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Jewish Americans, Arab Americans Discuss Gaza Conflict in 'Peace Cafe'


As Israel's Gaza incursion continues and the fighting escalates, there are still people who believe peace is possible in the Middle East. As protesters around the world voice opposition to Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, Jewish and Arab Americans are meeting in a cafe in Washington D.C. and are having a different kind of dialogue.

It's called the Peace Cafe, started eight years ago by Iraqi American Anas Shallal. He is working to bring people with different views together, to foster understanding so one day the conflict will end.

"The results of the Peace Cafe aren't always tangible. They are personal and they are internal. And so they are not seen necessarily immediately," Shallal said. "The impact of the Peace Cafe is really on an individual level. It is about changing people's perception of each other."

Almost 50 people attended the weekend of Israel's ground incursion into Gaza. There were plans for an update by phone from Palestinian human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti in Ramallah. But the phone lines were jammed. So, Anas opened up the floor for people to speak their mind.

A Jewish woman whose brother was killed by a Hezbollah rocket in 2006 took the microphone.

"We can't be dismissive of injustice on either side," she said. "I think that if we want to go back, we can go back to 1933 where my relatives were killed in Czechoslovakia or your relatives may too."

She was followed by a young Arab man who had a different view.

"I think that everyone would agree that attacking civilians is bad, and this will cause casualties and this should be stopped," he said. "But you can't...like what is happening now is practically genocide."

Anas Shallal reminded people that Peace Cafe is not a forum for debate. But rather, a chance to transform one's own understanding of conflict by sharing personal experiences and feelings.

"If you came here to convince somebody of your point of view you are not going to win. You are going to walk away really frustrated," he cautioned participants. "I just want to sort of put a reality check for people here. We are not here to change U.S. policy. We are not here to change anything except ourselves."

Later, people discussed the situation in small groups. David Wolinsky, who is Jewish, says it is hard to leave one's past and move forward toward understanding and peace.

"Coming from the Holocaust and anyone from my generation has it, and probably the next generation too, has it in the back of their mind all the time," he said. "And because of that it is very hard to think straight. Especially about your enemies."

Rubin Stein, an expert in conflict resolution, says we need to stop looking at conflict as a sport with winners and losers.

"We need to realize that when people put their lives at risk, and they take other people's lives, that is because there are basic human needs that are not being satisfied," Stein said. "So what are those needs and how can they be satisfied, those are the questions."

Anas Shallal will continue to bring people together at Peace Cafe each month. His hope is to one day end the conflict by transforming each side's perception of the other.

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