Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Mid-East Dialog Groups


Mid-East Dialog Groups:

Building a Grass-Roots Force for Peace

Ami Isseroff

Introduction

The Middle-East is notorious as the focal point of numerous small conflicts and one big one: the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the result of a century of errors, political intrigue, and the head-on collision of two national movements.

A small measure of hope came into our region when the dialog and peace efforts of many individuals and governments bore first fruits in the signing of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the signing of the Oslo treaties between the Israelis and the Palestinians. These events are part of what is known as "the peace process," a long, arduous, and often discouraging journey back from the edge of despair to the beginning of hope.

Many have the impression that the 'peace process' is just a phrase or a label for a political process, some decry it as a hoax. It is no secret that the Oslo agreements have been bitterly and vigorously attacked from the first by doctrinaire opponents on both sides. The delays in implementation and violations on both sides have lent legitimacy to the 'anti-Oslo' sentiment and generated pessimism about the possible success of the 'peace process.' In fact however, there is another dimension to the peace process, beyond political haggling, that may be of equal or greater importance. It is the fostering of a genuine social process that will hopefully survive and support an eventual rapprochement, even if the current peace negotiations fail. This process began before the Oslo agreements, was in part responsible for bringing them about, and received a great impetus from the public, political peace process.

The agreements, the attendant media publicity, and the examples of leaders, have slowly, and with great difficulty, brought about a basic change in the attitudes of a small but growing segment of the population on both sides. This includes not only those who were active for peace and dialog before the beginning of the 'peace process,' but also politicians, journalists, and people from all walks of life. These people had, if but for a moment, a glimpse of a better future, and are becoming convinced that we must build that future despite the very real obstacles in our path.

How the PEACE Group Began

The PEACE dialog group was born in February of 1998, when an Israeli software consultant and technical writer answered a letter on an Internet forum from a Jordanian free-lance journalist and Web-page designer. Two 'just plain folks': myself and Ameen Hannoun. Ameen's letter struck me because he said, essentially, "If the future of the Middle East will look like the past, there is no hope for any of us here. Let's forget about history and try to build the future based on friendship and mutual respect." We exchanged letters about the next step. Despite the peace treaties, travel between Jordan and Israel is still cumbersome because of visa restrictions and fees, so we decided that we should begin with an e-mail newsletter and Web pages. I wrote a 'letter from a friend and neighbor' that Ameen could use for recruiting among his friends in Jordan. Ameen wrote a recruiting letter for me. In this way, we had 'evidence' that the other side was in earnest, which we could use to persuade the skeptics. It seemed like a quixotic venture based on the most naive premises, initiated by two people who should know better. A friend wrote that he doubted very much whether a Jordanian student and a middle-aged Israeli technical writer could contribute very much to the cause of peace. I had to agree with him, but I had to try in any event.

We thought that if we could find a dozen people who would be interested in this project, we could consider it a success. Within a few weeks, we had about eighty participants, many of them active contributors. We now have about seven hundred. We publish a weekly political column and a dialog forum newsletter. The latter is a platform for debate, a vehicle for telling members about other dialog efforts, and a means of securing support for letter writing campaigns and other initiatives we hope to take in the future.

PEACE is Not Alone

We were surprised to find that we were not alone at all. There are dozens of Mid-East dialog efforts of every description both in the Middle East and abroad. Many of them did not know - and many others still do not know - about each other. Len Traubman of the Living Room Dialog Group in California found us, and told us about another group in Basle Switzerland, as well as several in the U.S. Later, we found people in our 'own back yard" who runn face-to-face dialog meetings, organizing dialog through culture (see article by Ada Aharoni in OJPCR 1.1), and run professionally mediated dialog encounters, such as those at the Arab-Jewish community Neveh Shalom. Sa'ida Nusseibeh in London, who has been engaged in these efforts well before the 'peace process" began officially, told us of the varied dialog and peace efforts in Europe. Many of the smaller groups had the illusion, as we did, that they were more or less alone. PEACE has tried to help bring these people together.

I am also active in a small face-to-face dialog group that meets in a restaurant near Qalqilia in the occupied West Bank. The struggles, and the successes-or failures, of this group reflect the objective and subjective problems of establishing such dialogs in our area: language barrier, ubiquitous checkpoints, security fears of Israelis entering the occupied territories, and Palestinian concern that they will be viewed as "collaborators."

Varieties of Dialog

There are different approaches as to what should be part of the agenda of a dialog group, reflecting the circumstances of the group and personalities of the initiators. Some Arab-Jewish groups, especially those in the U.S. and Europe, may be limited to exchanging recipes, discussing the weather, and agreeing to disagree about politics.

In the Middle East it is impossible to ignore the issues. This is true of PEACE, as well of face-to-face dialog meeting groups in which I have participated. It is necessary to take a stand. Palestinians under Israeli rule are reluctant to identify themselves with a group that includes Israelis, until they are reassured that we are not identified with the official government line, and so are Israelis. The suspicions and fears on both sides are deep and ingrained, almost instinctive. Groups such as the Palestine-Israel peace group in Basle have drawn up formal declarations regarding principles of a settlement. PEACE is working on a similar declaration, as is the restaurant dialog group in Qalqilya. We have few illusions that these individual efforts will influence the outcome of peace negotiations, but they are a reassurance to our participants that they are doing the right thing by being with us and a platform for recruiting support.

Dealing With Events

PEACE has not hesitated to take stands on individual issues and to criticize national leadership on both sides. It is impossible for an Israeli involved in such activity to avoid the "Left" labels and it is impossible for a Palestinian or Arab to avoid the "apologist" labels that are attached to us by extremists on either side.

We cannot avoid discussion of the events that occur around us every day. It would be hypocritical and unrealistic to discuss the soccer scores and the hot weather and ignore the house demolitions, shootings, extremist statements by Palestinian leaders, terrorist acts, and other "colorful" events of the Middle East. We have found that by expressing compassion and fairness, trying to understand such events and to find ways to prevent them, dialogs such as PEACE can survive and grow stronger. What we are trying to do, and perhaps very slowly succeeding, is to instill the sense that there are three sides to the conflict - the adversarial "sides" represented by the leaderships of both nations and the side represented by all of those seeking a solution.

Cases in point are the shootings of Palestinians that occurred at the Tarqumiah checkpoint in March and the tragic events of Naqba riots in May. Naqbah means catastrophe in Arabic. To counter Israel's fiftieth anniversay celebrations, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) held large demonstrations on 14 May 1998. These turned violent, resulting in the deaths of several Palestinians. We could not ignore this, yet as I turned to write about it, I had the feeling that nothing I could say would be right. This is what I wrote:

 

The PNA planned an especially large demonstration for the fiftieth Naqba. The result, sad to say, was a repetition in miniature of the original Naqba. Another layer of hate, and another set of casualties were added to our already superabundant supply. Nobody profited from this, except extremists on either side.

Each side will have their own version. The Israelis will cite Palestinian violence, forgetting that Palestinians and not Israelis were killed. The Palestinians will remember only their dead and wounded, forgetting the violence that began the engagement. Already, each side is busy blaming the other. It would seem to be high time that each side study its own mistakes and pay careful attention to how to prevent them in the future.

Like the protagonists of an improbable Greek tragedy, each side seems condemned to repeat the same mistakes for eternity: the same disastrous actions, and the equally disastrous reactions, that began the conflict, are reenacted in infinite variations at each turn of the wheel. Each such incident leaves behind another day of mourning, another reason for hate, and plants the seed of retaliation that will be the basis of the next incident.

For a brief time not long ago, there was the beginning of a genuine hope that at last the tragic circle would be broken, and the great Semitic tragedy of the twentieth century would have, if not a happy end, at least a peaceful and reasonable one.

Perhaps that is not to be, but we must not give up hope that one day both nations will celebrate their national birthdays in peace and mutual respect.

(View Points PEACE dialog Forum 15.5.98)

A Careful Balance

The daily events and history of our area generate a great deal of news, mostly bad. Massacres, stabbings, kidnappings, house demolitions, firebombs, extremist statements, mobs screaming about holy war, and soccer fans screaming "death to the Arabs," form the backdrop of all attempts at dialog in the Middle East, including ours. These events are featured in the media. Certain groups, including those who announce that they are for peace, specialize in amplifying these events. Anything hateful that can be said about either side is "news": prostitution in Israel, corruption in the PNA. An Israeli officer insulting a Palestinian University official was the occasion for a Web display that lasted over a year, serving to perpetuate the event and amplify the hate.

If there is no news, then news is invented: "the city of Ashqelon is radioactive," "a Washington pro-Arab Mid-East lobby group assassinated PM Rabin." Well meaning PEACE readers send us items about vicious statements of PNA officials or Israel government actions, or historical incidents, and ask "Is this true?" Very often it is true. We cannot ignore these items entirely. We try to remember that part of what we are trying to do is change this reality. We try to persuade Web masters and journalists and forum moderators to present a more balanced and less hate-filled view of the Middle-East, to help solve the problem rather than spreading the hate that is part of the problem. In some cases we are successful. Others tell us that we are limiting "freedom of the press" and that they want to "hear all sides of the question."

Perceptions

The biggest job of dialog is changing basic perceptions. The two "sides" have nurtured their belief-systems, self image, and image of the other in total isolation, each in the conviction that they are right, of course, and that all "decent people" believe as they do.

To a large extent, each side view themselves as "innocent victims" and the other side as "perpetrators." Palestinians see themselves as dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Israelis see Palestinians as terrorists and aggressors. Palestinians see Israelis as all-powerful conquerors, and themselves as helpless victims. Israelis look at  Israeli soldiers and see in them their precious little children. Palestinians look at the same soldiers and see instruments of occupation and oppression. An Israeli settler is convinced that "everybody" has agreed that the settlements will never be returned to Palestinian sovereignty. A Palestinian is convinced that "everybody" agrees that Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians alone, and that "everybody knows" that the war in 1948 was begun by the Zionists.

Breaking the Ice

Dialog groups, both e-mail and face-to-face encounters in the Mid-East, have to overcome the very strong social and psychological barriers to communication that have been erected on both sides. A typical reaction when soliciting new members is "I must first know if you are really for peace." Each side is afraid of the social condemnation of their peers for "talking to the enemy." Each side is afraid that they are being inveigled in a seditious group or a brainwashing initiative. A Palestinian wrote "My mind is the last unoccupied territory." Recruiting a new participant, even convincing them to be on the mailing list without participating, often requires many hours of dialog in itself.

The Toughest Cases

Apart from self-declared opponents of peace, the toughest cases, the most difficult people to persuade, are those who are already committed to a particular political peace solution. They do not see people and facts, only ideological abstractions and stereotypes: "Zionist expansionists" "Right-Wing Zionist Propaganda," "Arab Propaganda," and "Blood thirsty Arab Masses." It is possible that some of the layers of ideological non-thought and hate can be dissolved by the chemistry of personal contact, but some of these people have engaged in face-to-face dialogs with little noticeable effect. They have lost the will and the capacity to listen, and may never regain it, because their entire sense of self, and often of their mission in life, is bound up with hating and fighting the other side.

Publicity

Lack of publicity is a persistent problem for dialog and peace groups. A group that takes an extreme political position is likely to attract media attention, especially if they hold a public demonstration accompanied by violence. Dialog groups and dialog efforts do not. A Palestinian-Israeli dialog conference was held recently (July 1998) in Rhodes, between Palestinian and Israeli journalists and politicians. Possibly a landmark event, and somewhat unique in that it brought together people from all parts of the political spectrum from both sides, it received the most minimal and perfunctory coverage in Israeli news, probably none in world media. A similar fate attended the Copenhagen declaration issued in January 1997. A reaffirmation of the commitment to peace by Arab and Israeli leaders issued during the long nadir of the "peace process" should have been headline news all over the world, but it barely touched the public conscience.

At a dialog meeting in Qalqilya, I met Mohammed Joudeh of the Palestine Peace Movement. I asked him why practically nobody in Israel knew of the existence of his group. I explained to him that the Israeli stereotype is that there are no Palestinians who are willing to speak out for peace, and that the public presence of a group such as the Palestine Peace Movement was vital to the development of a grass-roots peace movement. He said that his group had held numerous demonstrations jointly with Israeli peace groups , but had failed to attract media attention, because the press was not interested in seeing Israelis and Palestinians cooperate. "We invited the press, but nobody came, because nobody was throwing rocks. The press in Israel is not interested in the man-bites-dog story, only in the usual violence," he said.

The Web as an Instrument of Change

There are two views of the role that the Internet will play in modern society. One is that it will be a force for democracy and peace, since it is a medium that is, at least for now, open to everyone. The other view is that Internet communications, as is the case for other media, will soon be dominated by governments, mass entertainment, and corporate interests.

It is still too early to tell which is right. The Web is still, especially in areas such as Palestine, a marginal means of communication. Even in the United States and Europe, it will be a while before the Web assumes anywhere close to the omnipresent power of television, if ever it will. Necessarily, it reflects social trends and thinking, rather than being a catalyst or initiator of change. There are some very bad signs. Political leaders, organizations of different sizes and descriptions, and governments have set up Web sites and e-mail addresses to give people the feeling of participation. For the most part, however, these sites function as broadcasters of opinion, rather than points of interaction. Most groups are willing to tell you what they are about, few are willing to listen and help. Politicians and large organizations maintain large staffs of people whose job it is, apparently, to open the mail they get, send a reply saying "Thank you for your mail to X. X receives hundreds of letters and cannot respond personally..." and then delete the communication unread.

Web sites that should be points of dissemination of information, are often sources of hate propaganda and misinformation, perpetuating fables about the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion or equally fatuous notions about the other "side" of the Middle-East debate.

The evolution of the Web will, for the most part, reflect the state of human society and culture. A site featuring pornography or a site featuring sports news will get many more visitors than a site featuring news and views. A service featuring "consensus" news, will get more readers than one featuring dissident views. Large organizations, which reflect establishment views, will have more resources, and more attractive sites, than small grass-roots efforts and well-meant home pages.

Electronic forums, supposed to provide a meeting place for dialog, rapidly become an arena for exchanging insults and trashing your opponent, especially when the Mid-East is discussed. PEACE has managed to avoid this kind of futile interchange, primarily by moderating the tone of letters, and setting an example. We have gotten very few real "flame" letters - despite what one might anticipate. We published the worst one, which called us "self-hating Jews and anti-Zionist hoodlums," as a joke and a means of promoting solidarity and people understood.

PEACE Dialog Forum has published dozens of interchanges between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, all reasoned presentations of viewpoints, sometimes very different, but almost always constructive. On occasion, a bit of editorial work is required. Phrases such as "ethnic cleansing," "terrorist" and "bloodthirsty Arab mobs" are usually deleted because they generate heat, rather than light. Sometimes I send these letters intact to understanding people on the other side, in the hope that the originator will see their mistake when confronted by an actual "adversary.'

Strength and Weaknesses of E-mail Dialog

There is no doubt that nothing can replace the immediacy of personal contact, however. Written dialog messages must be short. Sometimes they are personal glimpses, usually they are political.

E-mail dialog cannot bring about the depth of participation possible in personal encounters. It takes a special gift to transmit feelings through the printed word and a special gift to sense the person who wrote the words. A few people in our group have the gift of showing their concern, commitment and compassion in everything they write and of convincing readers on both sides that here after all is a person just like themselves. It is very easy for such dialogs to lapse into stale political discussions.

Because of limitations of Internet penetration and language barriers, dialog cannot be carried on by e-mail alone. Perhaps when the Internet is more ubiquitous, it will be a better tool for catalyzing grass-roots social movements.

On the other hand, e-mail dialog can potentially reach tens of thousands of people each week, informing, encouraging, convincing, and reminding them of their commitment. It can be a forum for reasoned and continuing debate. A well written essay, a poem, a person relating a dream, can have a lasting impact that is lost in most personal discourse. We are still learning how best to use this medium.

The Next Step

One of the first e-mail letters I received from my friend Ameen, after we had decided to do "something" was headed "the next step." Now it is time to take another step. We never intended that PEACE be limited to e-mail dialog, and so we are seeking ways and means of encouraging live grass-roots dialog between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Jordanians.

We have far too few readers in the Middle East. It is good to reach interested bystanders, but our most urgent need is to reach people in Israel, Palestine and the Arab countries, as well as expatriates and students living abroad. Palestine is not "wired'-only a small percentage of people have access to the Internet and are fluent in English. We want to translate materials into Arabic and Hebrew and hope also to have resources for a dialog or newsletter to be conducted by regular mail.

Catalyzing Change

We may be engaged in a noble moral pursuit that will have no other fruit than a few good long distance friendships and moral satisfaction - themselves sufficient rewards, perhaps. However, my pragmatist Yankee upbringing and Labor Zionist ideological roots force me to ask whether relatively modest efforts such as ours can affect a change. After all, much larger Israeli peace movements have been in place for many years, with little or no effect on the attitude of the Israeli public at large. I cannot judge the situation in Arab countries.

It may be true, as some social change researchers claim, that it is enough to convince the innovative 5% of society to eventually affect a change. However, the Israeli peace movements have convinced much more than 5% perhaps, without affecting any real change. These theories of societal change are based on the pluralistic U.S. model of society. Israel is, in many respects, a compartmentalized Middle-Eastern society. Just as Jerusalem has an Armenian quarter, and a Jewish Quarter and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish quarters in the different parts of the city, so Israeli society is divided into subgroups that live beside each other in relative isolation. This is true of Arabs and Jews, Orthodox and Secular, Ashkenazi (European Jews) and Sepharadi (Jews of "Spanish" origin, mostly from Arab countries). To an increasing degree, it is also true of "Left and Right." The Israeli peace movements are largely identified with a small segment of the Israeli secular left. If a movement for change is to succeed, it must carefully avoid identification with a particular segment in society to avoid isolation. It must find a way to cut across the compartmentalization of society. Dialog groups can do this, perhaps, with great effort and dedication. Secular Israelis meet and find common ground with secular Palestinians. Observant and even Ultra-Orthodox Israelis meet with Islamic groups and both are surprised to discover common ground as well.

PEACE is not afraid to speak out against the leadership of either side when they are not acting in the interests of peace and to commend leaders of both sides when they take a step in the right direction. Speaking out against Palestinian leadership has been taboo among many Palestinians and the Israeli left. Speaking out against the Israeli government is taboo among right wing Israelis.  Our outspoken stands have perhaps lost us support of large doctrinaire groups, but they are hopefully slowly winning for us, the support of a less vocal and less active silent, basically apolitical majority, who cannot relate to slogans and obviously one-sided viewpoints, but can be taught to relate to the other side as people.

The major strength of PEACE and groups like it, is that unlike the Israeli peace groups, they are composed of members of both "sides." This makes it easier to demonstrate that there are in fact people of good will on the other side. This is an important point in overcoming one of the major stumbling blocks of all conflict situations: the built-in perception that only your side wants peace. As people learn to listen to each other, they begin to understand also that they must shed the national historical myths that portray their own side as blameless and insist that only their own cause has justice on its side.

Whatever the political outcome of the "Oslo Peace Process," it has initiated a fledgling social phenomenon: the people-to-people peace process. We hope that this social dynamic will grow from its present fragile and tentative state to a recognized part of the social reality that educates for peace and forces the political leadership to take it into account - a grass-roots lobby for peace.

Web Resources

http://www.ariga.com/peace/ is the starting point for finding almost every Mid-East peace and dialog group, thanks to the efforts and generosity of publisher and writer Robert Rosenberg

http://members.tripod.com/~ash74/index2.htm is the home site of PEACE.

PEACE will be glad to supply anyone with further information about specific dialog efforts.

Contacts

Peace Co-Coordinators

Ami Isseroff
Ameen Hannoun



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