Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Building Arab-Jewish Dialog in Europe

Building Arab-Jewish Dialog in Europe

By Saida Nusseibeh

My name is Saida Nusseibeh, I was born and brought up in Jerusalem from an old Muslim family that is the custodian of the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; one of the family opens and closes the Church doors daily. We can date our family history back to 527AD.

I know the Middle East situation intimately and, like many people who have joined the peace camp, my understanding has been challenged. I have many Israeli friends, yet in my formative years I felt little compassion for the Israeli forces. The situation back home has a way of creating many ironies and dichotomies.

I grew up in an atmosphere thick with the phobia of "Zionist Propaganda," yet I started to broaden my horizon of understanding when I saw a film about Jewish immigrants in Hungary. It was an image of people suffering that brought to my mind what was said among my people when talking about their own dispersion in 1948 -- a parallel misery. I had a glimpse then of the pain of the "other".

I was thirteen when I read Anne Frank's diary. Anne Frank was a little girl who hid from the Nazis in Holland. I cried and shared my anguish with her, I shared many of her fears, and tried to comprehend her unique difficulties. She was my age, living in fear, with great uncertainty and danger, hiding from an aggressor. She didn't know why belonging to a nation brought this aggression on her people.

For a time, I could not reconcile the irony of feeling so much for the child of the nationat odds with my people. In my heart I felt so much for her and the Jewish Nation which suffered unspeakable horrors in the Ghettos -- having to pass through the experience were they and their families were exterminated in the Pogroms and the Holocaust. Later on I visited Auschwitz -- the pain was too great -- you could hear the walls crying, having absorb the sorrow of what happened to the Jewish Nation. The pain was too vast for words -- yet what of my people's pain?

My mother gave me an unusual and unexpected key for hope and reconciliation. She is an enigmatic person, sometimes contradictory -- marching against the Israeli Government and soldiers and sometimes angrily collecting signatures of protest when an old Jewish man was stabbed in the Old City of Jerusalem. She opened my eyes to the suffering of the human. "And is not the soldier a son, a brother, husband and father?" she would say. Yes, she was against occupation, but she, as a mother, would cry for the sons that were being killed and grieved with the mothers for the loss of the sons.

I came to London in 1986 with my children so they could continue their studies. A friend asked if I would help with a dialogue group that he was setting up. It is called "The Next Century Foundation," an important foundation where well-known influential political persons -- Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and British -- meet once a month to discuss the on-going issues.

I thought then that while meetings of high ranking political figures are important, when peace comes (for I believe it will), it has to have a firm root; it is the people that have to live and work together. Therefore, I asked the Governor of the foundation for leave to set up a dialogue group, to start with a professional young group, where in meetings they would have a common ground, their work, and thus break the ice when they meet for the first time. It worked.

I was asked to join CJPD (Council of Jewish Palestinian Dialogue) a group that has been meeting since 1984, where I later became the co-chair with Tony Klug. On the executive committee we were twelve people with an equal number of men and women from both sides.

In 1989, I was in Holland attending a conference on non-violent communication. Through my talk about the dialog group, I came in contact with a dialogue group in Amsterdam. Through them I was informed of other groups in Europe, so I took the car and travelled to meet with them. I felt very excited, meeting new groups that were trying to build bridges, doing the same of kind of work we were doing. I decided then to write about what is going on. As a result, idea of JADE (Jewish Arab Dialogue & Education in Europe) arose.

Sitting around the kitchen table at my home, sipping wine, a daughter of an Israeli friend suggested the name JADE. It is a colour I particularly like and co-incidentally stood for Jewish Arab Dialogue in Europe.

The idea was to publicise what is going on and inform the dialogue groups in Europe about visiting potential speakers. Since the dialogue groups had no big funds, they would share the cost of the speakers travel together. The information about the arriving visitor was coordinated through similar groups in Israel and the Arab world.

In the newsletter, we published what was happening and what might be of interest to any party. We spoke about the three faiths, religious ceremonies, holy days, and initiation rites. This newsletter became a platform for dialogue through writing. Once a month we held a meeting in different homes, always trying to bring new people.

In 1990 I joined with a group to start a sister organisation to a group in Jerusalem - IPCRI (Israeli/Palestinians Centre for Research & Information). This group has a different approach than CJPD & JADE. It is a think tank. Seminars were held on concrete issues, like the water problem, the future of Jerusalem, security, economics, the settlements, and so on. Experts and business people came to look for ways to enhance the future of the country.

I tried to focus more on the younger generation. Young people are always a great concern of mine, since they are tomorrow's leaders. From over fifty years of dehumanising and demonising the "other," a great wall has been raised between the two people who are neighbors.

At the start of the Gulf war, the American school in London invited me to be an observer at a Conflict Resolution seminar. The school has students from all religions and nationalities. They asked for help from Israel, from a group called "Young Leadership Forum", an Israeli Jewish/Arab youth group that works for co-existence. Four facilitators and two students came from Israel to interact with the students in the UK.

The seminar was held outside London, in Chelmsford at the Ford Foundation. By the end of the seminar, it became apparent to the teachers that this was a good exercise to dispense with assumptions.

Because of the seminar's success, the school decided to take the students on a visit to the conflict areas. In preparation, JADE provided speakers from all political angles for the students to listen to during a period of six months. The students, accompanied by their teachers, then traveled to Tunis, Jordan, Israel, and the occupied territories; met with seventy important people; and in Jerusalem took part in the second workshop on conflict resolution. Each day of the trip, one of the students had to write about their feelings, impressions, and perceptions.

The third seminar for the American school students on conflict resolution was in the school in London. Forty students from Jewish and Arab schools attended from greater London, together with five Israelis and four Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Each group came with a leader responsible for them.

The seminar was for one week. During first two days there were briefings on politics from all angles: right wing, left wing, and extremists of both sides The purpose of the briefing was to give the students an insight on all angles of the political arena without interfering with their own political beliefs. Then there were four days of negotiations, where we asked them to role-play, doing an-depth study of the character they were going to play. Some of the Palestinians played Israeli delegates and vice versa.

Those who witnessed the signing of the Oslo declaration of principles, must have seen the youths in green shirts on the White House lawn from "Seeds of Peace." This is how the group began. John Wallach came to London and spoke about organizing the summer camp. Sixty students attended the camp for three weeks in Maine, USA. They were from Israel, and the Arab world.

In addition to the newsletter, JADE provided speakers, arranged meetings, and collected information on organizations that call for co-existence. I held many receptions for the visiting groups and speakers. JADE did many workshops on conflict resolution for Jewish and Arab students, taking Arab students to a Jewish holiday camp for a week or doing workshops in Jewish or Arab Schools. It also provided speakers for organizations, synagogues, and churches.

My mother made me realize the challenge of our uncertain times. In that challenge I have glimpsed the promise of a hopeful future, where we can work hard to try and wipe away the inheritance of hate. I can see a future where we can try to give the best of our parents' and grandparents' hope to our children; we can try to free our children from the continued crippling cycle of useless hatred, killing and frustration.

I see the past and its complexities, confusion, and pain, yet I see hope for the Children of Abraham, Sarah and Haggar. After fifty years of living in duality between the polarities of friend and enemy, I see the chance to step out of the confines of hate and de-humanization.

I see the chance to free our children from the legacy of endless misfortune I see the chance to face the challenge and uncertainty with the conviction that we must reach out to see the other side as human, fearful, and needy of re-assurance, just like ourselves.

Dialoguing with each other does not erode our commitments to our own people, rather it reaffirms those commitments for a better future for our Children --The Children of Abraham.

"Us" and "them" need not be "us" versus "them". Talking with each other does not mean that we have to agree, but we ought at least to listen to each other. Let us retain our differences, but let us no longer allow them to be unbridgeable divisions. We have had five decades to see where hate, mistrust, and fear have led us. Is it not the time now to work on our mutual mistrust and fear and begin to heal our wound?

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