Seeking understanding... one dinner at a time
In "living room dialogues," Jewish and Arab Americans talk as they eat - and work toward peace and harmony
It looks like an ordinary party - guests are arriving and greeting one another with hugs; many of them are carrying dishes of food. There is general joking, teasing, and catching up on what has happened the past few weeks. People help carry food out to the table in the living room, where a TV screen flickering in the corner adds to the casual, informal mood.Skip to next paragraph
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But a closer look reveals that the TV is tuned to an Arabic station - a first hint that this is not your usual neighborhood gathering. The real tip-off, though, is Jamal Kanj's guest list: Of the 10 or so people coming to his San Diego home this night, about half are Arab and half are Jewish.
And so, as Mr. Kanj, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, rushes to find a plate for his friend Miko Peled, grandson of founding Israeli Zionists, it's clear that the most important thing on the menu is the conversation.
This get-together is a once-a-month affair, an opportunity for Jews and Palestinians in the San Diego area to meet over tabouli, falafel, and latkes, and talk frankly - sometimes uncomfortably - about the historic divide that has kept their people at war for two generations.
It's part of Arab-Jewish Dialogue, a grass-roots movement that began in the 1980s and that has picked up new momentum in the United States since the Palestinian intifada began anew in 2000.
The idea behind these "living-room dialogues," as they're known, is that Jews and Arabs who come to know one another, who hear all the personal stories and dearly held beliefs, can help to build a will for peace.
The forum is nonpolitical, but the hope is that, as the circle of relationships widens, the political process will eventually respond to the popular will.
The national hub for these groups is in the Bay Area of northern California, where organizers Len and Libby Traubman are in the middle of their 10th year of Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
In San Diego, there are four groups - two of them started in the past year by James Rauch and Doris Bittar, a married couple who are Jewish and Lebanese, respectively, and deal with the Middle East conflict on the most personal of levels..
"I'm an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego," says Mr. Rauch. He begins the meeting with introductions for the benefit of at least one new attendee. Others follow, introducing themselves by their professions: "I'm an artist." "I'm a lawyer." "I'm a karate instructor."
As it comes to Rabbi Levin's turn, someone points out that perhaps they should be introducing themselves by stating whether they're Jewish or Arab.
"I'm Moshe Levin," says the rabbi, "and I think it's amazing that we went through four people without anyone saying that. I'm a rabbi commuting between San Diego and La Jolla."
Someone jokes: "But are you Jewish?"
Tonight's agenda is to take a frank look at the discussions so far, focusing what has worked and what hasn't. Mr. Levin and Palestinian Majeed Khoury talk of meaningful new relationships, but both want things to move forward, getting to more practical results.
Mr. Khoury complains that Levin asks him repeatedly what he thinks of Palestinian leadership, and then he announces in his booming voice: "I want him to tell me, once, what he thinks of Sharon and Jewish leadership."
People pause briefly at this outburst, then continue munching.