ARNOLD, Maryland - In November, 2002, sixteen people, half of them Jewish- ad half Arab-American, met an hour north of New York City for a weekend dialogue workshop. Most of them had not dared anything like this before. When they gathered Friday evening for introductions, anxiety was visible on all the participants' faces. The mistrust was palpable.
One participant had served in the Israeli Army decades ago. It seemed to some of us that his only previous conversations with Arabs had been while he was holding a rifle and they were answering his questions. The introductions caused some nervous laughter and an amazing process began. Seldom in our lives had we been compelled to more directly face our own prejudices.
A few months prior, I agreed to have dinner with a man named Zachary Berk. He is Jewish and I am of Syrian/Lebanese ancestry. We met to discuss creating an organization to promote Mideast peace. We were not sure whether we could overcome our suspicions and be able to collaborate, but nonetheless quickly became friends. We are both businessmen and were anti-Viet Nam war activists in college. We discussed our mutual admiration for Martin Luther King and non-violent movements like Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to free India.
We ultimately decided that we would take the risk and organize our first peace retreat. He would recruit Jewish participants and I would recruit Arab participants. It proved more challenging than we anticipated. Most people were either too uncomfortable or rejected the idea as a waste of time that would lead to nothing. Committing to spend a weekend with a group of strangers, half of whom you might really dislike, is not most people's idea of fun.
But we ultimately coaxed enough participants to attend and we found ourselves uncomfortably sitting in a circle to hear each other's life stories on a Friday evening at a Girl Scout Retreat Center. Most participants found the interaction very stressful. I was not sure if this social experiment would explode into a screaming match lacking all constructive communication. If that happened, the opinions people held would just be reinforced.
The attitudes that evening reflected years of frustration with the other side. The Jewish participants expressed anguish at suicide bombers, religious extremists consumed by blind hatred and years of Arab rejections to Israeli overtures of peace. The Arab participants complained of the suffering, oppression, and humiliation endured by the Palestinians and Israeli rejections of Arab overtures to make peace. Much of the interaction was exactly what we would all expect of such a group. It seemed unlikely to change any minds or hearts.
We broke for dinner and ensured that there were an equal number of Jewish and Arab guests at each table. As we broke bread together, the dialogue was more civil. People described their families, and even childhood memories. There was laughter, and with it, a miraculous process began to unfold.
On Saturday, we broke into small groups and did role reversal exercises. We created scenarios in which Arab participants would play the role of an Israeli soldier, or settler. The Jewish participants would assume the role of a Palestinian teenager in a refugee camp, or a Palestinian parent struggling to find work and raise a family.
We did other exercises that exposed private inner feelings and by that afternoon, many had gotten emotional. Some described hardship and suffering endured by their parents and tears were shed. People became increasingly honest about their feelings as they opened up to the group. Our common humanity was becoming evident to everyone involved.
By Sunday afternoon, as we said our goodbyes, the transformation was shocking. Miraculously, somehow we had all become sincere friends. Many joked, hugged and made plans to gather for dinner reunions. Most agreed that this weekend had changed them profoundly.
After that success, we held several more weekend retreats with similar groups. The results were consistently encouraging. The lesson was clear: given an opportunity to experience another person's life and views in a non-threatening, safe environment, most people's prejudices are mitigated. Negative stereotyping becomes much harder to accept when you have good friends who contradict that stereotype. It seems obvious to us that if real Mideast peace is ever realized, it will come when we can acknowledge and address our common hopes and fears.
* George A. Gorayeb lives near Annapolis, Maryland and still promotes Jewish-Arab dialogue. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 16 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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