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Talking Peace
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2006 blog


Talking Peace
panelists say
continued Palestinian-Jewish 
dialogues in U.S. necessary, March 21, 2006

By Donald H. Harrison

LONG BEACH, Calif.— In the wake of Palestinians turning to Hamas for political leadership, are dialogues between Palestinians and Jews living in the United States simply wishful thinking, or can they point a way to a peaceful future in the Middle East?  

Such was one of the questions asked by scholars at the Western Jewish Studies Association conference here on Sunday following the showing of Talking Peace, a documentary made last year by Mark Freeman, a San Diego State associate professor of theatre, television and film, on the Palestinian-Jewish Dialogues occurring in San Diego.|

No one knew the answer, of course, but the filmmaker expressed his belief in a ripple theory of history in which if you throw a rock into a pond, it can create ripples —the action of one can have an effect on many.

In his film, Freeman followed a group of San Diego dialoguers who included Rabbi Moshe Levin (who now occupies a pulpit in the San Francisco Bay area); George and Haifa Khoury, Nader and Afaf  Elbanna, Jamal Kanj,  Miko Peled (son of Israeli Gen. Matti Peled), Martin Stern;  hosts Doris Bittar and Jim Rauch, a Palestinian-Jewish married couple, and others.

SDSU Faculty members Mark Freeman, Lawrence Baron and Pat Boni

The film juxtaposes the different, yet similar "narratives" of the Jews and the Palestinians. Stern tells how his family were refugees from Hitler's Europe.  Jamal Kanj, in counterpoint, tells of living in a Palestinian refugee camp. Rabbi Levin tells how when he grew up he and other Jews were told that the only reason Palestinians lived in refugee camps were that the Arab countries refused to absorb them, whereas Israel absorbed Jewish refugees from Arab countries.  Nader Elbanna explains that when his family left Nazareth, they did so thinking they would return after the shooting stopped, but then the borders were closed.  Now a successful American businessman, he visited his family's home in Nazareth and was presented by his relatives with the key to his parents' former house, a key which he keeps close to his heart.

Elbanna also tells of serving in the Jordanian Army and experiencing a friend dying in his arms during warfare with Israel.  In counterpoint, Peled tells of his 14-year-old niece, Smader, being killed in a suicide bombing.  The film cuts to an interview with Peled's brother in law, Rami, the father of Smader.  After the shiva, he said, he realized he had two choices, to hate—but what good would that do, could it bring back his baby?—or to seek reconciliation.  He chose the latter, with his "mission in life" being "to go out to tell people we are not doomed"— that the cycle of violence between the two peoples can be changed. 

Afaf Elbanna, the wife of Nader, confides that she had been raised to hate Jews—and had not cared about their suffering—but that the stories told by Rami and Miko touched her.

Dialogue poses the idea that if people "really listen" to each other, and discover that underneath their political differences there are human commonalities, that eventually friendships can form.  Suspicions have to be overcome. Elbanna's first reaction to seeing Peled was that the general's son surely was an agent of the Mosad, but he later revised his opinion after seeing the young man wearing dual Israeli-Palestinian flags on his lapel.

Bittar, an artist who has exhibited a series of her portraits of Palestinians and Jews—coupled with each subject's personal narrative—says the dialogue has made her less dogmatic about what the solution in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be.   "I think all the Palestinians involved in dialogue have changed," she says.  Levin comes to a similar conclusion about Jews: that people don't want to live out their lives in anger, resentment and violence.

Freeman was joined  on a panel following the screening of his film at the conference by San Diego State University colleagues Prof. Lawrence Baron, director of the Jewish Studies Program, and  Pat Boni, a lecturer in religious studies who, among other interests, is active in "Progressive Grandmothers for Political Action."

Boni said one of the most difficult corners to turn in such dialogues is to get people to stop talking about what happened in the past and to start talking about possible solutions.  Freeman described dialoguing as an "organic process, with bottom up organization, that ebbs and flows according to the individuals." Baron noted that such efforts do not occur in a vacuum, that at San Diego State, the Judaic Studies Department brings an Israeli professor each year to teach on campus and that the Israeli may come from anywhere on the political spectrum.  He also recalled that the college in the past was the venue for quiet meetings among Israeli and Arab agricultural experts, with some of the Arabs coming from countries without formal relations with Israel.

There have been moments of epiphany during the dialogues, Boni said.  She told of a Syrian-born man who attended a dinner among dialoguers and said that he had been taught to hate Jews since he was a child.  "I was wrong," he confessed, with tears in his eyes.

Such a man stands in contrast to "extremists on both sides" who look at dialoguers as "sell outs and traitors," Freeman said.  

More information about the dialogues, or about obtaining a copy of the film for discussion purposes, may be found on Freeman's website.