Published in newvoices, April 1998

The Middle East Peace Process

Talk Amongst Yourselves

by Ben Pastcan

        After all the wars, bombings, hatred, and mistrust, it doesn't take a cynic to doubt the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why when a group of forty students met at the University of California, Santa Cruz on March 1 for "Building Bridges for Peace", a dialogue on the Middle East peace process, many braced for the worst. The event featured a six person panel from the San Mateo County Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, who were joined by the cofounders of the group, Len and Libby Traubman.
        The couple founded the group in 1992 with the goal of providing a model of Palestinians and Jews working for mutual understanding, education, and cooperation. While the focus is on relationship building rather than politics, the group was jump-started in part by a joint letter written to 90 eaders in the Middle East and the United States about the importance of continuing the peace process. They struggled amongst themselves over the wording of the letter but in the end they reached a consensus. The group received a favorable response to their efforts.
        "The responses to the letter got everyone excited," said Libby Traubman. "It energized them, and it also helped establish the group's credibility."
        On November 15, 1997, their efforts culminated in "Building a Common Future," a dinner/conference at the Clarion Hotel in Millbrae, California with nearly 500 Jews and Palestinians in attendance. United States Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross was scheduled to speak; however he was delayed in an emergency meeting in the Middle East. Ross left a taped message for the participants praising the concept of dialogue and the group's efforts, and spoke to the group the next day.
        One of the participants in this historic event was Leah Harris, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Harris was deeply impressed with the spirit of cooperation and determination among the participants. She spent the 1996-97 academic year in the American University of Cairo in Egypt as a part of the University of California's Education Abroad Program. She also traveled extensively in the occupied territories and Israel, as well as Syria and southern Lebanon. From her conversations with Middle Easterners she came to the conclusion that dialogue is crucial if there is to be a lasting peace in the region. As part of her ongoing efforts to expose UCSC students to diverse viewpoints on the Middle East, Harris brought Palestinian peace activist Zoughbi Zoughbi to present a talk entitled "Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States." Due to the obvious interest of students who attended that lecture Harris saw the need for continuing education on Middle East issues at UCSC.
        As a result of her experiences in the Middle East, her interactions with students upon her return to campus, and her positive assessment of the Millbrae conference, Harris was inspired to ask her close friend Manal EI-Karra, a Palestinian student leader at UCSC, to write a joint invitation to the San Mateo Dialogue Group to facilitate a student dialogue at UCSC.
        Harris and EI-Karra envisioned a forum for students to freely exchange ideas, feelings, experiences, and opinions about the Middle East Peace Process. In her introduction to the event, Harris stressed that "the goal of the evening is not the critical process of debate that we as students are trained to use but rather to proclaim our own truths and to listen compassionately and with an open mind to the truths of others." EI-Karra spoke of her experiences from her family's native Gaza Strip.
        The original plan for the event was to have the panel give a presentation and field questions from students; then the students were to break into small dialogue groups of their own and report on their experiences. However, the small dialogue groups were never formed, as a strong feeling of intimacy prevailed in the room and students felt comfortable to stand up, introduce themselves, and speak from the heart.
        Palestinian panel member Nazih Malak left with a new sense of optimism. "I felt this event was phenomenal, especially to see young people working together. I think it is the younger generation who will make a difference." Israeli Oren Gottesman agreed. "It moves me very much to see how interested the young students are, and the concern about the past, present, and future situation in Israel." Shira Reich presented an American Jewish perspective. "I think it made me optimistic about Palestinian/Israeli relations. We have the opportunity to work together in the United States; maybe we can inspire the people in the Middle East."
        Deena Dorion, a senior at UCSC, said the dialogue helped her to get a sense of other students' boundaries. "The dialogue was successful in that it facilitated an environment where Jews and Arabs could somehow synthesize their goals of peace in Israel. For me, especially, it functioned as an educational tool; I learned my own boundaries by hearing other people, Jews and Arabs alike, discussing their boundaries."
        UCSC is not alone in its recent efforts to encourage support for the peace process through dialogue between Arabs and Jews. Other California campuses, including Stanford and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), have been involved in similar events. Last November, UCSD Hillel Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow Michael Rabkin organized a Yitzhak Rabin memorial, followed by a dialogue between Muslim and Jewish students. Rabkin plans to encourage further dialogues at UCSD.
        Representatives from Stanford's Israel Alliance (SIA) and the Organization of Arab American Students in Stanford (OASIS) have engaged in a number of cooperative efforts. Recently Palestinian scholar Fouad Moughrabi gave a lecture at Stanford entitled, "Living the Peace Process." Israeli political analyst Ehud Sprinzak and telecaster for Channel 1 in Israel Ehud Ya'ari have each given speeches at Stanford in recent months. SIA and OASIS also protested a screening of the movie "G.I. Jane", which both groups believe to contain offensive and stereotypical portrayals of Arabs.
        When Harris and EI-Karra were planning the dialogue at UCSC, the support they received was often offset by criticism from their fellow students, faculty, and community members. Most did not see the point of dialogue which stresses the slow process of community relationship building rather than quick and direct political action. However, the overwhelmingly positive response of both the student participants and the panel, as well as the diverse array of viewpoints that were expressed and exchanged, convinced EI-Karra and Harris that their effort was not in vain.
        If you want to promote a similar event on your campus please contact Len and Libby Traubman at 650-574-8303 or look at their extensive Web site

Ben Pastcan is a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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