Efforts to bring an end to the more-than-half-century-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians have ranged from boycotts to international summits to secret diplomacy. Jan Sluizer tells us about a California couple trying to bring peace to the Middle East with a project based on the philosophy that enemies can build positive relationships when they are willing to listen and talk with each other.
In 1984, Len and Libby Traubman visited the Soviet Union to see for themselves if it really was 'The Evil Empire' they had always heard it was. Their experiences in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev convinced the Traubmans that Russians were not the enemy, but rather, as Len Traubman says, 'a smart, beautiful, and cultured people.'
Back in the United States, the couple devoted themselves to building American-Soviet relationships through dialogue. When the cold war ended, they took the lessons they'd learned and applied them to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We realized that almost no Jews and almost no Palestinians here in North America or the Middle East have had an in-depth sustained relationship," Len Traubman explains. "These are two people who don't know each other. There is a huge disconnect."
They began the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue out of their San Mateo, California home in July, 1992, and recently held their 168th meeting.
On this night, there are 18 participants, a diverse group consisting of Israelis, Palestinian Muslims and Christians, American and Mexican Jews, holocaust survivors and Armenians. At the start of the meeting, Libby Traubman reminds everyone that the goal is to build relationships through verbal give and take. "There are lots of opinions here tonight," she tells her guests. "I noticed as were gathered around the table of food that people were talking about some things that are on their minds and hearts. So we want to make sure tonight that we practice our best dialogue and we can take in what people are thinking and feeling and really listen and try our best as we usually do to not jump in on each other but to really listen to each other as we move around the room."
And so, perspectives and ideas fly for two hours. A Palestinian man points out, "We own property there. Still have all the deeds to the property and at one point I hope I can exercise those deeds and I could live with Israelis in my homeland." A Holocaust survivor responds, "My family was kicked out of their homes, too, and they can't get them back. My family from Poland and from Russia, they can't get their houses back. They lived there for many, many generations and they're not getting their stuff back." The Palestinian persists, "What's wrong with sharing one acre out of the 50 you took from me? That's all I want."
Palestinian-American Adel Nazzal was born in Ramallah in 1948, the year Israel became a state. Having grown up in refugee camps, witnessing the horror of war first-hand, Nazzal has devoted his life to peace. He says he joined the dialogue because political leaders have failed and this grassroots movement represents the best path towards peace.
"This group, I think, helps in the fact that it humanizes the other side," he explains. "There's a lot of misconceptions, people come in with an awful lot of baggage. Jews or Israelis have bad images of Palestinians; Palestinians have bad images of Israelis and a group like this, especially when we meet in each others' houses, share each others' food, we share a lot of trips together, I think that humanizes the other side, makes them more human."
Many at tonight's meeting have been getting together once a month for many years because they believe they are making a difference -- even if family and friends are skeptical about their involvement, insisting it's a waste of time. Members of the dialogue say that time spent building on-going, authentic relationships, face-to-face, and getting involved in each others' lives in a relaxed atmosphere has corrected stereotypes and helped each side understand the other's historical perspectives.
And while they acknowledge that conditions in the United States make it easier for Palestinians, Jews and Israelis to meet freely if they choose, they say their personal progress shows that dialogue can help bring about a similar understanding on a larger scale, in the Middle East.
As evidence of its value, Len Traubman points out that 14 years after holding that first Jewish-Palestinian dialogue in their California living room, similar discussions are being held on a regular basis in more than 60 homes across the United States and Canada.