By Doris Bittar
Taghrid was reluctant to host a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue at her home. "They are the enemy," she complained to her husband, Jamal. "Look at what they are doing to our people. Have you forgotten the air raids on our refugee camp?" Jamal explained that previous dialogues had been at Jewish homes, and it was time to host one at a Palestinian home. Eventually, Taghrid agreed.
Before our meeting, word got to the refugee camp in northern Lebanon that Jamal and Taghrid were to host pro-Israel Jews in their San Diego area home. Phone lines lit across a continent, an ocean and a sea. Family at the camp then remembered that it was Jamal -- the successful one, the trustworthy one. Maybe he knew what he was doing.
At our meeting a few days later, Taghrid was a gracious hostess, sometimes smiling and sometimes furrowing her brows. Afterward, she declared that it was OK to meet because there was an unambiguous desire on both sides to talk and express ideas and feelings.
"We can speak here and not be thrown in jail or bombed. Perhaps it is good to get our feelings out."
Since those early meetings only months ago, Palestinians in San Diego have been invited to speak at two local synagogues, engaging in dynamic and animated discussions. Plans to send law casebooks to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank were laid by a Jewish law professor. He had been in contact with a professor at Bir Zeit who asked for his help.
At the time, he did not know what he could do. A few weeks later he began participating in our dialogue group and re-established contact with her while collecting books and securing safe delivery to the university.
Subsequently, the San Diego American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee welcomed a dozen Jews, including two rabbis, to its annual picnic. There were about 200 Arabs, the majority being Palestinian. Those who sought quiet talk found it and those who sought confrontation found that, too.
Taghrid talked with an Israeli woman, Gila, who lost her 13-year-old niece in a bombing in Israel in 1997. Gila, too, was hesitant about coming to the picnic, as was her husband, Miko, who was the dialogue participant.
Gila and Miko surprised us by their openness to the Palestinian narrative despite their recent tragic loss. They feel, as does their family in Israel, that such circumstances make talking to the other side more urgent rather than less. In fact, their family in Israel has formed a bereavement group with both Israeli and Palestinian parents that also have lost children. Gila is an acupuncturist and took Taghrid's pulse. They talked about their health while they watched their sons play ball. Then they strolled along the beach to help Taghrid's daughter to nap and shared stories. Upon returning, Taghrid eagerly told me, "We walked, and we dialogued, you know."
Rabbi Moshe Levin was exhilarated at the opportunity to listen to so many Palestinians. He and a member of his congregation, Colin, were clearly on a mission. Guided by George Khoury, a Palestinian, they intuitively and courageously took the path of most resistance by seeking difficult people.
One elderly Palestinian, who was a young man in 1948, expressed unadulterated rage. He described being shot at as he was forced out of Palestine with two children, one under each arm. This was the expanded experience that Rabbi Levin and Colin were seeking. His rage revealed a world of intensity that they had not encountered yet. By contrast, our dialogues, although frank, are quite genteel.
A few days after the picnic, we saw our dialogue here in San Diego had some unexpected, albeit small, impact in Israel. Twenty Jews from San Diego, including three from our dialogue group, went to Israel on a "solidarity" trip. They made plans to see the regular cast of characters and places that American Jews normally see. However, this time the Jews who were involved in our dialogue tweaked the agenda so as to probe a little deeper and encourage greater debate. For example, they connected with the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved parents group and invited Miko's brother-in-law to speak to the delegation.
Each side in our group is continually learning about the other's perspective. We had a presentation on the history of the Palestinian national movement and soon will have one on the history of Zionism. Cultural admiration and curiosity about the other side are plainly expressed.
On the Palestinian side, there is admiration for how Jewish contributions in various scholarly fields have affected professional careers or philosophical views. On the Jewish side, there is curiosity about Arabic literature, history and customs.
Despite the headlines, Jews and Palestinians are getting to know one another in the flesh rather than just as phantoms in a horrific landscape. Jewish-Palestinian dialogues are spontaneously erupting throughout the country from Brooklyn to San Francisco.
The desire to meet the other, to argue and even to laugh is growing here in San Diego among its sizable Arab and Jewish communities. The excitement and anticipation in our group are unmistakably sincere, and surprisingly our identities have not been watered down by this experience. Rather, we are enriched by an unrequited desire that helps us to reject fear and ignorance.
We hope it, too, can cross this continent, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to those who need it the most.
Bittar is an artist who exhibits in the United States and abroad and teaches at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University. She is of Lebanese origin and is married to a Jew. They reside in San Diego with their two boys and facilitate one of the four dialogue groups in San Diego County.