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My Experiences in Dialog

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My Experiences in Dialog

Saida Nusseibeh

What is our greatest challenge during this uncertain time? How can we build a hopeful future? Will be able to realize the hope and dreams of our parents and grandparents, at the same time, passing on a brighter future for our children?

As we look ahead to find our way, we need to know and understand our past, to try and come to terms with it, to understand its value and its disappointments.

I was born and brought up in Jerusalem from an old Muslim family that are the custodians of the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; one of the family opens and closes the church doors daily. We can date our family history back to 527 AD.

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

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

I was thirteen when I read Ann Frank's diary. I cried and shared my anguish with her, I shared many of her fears, and tried to comprehend her unique difficulties. She was my age, living in fear, with great uncertainty and danger, hiding from an aggressor, she dint's know why belonging to a nation brought this aggression her people.

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

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

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

I thought then, that a meeting of high ranking political figures is ok- but when peace comes, for I believed that it will- it has to have a firm root. It is the people that have to live and work together. So I asked the governor of the foundation for leave to set up a dialogue group - to start with a professional young group-where in meetings they have a common ground - their work, and thus break the ice when they meet for the first time. It worked.

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

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

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

The idea was to publicise what is going on. Inform the dialogue groups in Europe about visiting potential speakers, since all the dialogue groups had no big funds. They would share the cost of the speakers' travel together. And the information of the coming visitor was done through connecting with similar groups in Israel and the Arab. -

In the diary of events, we published what is going on. What might be of interest for any party. We spoke about the Three faiths, Religious Ceremony/Holy-days, and initiation rites. A platform for dialogue through writing. Once a month we held a meeting in different homes, always trying to bring new people, - trying new food.

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

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

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

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

Because of the seminar's success, the school decided to take the students on a visit to the conflicting area. In preparation, JADE for six months provided speakers from all political angles for the students to listen too. The students accompanied by their teachers then travelled to Tunis, Jordan, Israel and the occupied Territories, they met with seventy important people, and in Jerusalem took part in the second workshop on conflict resolution.

Each day of the trip, one of the students had to write his/her feelings/impressions and so on.

The third seminar for the American school students on conflict resolution was in the school in London. 40 students attended, from the school, & from greater London, (from Jewish & Arab schools). And 5 Israelis and 4 Palestinians (from the West Bank & Gaza) young students joined their colleague in the seminar. Each group came with a leader to take care on their well being.

The seminar was for one week. The first two days was briefing on politics from all angles, right wing, and left wing, extremist. The briefing was to give the students an insight on all angles of the political arena for them to digest, with no interference with the student's political beliefs. Then four days of negotiations. Where we asked them to roll play, doing an-depth study on the character they are going to play. Some of the Palestinians were the Israeli delegate and vice versa.

If you witnessed the signing of the declaration of principles, you must has seen the kids in green shirts on the White House lawn. 'Seeds for Peace' John Wallach came to London, and spoke about organising the summer camp. 60 students attended the camp for three weeks in Maine, USA, they were from Israel, and the Arab world.

In addition to the newsletter, JADE provided speakers, arranged meetings and have collected information on as many organisation as it can, that calls or co-existence. I held many receptions, for the visiting groups, and speakers. JADE did many workshops on conflict resolution for Jewish/Arab students- taking Arab students to a Jewish holiday camp for a week. Or doing workshops in Jewish or Arab Schools. And it also provided speakers for organisations, synagogues and churches.

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

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

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

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

Us and them need not be 'us 'versus 'them'. Talking with each other does not mean that we have to agree, but we ought at least to listen to each other.

Let us retain our differences, but let us no longer allow them to be unbridgeable divisions.

We have had five decades to see where hate, mistrust and fear have lead us. Is it not the time now to work on our mutual mistrust and fear and begin to heal our wound?

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