Teens tackle coexistence, Mideast strife at JCC Club 18

Addressing a mostly teen Jewish audience, Jacob Mandelsberg, a former member of the Israel Defense Force, said the key to understanding the strife in the Middle East is to constantly ask questions.

"When I was your age, as a teenager living in Chicago, I always accepted whatever [former Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir said as the absolute truth," he told the teens, who perched on bean bags and blankets at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Club 18.

"So when Golda Meir said that there was no Palestine and that, therefore, there were no Palestinians, I believed her.

"But when I arrived in Israel in 1977 and started serving in the military, I realized that there were hundreds of Palestinians in Israel. And I wondered how that could be."

The desire to question long-held assumptions about the Middle East drove four representatives from the Bay Area's Jewish/Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group to speak at Club 18 last month.

"This forum is a really safe place for teens to express their ideas openly, in a way that may not be valued otherwise," said Sarah Weinberg, teen program coordinator of the JCC. "The hope is that they can get the knowledge to form educated opinions. Or redefine those opinions, if necessary."

On such student was 16-year-old Molly Rose-Post, who attends San Francisco's George Washington High School.

"I don't really know enough about the situation to justify a hard-core opinion on the subject, but I think what's happening to the Palestinians is wrong."

Rose-Post and her peers also wondered whether one could be a strong supporter of Israel, and yet also support Palestinian causes.

Those concerns were addressed by Melek Totah, whose father grew up in the city of Haifa — in what was then Palestine — before moving to Iowa.

"Growing up, my family was very anti-Israel, and very anti-Jewish," said Totah. "I've had a lot of anger throughout my personal history, and I've tried to heal it."

Toward that end, Totah has forged friendships with several Jews, confronting the archetypes she was inculcated with during her teen years.

"It's a matter of getting beyond the stereotypes, and quitting the demonization of the other," she said, adding that Arabs are often portrayed as "being terrorists with 20 kids."

That approach seemed to resonate with Jeremy Laskar, 15. Of course, in Laskar's case, an even-handed approach to the situation comes naturally — his maternal grandmother was an Orthodox Jew who married a devout Muslim.

The student at San Francisco's Lincoln High School observed both traditions growing up, from Chanukah to Ramadan, and his parents wished that "everyone could see beyond their myths, so all the bloodshed could stop."

Both Mandelsberg and panelist Gladys Wagman commented on how difficult it was to hear disparaging comments about Israel.

"I'm a member of the Holocaust generation," said Wagman, "so I will always consider Israel the savior of the Jewish people."

Mandelsberg said one myth that needs debunking is the image of Israel as a 98-pound weakling.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to consider Israel a world power," he said. "Israel and the Jews in the diaspora have to get out of the fear of victimization that has gripped us for so long — a fear that we've used to hide behind."

When several teenagers asked about the violence, and the support for such groups as Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, Palestinian panelist Elias Botto opined that there were extremists on both sides.

"The Palestinians are being deprived of their basic human rights," said Botto, whose family fled Jerusalem in 1948. "And if that were happening to me, I would join the devil himself in order to get my rights back."

Botto said that the majority of the Arab world has accepted the state of Israel.

"But Israel also has to recognize that it's living in an Arab neighborhood, and act accordingly. That means that we should recognize that we are all living with two heads, but one heart, and one body.

"And if we try through violence to separate ourselves," he continued, "one of us will surely die."