Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Making a Difference

Making a Difference:

Arab-Jewish Grassroots Dialogue Groups in the United States

By Saliba Sarsar


"Peace"? "Accommodation"? What do you mean by them? To paraphrase--and admittedly exaggerate--Jean Jacques Rousseau: Everywhere men and women speak of "peace" and "accommodation", but everywhere they are chained to their own coded and double-coded meanings. While Jews may emphasize their need for security, Arabs will speak of their aspiration for self-determination and nationhood. Colored by past experiences, present allegiance, and future concerns, definitions of their group become their own.

Good intentions abound. But it is difficult to oppose the group understanding and translate intuition into action. Few, it seems, are willing to challenge the status quo. Citizens of democracies fear ostracism, elsewhere people are lulled into obedience to the prerogative of those in power and whims of the majority. In the crunch of real life, most people revert to the basic, the certain, the immediate and usual -- the socially acceptable. This is particularly true when life is in danger, when someone's economic well-being is in jeopardy, or reputation threatened.

Some rise to the challenge. Others hide behind the protective screen of the "loyal opposition," their critiques camouflaged as fictional treatises or serious advice. The lucky are called "misguided," "traitors," or "infidels", the less lucky are exiled, imprisoned, or assassinated.

Arabs and Jews are generally inclined to get along with each other. Many speak fondly of each other. As friends, neighbors, or business partners and competitors, they bridge their differences. The gap widens when there are questions of national rights or historical, political, and religious life. Each community uses arguments and counter-arguments to discredit the other community. When reason and truth are most needed, they are buried under tons of contrary evidence and decades of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and miscommunication.

Arabs and Jews in the United States

In the United States, Arabs and Jews live side-by-side, but generally have few meaningful relationships. Their separate aspirations and activities are channeled through major organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the American-Israel Political Action Committee, Jewish Federation, and Hadassah for the Jews; and the National Association for Arab Americans, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Association of Arab American University Graduates for Arabs -- just to name a few.

Acting both as voices and instruments, these organizations work to protect their own community's rights and to gain American private and public sympathy and support. All too often "their own" community's rights are viewed in opposition to the rights of "the others." Thus they play zero-sum games, trying to outdo each other by spreading myths and truths and by exercising their political and financial muscle. Their members oblige with commitment and contributions. Very few Jewish Americans -- supporters of the Old or New Left, "progressives," anti-Zionists -- are active opponents of Israel who advocate the Arab cause. Even fewer Arab Americans openly support Israel.

A New Opening of Hearts and Minds

Strains of a new music are heard among Arab Americans and Jewish Americans. With each group anchored in its own community's aspirations, traditions, and values, both have found enough common ground to initiate a genuine grassroots dialogue with one another. Although such dialogue has occasional institutional sponsors, it is undertaken at the individual level and represents only one aspect of Arab-Jewish relations.(1)

Such dialogue has existed in the United States for the past three decades or more, and is gradually gaining momentum. A quick review shows that there are grassroots dialogue groups in several states, including Michigan, California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Oregon, and some form of dialogue has occurred and is occurring in Washington, D.C.(2) Members of these groups vary in age from the early 30s to the mid-70s, with a median age of 55 years. Highly professional, their specialization ranges from accounting, business, education, and engineering to law, medicine, science, and social work.

One of the oldest groups, Arab and Jewish Friends, was founded in Detroit in 1981. Sponsored by the Inter-faith Round Table, the group has a 40-member Board of Directors, four co-chairs--two Arab and two Jewish--and some 200 members. Its activities consist of an annual dinner honoring prominent members of the community--one Arab and one Jewish; fund raising for scholarships for high school students; connections to Arab and Jewish schools; and cultural talks that bring people together. The impact of this non-political organization is felt in the Metropolitan Detroit area.(3)

A second group that focuses on dialogue and action is the Cousins Club of Orange County in California. It has been meeting once a month for almost ten years. The group presents speakers and films, has founded a non-profit Orange County Middle East Fund, and is trying to help a school on the West Bank which promotes peace between Palestinians and Israelis.(4)

A third group is the Milwaukee Arab-Jewish Group. Organized in 1991, it comprises members of the Jewish Community Council of Milwaukee and the Steering Committee of Arab-Americans of Wisconsin. The group works toward "joint endeavors that promote consensus and cooperation between the two communities, both locally and in the Middle East."(5)

A fourth is the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group in the San Francisco Peninsula, created in July 1992. Palestinians and Jews meet to initiate "a long-term dialogue together to discover common ground and improve the environment for reconciliation here in America." Members, numbering 30, have written joint letters, attended synagogue together, participated in local Palestinian Cultural Days, sent funds and $20,000 worth of medical equipment to two hospitals -- one in Gaza and another in (western) Jerusalem -- raised $10,000 for schools in need, equally, in Netanya in Israel and Ramallah on the West Bank, and held a major public event that was attended by 420 Jews and Palestinians.(6)

A fifth group, in California as well, is the Jewish-Arab-Muslim American Association. It is made up of Jews, Arabs, and Muslims who are developing friendships and initiating projects for enhancing their own community in Santa Clara County.(7)

A sixth group, Project Understanding, was founded in the summer of 1993. It consists of 26 Jews and Arabs in central New Jersey who are committed to dialogue and peaceful coexistence. Activities include reading of books on Arab and Jewish themes, giving public lectures, and sponsoring public events (e.g., "Jewish and Arab Youth Growing Up in America," "American Media Coverage of Arabs and Jews," "Making the Peace of the Brave: The Future of Israeli-Palestinian Relations," and "Life in Jerusalem") in cooperation with institutions of higher learning.(8)

A seventh group is the Oregon Chapter of the Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East. It is "an organization of American Jews, Christians and Muslims focused on finding common ground within their respective faith traditions to achieve a peaceful solution in Israel/Palestine…." Its members, around 20, hold public events to educate people about such issues as the future of Jerusalem and, when appropriate and necessary, use their voice to pressure public officials to advance the cause of justice and peace in the Middle East.(9)

Motivations, Orientations, and Views

Most groups embody a certain vision or advocate a preferred future. While some are culture- and faith-oriented, others are more social and political. The Mission Statement and State of Principles of the Milwaukee Arab-Jewish Group call for "a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, both between Israel and the Arab countries, and between Israel and the Palestinians." The group's commitment is predicated on "the moral values of our common heritage" and the notion that "the basis for resolving differences must be non-violence, tolerance, mutual respect, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights."(10)

A major motivation for the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group is the group's belief in the public peace process. In an op-ed article, two members of the group--one Jewish, the other Arab--write: "Descendants of Abraham with sister root cultures and languages, we have experienced our cousinhood. And we like it. By meeting face to face, we no longer just 'study' each other. We now 'know' and want the best for each other."(11)

Members of Project Understanding believe that "the differences our two groups [Jewish and Arab] have experienced during the past century have obscured our humanity and common heritage and have blocked understanding of each other for the other. Our goal is to create an opening…for the enhancement of such understanding and the promotion of human dignity."(12)

While most of the groups' interests are cultural and social, politics sometimes intrudes into the discussion. At a September 1997 meeting of Project Understanding, for example, the news of explosions in Jerusalem generated anguish and a loss of hope among members. While they understood that the terrorists were acting upon orders, they could not fathom the insanity and hatred that a person must have in order to become a human bomb. While they knew that bloody explosions couldn't be compared to the destruction of homes and closing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, they saw the events as interrelated in systemic ways. What the Israeli Government and the Palestinian National Authority say and do influence the way people on both sides of the border think and behave. Members argued that Benyamin Netanyahu is seeking security at all costs while Yasser Arafat is trying to build a nation. They understood the pressures and counter-pressures under which political leaders function, but they felt that Israelis and Palestinians need more empathy and trust and a strong will to persevere against those who keep poisoning the environment of peace.

In an interview with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Rabbi Daniel Isaak, the president of the Oregon Chapter of the Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, commented on Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the role of religion in politics. A believer in people of faith being agents of peace, Rabbi Isaak calls upon American Jews, Christians, and Muslims to pressure their government: "We must urge our American government to do all it can to urge the leaders back to the table and to make the necessary concessions that bring a total peace to this very troubled corner of the world that is so dear to each of us."(13)

Constraints and Opportunities

Getting together to cope with conflict or to get to "yes" is not an easy task. Recruiting new members is equally hard. Most people are busy, focusing on their livelihood and lifestyle, and the affairs of their own families and communities. The idea of devoting time and money to supporting a new movement is alien to them. Some hold that they have no leverage and their participation will amount to little. Disengagement wins over involvement and empowerment. Others genuinely believe in the status quo. Still others are intrigued and want to experience a new reality. These are the people more able to revisit and are willing to question the constraints and opportunities they have taken for granted in their environment. For them, hope and a new life rest in locating a new center or alternative path.

While Arabs and Jews in Israel, and even in the Occupied Territories, have had serious interactions, albeit not always just, life-enhancing, or pleasant, Arabs and Jews in the United States have historically been influenced by what transpires "back home" in the Middle East or Israel and Palestine. For most Arabs, Jews and Israel are one and the same, and if Israel does something "bad," American Jews are partially to blame because of their "blind" support for Israel. Entering into a serious dialogue with Jews, the argument goes, implies recognition of Israel and Zionism and justifies an injustice done to the Palestinians. For Jews, the Arab view of Israel is unfair. The Arabs are selective in their judgment of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Israel maintains the occupation or does not proceed with the peace process as the Arabs expect, it is because Israel does not fully trust the Arabs and hence must verify every step along the way toward "security and peace."

What separates can unite. An argument against something, given the right motivation and context, can become an argument for something. In order for relationships to succeed, they must rise above the expedient and the pragmatic and move away from a hard or soft base to a principled one. As Roger Fisher and William Ury convincingly argue in their book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, "it is to decide issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process focused on what each side says it will and won't do. It suggests that you look for mutual gains whenever possible, and that where your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side…. [It] shows you how to obtain what you are entitled to and still be decent."(14) What applies in negotiations also applies in relationships among friends or in dialogue groups.

The Future of Arab-Jewish Grassroots Dialogue

Dialogue does not restrict, but liberates. It does not take for granted; it takes things into consideration. It empathizes. It stands for life and wholeness, not for ill and separation. It rests on knowing others in their own uniqueness and not simply as an extension of one's experiences. This entails inclusion and shuns the absolutizing of oneself and the relativizing of others.

Inviting people to join grassroots dialogue groups involves a personal conversation that communicates a vision of a preferred future. Getting them to participate has two important elements. The first is the need to have each side listen to the other. The second is to have each side see the other as human beings and friends--not just as counters in demographic and military calculations.(15)

Everyone who is actively involved in dialogue agrees that long-term participation is hard-won and sustained commitment is "inspired by models of it, by good human relationships and fun, by ceremony and deepening, and by shared concrete projects from time to time."(16)

It is important to state that not all participants persevere. Some quit in exasperation, disappointment, or pain, as a result of meeting "the other" and confronting their original frame of reference. Others move away. Those who stay are often criticized and some have lost friends. Success at genuine dialogue demands some personal sacrifice, patience, understanding, and effort toward common objectives.

Once true dialogue takes root, however, the boundaries between communities tend to disappear. Members lose the fear of speaking their mind or becoming vulnerable. This is true irrespective of prior antagonism and suspicions. In addition, while differences are recognized, the emphasis remains on the common and mutually inclusive.

Arab-Jewish grassroots dialogue groups in the United States are expected to grow. The effort to bring Arabs and Jews together is necessary and right. If Arabs and Jews do not advocate for each other, who will advocate for them?

My sincere thanks are extended to members of Project Understanding in central New Jersey for their friendship and trust; Mohammed Aman, Ahmad M. Ezzedine, Ami Isseroff, Sister Elaine Kelley, Ruth Shapin, and Lionel "Len" and Libby Traubman for sharing information on and their understanding of dialogue groups (see below); Professor James H. Stam of Monmouth University for his editorial suggestions; and my wife, Hiyam Zakharia Sarsar, for her love and intellectual stimulation.

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1. Other forms of dialogue exist: a) academic dialogue between Arab and Jewish professors and between them and their students, such as team teaching a course on Israeli and Palestinian literature at Brown University; b) faith and cultural dialogue such as the Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East, facilitating conversations on Middle East issues and peace between men and women from different backgrounds; the Institute for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies and Relations in Newark, New Jersey, founded to promote effective dialogue and interaction among Muslims, Jews, and Christians; the Main Line Muslim-Jewish Dialogue in Philadelphia; the Middle East Peace Education Program of the American Friends Service Committee; and c) Internet dialogue such as Salaam-v-Shalom, a discussion group set up by Jews and Palestinians searching for peace in the Middle East.

2. Washington, D.C., as seat of the U.S. government and as center of diplomatic relations, has seen different efforts at dialogue. Examples include the Women's Organization Middle East Network (WOMEN), created in 1994 to "foster peace in the Middle East by promoting cross-cultural exchange and assisting in the economic empowerment of women from the region." Even though this form of dialogue is different from the grassroots type, it has the potential of influencing politics in serious ways and of initiating networks and dialogue groups in the U.S. and elsewhere. Another group that has led to serious conversation among Arab American and Jewish American women is the Dialogue Project, which operated from the late 1980s to 1993. Members met about once annually and overcame many obstacles dividing the two communities. A culminating activity was a visit to Israel and the West Bank. Friendships and peace work among members continue until today, as a Palestinian American woman and a Jewish American woman told me over lunch in Washington, D.C. on October 25, 1995.

3. Based on a telephone conversation with Ahmad M. Ezzedine, a member of Arab and Jewish Friends.

4. Based on a November 25, 1997 e-mail message from Ruth Shapin, a member of the Cousins Club.

5. Dr. Mohammed Aman, the co-founder of the Milwaukee Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, provided this information in an October 17, 1997 letter to the author.

6. Information is found in "Building A common Future," an excellent evening program and reconciliation resource published by the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group. See the group's homepage at

7. Information is cited in Ibid., p. 3.

8. Information was accumulated during five years of involvement with Project Understanding. See the group's homepage at

9. Sister Elaine Kelley, a Middle East peace volunteer working in Portland, Oregon, and a member of the Oregon Chapter of the Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, provided this information.

10. Note 4, op.cit.

11. Lionel Traubman and Nahida Salem, "A small step toward peace," San Jose Mercury News (Sunday, October 12, 1997). See also Lionel Traubman and Nahida Salem, "To Build a Common Future," The Christian Science Monitor (Friday, November 21, 1997).

12. Mission Statement of Project Understanding, Note 4.

13. See Elaine Kelley, "Rabbi Daniel Isaak," The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (December 1997): 114.

14. Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), p. xviii. According to Fisher and Ury, a principled approach involves the following: (p. 13) "Participants are problem-solvers. The goal is a wise outcome reached efficiently and amicably. Separate the people from the problem. Be soft on the people, hard on the problem. Proceed independent of trust. Focus on interests, not positions. Explore interests. Avoid having a bottom line. Invent options for mutual gain. Develop multiple options to choose from; decide later. Insist on using objective criteria. Try to reach a result based on standards independent of will. Reason and be open to reason; yield to principle, not pressure.

15. These points were communicated to the author by Ami Isseroff of PeaceWatch in an e-mail message on June 30, 1998.

16. Quote by Lionel "Len" Traubman in an October 26, 1997 letter.