Published in the San Mateo County Times -- Wednesday, April 16, 2003,1413,87~11268~1329731,00.html
Jewish-Palestinian group delivers peace
In the face of skeptical relatives, members share opinions and compassion


     Arnon Moscona choked up as he talked about Israeli bulldozers destroying olive trees in Palestinian neighborhoods.
     "They are the land, and tearing those up is hard to see," said Moscona, an Israeli who now lives in San Carlos. "If you desecrate this holiness, what have you become?"
     Nazih Malak, a Muslim Palestinian from Lebanon, agrees that the trees are the region's past and its hope for the future.
     "Trees take generations to grow -- it's nature, it's life," said Malak, who lives in San Jose.
     The two men from very different backgrounds are part of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, about 30 Peninsula residents who have met for over a decade.
     They meet monthly to break bread -- and break stereotypes.
     This week, some members will celebrate Passover and others will celebrate Easter -- Jewish and Christian holidays that both signal rebirth and hope.
     Members of the group are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim as well as American, Israeli and Palestinian. They believe their model of communication and compassion can serve as an example of a public peace process.
     It may sound idealistic, naive even, but co-founder Len Traubman, a retired dentist who lives in San Mateo, says it is practical.
     "This is not idealism," he said. "It's what works in real life."
     While the group's conversation Monday bounced from war in Iraq to bulldozed houses to the entrenchment of fanatics, laughter also rang out as members joked with each other.

Getting started

     The dialogue grew out of a 1991 retreat for Palestinian and Israeli citizen-leaders in the Santa Cruz Mountains, organized by Len and his wife Libby Traubman to launch a grass-roots peace initiative. The retreat resulted in a signed document called the Framework for A Public Peace Process.
     Since then, the group has toured campuses, written letters, and sent medical supplies to both Israelis and Palestinians.
     Every day, the Traubmans communicate with hundreds of people on both sides of the conflict, through e-mail and Webcam, hearing from strangers who have found their Web site and want more information.
     There are now 60 dialogue groups in North America, and the Traubmans have sent material to some 1,500 individuals and 750 institutions in 600 cities and 35 countries, according to Len.

The art of listening

     Members say the heart of the group is the respect for dialogue. Libby likens the group's definition of "dialogue" to the Jewish idea of Shema, which means truly hearing your enemy without judgment. Len explains that dialogue is not discussion, not debate, not conversation: It's more powerful.
     "It's like a potluck dinner, where you want to sample other people's best dishes, not just eat your own," said Libby of the opinions expressed during the meetings.
     Some members said Monday that dialogue will be the foundation of a resolution, because politicians cannot create a peace settlement that will stick unless the two sides establish trust and open communication.
     The idea is particularly timely, as hardline Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon said earlier this week that he realized a Palestinian state is inevitable, and Israel will have to eventually pull out of some occupied territories.

Getting comfortable

     Despite its seeming harmony, this is not a group that shies from passionate debate. Many members of the group came to it with strong enmity and entrenched stereotypes and have slowly opened up.
     Henriette Zarour, a Catholic Palestinian from Beit Jala who lives in San Francisco, was encouraged by her late husband to join the group more than a decade ago. She said she was suspicious at first. She had seen her grandparents' house in Haifa seized by the Israeli army in the 1970s, and the anger still burned hot. But, she said after about 10 meetings, she grew comfortable.
     "Now we're a big family," she said. They attend weddings, funerals, and holiday celebrations together.
     Malak from Lebanon joined the group four years ago after reading an opinion piece Len wrote in a newspaper. He says discarding his stereotypes of Jews was like "breaking down the Berlin Wall."
     "It was a beautiful article," he said, "I was so surprised a Jewish person wrote that." He was a child in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, and the memories of bombs falling are still crystal clear.
     "It's therapy for me," he said.
     Miriam Zimmerman, an American Jew who teaches Holocaust studies at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, said she's come a long way in her views since she joined four years ago.
     "I understand the two sides have equal validity," Zimmerman said before the meeting Tuesday. "I had never seen that before."
     She said during Passover, a festival of redemption and renewal, her thoughts are particularly focused on finding a solution.
     While some members are cynical about a resolution being near, Adham Salem, a group founder and Palestinian who moved to the United States over 30 years ago, believes the conflict will have to be settled in the next five years.
     Eric Gattmann, a Jew who fled Germany before the Holocaust, agrees.
     "Now that the tragedy of Iraq is over," said Gattman. "I think the world is going to demand justice for the Palestinians."
     Gattmann and his wife Hilde, who lost over a dozen close relatives in the Holocaust, said the meetings have functioned like a support group.
     "They've suffered a lot," Eric said of the Palestinians in the group. "And we've suffered some, too."
     But the power of dialogue isn't universally accepted outside these living rooms. Most group members said that though friends and family don't outright disapprove of the group, many are skeptical and insist the group is a waste of time.

Passover and peace

     At the Traubmans' Passover seder -- the religious service and ceremonial meal that commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt -- they plan to read from a Haggadah dedicated to peace.
     Libby said the group doesn't go up and down with the headlines. Once when the landscape looked particularly bleak, one member asked what the point of the dialogue was. She asked the group why they bothered to come. He said, "This is where I feel hope."

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