After a year of dedication in sustained relationship-building, some of the women and men of the year-old Silicon Valley "Arab-Jewish Dialogue of the South Bay" were introduced in this morning's San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.
     In the participants' views and personal stories, they reveal their differences and what they cling to in common -- especially the process of listening and discovering shared meaning and new social intelligence that can benefit all.
     Retired Palestinian Muslim engineer Jamal Zeid says that "the Jews and the Palestinians are essentially the same people once you scratch the skin.''  Elisa Koff-Ginsborg, a Jewish San Jose social worker, adds about September 11th:  "In all the darkness that day, for me there was some hope, because we could come together.''
     May this story be a national call from Silicon Valley for others to begin dialogue groups in other towns and campuses wherever you live.  It makes a difference.

Published Saturday, Sept. 29, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Arab-Jewish group issues statement of unity in time of extreme trial


     Because they believe that without conversation there are no solutions, the more than 30 members of the Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group of the South Bay have grappled for a year with the divisive issues of Middle Eastern politics. It has been hard and, at times, frustrating work.
     But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, they have issued a statement that puts them on record -- Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Jews -- as being ``horrified, outraged and profoundly saddened by the heinous and coldly calculated and orchestrated terrorist acts that took nearly 7,000 innocent human lives.''
     ``Terrorism, bigotry and hate are abhorrent and antithetical to the most sacred values of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions,'' the resolution says. It denounces the post-Sept. 11 backlash of ``hate crimes perpetrated against our fellow Americans of, or perceived to be of, Arab origin or Muslim faith.''
     And poignantly, the signers write, ``We know in the depths of our soul that violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, terror begets terror, and love begets love.''
     The statement went through five drafts, with adjustments made to myriad nuances of phrasing and meaning, before it suited the group -- whose members don't necessarily agree on a lot, though they have spent a year learning to listen to one another. The group, which includes Israeli and Palestinian-born Americans, began meeting a year ago, around the time that a new cycle of violence began in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The very fact that the group exists, that Arabs and Jews sit and talk and ``even go out together, it just shocks people,'' said Len Traubman, a San Mateo dentist and one of the group's Jewish members.
     Some would say that resolutions are a dime a dozen. But members of the group figure that if they can find common ground, that can serve as a model for other citizens and even governments. Its most optimistic members describe the group, the eighth Arab-Jewish dialogue group now operating in the Bay Area, as setting off a ripple effect that energizes what has been called a ``public peace process.'' The hope is that a new voice can emerge to invigorate government-brokered solutions in the Mideast.
     After a year of Intifada and now the terrorist attacks, that may sound like pie-in-the-sky.
     But events of the day, members say, make it even more critical for the South Bay group to go about its work. The connections between Middle Eastern politics and the attacks are all too clear, said Reyad Katwan, a civil engineer in San Jose, ``and I really believe that we can make a difference as Arab Americans and Jewish Americans.''
     Katwan is a Palestinian Christian whose family ties to the West Bank city of Ramallah are centuries old. Sitting with Arabs and Jews in dialogue, he said, there are times ``when, if you close your eyes and just listen to the voices, you don't know which side is talking. Because we have so much in common.''

Shared values

     The resolution shows ``that everything doesn't have to be about suspicion and bad feeling,'' said Elisa Koff-Ginsborg, a San Jose social worker and Jewish group member. ``It can be about coming together in shared values. In all the darkness that day,'' she said of Sept. 11, ``for me there was some hope, because we could come together.''
     Wednesday morning, as members sat and talked in a social hall at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, the group's accord and discord -- the yin and yang of dialogue -- were apparent. A retired engineer named Jamal Zeid, a Muslim, said that ``the Jews and the Palestinians are essentially the same people once you scratch the skin.''
     He decried the terrorists as ``horrible criminals'' and, during a short discourse on Middle Eastern politics, called Saddam Hussein a ``plague upon Iraq and upon humanity.'' But he also said the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks ``came about because of the injustices that befell the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples.''
     This led Rabbi Melanie Aron, of Shir Hadash, to say that the explanation is ``much more complicated.'' The hijackers were not all ``poor young men who came out of harsh circumstances'' like suicide bombers in Israel, but appear to have been middle-class and well-educated.

Group's origins

     It was Aron who had the original vision to form the dialogue group, which meets monthly, either at Shir Hadash or at the Antiochian Orthodox Church of the Redeemer in Los Altos Hills. Wednesday, she seemed perturbed that some Jewish members of the group are often ``willing and even anxious'' to criticize Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians. Left unsaid was whether she thought Arab members are equally willing to condemn violence by Palestinians and other Arabs.
     Yet Aron said the exchange exemplified the give and take of dialogue: Say what you have to say, don't get defensive, look for common ground.
     Avi Urban, a Sunnyvale engineer who grew up in Israel, was sitting next to Zeid, who was raised in the ancient city of Zefat, in the Galilee, and fled to Lebanon in 1948. Urban patted his friend affectionately on the arm and said, ``I don't necessarily agree with Jamal, but it is so important to me to listen to him. If all I do is listen to people who think as I do, we're never going to get anywhere.''
     Moments later, he defined terrorism like this: ``Terrorism hits innocent civilians and innocent people and does not accomplish anything but tit for tat retaliation.''
     He also said that the ``Arab and Muslim communities have to distance themselves from this and recognize there is no good terrorism and bad terrorism.''
     ``And I think,'' countered Maha ElGenaidi, a Muslim educator in San Jose, ``that Jews and the Jewish community, when they see terrorism being committed by states, they have to condemn that for what it is, as well. I cannot accept looking at Palestinian terrorism without looking at Jewish and Israeli terrorism in the occupied territories.''
     The group had been through this before. The resolution condemns ``all acts of terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and violence against the innocent by any individual, organization, group, or nation.'' The wording seems a bit ambiguous: Does it imply that a state's violent acts can or do constitute terrorism?
     ``As an Israeli, I agree with you,'' Urban told ElGenaidi. ``There are things the State of Israel does that I also do not accept as a human being. But this is looking at the trees instead of the forest. There is so much harm inflicted on each side by the other, that calculating which side inflicts the most is such a waste of time. We have to look forward.''
     ``I can't agree with you more, Avi,'' said Katwan. ``Everybody just gets back into this mix, and here we go again.''

Finding connections

     As the meeting wound down, the group moved away from world politics. Signs of the friendships that have evolved in the past year began to surface more distinctly.
     Urban urged Zeid to tell the story of his family, and Zeid complied: At the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century, one of Zeid's great-grandfathers, going back about 19 generations, was an imam in Zefat. This great-grandfather arranged for ships to sail from Palestine to Spain to rescue Muslims from persecution.
     After returning to Palestine with the liberated Muslims, Zeid's forebear learned that Spanish Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity under the Inquisition. Again, the imam sent ships to Spain, which returned with liberated Jews.
     ``The twist is,'' said Urban, ``there's an Israeli lady here from Zefat -- Amit Barson, she belongs to our group -- who believes that her great-great-grandparents were brought there from Spain in the 15th century. And she thinks that Jamal's great-grandfather might have been the one who did it.
     ``This story is the beauty of dialogue,'' Urban said, smiling.

Powerful force

     The meeting was about over now. Zeid walked over to Libby Traubman, active for almost a decade in Arab-Jewish dialogues around the Bay Area, and gave her a hug, exclaiming, ``Libby, how's my favorite girl?''
     Len Traubman said that dialogue is powerful, even when faced with the evils of terrorism: ``We're going to redeem it. We're going to raise a phoenix from the ashes.''
     But the catastrophe at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon hold out this lesson: ``There is no technology and no distance that can keep us safe anymore,'' Traubman said. ``We are going to have to listen to each other.''

For information on the South Bay Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, call (408) 286-1190 or send e-mail to or Richard Scheinin can be reached at (408) 920-5069 or