While some members of the all-Jewish audience heckled and interrupted the pair of speakers— one Jewish American (Esther Leah Ritz) and one Palestinian American (Najat Arafat Khelil)— a young woman approached Khelil when it was over. “You know, I came prepared to hate you because you’re Palestinian,” she said, introducing herself as a child of a Holocaust survivor. “But after listening to you tonight, I feel as if I know what’s in your heart, and I’m leaving her loving you as a person.”
Breaking through preconceived hostility is one way the Dialogue Project measures its success as it reaches out to grassroots organizations across America, The group was started two years ago by 12 Jewish and 12 Palestinian women from mainstream American Jewish and Palestinian communities, representing a spectrum of political and religious views. The members are leaders in major organizations such as the American Jewish Congress and the Council of Jewish Federations, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab Women’s Council. Esther Leah Ritz sits on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Agency, is a past president of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers and was the first woman vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations.
The two main goals in creating the Dialogue Project were to bring together Jewish- American and Palestinian- American women to meet each other, discuss strategies for peace in Israel, and then make their dialogue process public. The group met privately in several emotionally intense meetings and “de-horned or de-Satanized each other” (as Ritz calls it). The group hammered out some consensus on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict —demilitarized Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza. They then began traveling in pairs made up of one Jew and one Palestinian to encourage a new outlook on the peace process.
The dialogue between Khelil and Ritz, before an audience at Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, was only the third engagement for a project team. “The Palestinian women were excited after the talk in West Palm Beach because many had never engaged in dialogue with Jewish women besides those from the progressive peace community. As for Jewish women in the audience, many of them, like the Jewish members of the Dialogue Project, had only seen Palestinians (if at all) as waiters or maids in Israeli hotels,” says Reena Bernards, coordinator and a founder of the Dialogue Project.
Ritz told the West Palm Beach audience: “The concept of a territories-for-peace settlement is no longer an alien idea to many Jews.” Khelil added that many Palestinians are “definitely open for peace and accept the idea of a two-state solution.” She added that establishing an economic structure between Israel and Palestine, and educating Jewish and Arab youth can make a two-state solution work.
The intensity of feelings created by discussions between American Jews and American Palestinians is, of course, no surprise. In the Temple Israel parking lot, unidentified protesters distributed anti- Palestinian literature, and negative letters appeared in the Jewish press. “Sometimes I find it a lot easier to talk to Palestinian women than to many American Jewish men who feel that somehow their position in the community is jeopardized if they speak out for peace in public,” says Ritz. “No one is saying there has to be a love-fest between Arabs and Jews,” Khelil told the audience. “But between love and hate there are many shades of feeling, and one of those will have to do for peace.”
How did Ritz and Khelil come to be involved in The Dialogue Project? For Ritz, the first step began at a Passover Seder when she made the connection between Biblical Jews in exile and the Palestinians today. Khelil is one of those contemporary exiles. Because she was living away from Nablus during the 1967 war and wasn’t included in the post-war census, she lost her rights as a resident of the West Bank town. Now she needs permission to visit her family there and has been unable to claim her share of her mother’s inheritance.
Both Khelil and Ritz recognize that there are some points they many never agree on, such as the meanings of Zionism and the intifada, the definition of terrorism or their views of history, even though they have similar visions for the region. “Still,” Reena Bernards tells the Florida audience, “there is more agreement than people realize.”
To bring a Dialogue Project Team to your community, contact: Reena Bernards, 1601 Connecticut Avenue N.W., 6th Floor, Washington D.C. 20009, (202) 797-8961