Published in the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times -- Friday, March 22, 2002

Diversity Day aims to promote dialogue

By Lisa Coffey Mahoney

     Despite the recent escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, members of each culture met and engaged in cordial dialogue Monday at Piedmont High School.  Palestinian Melek Totah and Israeli Jacob Mandelsberg sat side by side on the stage in the Alan Harvey Theater, shared their backgrounds and talked about why they are willing to participate in a dialogue with one another.
     Totah and Mandelsberg were participating in the high school's second annual Diversity Day.  Sponsored by the PHS Appreciating Diversity Committee, the objective of the event is to promote awareness, understanding and respect for diversity.
     Over 30 speakers participated in Diversity Day, including a Vietnam War veteran, Japanese-American internees, a Holocaust survivor, Special Olympics participants and several people who came to discuss gay and lesbian issues.
     Students were able to sit in on two speaker presentations during the event.
     Libby and Len Traubman of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Mateo County facilitated the dialogue between Totah and Mandelsberg.  The Traubmans began a dialogue group in 1992 because their life experience revealed that nothing replaces successful face-to-face relationships.
     Government peace processes were failing, and most Jews and Palestinians had never had in-depth relationships nor heard anything but their own narratives, their own stories, said the Traubmans.
     So, the Traubmans found a Palestinian partner and gathered some 10 Jews and Palestinians -men and women -to participate in a dialogue group.
     Since that time, over 100 meetings have taken place between Jews and Palestinians.
     The Traubmans told the audience that dialogue is just as important on the PHS campus as it is in the broader, global community.
     Libby Traubman said dialogue is not the same as discussion, debate or even conflict resolution.
     Beginning with compassionate listening, dialogue offers a window to one's own thoughts, mental models and heart, giving the other person a view into your life experience, reasoning and humanity.
     "I try to listen in a way that will expand my thinking to be much more inclusive, to take in a much bigger picture," she said.
     Len Traubman said the most important thing he's learned throughout the 10 years that he and his wife have been involved with the Dialogue Group project is "an enemy is somebody whose story you have not heard."
     "So, if you're thinking that somebody here on campus is strange, try sitting down and listening to their story.  You'll find that what (dialogue) does is that it brings you together.  And you begin to discover that you are equal, you are human and you want the best for each other," said Len Traubman.
     Mandelsberg explained that his father's family fled Nazi Germany, the torching of synagogues, businesses and increasing anti-Jewish violence, in 1938.
     Though he was born and raised in Chicago, Mandelsberg lived in Israel for 12 years following his high school graduation.  While there, he farmed onions and tomatoes in a kibbutz, studied computer science and was a member of the Israeli Army.
     Mandelsberg's first assignment in the army was patrolling Palestinian refugee camps.
     "The camps were built in 1948 for Palestinians who had fled their homes.  This was my first introduction to Palestine and Palestinians.  I couldn't understand the anger of the people that we were patrolling," he said.
     Several years later, when the intifada -a series of demonstrations, strikes, riots and violence led by Palestinians and directed against the rule of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank -began, Mandelsberg received an order for reserve duty.
     "I had to go to an internment center, which was basically a prison camp where Palestinians were being held that were detained and arrested during the uprising," he said.  "It was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards."
     The experience stirred Mandelsberg's childhood memories.
     "I remembered some of the stories from my family, and (recalled) the oppression that they had fled in Nazi Germany," he said.  "And here I was getting an order to be a guard at a prison camp for another people."
     Said Mandelsberg, "That was a turning point.  I went to the military and said I can't do that service."
     Mandelsberg was released from duty , then left Israel and returned to the U.S.  in 1989.
     After arriving in the Bay Area, he met up with some Israelis and Palestinians in San Francisco and began an informal dialogue group.  He said that the more the two diverse people started talking and listening to each other, the more they grew to understand each other.
     Mandelsberg believes more Israelis and Palestinians -both here and in the Middle East -will make the effort to engage in dialogue.  "Enough of us, who think, care, feel and don't want Sept.  11 to repeat itself, are coming together to listen to one another," he said.  "If you get anything out of this (presentation), it's find someone who is different and find how similar you really are."
     Totah's father fled to the U.S.  after he lost his home in Palestine.
     "He lived in an area that was pretty affluent.  His family had a beautiful, big villa (in Haifa)" she said.
     Totah explained that beginning in 1948 Palestine experienced much violence in the streets.
     "A lot of affluent families decided to take off and go somewhere else (until the violence subsided)," she said.  "My family left the villa with an aunt who was elderly.  She stayed in the home while the rest of the family went to Egypt."
     Soon, said Totah, the Israeli Army seized the home.  The aunt was forced to leave the home, as well as all the family possessions, and went to live in a convent.  "That's where she spent the rest of her life and died," she said.
     "My family was lucky (because they could afford to go elsewhere).  Others had no where to go and were forced to live in refugee camps where there was no future for them or their children," she said.  "There's a lot of anger."
     Totah said that because her father was biased against Jews, she was raised with the same bias.
     "The dialogue has really helped me reach out and get to know Jewish people.  It's been very enlightening.  We're all human beings.  We're really the same.  Why can't we just get along?"
     PHS senior Jared Kurtin said he has an elderly relative living in the Middle East who despises Palestinian people with a passion.  "How do you convince someone to see your side when they don't want to listen to you?" he wondered.
     Totah said that some people simply aren't able to hear another viewpoint.  "Maybe the answer is you work on the next generation," she said.
     Said Mandelsberg, "The first thing we have to remember is that we're not convincing.  We just want to get people to listen to the other story."
     Libby Traubman said some people may need an opportunity to tell their story before hearing someone else's.  "A lot of people come in (to a dialogue) very angry.  If you give them the space to really empty out and purge, and they feel like they've really been heard by somebody, then it enables them to be open to (hearing someone else's story)," she said.
     After the presentation, Kurtin said it was interesting to hear both sides of the story.  "Usually you either hear it from one person's point of view or another.  It's nice to get a well-rounded view of the situation," he said.

For more information about the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Mateo County call 650-574-8303 or visit