a few inaccuracies and misquotes, and some of what was picked up is strongly tipped for Arab consumption.  But it also affirms the work of citizen relationship-building, highly unusual in the Jewish or Arab Middle East media today.
     This is another step forward -- our first interview in the Arab press, and the first in a Middle East publication.


The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)   --   August 7, 2001

Arabs and Jews discover each other

Tiare Rath
Daily Star Staff

     SAN MATEO, California: When Nazih was growing up in Lebanon, he did not have one positive image of Jews. Any Jew was considered the enemy, an Israeli oppressor.
     For the past six years, Nazih, who did not want to give his last name, has tried to change those negative images by participating in a northern California dialogue group for Palestinians and Jews.
     Nazih, a Lebanese-Palestinian who was raised in Tripoli, now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is one of 30
members of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Mateo.
     I was always trying to figure out the other side, and as a matter of fact I was very shocked when I learned about the
group, he said. I wanted to know who these people were if they were the images we saw on television.
     The group began nine years ago, inspired by the success of the Beyond War Movement, which is now known as the
Foundation for Global Community. Libby Traubman was a founder of the Beyond War Movement, which tried to
build bridges between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
     She and her husband Len, who are Jewish, started the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group in their
hometown of San Mateo, south of San Francisco. They got the group together by knocking on the doors of
Palestinian and Jewish residents and business owners.
     In the beginning it was hard, admitted Libby. Some of the people who originally came, she recalled, thought they
could harangue and beat each other over the head. When they realized it wasnt (for that), some of them left.
     Members admitted that being involved in the group means Palestinians and Jews have to be open to each other, which
weeds out most extremists and attracts many liberals. During their meetings, members talk about recent events in the
news and share and discuss personal stories. The goal is for Palestinians and Jews to share their feelings face-to-face
and to humanize each other.
     Weve shared a lot of emotion together. Weve shared births, marriage, death, Len said as his eyes welled up,
remembering the death of a Palestinian member last year. All kinds of emotions.
     Embarrassment, another member, Miriam Zimmerman added. Its sort of embarrassing to be Jewish sometimes.
     Maha and Basem Totah, who are originally from the West Bank town of Ramallah, have been part of the group for
years. During their interview with The Daily Star, Maha told the story of how her brother tried to travel during the
intifada and was stranded for 11 hours.
     Its through stories like these that the Palestinians are really like us theyre like the Jews of the Middle East, Len
said. Ive learned that if the Jews understand anyone, they should have understanding and sympathy for the
     Not that the story-telling, reactions and debates dont get heated. The intifada, among other things, has raised the
temperature in their living rooms.
     We apologize for each other, Basem said. We do feel with each other when theres a killing on either side. But
the sympathy is not always immediate.
     At one meeting, Nazih was angry about the hundreds of Palestinians killed during the intifada. When one Jewish
member pointed out that 50 Jews had died as well, Nazih said he didnt care a comment he later regretted.
I think Sharon, when he came to power, brought out a lot of anger (for Arabs,) he said. Heres the butcher of
Beirut, the terrorizer.
     Sometimes your emotions just lead your brain, he said. It gets wild, but thats the beauty of it. We have this
interaction of agree, disagree, telling it like it is.
     The showing of a documentary at a recent meeting that described how Palestinians were killed and forced out of their
homes when Israel was created in 1948 was a a rude awakening for Basem, who is from the West Bank Town of
     He made a comment about it being a Palestinian Holocaust, taking aback one new Jewish member. Holocaust
comparisons are in fact some of the most sore subjects for the group.
     When the Palestinians say theyre having their Holocaust, I get the feeling that they also sometimes refer to their
own Holocaust going on right now. And (with) the Jews in the group, you just cant say that, Libby said. The
occupation is terrible, but its very difficult to compare the two losing six million Jews in a short period of time is
something totally different.
     The truth is that the Jews are very scared, said Len. They see the big military, but theyre still scared. The
Palestinians are also very easily scared. We both are.
     Since its inception nine years ago, the group size has stayed consistent at 30, but members have come and gone. There
are now eight Palestinian-Jewish dialogue groups in the Bay Area that were inspired by the one in San Mateo, which is
considered one of the most successful in northern California.
     The fact that the original group is still together after 110 meetings and two intifadas is a feat in itself. According to
Michel Nabti, a Lebanese-American who ran the Middle East section of Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution on
War, Revolution and Peace for 17 years, many groups bringing together Palestinians and Jews fail. One San Francisco
Bay Area dialogue group broke up because of Palestinians feeling neutralized.
     Palestinians became angry with other Palestinians that were going into dialogue, Nabti said.
     I wish them luck, he said of the San Mateo group. Theyre facing a mountain.
That sentiment is often heard by members of the group.
     We hear how were wasting our time, said Basem. It sometimes does pick up in my mind that I am wasting my
     What keeps Basem going is his drive to educate Jews about his people. I would like to give the Jews the opportunity
to meet hard-core Palestinians, he said. Were people. We bleed the same; we dont have tails.
      Basem argued, Were more familiar with Jews than radicals Jews are familiar with Palestinians. All they hear about
Palestinians is that they blow up people.
     On the flip side, the group has given the Totahs the opportunity not only to meet with Jews but to develop friendships.
It is clear they have become close to the Traubmans the two couples hug when they greet, invite each other to dinner
and trade stories on the ups and downs of daily life. We knew a lot of Jewish people, but we never talked openly with
them, said Maha. The first time was with the dialogue group.
     Members have also lost friends, and their participation in the group has met with opposition from loved ones.
Zimmermans family members, she said, dont understand the compassionate listening. They dont understand that
its just not relevant to contradict peoples stories.
     Nazih, who recently married a Lebanese in Tripoli, said he keeps in close contact with his family, but most of them
dont know that once a month for the past six years he has made a concerted effort to talk with Jews about sensitive
and politically-charged issues.
     His mother, who also lives in California, knows he attends the group, but his father back in Lebanon does not.
Its very hard until today to go to your close friends and family, he said.
     Theres the hurdle of getting his relatives to understand why he even bothers. Overall, Id say theyd prefer me not
to do this stuff, Nazih said.
     But a bigger issue is how it would be perceived by the authorities, which is why he did not want to have his last name.
Its a fear of someone telling someone else and going to (Lebanese intelligence,) Nazih said.
Nazih has found an unexpected benefit in being in the group, however.
     It really gave me my identity back because I never said I was even half Palestinian I was Lebanese.
Growing up in Lebanon as a half-Palestinian, he said he was often ashamed. I made sure that was hidden as much as
possible, Nazih said. He defended his decision to be in the group, asserting that it is better to know and understand
Jews, even those who argue in support of Israel.
     It doesnt mean youre a traitor by seeking the other side, Nazih argued. You dont have to agree with everything
they say, but its important to listen.