On May 17 this year, about 50 people crowded into the small auditorium of the Church of St. Mary, the Virgin (Episcopal) in Chappaqua, NY for a 3-hour special presentation to "Explore Palestinian and Israeli Narratives". It was sponsored by the Chappaqua Interfaith Council (IFC), a community service group whose members represent: the Baha'is of New Castle, Chappaqua Friends Meeting, First Congregational Church, Lutheran Church of our Redeemer, Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco, St. John and St. Mary's Catholic Church, St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and the Upper Westchester Muslim Society.
The event grew out of a January IFC meeting that changed suddenly from a cordial discussion into a tense and uncomfortable session when the topic of the Gaza conflict came up. Group members were struck by how difficult it was to talk among themselves about the Gaza war and still maintain the attitudes of mutual respect and tolerance they had always had in their years of working side by side in the community. Realizing that the topic must be doubly difficult to deal with in the larger community, IFC created the 3-hour program to encourage a more "listening" attitude on this difficult issue. Most of those in attendance on May 17 seemed to come away with the feeling that the attempt was more successful than not.
The part of the program devoted to examining the social and political developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was well handled by Mid-east experts, Prof. Mark Rosenblum, Dir. The Michael Harrington Center Middle East Project, Queens College and Prof. Hatem Bazian, Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Near Eastern Studies, U.Ca. at Berkeley. Both seemed moderate in their political positions yet were able to share views expressed by the extreme wings of their respective sides.
The two-state solution
The speakers cited six commonly discussed potential resolutions to the Mid-east crisis: 1) transfer all Palestinians to Jordan; 2) send all Jews back to their pre-Israeli homelands; 3) let the two sides fight it out; 4) one-state with 1man/1 vote; 5) one-state with apartheid or 6) two states. The speakers agreed that the two-state solution is the only viable one. Both also believe that many, if not most, of the average citizens on each side would supportit.
But aside from the obvious political and diplomatic difficulties to be threshed out, a major roadblock is the way both sides spend their time claiming to be victims and denying each other's rights. Several studies show that there is alsoa strong tendency for each side to underestimate the moderate element in its own population and overestimate the zealots in the opposing camp. Many are afraid that even if the solution is tried, the zealots will sabotage it.
"Someone," said Rosenblum, "has to be brave enough to step into this risky place and work our way through."
Two points of view
Bazian pointed out that the Palestinians see the development of the state of Israel as "the colonization of Palestine" by Israelis and hold that there were massacres used to bring about the transfer of Palestinians. They do not see that the Oslo Road to Peace has changed that.
Rosenblum said that for Isrealis "there is something of 1938 in air" and the threat is not merely to territorial rights but to their human survival. From the Israeli point of view, Oslo was not a peace process but a security agreement that failed. A true peace process would require that the Palestinians come up with ideas of their own that lead to it.
The Q&A period was stimulating but cordial. Some members in the audience disagreed privately with one or the other speakers, but the overall reception seemed to be positive. Both speakers confessed to shaky hopes that, with the US more actively engaged, some progress was now possible. Both agreed on the need for international help and saw possibilities of broader international cooperation and legislation.
Perhaps that is an open door for the Obama administration to be the one "brave enough to step into the risky place…."
The Dialogue Project
If the expert's presentation was successful, the 'Dialogue" part of the program left something to be desired.
Marcia Kennry developed The Dialogue Project in the '90s while working with former Palestinian and Israel residents who are now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Five to 25 people sit in a circle with one or two facilitators and discuss issues relating to Palestine and Israel. When engaged in the dialogue, each person in the role of listener remains completely silent until the speaker finishes…no interruptions, no defenses. Then he carefully repeats the former speaker's words in order to check the accuracy of his understanding. Only then can he respond to the speaker. Over time, the mythic nature of "the enemy" often begins to wear away, to be replaced by a real human being who happens to have an opposing but debatable point of view.
More time needed
Ms. Kennry, an American who lived in Israel for six years, and a Palestinian-American, Laura Partou, demonstrated the process, acting as role models and engaging the audience in a Dialogue exercise.
Perhaps there was too little time allotted to the exercise, or perhaps the combination of the two-expert presentation and the Dialogue was too ambitious. Whatever the reason, the Dialogue made less of an impression than it should have.
The process has earned a reputation for effectiveness and because of that, Ms. Kennry and two members of her Dialogue group were featured recently on the WNYC Brian Lehrer show. The process has enabled many Middle Easterners to begin to actually "listen" to former enemies and reach some degree of understanding of the others' position. Those who have experienced the process of listening and then carefully repeating back what they hear, understand how well the process can short circuit much of the spontaneous negative emotional response. One does actually "listen" and begins to hear less defensively. Over the past decade or so, the program has grown from a tentative experiment onto an active community of 11 locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Yonkers and Riverdale/Westchester where Dialogues are held regularly on Palestine-Israeli issues.
At the May 17 event in Chappaqua, a better understanding of the process might have been achieved if Ms. Kennry had worked with an actual Dialogue group from one of its current locations while the event attendees looked on. Nevertheless, it was an afternoon well spent, and those who were at St. Mary's that Sunday came away with a great deal to think about...and to pray for.