By Joshua B Brustein
A middle aged Palestinian couple from Nablus, a town on the West
Bank, sat on a couch flanked by two former Israeli soldiers. An
American Jewish woman sat next to an Arab Israeli man. The group
of people at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture on this hot
day come from Iran and Philadelphia, Manhattan and Yemen. They were
all here to participate in a monthly meeting of the Dialogue
Project, which tries to bring together Jews and Palestinians
to learn about the Middle East through one another's eyes.
After the group went through a round of introductions, Debbie
Almontaser, an observant Muslim wearing a hijab, turned to the
man next to her to ask a question. He is Benny Dazidovitch, a light
skinned Israeli with a shaved head, and one of the men in the room
who served in the Israeli army during the first intifada (uprising).
Dazidovitch had recently returned from Israel, and Almontaser wanted
to know how being a member of the dialogue project caused him to
change his outlook while he was in his home country.
Dazidovitch admits to being disappointed in his own attitude while
he was in Israel. "After being in this group and getting to
know the other, I had a self-expectation to be more
sensitive," he starts, "But I had a hard time sympathizing
when I was there. [When Im in the Middle East] Im Israeli,
Im a target, and my physical being is in danger."
Achmad Samhan, a Palestinian restaurateur, offers his own experience
in Palestine as a parallel to Dazidovitchs. "The same
thing you feel, that youre a target, its happening with
me," he tells Dazidovitch from across the room. "How can
I tell my nephews about dialogue when they are getting smacked around
like rag dolls?" Frustration and anger are evident in the young
mans voice. "You want to go home with a different mindset
but as soon as you get off the airplane this is what you
Samhan and Dazidovitch have been talking like this for over a year.
Now, instead of seeing difficult or conflicting feelings as a barrier
to understanding, they use them to find common ground. This wasnt
always the case.
When they first started coming to the group, says Marcia Kannry,
the groups founder, "they couldnt even look at
each other." Since then they have become more and more friendly.
Now, she says, when Dazidovitch comes to a meeting and Samhan is
already sitting down, the Israeli greets the Palestinian with an
affectionate squeeze on the shoulder.
This has not been an easy jump to make. Samhans visit to
the Middle East shook him enough that he did not come to a meeting
for three months. Kannry enlisted members of the group to try and
convince him to return. "One by one we all kept going over
to his restaurant, or calling him. And he came back," Kannry
smiles as she talks about the program after the meeting has ended.
"He couldnt stay away."
Across the room, Samhan and Dazidovitch stand in a small circle
with a few other members, chatting and snacking on the pita bread
and hummus that has been laid out on a table in the corner.
The Dialogue Project has been meeting since March 2001. Kannry
decided to start the group after she was personally sickened by
Ariel Sharons walk on the Temple Mount, the action that sparked
the second Palestinian intifada.
Kannry was born in Long Island, but spent five years in Israel
in the 1970s and 1980s. While in Israel Kannry became engaged. But
her fiancee, an Israeli soldier, was killed in an ambush by Palestinian
militants. Trying to "keep [her] heart open", but also
feeling herself becoming more hawkish politically, Kannry felt conflicted.
Eventually she returned to the United States.
In New York, Kannry once again found herself in a Jewish community
with Arab neighbors. And the current cycle of violence in the Middle
East worsened, she began to see things happening in that community
that made her feel uncomfortable. "I was upset," said
Kannry, "because in the synagogue
every conversation was
they, they, they, they." Eventually, she had to leave, because
she felt that the charged atmosphere was not a place she could consider
her spiritual home.
Tensions between Jewish and Arab Americans were heating up throughout
Brooklyn at this time. In the Brooklyn hospitals and schools, many
which have mixed staffs, people were reporting terrible comments
being thrown back and forth. Casual social interactions between
Jewish and Arab New Yorkers turned cold. Many people agreed that
there was "a hesitancy or pulling back where there had once
been friendly banter."
Kannry began to organize a large, public forum, looking for supporters
in the local business and religious communities. She sought out
the support of State Senator (now Brooklyn Borough President) Marty
Markowitz, and State Assemblyman Jim Brennan . Both made donations,
and Markowitz wrote an official letter of support which Kannry took
to local businesses in the area, asking for help. Soon she collected
the $800 she needed.
Debbie Almontaser was the first Arab member of the group. She is
a Brooklyn community activist and teacher whose family immigrated
to New York from Yemen when she was three years old. Almontaser
admits to being very hesitant at first. But she got together to
have a cup of coffee with Kannry anyway. The two hit it off, and
after what turned into a three-hour meeting Almontaser was convinced
of the potential of the idea.
Almontaser then began to look for participants from Brooklyns
Arab communities. This was a difficult task, but one that became
easier as the Dialogue Project gained a reputation. "It was
unheard of," said Almontaser. "When I would mention it
to people they would look at me like I had lost it something. But
[I continued] talking to them and introducing them to other members
of the project and letting them know about this safe space that
[we] have within the circle. The desire to be able to share your
beliefs and concerns, and to be heard, was there. People let their
guard down and started coming."
The Dialogue Project sets out to create a confidential place, that
fosters a sense of safety, allowing participants to speak honestly
while also listening to the opinions of others that would not hear
otherwise. In the casual social situations where Jews and Arabs
regularly meet at school, work, or in the street there
is often a careful attempt to avoid tension. This can be damaging,
says Kannry, as people nod their heads and keep their mouths shut,
only to walk away fuming.
While there is a measure of respect demanded, the dialoguers do
not pull punches. "Sometimes dialogues can be shouting matches,"
Kannry said to the group, who responded with a knowing laughter.
The Dialogue Project is growing. There are currently 7 circles
in the New York area, and a waiting list of participants that tops
1,000. An Interface project has brought non-Muslims to a mosque
and non-Jews to a synagogue the same synagogue that Kannry
left two years before. Short-term dialogues have been set up in
schools and workplaces. After September 11th, dialogues have allowed
people to deal with tensions between Muslim-Americans and non-Muslim
Americans. A foundation grant to take participants to the Middle
East together is in the works. Eventually, Kannry hopes to have
20 or 30 circles throughout the area.
The groups members are also preparing for September 11th.
A Palestinian-Jewish musical performance will be taking place at
Manhattans Society for Ethical Culture. Kannry plans to go
there for "dialogue around the music" on the 11th,
after visiting a synagogue for prayer. She will also take part in
the vigil that Debbie Almontaser is planning for the Brooklyn waterfront.
The vigil will be a walk from Atlantic Avenue to the Brooklyn Heights
promenade. Almontaser is also involved in a candlelight vigil planned
for Washington Square Park.
The events that the Dialogue Project organizes are meant to help
its members heal from the wounds that ethnic and religious tensions
have caused. One thing that the project does not hope to accomplish
is a theory for a political solution. The goal is more personal,
says Kannry, who hopes that participating in the dialogue will allow
people to start to discuss these issues with the people in the communities
who dont come to meetings. This is a difficult task. As an
exercise in the meeting at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture,
the participants were asked how comfortable they would be talking
to their families about co-existence. Many said not very. But the
effort breeds confidence. "Perhaps there will be a time when
we can be ambassadors to our own families here," says Kannry.
"To that village thats being occupied. To my family,
after my fiancee was killed. To his family. Who cant hear
right now. I can have the courage to go and speak up."