Two years ago, shortly after the intifada exploded in the West Bank and Gaza, five Chicago Jews and five Chicago Palestinians met for dinner. They weren’t sure they’d ever meet again, for they knew that the long, brutal conflict in the Middle East had built fear, mistrust, even hatred between their two communities here.
They all came for their own reasons, but they all wanted peace in the Middle East. To their surprise, that first dinner meeting, hosted by a Lebanese-Syrian Christian woman who served as a facilitator, transformed them into a dialogue group, and for a year they met every two weeks, despite pressure from their friends and families not to. Only rarely did anyone miss a meeting. In the past year two of the members have left, but the rest still meet at least once a month.
They didn’t start with a clear goal, but they knew that if they were ever to act as a group, they first had to understand each other’s fears and anger–and the weight of the histories that had been hung on them. They began that first night by telling their own stories.
Rose Solomon Wheeler was born in a small Ohio town in 1914, three years before the British government, which began occupying a large portion of the Middle East during World War I, promised to help create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Her parents were Orthodox and kept a kosher home. There were only ten Jewish families in the town, so her father took the place of a rabbi for the Jewish children. “I was taught that the Jews were the chosen people, and that we should be proud of our heritage, and that wonderful things were happening in Palestine, where a new community was being built,” she says in her soft voice. “All the money we earned or got for prizes or anything went into the blue box that all Jewish families kept, which was money sent to Palestine to plant trees and so on. It was very idealistic at that time, and at the end of every Passover seder my father, who was a Labor Zionist, would say really sincerely, ‘Next year in Palestine.’ It was a national Jewish hope of my father’s generation–and many of my generation. Young people today don’t really have that real feeling of how much the older generation wanted to have a homeland where they could go–at least theoretically.”
Wheeler’s parents had fled Lithuania when they were young. When she was a child, she heard about the pogroms in Eastern Europe, including one in which most of her father’s family was killed. “My father’s parents were put with all the other Jews living in their small town in the synagogue and burned up. And that was not anything unusual at that time. Only one 14-year-old cousin of ours escaped the town to tell about it.” An aunt and uncle on her mother’s side died in concentration camps during World War II.
“I guess I was aware of oppression and anti-Semitism and torture and so on quite early. And in our small town there was prejudice against the Jews. That’s one reason we had to be good in school.” She was, as were her sister and brother. She was also a dancer and acted in school plays. “So we had status in the community. But we also knew that the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front of our house, a demonstration against us as well as against another Jewish family and a black family on the street.”
When she was 18 Wheeler moved on her own to Chicago. It was the middle of the depression. She found odd jobs and eventually put herself through the University of Chicago, graduating with a degree in sociology. She worked in public-aid programs for a few years, then returned to the U. of C. for her master’s on a scholarship. For 50 years she worked at various jobs in the fields of social work and mental health, taking off only a few years to have her four children. She still has a small private practice.
“I was very active in the peace and civil rights movements all my life–and in the labor movement from 1939 on. But for a long time I hardly knew what was going on in Israel. I wasn’t associated with people who were very much interested in that.” She was increasingly disturbed by what she heard Israel was doing in the occupied territories. “This was not the Israel I thought I knew,” she says.
In September 1986 she went to a conference on the Middle East conflict that was attended by Arabs and Jews from many countries. “I never had made the acquaintance of any Arab in all my life, and had stereotypes about them, as other people did. See, I had been involved in the question of relations of whites and blacks.” At the conference she heard about several Arab-Jewish dialogue groups that had formed in cities around the country. She realized how uninformed she was and decided a dialogue group would be the best way for her to begin to understand and work for peace.
She called around Chicago, trying to find out what dialogue groups here were doing. But no one she spoke to had ever heard of a group in the city that had lasted very long. Those that had started had soon dissolved–in part, she believes, because the members were leaders in their communities and didn’t feel free to speak openly. She decided that if she could pull a group together, she wanted people in it who wouldn’t feel constrained by having to answer to a constituency.
For a year and a half she went to every program on the Middle East she heard of, often to two or three a week. At a meeting of the Chicago New Jewish Agenda, a progressive organization, she asked whether anyone was interested in forming a dialogue group and passed around a sheet of paper for people to sign. A number of people signed it, but it would be more than a year before Wheeler could arrange a first meeting, because no one knew any Palestinians to invite.
Wheeler persisted, and in March 1988, at a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she met Vicki Tamoush, the Lebanese-Syrian Christian who would become the group’s facilitator. Tamoush, who was at the meeting to speak about Palestinian women, had brought three Palestinian friends with her. Wheeler walked up and introduced herself. “I asked them if they thought this was a good time for Jews and Arabs to talk, or did they think the situation was too bad to sit down together–which is what some people had told me. They were very responsive. They said they didn’t know if they’d commit themselves to an ongoing meeting, but yes, they’d be willing to meet with me once to talk about it.” Two weeks later Tamoush and five of her friends and Wheeler and four of her friends met for dinner at Tamoush’s home.
Edward Beidas, who is Palestinian, grew up in the West Bank, which was occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. As a small boy he was befriended by a young Jewish man he met on his way to and from school. His parents and their neighbors paid a young girl to gather their children in the morning, walk them to school, and bring them home in the afternoon. “I used to give her a hard time. I’d run and get away from her because I wanted to get to that guy. So she always charged my mother twice what she did the other kids because she always had to chase me around.” Beidas speaks rapidly, sometimes so fast that his words slide over each other. “This guy used to play with me–he was like in his 20s or something. He carried me on his back and flipped me in the air. He used to build me little toys out of wire. And he’d put me on–like a board with wheels on it, and put me on top of the hill, and tell me to hold on tight. And we’d go down the hill, and he’d catch me. I was very fond of him. So one day we were going home from school, and at that time Jordan had a law for public hangings. So here were people gathering around. And I see this man going to be hanged, so I walk in. I think I was maybe five then. It was maybe a minute before they were going to put a red hood over his face. And he was the one I’d been playing with all the time. And they just put this thing on him, and I stood there frozen. They hanged him. And I just watched. I stood there and shook. The girl took me home, and I was sick for a long time.”
Beidas, who is now 38, later heard that the young man had been executed as an Israeli spy. Beidas was close to his father, who died when he was only six, but says he was even closer to this man. “That’s why I can’t hate a Jew. For me that’s not possible. I don’t hate anybody.” He pauses. “But let’s put it this way, they gave me more reasons to hate somehow.”
After World War I large numbers of Jews emigrated to Palestine, many of them fleeing oppression in Europe. As more and more of them arrived, there were more and more clashes between them and Arabs who feared they were about to be forced out of their homes. In early 1947 the British decided to wash their hands of the mess they had created and turned over to the UN the problem of how to divide Palestine between the two groups. War broke out shortly after the UN General Assembly agreed on a partition plan late that year. In May 1948 Israel declared itself a state.
Beidas’s mother came from a wealthy trading family who owned a lot of land around Tel Aviv and in Galilee. During the 1948 war she was one of some 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes. “She had to leave–they were shooting at her. She was pushed out. And she will tell you stories about people dying and getting hit by bullets, and Jewish settlers following and killing, and snipers killing people in their backs, women losing children to the war. She tells horror stories. My dad, he got broken in the war because she was sick. She tells about going from all that money to not having enough to go shopping to eat. When she had her child, she didn’t have any milk in her breast because she was hungry.”
The family fled to Egypt and eventually made their way to the West Bank. His mother now rents an apartment in East Jerusalem, the Arab side of the city. “She’s a very bitter woman. Very bitter. She had a really hard time. But what makes her different from most is that she never hated a Jewish neighbor in her life. She considered them as herself, she always was with them as friends.”
Beidas’s uncle, his father’s brother, had married a German Jew, most of whose family had been gassed during World War II. This aunt was very close to Beidas’s mother. “You wouldn’t separate them. I asked my mother, ‘How could you be so close to her?–she’s Jewish.’ ‘I really don’t think that ever crossed my mind. I just love her.’ My mother knew her till she died, and the closeness of those two was beyond belief. It’s like a story. Transcendent. When it comes to her, my mother does not have any bitterness at all.” When this aunt died in the early 70s, Beidas’s mother went to clean her house and found all his uncle’s things just as they had been left when he died a decade earlier. “She said she caught my uncle’s suits, and they just fell apart in her hand. That’s how old they were. She said his shoes were so shiny–she used to shine them all the time. In 10, 15 years my aunt never came to accept that he was dead.”
Beidas has another uncle who married a Jewish woman in 1944 or ’45. In 1948 this uncle was forced to flee to Lebanon and was nearly killed on the way. Neither side apparently had any sympathy for those who had intermarried. He didn’t see his wife or son again until he illegally crossed back into Israel during the ’67 war–in which his son fought for the Israelis. Though separated for nearly 20 years, says Beidas, “he stayed faithful because he was in love with his wife. She also had no relationship. They waited for each other.” The reunited family still lives in Tel Aviv. “He doesn’t like to flaunt that he’s an Arab. It’s like maybe a black-white marriage here–you always have to be on the defensive. He doesn’t mix a lot with Arabs. He’s still in love with his wife and his child.” He pauses. “I think he somehow sacrificed his identity.”
Yet Beidas admires his uncles’ marriages. “All the differences and all the hate, yet somehow their love just passed everything else and just was stronger. Even after my uncle passed away, or the separation of my other uncle, it’s just like nothing shakes it. It’s something to be envied–somehow you hope you have that universality in you.”
Beidas had little contact with Jews as he grew up. His family settled a few miles north of Jerusalem in a Christian section of Ram Allah (10 to 15 percent of Palestinians are Christian). What he knew of his uncles’ wives conflicted with what he heard at school, where he was taught to dread Jews. Then during the ’67 war the Israelis invaded the West Bank, putting the Palestinians in a panic. “The war started on a Monday, I think, and by Wednesday they were by us. We had cars ready to pick us up, but my mother put her foot down. She said, ‘I’m not moving again. I went through hell the first time around. If you guys want to go, you go ahead.’ We would have gone to Jordan or Iraq.”
After a few days it was all over, and Israel instead of Jordan occupied the West Bank. “When we got out by Thursday and we started wandering around, I couldn’t believe these were Jews. Because I looked at these kids my age, with guns. I’d imagined to see monsters or men with three eyes or something out of the ordinary. And I found just kids. And we said, it can’t be. First you’re embarrassed–how can these people beat us? They’re just like me. It wasn’t like we’d been told. And then there’s a sense of betrayal, because in the West Bank we were never allowed to have a gun, and we were not taught to defend ourselves.”
That same year Beidas’s mother went back to the huge house in Tel Aviv where she had grown up, and found it had become part of a hotel that had been built on her family’s land. “She says she walked up the stairs, and this guy asked what she wanted. She said, ‘This is my home.’ The guy wanted to kick her out, but the hotel manager came and told her she could walk in. She just walked in, looked at all the rooms, all the memories, and she walked out. They offered her something to drink, but she wouldn’t accept anything, she wouldn’t talk. She went home, and she got sick for quite some time.” She has not been back since. Beidas sits quietly for a moment. “It’s bad. It gets so twisted.”
Few of those who fled their homes during the 1948 war were allowed to return; many are still in refugee camps, along with their children and grandchildren. By the end of the war only 50,000 Arabs were left within Israel’s borders. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Arab-owned land and many thousands of their shops and homes were quickly confiscated by the Israelis. Many other homes and villages were bulldozed. All the land owned by Beidas’s mother’s family was confiscated, as were the many acres of farmland his father’s family had held just outside Tel Aviv. But the family still has all the deeds to the land. Beidas says he once asked a rabbi why the Jews drove the Palestinians out of their land. “He said, ‘God promised this land to the Israelis. It’s the land of milk and honey.’ Things like that. I told him, just imagine if somebody walked into your home and said, ‘I have a divine message that I should have your home.’ What am I supposed to do? Say ‘OK, you have a divine message. You can have it’?
“They want to start when they have the kingdom of Israel in Palestine. Well, how about going back before that, when they came from Egypt as invaders? The thing is, where are you going to start the argument? Then you want to go back before that? It becomes ridiculous. Instead of doing that, I think it’s better to say, how are we going to deal with what we have right now?”
Beidas came with one of his brothers to the United States in 1971 to finish his university work. His other brothers and sisters remained behind in the West Bank or emigrated to other Arab countries. Beidas has only been back twice. In 1976 he moved to Chicago, where he got a BA in journalism at Loyola University and then took several engineering courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He now works as a computer-repair engineer and part-time journalist.
“When I was growing up, Israel was always kind of a sacred religious thing,” says Bill Leavitt, who’s 33 and a public-interest lawyer. “It was more than religion. It was also your ethnic identity. It was like your football team–you always rooted for it. It was the kind of ethnic, national identity that people have in the United States as third-generation immigrants.”
He went to Hebrew school, and his family attended a Conservative synagogue in the Chicago suburbs, though they were not particularly observant. His parents sent money to Israel, but never went there. “They were Jewish identified, but they weren’t that militant about it. Their Jewishness was more low-key, but it pervaded their lives in a way. All their friends were Jewish, their whole social life, their family. So they had their little Jewish world here–they didn’t need to go to Israel to find it.”
Leavitt lost touch with his Jewishness when he went off to Oberlin College and didn’t rediscover it until his junior year there. “Not necessarily as a religious thing, but as an ethnic, nationalistic, historical, cultural thing. A lot of other people were doing it. There were people learning Yiddish, and we had a political group. We weren’t part of the mainstream Jewish organization on campus. We created our own little Jewish organization, and we called for no classes on high holidays.” He also led a student strike, calling for the college to divest from South Africa.
“Then I started studying Jewish history. I rejected the assimilationist melting pot which my parents had always taken for granted. They were thinking intellectually people should melt, but in practice they weren’t totally melting. With me, it was probably the reverse. In practice I was probably melting more than they had ever done, but intellectually I saw the value of not melting.”
He was out of college and into law school, John Marshall, before he faced the question of the Middle East. “This was the one issue I had always put on the back burner, as if to say, ‘It’s a very emotionally charged issue, and I’m going to have to really sit down and study this objectively before I start to become politically outspoken in any way.'”
By the time Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Leavitt had decided that the clear solution was a two-state compromise, a fairly novel idea then. He became active in Chicago Friends of Peace Now, the local affiliate of the Israeli organization.
He worked off and on with Rose Wheeler and was one of those who signed her sheet of paper saying they were interested in a dialogue group. “From the start I thought it was a good idea politically. But I just thought, ‘Oh, no. Another meeting.’ So I really wasn’t that gung ho about participating myself. ‘So, we’re going to sit around and talk to Palestinians?’ I thought it was new, something different. So I said ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I didn’t know what it was going to be. It was only later, when I started to enjoy getting to know everyone, that I thought, ‘Hey, this is fun.’ I hear some other dialogue groups were excruciating.”
Aliza Becker, who is 31, grew up in a strongly Zionist family. Her paternal grandfather had been active as a young man in Labor Zionist politics in prerevolutionary Russia. “There was this vision of creating a socialist utopia in the Middle East for Jews, where everyone was equal and you worked the land.” When her grandfather was 17, he emigrated to Palestine, where he worked on a kibbutz for a number of years. “He cleared the swamps, built roads, and planted orange groves. He was an idealist.” She stops and laughs. “Now I don’t remember him ever helping my grandmother in the kitchen.” In 1924 her grandfather emigrated to the U.S. so he could make money to help his family, which was still struggling in the Soviet Union.
Her father’s family were active Zionists, and her father studied animal husbandry at college with every intention of emigrating to Israel, as all of his siblings eventually did. But he stayed here after marrying her mother, whose family, Becker says, was “more assimilated, Western European, and not Zionist.”
Those on her father’s side of the family were strong supporters of Israel. “That seemed to be all anybody ever talked about. It was utopian and romantic–the land where honey flowed,” she says. What she heard about life in Israel contrasted sharply with what she saw as a Jew growing up in suburban Chicago. “Somewhere I got the message that it was not a good thing to be Jewish–I was somehow led to believe Jewish stereotypes. I believed that Jews were more materialistic than others, and somehow responsible for everything that was wrong in the world.” It wasn’t until she was in college and met people who were proud of their Jewish heritage that she was able to reject that stereotype.
While she was in college, she also began to hear that Israel had created serious problems for the Palestinians, whom she, as a child, had been taught to think of simply as terrorists. She worked for a while with a Palestinian in an ice cream shop, and he told her about living under the occupation. She found what he told her hard to listen to. “I saw that my family’s dream of Israel wasn’t the complete reality. It was hell to think about it, because I was struggling not to hate myself as a Jew. And it hurt to find out that Israel, which was where you could feel good about being Jewish, had different standards for Palestinians. It seemed to confirm that Jews were as bad as everyone had said.”
In 1982, around the time Israel invaded Lebanon, she went to a leftist meeting on the Middle East, where the line was decidedly anti-Israel. “I was really dizzy hearing this stuff. And when Jews would go up and denounce Israel–oh, God, I would just feel like someone was killing me. I thought, ‘Why are my brother and sister Jews betraying me?’ I tried to listen and understand. But I could only take in so much information. I wanted to know what was happening and at the same time feel good about myself as a Jew. There was just this ‘It’s terrible. It’s bad. They’re the oppressors.’ The subtleties, the human part was taken out. The bottom line, that human beings do the best they can in their given situations, was never even considered.
“I didn’t think about the Middle East for a long time. I ran away. I wasn’t ready to deal with it emotionally. I wanted to be able to think about it and understand it clearly. Israel is a symbol of security in a world where we often don’t feel safe–attacking that felt like pulling the ground out from under my feet. There was also this feeling of betrayal of my family in Israel. ‘What if I take the wrong stand? What if I really don’t understand? What if I inadvertently contribute to the deaths of my aunts and uncles?'”
Becker understood that sticking together as Jews had for centuries been a defense against anti-Semitism. But she gradually came to believe that their justified fear of provoking even more anti-Semitism shouldn’t stop Jews from publicly questioning each other. “Just because I speak critically about some Israeli policies doesn’t mean that all Jews will be hurt. And I can be proud of things Israel has done–even if I acknowledge that serious mistakes have been made.”
She received her BA in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1981 and then got a master’s in linguistics from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She worked with refugees and immigrants for a number of years, and now manages a large adult-education program.
When Rose Wheeler proposed the idea of a dialogue group, Becker offered to help organize it. But she didn’t intend to be included. She grimaces, remembering her reaction when Wheeler said she assumed Becker would be a member. “I said, OK, I’ll come to one meeting. And after one meeting it changed my life so much I kept going.”
Hisham Abad’s father, like many Palestinians, regularly came to the U.S. to work and send money home to his family. He took various jobs, including one in the steel mills in Gary, often for long periods of time. Abad, who is now 34, was only a baby when his father left on one of his trips; he didn’t come back until Abad was six years old. “That’s why we’re only six in our family. Otherwise we would have been eight or ten,” he says, laughing. He has a gentle voice, and his English, like Edward Beidas’s, is full of Arabic rolled Rs and softened vowels.
Abad, who is Muslim, grew up in al-Birah, ten miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank. As a child he never met any Jews. His school was nearly surrounded by a Palestinian refugee camp, so he saw how poorly the refugees lived. Occasionally he joined their demonstrations. He was taught that he would one day help fight the Israelis and that those who denounced Israel were heroes. “We really used to love Nasser as our liberator and thought he would ‘strike the Jews and drive them into the sea.’ We used to believe that. It was a real shock when Egypt was defeated.” He was told fantastic stories about the fedayeen, the Palestinian soldiers. “We used to believe stories–like when the fedayeen wanted to change the tires on their cars, they would go and take the nuts off with their bare hands,” he says, laughing. “These people with their beards and their mustaches–we were raised to be so proud of them.”
During the ’67 war his mother wanted to flee to Iraq, but the Israelis swept past them before they had time to leave. “The Israelis made a grave mistake taking the West Bank too fast,” he says. “Had they fought for it in stages and allowed the population to run, they would have emptied it, just like they had in 1948.”
He lived under the Israeli occupation for seven years. Because his father sent his family money, Abad didn’t have to work in Israel, as many of his friends did. “Mostly the contact I had with the Israelis was if we had any problems with them in the streets of the West Bank. And we didn’t have much–we were very afraid of them. Very afraid.” When he was in high school, he and his friends sometimes distributed leaflets condemning Israeli actions. One of those friends was caught and tortured. Another friend, whose father was later deported, died when a grenade exploded in his hand. Yet another friend was caught and accused of working with an underground group. “He wasn’t involved at all–the guy who was really involved was his brother. My friend was tortured so that he told about his brother. And his brother went to jail for 12 years for that. They had a very good relationship, the two brothers. So why would he do it? The torture of Palestinians is not very well documented.”
Abad came to the U.S. in 1974. In 1975 he lost his right to return as a citizen of the West Bank when he accidentally let his Israeli-issued traveling papers expire. Now he can only visit the West Bank as an American citizen on his American passport. He may go back this summer with his family; if he does, it will be his first time.
He’s now writing his thesis on his semiconductor research at the University of Illinois at Chicago and should get his PhD in physics in June. He helps his father and brother open the south-side grocery store the family owns every morning before he goes to school and often helps them close the store at night.
When he first came to this country, he signed up to take an English class at the YMCA. “One of my friends came to me and said, ‘Don’t take this class with this teacher. She’s Jewish.’ I took it with her anyway. I was never caught by the Israelis, I was never slapped. So I didn’t have that much hostility toward her, like some of my friends did. And she was very nice to me–I was very impressed by her. And then when I went to the university, we had the office for the organization of Palestinian students next to the office for the Hillel organization. I remember very much going and actually talking to one of the guys. I told him, ‘Let’s speak. Why do you keep fighting?’ But he dismissed me as trying to make fun of him.” Abad later had several advisers who were Jewish, one of whom he followed to California and worked with for two and a half years.
When he lived in the West Bank, Israelis were simply called Jews, not Israelis. For that reason, and because Israelis were often Western or American, Abad, when he first came to the U.S., lumped American Jews into the “they” who had wronged his people. He had to learn to separate Israeli and American Jews, Israeli and American Zionists, and even American Zionists from one another. He thinks most Palestinians here have learned to make similar distinctions.
After the intifada began, he says, “I wanted to talk to somebody Jewish, because I thought I would go crazy or something. So I wanted to talk to Jews, just to see them as human beings, so I would not have to hate them so much. I really didn’t think I would go crazy, but in a way it was like that. I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing in my power to change the situation. And I found anger and hate actually eating me. So I thought to get out of it, just to contact the other side to tell them about what we support.” When Vicki Tamoush, whom he’d met in California, asked him to join the dialogue group, he readily agreed. “I made it clear to the group, I think, that I was only doing this out of selfishness, only for me. I didn’t have any other goals. But later on I started to think maybe we could do some good with this.”
Jay Shefsky, who is Jewish, was born and raised in Chicago. He was in fifth grade at Amelia Earhart School on the south side when the ’67 war broke out, and he recalls that he and the Arab kids would taunt each other on their way to school. “I remember there were Egyptian kids–though I’m not sure how I knew they were Egyptian, actually. I remember, as we crossed paths, shouting at each other like we knew what we were talking about, ‘We shot down one of your planes!’ Or, ‘Our boat bombed your harbor!’ It was very much me against these other kids somehow. I don’t remember it being vicious. It was more like kid banter–‘We’re winning! Ha, ha, ha!'”
Shefsky, who is now 32, says his family wasn’t at all religious, but had a strong sense of itself as a Jewish family. “We did belong to a Reform synagogue, like many Jews who are not religious, and I went to Hebrew school and Sunday school and had a bar mitzvah. And then it stopped right there. It was something that I had to do and didn’t really like that much.” In the past few years he has become much more religious and is probably the most observant of the Jews in the dialogue group.
When he was a child, the relationship between his Jewishness and the outside world wasn’t clear, though he knew there was one. “I had some kind of connection to all these people that were killed in Europe, and that was important somehow. I also had some kind of connection to Israel. I grew up with the image of it as David versus Goliath–it was definitely having a hard time. I knew that Israel was at war periodically, and that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, that we were being attacked unjustly. This is what was taught. As a Jewish community we needed to be supporting it with money when we could and with our hearts and souls.” He also learned stereotypes about Arabs, that they were all violent and untrustworthy.
Shefsky was something of a social activist even in junior high school, when he opposed the Vietnam war. During his freshman year in college he was cornered by a group of Iranian students who gave him his first real reason to question what he had been told about Israel. “They spent a fair amount of time telling me all about why the ‘Zionist entity’ was oppressive and just another imperialist power in the Middle East, etcetera. And because of my other beliefs, some of what they were saying made sense to me. But it didn’t really click.”
In the late 70s he moved to Minneapolis, where a few years later he returned to school in a Jewish-studies program. “That was kind of a whim. But being a Jewish-studies major meant that these were the people that I was around. And I was at Hillel House, and was going to Israeli folk dancing, and kind of got immersed in Israeli and Jewish culture in Minneapolis.” Though he remained a strong supporter of Israel, what he read made him increasingly critical of the state’s actions. He made friends with other Jews who were more vocal critics, and says he felt caught between them and his Hillel friends.
In the summer of 1982 he went to Israel for the first time, arriving two weeks after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “It was an interesting time to be there, because it was really the first time that Israelis had openly and in large numbers questioned an Israeli military move. Up to that point, everything had always been seen very clearly as defensive. So there was all this discussion and all this ferment.”
For two months he studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he met a woman who was studying Arabic and who introduced him to her Palestinian friends. He traveled for another month in Israel and the West Bank, and spent time at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a community of about 80 Jews and Arabs who live on about 100 acres in the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and run a school for peace to which Arab and Jewish children come. There he met a woman who led him to a summer camp in Virginia called Legacy, which every year brings together 125 children from all over the world but focuses on those from the Middle East. He worked there for three summers–teaching the children to use the camp’s video equipment, among other things–while he finished his degree. That experience eventually led him to his current job as an associate producer for a Chicago television station.
It was only by accident that he was at the meeting where Rose Wheeler passed around her sheet of paper, but he immediately agreed to come to the first dialogue-group meeting when she called. Because he’d worked at the summer camp and because a good friend had been in a dialogue group in Philadelphia, the idea wasn’t new, and he had wanted to be in a group for a long time.
When Marlyn Grossman, who is 47, was eight or nine years old, she, like her sister before her, became a member of the Labor Zionist youth movement. The clear aim of the movement was that its children “make aliyah,” emigrate to Israel. “My parents were not particularly keen on the idea. They wanted us here. They weren’t interested in settling there themselves, though they were very active supporters of Israel. The group I was a member of was socialist; it directed its people to the kibbutzim, to the collective life. My father was more a middle-of-the-road Zionist–very supportive all his life, always gave money to Israel, always bought Israel bonds.” She stops and laughs. “It’s a standing joke in Jewish families–‘After all I did for Israel, my kids go and make aliyah.'”
Grossman’s parents were Polish immigrants, and they raised her in New York in a Conservative, traditionally observant household. She still keeps kosher and calls herself “extremely Jewish identified.”
As a child she quickly became attached to the idea of living in Israel. “This was a dream, like you had to be good enough to do this, that this was a hard life that demanded of you and was an important philosophical commitment.” After high school she spent a year there, including three months on a kibbutz, which she says she hated. “It was like being in a small town where everybody was in everybody else’s business.” But she was happy to be in Israel. “For the first time I didn’t feel like an alien. Because when you stop everything for the Sabbath, so has the whole country. It’s a very powerful experience of being in the right place, of belonging, that you can’t have when you’re a minority culture in someone else’s place.”
From the time she was 12, she had wanted to be a psychologist, like her older sister, whom she adored. “I wanted to be exactly like her, and I was devastated that I stopped growing at five feet four and a half inches and didn’t make it to five feet seven and a half like she did.” She got her BA at Barnard and, though it involved a violation of Barnard rules, simultaneously got a bachelor’s in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1965 she went to Israel for a year to see what it would be like to live there on her own.
She worked half-time at the Israel Institute for Applied Social Research, living like an Israeli–she could rarely afford meat and had to wash all her clothes by hand. She could handle that kind of hardship, but she felt constrained by the language, even though she was fairly fluent in Hebrew. “Language is very important to me–I am a person of words. I felt amputated. I felt like I couldn’t express myself.” And she does speak carefully, hanging on to a word until it’s right, pausing until she’s sure a sentence is grammatical.
Another problem was there was then no psychology graduate-degree program in Israel. “Every Israeli we knew was dying to get to America to study psychology.” One year after she left the U.S., she came back to get her doctorate. She got her PhD in 1971 and that same year moved to Chicago. She now works with teenagers at a state hospital and has a part-time private practice.
“I had told people when I left that I was coming back. I felt embarrassed I didn’t actually go back until 1981 for even a visit. I felt like I had failed them. I think because I was feeling bad about not carrying through with my intention to return, I sort of sealed myself off for a lot of years from really knowing what was happening in Israel. I was avoiding pain by not paying close attention to the news. Somewhere along the way, I think maybe not even until the 80s, I all of a sudden woke up and noticed there were some really awful things going on.”
She wasn’t sure what to do with that realization, which so clearly contradicted the image of Israel she had. “This is a real basic point on which dialogue falters. A lot of the positive sense of self of modern Jews has to do with this feeling of having taken this barren land and made it bloom–which the Palestinians experience as an insult. They say, ‘We had a perfectly good land before you came. Why are you putting it down?’ But Jews have a lot of trouble separating from that image of it. When what you get from the outside culture is a lot of negativity, there is a very strong need to connect with a positive image of self that’s in the public domain. Jews have a positive sense of self that’s in the private domain because we have a very wonderful, very old and rich tradition in the religious and in the secular culture. But in terms of something out there that other people can see and have to acknowledge in some way–the existence and the flourishing of the state of Israel is that. It’s really painful to have to readjust that image to take account of the parts that you never learned from the official Israeli version. Like all of the Arab villages that were plowed under. How the Jews really did have a part in encouraging the Arabs to flee during the fighting in ’48.” She sighs. “Sadly, the Jews are just like everybody else. There are people who are into power who don’t care who they hurt.”
As she gradually learned more about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, she felt immobilized. Then in 1984 she went to a conference where a man who had written a book on the conflict told her there had been lies not only on the Israeli side but also on the Palestinian side. “It was like he was saying, ‘You don’t have to think that Jews are all bad and that they’re the only bad apples. You don’t have to take that on to integrate the fact that this bad thing was done and that bad thing was done.'” That night she made a resolution. “OK. There’s been good stuff on both sides. There’s been bad stuff on both sides. I can live with that–if I’m doing something to make it better.”
She focused her efforts on the Chicago New Jewish Agenda, which has long been committed to a just peace in the Middle East, and helped bring in speakers from the Neve Shalom community and from Yesh Gvul, the organization of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. When she heard that Rose Wheeler wanted to start a dialogue group, she wasn’t sure she wanted to join. She’s chronically overcommitted, always having done a lot of volunteer work, including helping found the Chicago Abused Women Coalition and the Women in Crisis Can Act hot line. But she also thought that because of her work as a psychologist she wouldn’t gain much from a dialogue group. “I felt that intellectually I understood the lessons of a dialogue group. I understood that there was a difference of perspective, that Palestinians had an enormous amount of pain that needed to be listened to in order for them to be able to hear anything beyond their own pain.” Still, she went to the first meeting to support the idea of the group.
Luzanne Irsheid, who is Palestinian, was brought up on Chicago’s northwest side. When she was 12, her family went to the Middle East. One day they drove south of Jerusalem to where her father’s family had lived until 1948. “On that land there’s a memorial to John F. Kennedy–don’t ask me why. My father had just gotten a Super-8 camera, and everyplace you’d go, he was like this,” and she sweeps her arm in front of her, laughing. The only time he’d stop moving the camera was when he came to his family. Then he would make them stand still and wave. “I remember us standing on or near the statue, waving, and my father saying, ‘Don’t forget, this is our land.’ And I remember, being a foolish child, saying to my brother something like, ‘It’s our land. It’s our land.’ Just making fun of it sort of, not really grasping that that was our land. It seemed inconceivable that you could have all this land, and that suddenly it could be taken away from you.”
Then her father began walking them around. “It was hilly and it was green, and my father would point and say, ‘We grew such and such here, and plums here, and grapes here.’ He talked about how, as a boy, he would walk around the mountains, the hillside. And that’s when I understood somewhat what it would mean to lose your childhood place. Everyone comes back to their old neighborhood and says, ‘Oh, gee. This has changed, and that has changed.’ But to have the feeling that it wasn’t yours at all anymore is totally different. Everyone thinks that where they grew up is such a beautiful place, but this truly is–it’s a postcard, dreamlike, beautiful place.” She stops and laughs. “As opposed to Logan Square, where I grew up–which I think is just lovely.”
Irsheid’s mother was an American Baptist working for the American consulate in Jerusalem when she met Irsheid’s father, a Sufi Muslim who worked as an interpreter in the Polish consulate. They married and came to the U.S. in the mid-1950s. Irsheid went to church with her mother and would read the Koran with her father, who is very devout. But she grew up American, went to college, and is now, at 29, an editor for an accounting firm and a playwright. She never learned to speak much Arabic and never really considered what it meant to be Palestinian until she joined the dialogue group. “If you had asked me how I would have identified myself before the group, I would have said I’m an American. And I probably would have said I’m an Arab American. But I don’t know that I would have identified myself as a Palestinian, because it wasn’t a tremendous part of my upbringing.” She says her father quite deliberately refused to teach her hate, fear, or even contempt for Jews. “The way politics was presented to me was not in terms of ideologies, but in terms of people,” she says. As she grew up, all her close friends were American and many of them were Jewish.
Her father asked her to come to the dialogue group. “To me it was just a social event–I had no idea it was going to be a group, and I don’t think he did either.” She’s close to her father, and the prospect of learning more about him, of hearing him tell his stories, was the biggest draw for her that first night.
Rashid Irsheid, Luzanne’s father, was born in Jerusalem in 1928 and grew up on his family’s farm several miles south of the city. They produced nearly everything they needed from the land, he says, bending down one finger after the other as he lists what they grew: corn, lentils, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, radishes, wheat, almonds, olives, figs, grapes, pears, peaches, apricots. There were springs for water, and they dried what they needed for the winter. His family had lived on the same land for as long as anyone could remember, he says, bending his fingers again as he lists, in his deep, imperturbable voice, the last ten generations who carried his father’s name.
When he was ten years old his father had a friend named Yussef, an Iraqi Jew who once a year came to the area around his father’s farm to beat out everyone’s cotton pillows and mattresses. “He was a very religious Jew, but he spoke Arabic fluently, of course. He was an old man, big beard, long. After his rounds during the day, he would come and stay at our house. After having dinner and everything, it was time for prayers. My father would wash up, and then he would stand and face Mecca–south. Yussef would stand and face Jerusalem–north. And they would pray for about 15 or 20 minutes.” One night another of his father’s friends, a German Jew named Dr. Goldman, watched Irsheid’s father and Yussef praying. “This doctor, he was a philosopher, he said this was the most interesting thing he had ever seen. This one facing Mecca. This one facing Jerusalem. Praying. And at the same time they are friends.”
But the young Irsheid met very few other Jews until World War II. “I was about 14, 15 years old, and at that time a lot of Jews came–especially from Poland and Europe–running away from Germany, the Nazis. Two Polish families happened to come looking for a place to live, and they knocked on our door. My father offered them a place to live. He gave them a piece of land next to the house so they could grow vegetables. At the end of the month they wanted to talk to my father about rent. But he didn’t accept, because he understood that they were refugees running away from the war, and they didn’t have much. He told them they could live free until they went back to their country.”
The Poles stayed two years until the war ended and they could go back home. Though they had never told anyone, they were high-level diplomats. When a new Polish consul was assigned to Palestine after the war, they asked him to visit Irsheid’s father and offer him a trip to Poland. “Sure enough, this consul came, and he conveyed the wishes of the Polish government. My father understood that Poland became communist, and he said, ‘I couldn’t accept, sorry. But thank you very much. Because I don’t like to go to a country where they don’t believe in God. To me, God is very important. But I have a son here who doesn’t like to work in the fields.'” Irsheid stops and laughs. “I was the youngest, and I never liked to work in the fields.” The consul took Irsheid, who was then 16, with him to Jerusalem, where he began work as a receptionist and telephone operator in the Polish consulate.
When the UN decided in 1947 to partition Palestine, Britain refused to help implement a plan that both sides hadn’t agreed to, and set May 15, 1948, as the date it would end its mandate and withdraw from the region. Irsheid says, “I remember that day very well, because I almost was killed that day.” He says the British were to leave Jerusalem at midnight on the 14th, but the city was already split into Jewish, Palestinian, and neutral zones. That morning he, the Polish consul general, and their driver went to pick up the mail at the post office and promptly drove into a firefight. “When I heard the bullets hitting here and there, I jumped out of the car. I was young, you know, and afraid.” He ran behind the sandbags that lined one side of the street, which happened to be controlled by the Haganah, the major Jewish army. The consul stopped the car and came after Irsheid. The driver panicked and drove off. The consul talked the Haganah into escorting him and Irsheid to the Belgian consulate, where they sat for a couple of hours.
Finally they were offered a ride back to their own consulate; they drove straight into another fight. “Suddenly one bullet came through the door. It came through here,” Irsheid says, tracing a line across his stomach, “burned my shirt, went like this, and lodged in the driver’s arm.” Irsheid leaped out of the car and flattened himself in the gutter along the curb. The consul and the driver, after the consul tied up his arm, did the same. “We stayed there for maybe two hours, and then we started calling out, ‘Call the consular corps! Call the Belgian consulate! Let them know the Polish consul is prisoner here! Come rescue us!'” The shooting didn’t stop, but the Haganah sent an armored bus around to pick them up and eventually took them back to the Belgian consulate.
The next day David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, arrived at the Belgian consulate for a meeting with all the foreign consuls. “They wanted somebody who spoke Arabic to call the Palestinian headquarters to establish a cease-fire. So the Polish consul says, ‘I’ve got my employee Rashid here.’ He took me to Ben-Gurion, and he told me to call. Now, Israel was only a couple of hours old. So I tried to get in touch by phone. I called around, but I couldn’t get anybody in authority.”
Irsheid was worried about his family, but it was September before he could get out of the city and back to their farm. “Near our land they were fighting. I lost a brother. Mortar. A bomb came over and hit and just crumbled him–him and another villager.” The family had fled across the mountain to land they owned near Bethlehem, where they lived for a while in the fields. His brothers saw the Israelis destroy all the houses on the land they had left. “We had eight houses. Big ones–Arabic-style houses with a dome. Beautiful, high, and thick, thick walls. They bulldozed them. Not only bulldozed–they dynamited them. They were strong.” The family then fled to Jericho. Later his father went to Jordan with part of the family; one of his brothers went to Jerusalem. “We know where our land is,” he says quietly and without anger. “It’s all leveled and everything’s mixed up, but still we would know. Land is land. Maybe not where the divisions exactly were. But we have documents and everything.”
In a heavy voice he says, “The way I see it from my own experience, it is the politics. The British, the French, but mostly the British, they did awful harm. If they really wanted to make peace in this part of the world, they could have done it. There was no trouble until they started promising the Jews, and the Arabs also started promising this and that. So it started, the trouble.” He tells a story about a British man who comes up to a blind Jew and a blind Arab who are begging next to each other on the street. The man says, “Here’s a piaster for you,” but doesn’t give anything to either of them. After he leaves, one of the beggars says, “He gave you a piaster. You have to share.” The other says angrily, “He didn’t give me anything. It’s you who has to share.”
Irsheid worked at the consulate for a few more years, though he wanted to move to America. His mother asked him to stay. “She said, ‘Don’t leave. After I die, you can do whatever you want.'” She died in 1955. In 1956 his wife and baby son moved here; two years later he followed them. He spoke four languages–Arabic, Hebrew, Polish, and English–and assumed he could easily find work. Of course here no one was interested in his skills. So he worked during the day, went to school at night, and became a master machinist and tool-and-die maker. For years he worked in machine shops along Clybourn Avenue.
The first time he went back to the Middle East was the trip he made in 1972 with Luzanne and his wife and son. He visited his father in Jordan, but will say little about it. Luzanne remembers that her grandfather was then very frail. “His eyes were very, very bad. He knew we were there from the sound, but I don’t think he could see us very well. My father’s reaction when he saw him I’ll never forget. He began to cry.” It was the last time Irsheid saw his father. He has since been back four more times; he says if there is a settlement, he wants to move back to stay.
When Edward Beidas arrived at Vicki Tamoush’s house on the night of the first meeting, Hisham Abad and Jay Shefsky were already there. Beidas thought Abad was Jewish and Shefsky Palestinian. Rose Wheeler keeps an album of group pictures, and it amuses her that nonmembers who look at them can’t tell the Palestinians from the Jews.
They all introduced themselves and then sat down to eat the large Arab meal Tamoush had prepared. Shefsky sat between Beidas and Abad. “This is really silly,” says Beidas, “but Jay sat there and his knee bumped my knee. And I just went–it felt like an electric thing going through me, though I’d merely touched somebody. It’s really strange and stupid, if you ask me.” He shakes his head. “But we got to talking and laughing, and before you knew it we hooked on pretty good.”
Wheeler describes that night as magical, a word Luzanne Irsheid also uses. “As soon as everyone was there who was coming, we went around the room–Vicki used a Quaker-style consensus rather than voting or anything–and each person told his story.” She laughs. “Each person told a long story. Some were longer than others, but there were no short stories. We were sitting there until quarter to 11. And hearing the stories of each other was so emotionally touching that we just really connected. At the end of the meeting when we were deciding what to do next, we had a group going.”
“Everybody was proud of who they were and where they came from,” says Aliza Becker. “And there was this sense of, ‘This is who I am, this is the pain I’ve been through, and I am committed to being–I trust that we can come up with a resolution.'”
“I’ve never walked into a room half full of strangers and felt as at home,” says Marlyn Grossman. “I think the most powerful part of it for me was the fact that these Palestinians–despite the terrible pain that they had been through themselves, despite the fact that they personally had suffered losses because of the evil that my people had done–were willing to sit in the same room with me and trust me enough to share something so personal. It was very powerful. And kind of healing to me too. Being face to face with people to whom this had happened, in a sense in my name, and having them relate to me as a human being and not as just the faceless oppressor went against something in me that was holding me back. I guess I was still carrying too much of the guilt–‘I must be really bad to have allowed this to happen.’ I hadn’t really gone into this thinking there was healing in it for me. I only thought there was healing for the Palestinians.”
The beginnings of their meetings, which are still held only in each other’s homes, were spent eating the meals they prepared for each other and talking about their work and families. Then Vicki Tamoush, who last fall moved to California, would move them into a discussion of an agreed-on topic. For several meetings they carefully kept those topics very personal rather than theoretical: What role does religion play in your political feelings? How do you define your identity as a Jew or Palestinian? What kind of reaction to your being in a dialogue group are you getting from your friends and family? Tamoush, who had heard how other dialogue groups failed, made it clear at the beginning that she didn’t think any group could last if they started fighting and putting each other on the defensive. “It’s fine to disagree,” she says. “That’s why we were there–because we assumed there were certain disagreements. But we were there to discuss them, not to argue them out.” Everyone in the group credits Tamoush with making the group work from the beginning, for setting the respectful tone, for cheering them on. Often the Jews would disagree with each other and some would side with the Palestinians; the Palestinians would also disagree and some would side with the Jews.
They also got together just to socialize as friends. In fact, Edward Beidas says their discussions of even the most serious subjects often degenerate into socializing. “Social interchange is as important as anything else–in some ways more important than the actual discussion,” says Jay Shefsky. “There’s got to be a basis in trust and connection before you launch into the issue that divides you.” They had a Fourth of July barbecue at Beidas’s, a Sukkoth celebration at Shefsky’s, an Eid al Adha feast at Rashid Irsheid’s. They played volleyball along the lake and attended birthday parties for each other’s children. Shefsky’s daughter and Hisham Abad’s were both born during the first year of the dialogue group. Abad proudly calls them dialogue-group babies. The group members say their children will never be taught to hate or fear the other side.
They often brought newspaper and magazine stories about the intifada to the meetings, especially early on. Tamoush once brought an article that described the killing of a Palestinian a couple of weeks before. He turned out to be the cousin of Ibrahim, the fifth Palestinian member of the group, who knew about the killing and was not at that meeting. Several months later he left the group.
About a year ago they decided there were several difficult issues they hadn’t really discussed at length. They made a list and ordered them from least painful to most, then discussed one issue every meeting. “Is Zionism Racism?” was the next to the last topic; the PLO was the last. The Zionism discussion turned out to be very painful, the PLO discussion, which happened in January, wasn’t at all. On many of the issues they found they could quickly agree. They agreed on having two states, on what borders could be like, on the need for reparations for those who’d been dispossessed. They agreed the violence that both Israel and the PLO have been responsible for in the past was terrible. They agreed that the PLO line has changed and that Israel has no right to decide who should negotiate for the Palestinians. They also agreed that both Jews and Palestinians could be emotionally and spiritually attached to all of the land as their homeland, without one group having to own or control all of it.
Getting to the point where they easily agreed or were content to disagree was hardly an easy process, and Aliza Becker says the deep affection and respect they all now have for each other took a while to build. From the beginning, says Rose Wheeler, the Jews in the group “were very sympathetic to what was happening and very upset about Israel sending the military to do things that we knew of at that time–it’s much worse since. But three or four months into the intifada, we were–we had to deal with a lot of sort of tumult and collective guilt. We were the enemy, and we didn’t want to be that way.”
The Jews recognize that their experience of the group as American Jews is very different from what it would be for Israelis. “The group is distorted in that you have Palestinians talking about their experiences, and you don’t have Israelis talking about what it’s like for them,” says Becker, who was in Israel only once, when she was 13. “We’re missing the kind of terror that Is-raelis grow up with, being car-bombed or shot–just this whole safety issue, the threat, the constant fear of war, of everyone having to go into the army.” Palestinian terrorists have of course been responsible for hijacking planes and blowing up buses, as well as for numerous bombings and stabbings of innocent civilians, including children. In the past two years in Jerusalem alone, there have been 120 firebomb attacks. Becker tried to find some Israelis who would be interested in visiting the group. “They asked if any of the Palestinians involved were members of the PLO–there is this law now that Israelis who talk to members of the PLO will be arrested and put in jail. I went to the group and asked if any of them were members. The Palestinians told me, ‘It’s not like you send in your $20 and they send you a membership card. It’s the organization that represents our people, but there’s no such thing as a member.’ But the Israelis were really frightened of what it would mean.”
Yet the Jews in the group came with many of the assumptions Israeli Jews probably would have, assumptions they had to throw away. “We had misunderstandings about what the other side’s religions were and what they were like,” says Wheeler. “Some of the questions that they had about the Jewish religion we thought were strange. They generalized a lot about Jews, and we had to make the point that Jews were not all religious Jews. We learned that on their side they were not all Muslims, and that Arabs could also be Christian. Also that Muslims varied in the intensity with which they identified with their religion.” Marlyn Grossman says that discovering the widely varying opinions among the Palestinians freed her of the need to think “The Palestinians believe this.” She once read somewhere that we let go of a stereotype after we meet the fifth exception to it.
Becker says that for the first time she could truly listen to Palestinians describe what they’d gone through. And for the first time she understood why they believed what they did. “I learned a lot about the Middle East. It’s not that the information wasn’t there for me before, but I can hear it now and I can sympathize. See, the difference in the dialogue group is people talked about ‘This is my life and this is my experience.’ Not ‘Politically speaking, I think this happened and this happened.’ So people have a human face–you’re hearing them as a human being. They’re not a threat, they’re very loving and caring people–and they’re committed to reaching out to me, no matter how much they’ve been hurt.” She also decided that though understanding the history of the conflict is terribly important, arguing about who was the greater victim in the past doesn’t help anyone who’s a victim now.
Grossman says that though she knew one of the results of being in such a group would be a better ability to see the world from the other side’s perspective, the reality of that is more than she could ever have appreciated, for her and for the Palestinians. “Vicki talks about the time she and one of the Palestinians were on the phone talking about the number of people who had been killed by the soldiers in the intifada, and seeing on the news these pictures of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians. They realized that one of the soldiers looked like Jay. And for the first time they could make the shift the other way and see that these are human beings on the other side too.”
There were of course the disagreements. “I know that in general among Palestinians there’s a strong feeling that Israel is there illegitimately,” says Jay Shefsky. “And to the extent that there’s going to be reconciliation, it is because there needs to be–because Israel is a strong power, and if they’re going to get anything at all, they’re going to have to reconcile with Israel. ‘Getting back the whole thing isn’t an option anymore, so let’s face facts, folks.’ But that hasn’t led to a sense of there being any sort of legitimacy to the Jews being there. I guess I have to say I was surprised at how clear and strong was that feeling even in members of this group. My perspective on it is that the problem here is one of two people with legitimate claims in conflict over the same piece of land. And from one particular discussion we had, it was clear that while they’re as committed to a two-state solution as I am, and as committed to the fact that we are all people, and to the process of dialogue–the starting point isn’t that this is two groups with legitimate claims.
“I’ve told some people that, and they’re very upset, and they say, ‘Well, how can you talk to them? And how can we trust them? And how can we make peace?’ And my feeling is, well, I wish they did see that Jews also have a legitimate claim. I guess I can understand why they feel the way they do. I don’t accept it. But while it personally kind of hurts, it shouldn’t stop the process of dialogue, it shouldn’t stop the peace process, and it’s unrealistic, unnecessary to expect it to. I think that an eventual agreement is not going to be because everybody loves everybody. It’s going to be because there are sufficient safeguards.”
Shefsky believes that most Jews and most Palestinians would rather the other not have a state, and that both are shifting toward a two-state compromise primarily out of self-interest. But he also believes that if the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab countries had Israel’s military power and Israel were weak, the Arab countries would likely invade and reclaim the land–a possibility he believes makes security agreements with those states essential. The Jews in the group generally agree that Israel’s ability to settle with the Palestinians depends on such agreements, though they also recognize that peace with those countries depends on the creation of a Palestinian state. They would also like to see the new Palestinian state demilitarized, as would the Palestinians in the group.
Often the meetings are filled with small revelations. “I learned a lot of little things that you don’t readily learn from a book,” says Bill Leavitt. “Even if Jews go to Israel, there are a lot of things they will never know if they don’t meet Palestinians and talk to them. People can actually have lived in Israel for years and not know things that I learned in a few nights of the dialogue group. Like the experience an Arab has living in Israel. They described going to Israel, getting off the plane, passing through customs–it’s a very big difference. If you’re Jewish and you pass through customs, it’s like you’re a king. If you’re an Arab, it’s like you’re a terrorist. It’s easy to ignore and not understand the war as an American visiting Israel–I don’t think a lot of American Jews really understand the situation. All they see is the Jewish community in Israel, and then something really big called fear.”
Edward Beidas says long waits, interrogations, and strip searches are common for Arabs at the airport. “To humiliate you, they have you stand in front of others naked. It’s so you don’t go back. Actually I never even got searched once–it’s spooky, because my friends really went through hell going in and out. My mother is an old lady, and every time she goes there they still search her.” He describes one trip she wanted to make across the bridge to Jordan. “It’s an all-day affair. You sit there in the scorching sun in these long lines. She said after she got across, they told her she had to go back to Jerusalem. ‘Why?’ ‘You have to go to the police station and get a paper from them saying you never cast a stone at a soldier.'” Beidas laughs. “She was with another old lady, and my mother has diabetes, and she has an infection in her bones, and she can’t even walk without a cane.”
Leavitt went to the Middle East for the first time last year on a tour with other peace activists. They went to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, and made a point of meeting a number of Jewish and Palestinian leaders. “Some people said, ‘Oh, once you go there, you’ll become more right-wing.’ But I didn’t. It just confirmed everything I thought before. It helped me visualize the whole situation.”
Edward Beidas came to the first few meetings more out of curiosity than anything. “You’re always doubtful it’s going to go on a lot further. But after a while it becomes part of you. I long for those meetings. It’s like they keep you civilized. When I see Israelis beating up Palestinians, I wish we had the meeting that day, because those kinds of acts always engender some kind of rejection, or maybe a trace of hate. The meetings serve to alleviate that, to take it away.”
Hisham Abad felt much the same way. “Every meeting I went to I came out with a much better state of mind and peace in myself.” He laughs. “Then this state of peacefulness would decay until the next meeting, and then I would renew it. Now to a lesser extent, because we don’t hear so much about the intifada. But you see, I used to go–from home to school is about a half hour. I would be like daydreaming, and the only thing I would daydream about would be how to destroy the Israelis. I would be imagining situations, and armies attacking them, and things like that. Sometimes it still happens when I hear bad news. But now the daydream goes differently. Like I will see us really living in peace.”
Beidas was surprised and pleased that the Jews in the group were so candid about their backgrounds and what they’d been taught. And he was glad to get answers to questions he’d had for years. “I never knew why an American Jew here feels so close to Israel. I was surprised to find out that even here they don’t feel they’re at home. I honestly feel I’m at home here–I’m relaxed and happy. If someone bad-mouths the United States, I get aggravated and upset like everybody else. Most of the Jews are born here, yet they don’t feel at home here. Now I understand why they will put their lives and their money and everything else into the welfare of Israel–I’m beginning to understand that. There’s a pool of hate here for the Jews which I never recognized. There’s not even as much hate for them among the Palestinians.” He says that because he’s Palestinian, he hears anti-Jewish statements from people who assume he’ll sympathize. A German man once told him that Israel’s brutality toward the Palestinians had eased his conscience, because Israel had proved it could be as bad as any nation.
The Palestinians in the group say they have also learned how much Jews are haunted by the Holocaust. Beidas is now trying to decide whether his son is old enough to be taught about it. Abad says, “Now I will try to put myself in their place, in terms of what they went through in Europe and throughout their history. I think I came to sympathize more with them. I think that’s really what I wished would happen with this group–that we will understand each other better. Before I used to think Jews exaggerated the Holocaust and their fears. I think we were justified to feel that way because, logically, if they went through that, then they should be much more merciful. Also it’s very difficult to believe people do that to each other. I used to think, how could anybody take women and children and just gas them?” Still, he points out, “the Zionist ideology of driving the Arabs out was developed before the Holocaust happened. I understand they can be very afraid, but we didn’t do it.”
Abad says he also now understands that Jews are emotionally attached to the land of Palestine, just as Palestinians are, but he cannot ignore the attachment older people have for the land they grew up on and farmed but were never allowed to return to. “It is very difficult for people who are peasants, who lived in the country and considered it their only land. It’s like their reference point. It’s where they belong. They didn’t know how to read and write. So you put them out in the world and it becomes like a wild place. They don’t know what to do without their land. I think for Americans this is very difficult to understand. America is an open society, and people move very easily. Back home, usually you’re called by the name of your village.” Yet he’s willing to acknowledge that Jews now have a claim to the land too. “If we have a claim because we lived in the land, then the Jews also have a claim because they have lived in it.” Beidas also recognizes that individuals have claims, though he has trouble believing the state of Israel does. Still, the Palestinians in the group all accept a two-state solution, and they have difficulty seeing why Israel can’t. “What’s left? This little West Bank?” says Rashid Irsheid. The West Bank and Gaza together include about one-quarter of British-mandate Palestine. “And they have all the guarantees–Israel’s asking for this and this and that. They have the best technology in the world, the best armaments from the United States. With all their mighty armaments and strength, what are they afraid of? We don’t have anything. So they want rules and guarantees and no guns. Fine.”
Beidas was surprised to learn how little the Jews in the group knew about Palestinians. “They didn’t know anything about Palestinians as people. Most of their teaching was strictly Zionist. They thought that Palestinian Arabs belonged to all Arabs. Now they understand that’s analogous to saying that Colombians speak Spanish and so do the Venezuelans, so why not put them together. They understand now that Egyptian traditions are different from Palestinian–they share the language, but not the heritage. And they discovered that we were abused by other Arab countries, and, like the Jews, we don’t fit. We speak the language, they might help us–but we don’t fit. A Palestinian is not an Egyptian, is not an Iraqi. It’s different. If you go there, they call you a stranger.” The parallels in their histories are echoed in the language the group members use to describe the Palestinians’ situation: persecution, exile, diaspora. They have also added the world’s current favorite word, self-determination.
Beidas says that when relatives or friends are invited to visit the group, they often make blanket statements about Jews or Palestinians. “You’d be surprised with a closer look. You’d be very surprised. It shows you how ignorant you’ve been, and you just feel kind of embarrassed. It embarrassed me, once I got so close. It’s almost sometimes like you’re looking in the mirror. You have the same fears and the same concerns. It kind of eliminated the word ‘enemy’–it became hollow. I’m forever grateful to Vicki for bringing me to this group. Without her I would have had to live the rest of my life with my prejudices and, I can say now, misconceptions.”
Luzanne Irsheid calls herself politically unsophisticated and has sometimes felt she didn’t contribute enough to the group, because she didn’t have the knowledge some of the others did and because her identity as a Palestinian is still forming. But, she says, “In a sense, it is necessary to have somebody in the group whose stakes are not as high–I mean obviously I do have some stake because my father was born there and has land there and I saw it–but who’s not that emotionally scarred by it. And I don’t think that I have been.”
Her perspective may make it easier for her to see subtle parallels between the way the world has treated Jews and the way Jews treat Palestinians. When the group made its first panel presentation to a synagogue last fall, she compared the fear Jews have about being absorbed and annihilated by other cultures to the growing fear Palestinians have that the Israelis want to do the same to them. “I was saying what surprised me about this audience was this feeling of paranoia and the attachment to this dream–and at times an almost irrational attachment to the dream in the face of facts about what the state was doing–that produces a sort of an alienation from the rest of the world. Like, ‘This is our dream. Don’t take it away from us.’ And it occurred to me that the same feeling is being produced in Palestinians, that they are being told, ‘You can’t have this. You have many Arab countries where you can go. Just disperse. Your identity is really not important.’ The kind of desperation that declaration produces in people is very similar to the Jewish experience.”
Beidas wouldn’t give a dialogue group starting out now a 10 percent chance of making it, though he believes it’s critical that more groups form. He attributes his group’s success to luck and the personalities of the people. “In our group we feel we should not put anyone on the defensive, because that defeats the purpose. Because if somebody puts you on the defensive, then you’re not going to be looking forward to the next meeting–and then there it goes. I give a lot of thought to what I say. I make the point, but also I’m alert to what I say, very conscious of it, like I don’t want to hurt their feelings somehow. We had some setbacks, but we survived all of them. I think that tells me we’re strong.”
The December meeting is at Edward Beidas’s house. Hisham Abad is early; the rest arrive in ones and twos over the next hour or so. Rose Wheeler comes in, and Beidas’s two children promptly take her off to see their schoolwork. As soon as everyone’s there, they eat the huge dinner Beidas’s wife has spread across the dining-room table, talking and laughing easily. Then they settle around the fireplace in the large basement den. They have agreed to read an article in Foreign Affairs, and during their discussion it becomes clear that a year and a half of talking together has not ended their need to restate and clarify basic issues.
At one point Beidas describes what he remembers Jay Shefsky telling the group about a trip he made to Israel. “You went there, and you felt like a Jew. Everybody there was a Jew, and you didn’t feel any different. You had tears in your eyes before you got there.” Shefsky nods. “And you said, ‘This is where I belong.’ A Palestinian, he’d like to have those feelings–where he has control of his own fate, doesn’t have a policeman who doesn’t even speak his language come and arrest him, no foreign culture imposed on him. He wants to be free. He wants to rule himself day to day. He wants to vote for people just like him, have people like him govern him. Live in his culture without feeling inferior. That means having a home, having a state.” The words seem bitter, but he says them without anger.
“What about a binational state?” says Bill Leavitt. “Do you think it’s possible to have one nation with two different cultures, or do you think a culture needs its own state?”
“That would work too,” says Beidas, and then laughs. “But get the Israelis to look at the Palestinians as people.”
“In other words you’re saying that you don’t necessarily want your own state if you could have a binational state where Palestinians would be equal?” says Leavitt.
“That’s very important, because we Jews won’t meet your step on that. Because the Jews are not willing to have a binational state at this point. We are–”
“Basically mistrustful that it could ever be possible,” says Marlyn Grossman.
“I don’t think it would work either,” says Shefsky. “Hisham was saying there’s a history of Jews and Christians and Muslims living together in the land, and that’s right. Anybody that’s lived in Palestine for a long time will have stories of the times in Haifa or in other places, of people living very well together. There’s also no question, as Bill was saying, that the majority opinion among Jews now is that not only is the idea of a binational state not possible, not only is it not going to work, but it’s not what they want. It’s not what I want. I think that has to do with our different histories. To some extent the Jewish experience has been exactly what you were describing–everyplace that we were, never having an experience of that kind of shared mutual trust and equality, and being persecuted so much that we would only accept a piece of land where we could really control and really guarantee our own safety.” He pauses and smiles. “Whether Israel has succeeded in being that for the Jews is another question.”
There are 1.8 million Palestinians and at least 70,000 Jewish settlers now living in the occupied territories; 750,000 Palestinians and 3.7 million Jews live in Israel. The intifada–which began in December 1987 after an Israeli truck ran into a taxi and killed four Palestinians–is only the latest sharp escalation of a half century of conflict, and by the end of last December 40 Israelis and more than 800 Palestinians–one-fifth of them children 16 years old and younger–had been killed. Tens of thousands of Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and 1,600 soldiers had been injured. Tens of thousands of Palestinians had been arrested, many of them detained without trial. One hundred Israeli soldiers had been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the occupied territories; an estimated 1,000 more had refused to serve there but had simply been reassigned.
For two years it has been difficult for reporters to cover the daily demonstrations and violent incidents as they happen, for the Israeli authorities often seal off affected areas immediately. So there is far less news now than there was at the beginning. Still, the Palestinians seem to see and read whatever there is. “I see things in the paper and on television–the suffering,” says Rashid Irsheid. “I see how they hit the women and the children, and they kill them, and they drag them. I mean a human is a human–you feel. Why do they do that? They have been once like that themselves during the Nazi era. When they came to Palestine, my father offered his home without even knowing.” Yet he also says that if what one endures can make one vengeful, it can also make one desperate for peace.
Edward Beidas doesn’t think the past is the main issue driving younger Palestinians–a critical point, since half of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are less than 20 years old and have grown up entirely under the Israeli occupation. “They’re taught hate by the Israelis now. They don’t need Palestinians to teach them anymore. They can see the suffering and the inflicted pain and torture and everything else. They dehumanize them. That kind of pain, I don’t think you can change it. I think what the Israelis don’t recognize is what they’ve planted and cultivated–even with their own children.” He recently read a story of an Israeli man whose son was taken with some boys’ group to a prison where they taunted Palestinians. “The father went crazy. He said, ‘What are you people teaching my child?'”
Perhaps because he has stronger emotional ties to both Jews and Palestinians than the others in the group, Beidas seems to be whipped the hardest between his understanding and his anger. The low point in the group for him was the night he saw on television police beating an Arab Israeli who had been demonstrating in support of West Bank Palestinians. In a rage, he called several members of the group and demanded they make a collective statement, something he now understands the group wasn’t capable of doing then. “He was beaten savagely. And I got really mad, because I said that stick probably comes from my tax money. That’s what drives me crazy.” The U.S. sends Israel more than $3 billion every year; the total Israeli budget is now $25-30 billion, of which 20 percent goes for military use.
But if Beidas is outraged when Israelis are violent, he is also outraged when Palestinians are. “I see sometimes a bomb that the PLO planted, and somebody gets bombed. When I see that, I feel with her. It’s really terrible. It’s like I got bombed. And I never forgive for that at all. It’s a crime–it doesn’t matter what’s your justification. Just because they kill our children doesn’t mean we should kill their children.” Abad says he too deplores the terrorist killings of people such as Leon Klinghoffer, who was murdered in 1985 on the Achille Lauro, though he wonders why it is that most Americans know who Klinghoffer was, yet can’t name a single one of the hundreds of Palestinians who have been killed by Israelis in an equally brutal way.
Abad insists the intifada is essentially a peaceful movement. The media focus on thrown stones, he says, but boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations have been the major tactics. Still, he hopes the intifada leaders will renounce all violence and remove it as the rationale for the Israeli crackdown. “We don’t need whatever there is–even throwing stones. I hope the Israelis will reach a point where they will allow peaceful demonstrations to go on, so the people will not be afraid to go and do them,” he says, though he quickly adds that the Palestinians in the occupied territories have to decide for themselves what tactics to use. He points out that early in the intifada the PLO directed the people in the occupied territories to stockpile and use firearms, but they refused.
“It is more in the Islamic and Jewish culture to fight an eye for an eye–we don’t accept hostilities to be done against us while showing only peaceful action. So maybe it’s a little bit strange for us to fight a gun with a peaceful movement–I think it’s strange for any people to do that. You need a lot of courage to actually go in a demonstration and just stand still while the soldiers beat you.” Perhaps, he says, the Palestinians have moved toward nonviolence because they have no other choice right now. “But also for me, it’s a genuine quest for peace. Because the other option is, we can always have F-15s. That’s what a lot of Palestinians who don’t accept what Yasir Arafat is doing say. ‘Let them take the land. The only thing they cannot take is our claim to it. And in a hundred years we will be able to muster as much weaponry as they have, and then we will crush them.’ When Israel has nuclear bombs and we have them too, if we have people who are as determined as Shamir and as, for example, Assad of Syria, I’m sure they will use them. For me, that is the motivation for a quest for peace.”
When Rose Wheeler told friends and acquaintances she was meeting with a group of Palestinians, they were often astounded. “The stereotypes came out. ‘I mean, can you trust them?’ ‘Well, can they trust us?'” Some think of Palestinians only as terrorists. “Just walk into any Jewish temple or any Jewish organization where there’s a discussion of this going on, and you will find people who say, ‘You cannot deal with those people. They’re terrorists.'” Wheeler understands that even liberal Jews have a great fear of having a Palestinian state next to a long, narrow Israel, even though many high-level Israeli military officers have said that defending the pre-’67 borders would be far easier than trying to maintain control over an increasingly hostile population in the occupied territories.
The friends and families of the Jews in the group react to their meeting with Palestinians with varying degrees of skepticism and even anger. Aliza Becker’s family agrees something has to be done and that it’s time to give the Palestinians their own country, but they can’t see what they can do. Bill Leavitt describes his mother’s reaction this way: “At first it was disbelief, kind of like laughing at it. ‘This is craziness.’ Then once she said, ‘Bill, now don’t you sell out Israel. Don’t sell it short in your negotiations.'” He rolls his head back and laughs. “I’m like, ‘Mother, I’m not negotiating for Israel. I don’t represent Israel.’ So on the one hand it’s craziness. But on the other hand, a fear that you’re somehow going to compromise Israel’s security or be responsible for a second holocaust. Just because you sit down and talk. It’s a real fear.”
Wheeler, Becker, and Marlyn Grossman have close relatives in Israel, and they hear their side. Wheeler has some 75 to 100 cousins living there. “I don’t keep close touch with them–they are, some of them, living in settlements in the Palestinian areas, the occupied areas. I heard I have one Peace Now cousin over there. But what happens is that the American relatives of my cousins hear about the Palestinian atrocities against Israelis–I mean there are atrocities on their side too. And they hear about the killings and maimings, and, after all, throwing stones is not all that innocent.”
Becker too has a lot of family in Israel, including a cousin who volunteered for the army a year ago. But she doesn’t believe the line she’s often been given that she has no right to say anything about what goes on in the Middle East because she doesn’t live there. “Did someone have the right to say ‘Stop killing Jews’ during World War II if they weren’t a Jew?” she says. Marlyn Grossman has heard the same line and says, “I wouldn’t presume to dictate the peace terms, but I feel perfectly free to say I think what’s happening in Israel is terrible for the Palestinians, terrible for the Israelis. A whole generation of Israelis has been raised to regard Palestinians as nonpeople–more so than ever before. And that is destroying the Jews.” She pauses for a long moment. “It would be nice if suffering ennobled. But it doesn’t typically make people any more sensitive to other people’s suffering to have suffered themselves. I mean–I know that is true, but there is still a way in which I basically demand of the Jewish people that they learn from their experience and not do these same things to others.”
Grossman’s younger sister lives in Jerusalem. A year ago Luzanne Irsheid won two tickets to anywhere in the world but couldn’t take a trip before the tickets expired. Her father and Grossman used them to go to Israel. Grossman asked her sister if she could invite Irsheid to her house. “She couldn’t conceive of it. A Palestinian to her is that person who’s trying to kill her. You can understand that in some sense, because there’ve been bombs planted all around. They had to take the mailboxes and garbage cans out of Jerusalem for a while because there had been so many bombs planted in them. But she couldn’t hear over that noise in her head that this is a man I have known for a year, who is committed to peace, who is personally charming and very interesting to talk to. She couldn’t see Rashid for Rashid because all she saw was ‘Palestinian trying to kill me.'” Grossman pauses. “Though she did pick him up at the airport at my request. She didn’t drive him to his village, because she said she’d probably get stoned on that road and get her windshield broken. Which is quite possible.” Grossman wasn’t searched coming into Israel, but Irsheid was strip-searched and interrogated. On the way back they nearly missed the plane after authorities figured out they were together and searched both repeatedly.
The Chicago Palestinian community includes at least 30,000 people, the second largest population in America outside the New York area. Edward Beidas isn’t sure how well-known the dialogue group’s existence is in the community, but he has felt plenty of pressure to quit. “Some label me crazy. Some label me as blasphemous. Some say go ahead, we’ll wait and see. Some say good for you, but we don’t have the courage to do it. Some say to us, how can we do this? It’s a different mix. My family, most of them, say it’s useless, it’s a waste of time. My wife, often she’ll say, ‘I don’t think this is getting us anywhere.’ Granted, sometimes I get those feelings. But then I step back and look at the options. It’s the best option I have.” He laughs. “And you’re back in court. What other options do you have if you don’t want to talk? They’ve all been killing each other for years, so they always had that option. Why not talk? Because if talking doesn’t work, you can go back to your first option.” Rashid Irsheid echoes that thought. “Sometimes I say, ‘I’m not going to go to this meeting. Forget it.’ But then I say to myself, well, what the heck. You’ve got to talk. You’ve got to do something.”
All the Palestinians in the group have family in the occupied territories, and the stories they hear rekindle their anger and despair. “It’s sometimes agonizing for me to come to a meeting,” says Beidas. “Because, see, Jews over there are not persecuted right now. We are. Our families are being killed. My mother tells me settlers knock on her windows, telling her at night they’re ready to break in and shooting in the air. She witnessed soldiers stepping on a baby, a few months old, on purpose. A neighbor kid. It died. And she said a neighbor, she has only two sons, 17 and 19. The 17-year-old was walking home and he got shot. So the 19-year-old went out there to pick him up, and they shot him too. And they were hugging each other and dying.” When Beidas’s mother came to visit him recently, she told him, “I come from hell.”
“It’s a wrenching experience sometimes after something really massive breaks out there,” Beidas says. “And then we see it, and we’re hurting. And then we are to go to this meeting, and then we have to talk about Jewish insecurity.” He stops and laughs. “So it becomes difficult. And then with your family, it’s ‘Why are you talking to them? You are betraying your people. After all this, how can you even look them in the face?'”
Hisham Abad also hears a lot of bad news. His parents’ house is on the main road from Jerusalem to Nablus, at a curve in the road that allows neighborhood children to ambush the Israelis from behind their garden wall. The family has been warned that if the kids are caught again throwing stones from behind the wall, the house will be destroyed. Abad’s family had another house outside Jericho that was blown up because it was near the place from which a Molotov cocktail was thrown into an Israeli bus, killing an Israeli woman and her three children. (Hundreds of Palestinian homes have been demolished during the intifada under an old British-mandate regulation adopted by Israel.) Two of Abad’s cousins have been beaten, and he has just heard that another cousin, who was arrested for throwing stones, had his fingernails torn off while in Israeli custody. But Abad says he has also heard stories of small defiances. “Once my aunt was in the produce market–usually it’s very busy, and that’s where always the trouble happens. The soldiers came and they grabbed this boy. When she noticed that, she went and she attacked the boy. ‘Where have you been, you stupid boy! I have been waiting here for you for two hours!’ Screaming at him. So the soldiers tried to push her. ‘This is not your business! This is between me and my son!'” Abad says the boy was let go, and then laughs. “I said, ‘Did he carry the groceries for you?’ She said, ‘No. He just left me and ran.'”
Abad wants to stay in the group as long as he is in Chicago, but the pressure to quit is great. His friends treat him differently. His wife–who is also Palestinian, though she was born and raised in Chicago–sometimes has trouble understanding why he spends so much time with the group when he has so few spare hours to start with. His daughter is not awake when he leaves in the morning and often asleep before he gets home. His father and mother refuse to allow the group to meet in the house when they’re visiting, partly because they’re afraid his reputation as a patriot will be hurt. The notion that he’s damaging his reputation amuses him, though he does think of himself as a patriot. “It’s not like they hate Jews. I really don’t think so. They don’t try to stop me from going. They don’t think it will do any good. But recently my father met with one of the Palestinian leaders here in America, and my father mentioned that to him. And that guy told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s very good what Hisham is doing.'”
Abad is very close to his brother and sisters, all of whom live here. But his sisters are completely opposed to the dialogue group, and his brother is skeptical. Once the group had a barbecue in his backyard. After they left he went to his brother’s, and his wife put the coals in the garage, where they somehow caused a fire. She had to call the Fire Department to come put the blaze out. “Around 1 AM we were sleeping. Somebody called and he said, ‘Is this Hisham?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘This time we burn your garage. Next time we burn your house. Because you meet with the Jews.’ I got so scared. I jumped up and started looking for the FBI telephone number.” The caller, it turned out, was Abad’s brother, playing a practical joke. Abad laughs. “He still gets a kick out of it.”
Abad wishes he could find more Palestinians in Chicago who would be willing to participate in new dialogue groups. He has tried to start a group at school, but has found it much easier to find Jews who are interested than Palestinians. “When I speak to Palestinians and I see some moderation in them, I immediately jump on them about the idea of the group. As far as I’m concerned, this is the only course for us now. And of course from that we’ll branch into other activities. But mostly I want them to be centered around the Jews. Because if we can convince the Jews in America about the need for accommodation and peace, then we will have accomplished a lot.”
He thinks there are a number of reasons why many Chicago Palestinians find it difficult to meet with Jews, even American Jews. “The Arabs are a very proud people. Maybe Americans don’t know that, but we are very proud of ourselves, and of our culture, and of our background. And it’s very difficult for us to accept defeat. But also I think for the defeated to compromise with his oppressor is a bigger step than for the oppressor to compromise.” He thinks some Palestinians can’t stomach the idea of meeting with anyone who is in any way Zionist, a word many Palestinians say they react to the way Jews react to the word Nazi. Many of those who are students worked hard to come to the U.S. and don’t want to chance getting in trouble. And, he says, “We’re not used to America–like if you’re active, you can make a difference.”
But he also thinks it’s easier for Palestinians who live in this country to hang on to their resentment. “The people in the West Bank and Gaza, when they come here, I find them much more receptive to dealing with the Israelis than a number of American Palestinians. The American Palestinians can afford to be fanatics about their views. They don’t have soldiers who will come and take them in the middle of the night. They don’t have their sons in jail. They have a good life here. But over there they know the reality, and they have to live with it. I’ve met Palestinians who have maybe a prominent role in the intifada who come here–of course they wouldn’t say it, but it seemed to me they were like that–and they actually promote such an understanding. But here in Chicago, ‘We will not talk to the Jews. These people took our country. They killed us. They did this and this. The only way they understand is we have to fight them.’ That’s what they say.
“I use this argument against the radicals who try to convince me not to go to these meetings: I tell them, ‘You can afford to be radical and against peace and for total liberation, because all you have to do is speak the words for it. But if you had to suffer, I think you’d take a different position.’ And I tell them I am speaking with the voice of the people who are actually doing the intifada. They want peace, and they allowed the PLO to come out in the open with their peace plans.” For several years high-level officials in the PLO secretly contacted Israelis in Europe. The PLO has also spoken increasingly of nonviolent civil disobedience since Yasir Arafat recognized the right of Israel to exist a little more than a year ago, a concession the Palestinians in the occupied territories may well have encouraged him to make.
In February Jay Shefsky and Hisham Abad talk to about 40 people at a liberal synagogue in the suburbs. They speak briefly about their childhoods, the stereotypes they once held, what led them to the dialogue group, the pressures they’re still under. They answer prepared questions and then questions from the audience.
One woman states in a tense voice that she thinks the Jordanians oppressed the Palestinians when they refused to take care of the refugees in 1948. She seems surprised, as do others, when Abad replies calmly, “What you say is right. Maybe the Arab world oppressed us just as much as the Israelis.”
Asked how the group has managed to stay friendly, Shefsky says they came with some basic agreements and kept the group closed so they wouldn’t break the trust they’d built. Abad says, “One way we avoid problems is we don’t talk about history that much.”
“Why not?” shouts a man who’s been whispering angrily to his companion.
“It’s better to discuss what we can do about the conflict, rather than to discuss who was more vicious,” says Abad.
Shefsky says that history is very subjective, that discussing it is intellectually useful but less important in deciding how to move forward.
“Were you ever in Israel?” the man shouts at Shefsky.
“This guy was there in a tour bus, not a uniform,” the man says with a sneer, addressing the audience.
Another man says stiffly that if Abad talked in the West Bank about working with Jews toward peace, Palestinians would shoot him as a collaborator. Since the intifada began, 155 Palestinians have been killed, apparently by other Palestinians, as collaborators.
Abad explains that a collaborator would be someone who worked with Israeli intelligence against his own people, not someone who thought it was politically wise to work with sympathetic Jews. He then tells of having heard a man who had been in the Warsaw ghetto; this man said that the Jews there had been happier to kill one of their own collaborators than a Nazi.
There are also friendly questions, and during the social that follows a number of people come up to Abad and shake his hand. One man puts his arm around him and says he’s proud of him. “You’ve got guts,” he says. Another man says he admires what Abad is doing, but he himself is cynical.
The congregation drifts away until only a few people are left, including the man who had shouted from the audience. Abad moves over toward him. The man sees him and points his finger at him. “You’re a nice guy,” he says loudly. “You’re a nice guy. But you have no claim.” Keeping his distance, the man explains that as a soldier in the Israeli army he patrolled the area near Abad’s home in Ram Allah the year after Abad left. “I just want you to know,” the man says, twisting his head to one side and then back. “I just want you to know, we never wanted to step on you.”
A short while later, as the few remaining people walk out of the building, the man comes over and shakes Abad’s hand.
All those in the group have tried to pass on to their friends and family what they have learned from each other. As individuals, all of them have done things outside the group that they hope will help their own communities understand the position of the other side. Rose Wheeler, who belongs to more organizations than she can count and has introduced the subject of the Middle East at more meetings than she can remember, helps organize workshops and presentations for anyone who will host them. She has also been largely responsible for starting two more dialogue groups in Chicago. (There are at least 20 similar groups around the country.) One of the new dialogue groups came out of a series of workshops and an Israeli-Palestinian art exhibit that Bill Leavitt and Hisham Abad helped organize last spring at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both of them now belong to that group as well. Leavitt says its members are much more argumentative about their politics and much more guarded about their personal experiences. He says one Jewish man who visited the group was particularly careful about what he said. “I didn’t mind at first. I thought, ‘OK, give us your talk-show line. But we’ll get to you later on.’ That’s why you need to talk about personal things–you’ve got to get down to the common denominators and work from there.” Hisham Abad has a similar reaction. “The Jews brought very big people to come talk to us. And even though they’re very good, very understanding, I feel not comfortable. I feel very small. Because they are the leaders, you’ll find them tending to speak the party line, and they don’t speak what’s in their hearts. It’s not so much fun as my other group.” He says one of the Palestinians in the group is not a hard-liner, though in the group he talks as if he were.
There has been a lot of impatience in Rose Wheeler’s group, particularly among the Palestinians, to do more publicly as a group. Abad says, “I really, really like the Jewish side, and they have come a long way. And I respect their humanistic approach. But I still think that sometimes they’re not doing enough, that they should be even stronger in the positions they’re taking.” Rashid Irsheid too is clearly fond of everyone in the group, but he says, “People are suffering. This is not enough.” He thinks much of the responsibility for their public efforts must belong to the Jews in the group, because it is the Jewish community that has the most power to call for a change in U.S. government policy toward Israel.
Wheeler too seems impatient and remarks at the beginning of the January meeting that, had they decided how they were generally going to respond as a group, they could have issued a statement about a demonstration held in Jerusalem at the end of December.
In the last couple of months they all seem to have agreed to go more public–to do more panel discussions and presentations at synagogues, to lobby legislators, to appear on radio and TV programs, and to write group letters to public officials and newspaper editors here and in Israel. They have even talked about having a convention of the Chicago dialogue groups, speculating that if all of them and their supportive friends turned up, they could easily have many more than 100 people. They have also talked about doing things simply to bring the two Chicago communities closer, such as organizing games for Jewish and Palestinian children. At their February meeting they watched the documentary A Search for Common Ground: The Intifada Through Israeli Eyes. Though they were all upset by the film’s subtle rationalizing of Israeli violence, their major response to it was that they had to be able to answer in public all of the arguments the film used.
Jay Shefsky was one of the most hesitant about going public, in part because he figured the group members were simply ordinary people, not leaders in their communities. He now thinks that may be one of their strengths. In January he and Rashid Irsheid spoke to a large group of Jewish children, and in February he and Abad gave their presentation at the synagogue.
They’re all aware that it’s hard to measure the consequences of talking to friends and acquaintances or even speaking at public forums. They all hope to move people to write their legislators and to inspire Jews and Palestinians to join a dialogue group. They also hope to encourage Jews to push Jewish organizations to support a two-state peace plan, to refuse to send money to organizations that block the peace process, and to support Israel’s growing peace movement. The move toward peace seems to be growing among Israelis; a recent poll showed a majority now support holding talks with the PLO.
“There have been times for me,” says Shefsky, “when I’ve just felt like saying, ‘Screw them all. It’s not working, and let them all kill each other. Forget it. I’m going to take care of my life here.’ But it didn’t last too long, because there are enough little signs of hope to hold on to. I mean there’s no question that it’s just a drop in the bucket–our group is not making peace in the Middle East. But we’re part of this process.” Vicki Tamoush says all the little things add up. “If somebody one time doesn’t give a donation to an extremist party because, let’s say, his son is in this dialogue group, or he heard some things that are beginning to sound like a good idea, or he’s just fed up with the system–well, we had a little victory there. Something wasn’t bought. Some settlement had a few less bucks. Or some weapon didn’t get paid for.”
At the January meeting there is a discussion of where the intifada is heading. Jay Shefsky says he hopes Palestinians move toward total nonviolence. “I think that up to this point the intifada has been such a strong, powerful thing for the Palestinian cause and a very strong public-relations thing–it’s David and Goliath and all this. Though I think that now when most Americans think about the intifada–to the extent that they know about it–they may think of it as David and Goliath, but they still think of it as stone throwing. They don’t think of it as resisting an occupation.”
Bill Leavitt says he recently heard a woman who had just come back from Israel speak. “She says that the feeling now in the West Bank is that the new tactic is to do Arab-Jewish cooperative demonstrations.”
There’s a quick, pleased murmur from the others. They then talk about the 15,000 to 25,000 Israeli and Palestinian peace demonstrators who held hands around Jerusalem’s Old City last December.
“Wouldn’t it have been great if the soldiers had joined hands around them?” says Hisham Abad.
But at one point police charged into the demonstrators. They shot off tear gas and hit the crowd with water cannons. More than 70 people were injured, and 50 were arrested. Yet there have been several large joint demonstrations since.
Everyone in the group believes a shift in American public opinion regarding Israel’s handling of the occupied territories is critical if Israel’s leaders are to be pushed toward a negotiated peace. “They’re not willing to give up the West Bank and Gaza just because 90 percent of the countries in the world want them to,” says Bill Leavitt. “The issue is what happens if the United States wants them to.” He believes that since this world is becoming one in which political leaders are often forced to follow their constituencies, a dialogue group that is outspoken can help shift American public opinion and ultimately policy decisions. “We have to provide the political space in the Jewish community and in the community at large for them to understand that the Palestinians are a people, and that they should have their own state, and that Israel should negotiate with them. The point is, we’ve come a long way in ten years. Ten years ago the American population in general might not have thought that, but now there’s no doubt the majority would say they’re a people, and they have that right, and Israel should compromise.”
Hisham Abad is less sanguine about the average American’s interest in the Middle East. “I used to think that because we have the opportunity to be in the United States, we should explain to the American population about our problems so they will become sympathetic to us. But I found out that was really useless, because even if I can get other Americans to sympathize with me, they will not do anything about it. But if you come to the Jews and you make them understand, I think they will do something–because they’re attached to this problem. This issue touches them so much. I think now I make a conscious effort to work with Jews even if I don’t like what they’re saying. Because in the final analysis, if we want to get our state, we have to rely on a humanistic Jewish state who will allow us. They have to give it to us because they feel they wronged us and we have a right to it.”
Edward Beidas thinks most Americans believe that Jews and Arabs have been fighting for years and will simply go on fighting for many more. “Hopefully a lot more Americans will come to understand that it’s their money, they are in it. And a little reaching in and touching their consciences or their hearts–maybe that’s all we need to help the situation. We’ve passed those days when it was ‘This is my country. That’s your country.'” He says a Palestinian friend once asked him why he thought Americans were so indifferent to what was happening in the Middle East. “It aggravated him very much. And I asked him had he heard about Tiananmen Square. He said yes. I said, ‘How concerned are you?’ He said, ‘I’m not concerned.’ I said, ‘Then why do you expect an American to be concerned about your problem, when you’re not concerned about the Chinese problem when they’re getting killed?'”
Still, Beidas agrees with Abad that the best course now is talking to American Jews. “It is crucial for us Palestinian Americans to talk to Jewish Americans. This is the format. We are both Americans–maybe we can come to a common understanding. We could each decide to form our own groups and start tearing congressmen apart, but that opens the door for both groups to be exploited by politicians. And nothing will be accomplished, and more lives will be lost, and all those arms dealers will get richer and richer. A lot of people on both sides right now are emotionally hyper. They perceive the problems as life and death, and somehow it’s like ‘What’s good for me has got to be bad for you.’ Like we will have either Israel or Palestine, and the idea of compromise isn’t there. We have many bigots in this country in both camps. You can’t just concentrate on them. You’ve got to get the spotlight away from them for a while.” He smiles. “Turn it on me for a little while. Please.”
The Jews in the group are well aware that even American Jews who seem persuaded that Israel must treat the Palestinians justly find it difficult to act on that perception. Jay Shefsky sometimes gets tired of being told that he’s naive to think what he’s trying to do will matter, and he suggests that cynicism is simply an easy out. “Yes, I have high ideals and I’m working toward them. And yeah, I think that idealism and optimism and hope are all very good things. It’s very easy to get sucked into the quagmire of how hopelessly intractable this conflict is. And, as world conflicts go, this is a tough one. But I really believe there’s hope. I mean if France and Germany can be good neighbors–” He pauses and then says slowly, “I think we’re on the side of right here.” All the Jews in the group get tired of people telling them their support of a two-state solution undermines Israel’s position, for they believe the honest peace that would result from such a settlement would be the best guarantee of Israel’s security.
All the Jews and all the Palestinians in the group believe the continuing conflict is devastating both their peoples, and they now mirror each other’s sense of urgency. “As the intifada continues–which it certainly will do–more and more people are going to be killed and injured,” says Rose Wheeler. “And this generation of kids over in the occupied areas–who have nothing but the experience of the occupation–what’s going to become of them and their attitude toward life? Toward other people? How could they ever be expected to be in a dialogue group with Jews? As far as the young soldiers, both the men and the women in the army in Israel, look what they’re going through. What’s their future if they don’t get killed or injured in the conflict? What’s their whole attitude, having had to be a part of an oppressive military?”
“This cannot go on, all this suffering and to rule other people with a fist,” says Rashid Irsheid. “This is the time–very critical time–to say that’s enough. It’s like something good for the rest of the world would come out of it, to settle this. Even God might be happy to know that. Really. But do it now. Right now. Because our children, if we leave things hanging, they will curse us.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.