As a Jewish dentist and a Palestinian businesswoman, we've learned a lot about reconciliation in our five-year-old Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue group. We know the process isn't easy. But after 65 meetings, we've moved from fear to trust, from alienation to cooperation. And if we can do it, others can too.
We began in 1992 with a handful of San Francisco Bay Area families who rejected the popular gloom and hopelessness of the seemingly endless violence in the Mideast. We had had success in the 1980s working with a grassroots movement called Beyond War, which focused on team-building between "enemies" - first Soviets and Americans, later Israelis and Palestinians.
We saw how face-to-face dialogue changes people. Realizing that American citizens and government are connected to events in the Middle East, it was time to put our global experience to use in our community.
Today we are 30 Americans - Jews and both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Several "others" moderate and lend support. Among us are Holocaust survivors and 20th-generation Palestinians.
"These are the worst of times, so why aren't you hopeless?" people ask us. "Why do you do it, when others want to quit?"
When we are separated by our history and suffering, overcome with anger and pride, we find inside ourselves an even stronger belief and knowing. It is the ancient insight of our common ancestor, Abraham, that all is one - we're interdependent and interconnected. We're neighbors. We want to learn to live together that way. We also believe what sociologist Margaret Mead said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
We've made progress, but now we feel rushed by what Ambassador Edward Djerejian, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, calls "the worst-case scenario," when violence from both sides is on the rise and the peace process is stalled.
So last Saturday night we gathered 420 Jewish and Palestinian Americans, and others, around dinner tables to begin changing the nature of our relationships. The hotel sign on Highway 101 said, "Welcome Jews and Palestinians Building a Common Future." It made it a fact before anyone walked through the doors.
The event was a view into the future of what can and must be. It was a missing part of the peace process - face-to-face relationship-building. Ambassador Dennis Ross, US envoy to the Middle East peace process, arrived late from emergency meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He acknowledged the hopes and limits of government negotiations and said, "Two things are required of everyone: empathy for one another, and imagination."
Harold Saunders, former assistant secretary of state and negotiator of the Camp David Accords, defined the "public peace process," asking people to participate in partnership with governments. "There are some things," he said, "that only governments can do, such as negotiating binding agreements. But there are some things that only citizens outside government can do, such as changing human relationships."
What do we expect? Participants said they were going home to redirect their ideas and energies - even their institutions and lives - away from the illusion of individual survival toward bridge-building activities. We hope they will make a difference. Yes, a miracle would help. But let's no longer doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. It's time.
* Lionel Traubman is a pediatric dentist in San Francisco. Nahida Salem, president of the Ramallah Club, lives in Belmont, Calif. More about the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue group can be found at www.igc.org/traubman/