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Temple Beth Sholom

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San Leandro, CA 94577
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Friday, November 17, 2000


By Sam McManis

BERKELEY -- Mosques are firebombed in a small West Bank village, and it can be felt clear over in Lafayette. Suicide bombers strike in central Jerusalem, and the hurt and sorrow reverberate deeply in San Mateo. The forever fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process once more dissolves faster than a single tear drop, and activists in San Francisco and Berkeley feel personally attacked.

For many Bay Area people of Jewish and Palestinian ancestry, the renewed fighting in Gaza and the West Bank is more than just another sad, unfortunate news story to absorb before starting the morning commute.

They feel it, personally, some 7,000 miles away. They are members of four Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Groups in the Bay Area in the East Bay and the Peninsula, and two in San Francisco who are trying to promote mutual understanding of cultural, political and religious differences that divide the warring factions in the Middle East and alienate those of Jewish and Muslim ancestry in the United States.

"There's nothing that replaces human contact, really just hearing each other's stories and discovering our common humanity," said Len Traubman, a San Mateo dentist who founded the first group in 1992. "There are things that governments can do that people cannot writing and fulfilling treaties. But treaties are just cold pieces of paper. What citizens can do is change the nature of relationships. That's the missing part of the peace process. There's no trust. The people back there have not seen each other as human and equal."

Here, though, trust, mutual respect and understanding have been attained. But not easily. And certainly not on every issue. That's not the point, said Hanan Rasheed of Danville.

"My goal is to break the stereotypes of Palestinian people and bring the truth (to the Jews) about what's been going on in Palestine for the past 52 years," she said. "And when they do a project, it's to promote their people. Our group has an understanding that there's no balance between Israel and Palestine. But at least listen to the other side."

The groups, which have different names but were all Traubman's brainchild, meet monthly to express their views on such touchy issues as control of Haram al Sharif (Jews call it the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem, occupation of the West Bank and the mere right for one another to exist. Members go to schools, mosques and synagogues to explain the complicated, decades-long conflict and try to educate others as to their beliefs.

In addition to decrying Israeli-Palestinian separatism, the groups also send financial aid and supplies to such places as a day care center in Netanya, Israel, and to clinics in Ramallah, Palestine. For months, the East Bay group has been helping a hospital in Hebron treat Palestinians with breast cancer, women whose condition would otherwise be ignored given the daily casualties of the conflict.

But the primary purpose of the meetings, members say, is to listen to the others' viewpoints and try to reach some understanding. Solutions to the deep-seated ethnic and religious conflict are mostly left to the diplomats and politicos.

In the past month, since peace talks have fallen apart and violence renewed, tensions also have risen exponentially among group members in the Bay Area.

Two Sundays ago, just after right-wing Israeli Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, the East Bay group met at Fay Straus' home in Lafayette. Straus, of Jewish heritage, said emotions ran high, rhetoric became more impassioned, but that attendance was even higher than usual.

"The relationships we've established have held strong," she said. "But that's not to say there wasn't a lot of grief and pain."

For some of Palestinian ancestry, such as Said Nuseibeh, a photographer and native San Franciscan, the resumption of violence makes him wonder whether the sides can ever peacefully coexist. He said he senses anger from Palestinian expatriates in the Bay Area.

"It's very raw, very volatile right now," Nuseibeh said. "People are circling their wagons, as it were. But at least we're still meeting. And at least we're still trying to bring people together in nonconfrontational situations to reduce the fear and anxiety. But, I sometimes think, in the wake of the current (Middle East) situation, is there anything we could do? I don't know."

Still, they try, because "we cannot lose hope," said Nahida Salem, a Palestinian member of the Peninsula group.

Hope often is expressed in gestures and fund-raising -- and consciousness- raising -- events.

The San Francisco group, for instance, displayed an Arab peace quilt at a Jewish community center in June. The East Bay group raised money for medical supplies in May by hosting a concert in Berkeley featuring an Israeli cellist and a Palestinian violinist playing together. Another San Francisco group, the Alliance of Middle Eastern Scientists and Physicians, an assemblage of 25 medical professionals from the University of California at San Francisco, is raising $300,000 to train Israeli and Palestinian nurses and doctors in the United States.

And the Peninsula group has a long history of helping. In fact, Traubman hosted a dinner at a Millbrae hotel in November 1997 that spawned the East Bay and San Francisco groups to organize.

It was called "Building a Common Future," and its goal was to have Jews and Palestinians break bread and, it was hoped, break cultural stereotypes. More than 400 people attended -- including 225 Jews and 150 Palestinians -- and it was billed as the largest such event in the United States. Traubman made sure each table centerpiece had white paper doves, real olive branches and name tags in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Peace envoy Dennis Ross was keynote speaker.

Rasheed, and her husband, Adham, attended the dinner and were so inspired that they proposed to Traubman that they start a dialogue group for the East Bay. Rasheed grew up near Ramallah and still has family and friends there, so the peace process takes on urgency for her.

The East Bay group is by far the most political and activist of the four. Not that members are of one mind, though. Meetings often resemble Camp David peace talks. The difference, members said, is that the East Bay group actually gets things done.

"We're called the 'Just Do It' group," Straus said.

One thing the East Bay group does is take the Middle East issue to the broader public. Rasheed and Rabbi Harry Manhoff, of Beth Sholom in San Leandro, have spoken together at schools, mosques and temples where most in the audience don't grasp reasons for the dispute.

Manhoff explains the history of the region from biblical times to 1948, at the establishment of the Jewish state. Rasheed talks about the Palestine after Israeli occupation.

"Then we throw it open to people to ask questions, see if they can solve it," Manhoff said, chuckling. "We've also done it at my synagogue. A couple of years ago, there was a PBS special, 'The Fifty Years War,' about the conflict. We watched it together, Jews and Palestinians. It was fascinating, very intense. Everyone tried to listen to the other side, hard as it was."

Both activists have been under fire by nationalists. Manhoff said that members of his congregation "roll their eyes and say, 'There he goes again.'" Rasheed said her Muslim friends simply don't believe that the group can make a difference.

"Disappointment is hard to take," Rasheed said. "We keep going to our people and saying we've got to keep the dialogue open with Israelis and then you have Israeli security forces and illegal settlers committing all these atrocities. After that, our people don't believe us anymore. It's like they throw water in our faces. Every time our people believe in someone, they have a massacre.

"After the latest (violence), it's going to be hard to come back to my fellow Palestinians and say, 'This is just a bad month, let's start all over again.' If people keep getting promised and they don't deliver, then they'll stop believing you. It's been like that since 1994 (and the Oslo Agreement)."

Manhoff said he endures criticism by devoutly Zionist loyalists in hopes of making Palestinians understand the Jewish position.

"I'm in the unique position of being an ultra, ultra liberal in my synagogue and being the right-winger in my dialogue group," he said. "I am an ardent Zionist. I believe in the right of the Jewish state to exist. But my idea is for us to listen and learn about each other. Others in the group believe we should take political stands. But I don't get a lot of purpose out of the dialogue if the purpose is to agree.

"The reason the group tolerates me is that I've taken a lot of stands for human rights that they respect. I've condemned the Israeli government when I thought it was wrong, and I certainly condemned the Palestinians when I thought they were wrong. The group knows I'm honestly concerned about bettering the situation."

Betterment through talk wasn't what Nuseibeh had in mind when he accepted Traubman's invitation six months ago to attend one of the first San Francisco chapter meetings. Nuseibeh, co-author of a book called "Dome of the Rock" about the Haram al Sharif, said he shared the skepticism of other Palestinian Americans whom he said feel like outsiders.

"Talk? Well, talk hasn't gotten us very far, has it?" he said. "That's what the Palestinian community says. We've got so much trouble just trying to build our own community and deal with aggression that we think talk won't work."

But then, Nuseibeh attended a meeting.

"I had a good experience, and I'm thinking it can help," he said. "The fact we can share our culture traditions and deal with them in a nonviolent way helps us understand one another. It's too bad a lot of the really strong pro- Zionists are no longer participating. Most of the Jewish members are sympathetic to Palestinian concerns."

Can these living room summits help mend differences and help bring peace to the region?

Well, there's a difference of opinion on that, too.

"So, what do we do? Do we just continue to jabber at each other and make it a feel-good situation?" Nuseibeh asked. "I don't know. In the wake of current events, is there really anything we could do?"

But Salem remains hopeful.

"Yes, Jews and Palestinians living here are different from the ones living there, where there's so much tension," she said. "But we are at least making an effort. I say, don't lose hope. There's always hope."

---- How to Join

To join the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Groups in your area, contact Len Traubman or Nahida Salem at (650) 574-8303. The group's Web site is at http://www.igc.org/traubman

To reach Sam McManis by e-mail, smcmanis@sfchronicle.com .

© 2000 San Francisco Chronicle