Published in the San Mateo County Times and all other Bay Area ANG newspapers, Tuesday, September 25, 2001
Partners in peace
Jewish-Palestinian group learns to listen and understand each other
By Alina Larson
``The Jews and Palestinians have so much in common language and culture and genes. We need to get rid of our stereotypes and work on solving the problems. Which means getting to know each other."
Joy Totah Hilden
East Bay Dialogue Group
Len and Libby Traubman's living room home has all the normal trappings comfortable chairs, a sofa, coffee table, paintings and books with one distinguishing decoration: a photo of the earth surrounded by a huge wreath.
While most living rooms are the stage for polite conversation, here, world events evoke an impassioned exchange of ideas. It's also where bitter enemies become lifelong friends.
The Traubmans, who are Jewish, have worked toward bringing people of opposing nations together since the late 1980s.
Sept. 11's tragedy forced Americans to re-examine the complicated problems in Middle East, especially the long standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Thanks to this mild-mannered but determined San Mateo couple, however, a few hundred Bay Area Jews and Palestinians have battled over these problems in the Traubman's living room for several years, with no lives lost.
Facing scorn from their own communities and a long, bloody history, the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group in San Mateo has met each month for the past nine years.
``Minds and hearts and doors are opened here," says Len Traubman, a retired pediatric dentist, from his living room where it all began. ``It begins with compassionate listening. We hear each others' stories and begin to see each other as human and equal. We look at identity in a new way."
The Traubman's began by participating in a group called Beyond War, which helped bring Soviets and Americans together through both talks and writing. ``Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking," published in both Russian and English, resulted.
``We feel like that activity and building those relationships worked globally," says Libby. ``We felt it definitely had an impact."
In 1991, when the Foundation for a Global Community and Stanford University brought together Palestinian and Israeli community leaders for a week-long retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Traubmans assisted.
The conference resulted in the document called ``A Framework for a Public Peace Process," which Libby describes as ``a call for a national dialogue, describing how to build a relationship and a common future."
As the leaders lectured on these topics in their homeland, Libby and her Christian friend, Carol Kittermaster, decided that they wanted to support the cause locally. And the Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group began.
``We just kept calling people and asking," Libby recalls about the campaign for members. She discovered that many local Palestinians didn't understand what could be improved or solved from meetings in the United States.
``Many (Palestinians) say `It's futile. Why waste your time?"' says Elias Botto, of Palestinian, Christian and Arab background, who has been member of the San Mateo Dialogue Group for seven years and lives just up the street from the Traubmans.
As the Jewish and Palestinian members of the San Mateo group learned to listen and understand each other, they took notes on what worked and why to be passed on to other groups. As a result of their careful strategy, the group just celebrated its 112th meeting and has spawned nine dialogue groups in the Bay Area and several others in California.
``The Jews and Palestinians have so much in common language and culture and genes. We need to get rid of our stereotypes and work on solving the problems. Which means getting to know each other," says Joy Totah Hilden, a Palestinian-American, who leads the East Bay Dialogue Group.
The San Mateo chapter has also coordinated outreach efforts in order to create models for other groups. They raised money distributed equally to schools in Ramallah, Palestine and Netanya, Israel, and to hospitals in Gaza and West Jerusalem. In 1997 they helped organize a dinner dialogue group which drew 420 Jews and Palestinians.
``I believe we can live and co-exist," says Jerusalem-born Botto, who moved to the United States in 1954. ``Now I'm 68. As you get older I think you become mellower, more moderate, able to see both sides."
Botto participating in a vigil co-sponsored by the Dialogue Groups and Berkeley-based Jewish Voice for Peace in downtown San Francisco the day after the attack. With group members and passers-by, attendance totaled 200 people, affirming a Margaret Mead quote found on most Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group material: ``Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
You can reach writer Alina Larson at (650) 348-4333 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group
1448 Cedarwood Drive, San Mateo, CA 94403
Voice: (650) 574-8303 • Fax:(650) 573-1217