Defusing the intifada in Bay Area living room groups

It was the al-Aksa intifada that propelled Ken Kramarz, 49, to join the newest San Francisco Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group when it began ten months ago. Like many Jews, the executive director of Camp Tawonga said he had been optimistic about the peace process and thought things were getting better. Then they turned so much worse.

However, his parents couldn't understand his motivation. "How can you sit there in the comfort and safety of a living room talking, while people are fighting there?" they e-mailed him.

"Precisely because we can, we should," was his answer. "We're farther from it, so we can sit and talk," said the Larkspur resident. "I think we have to. Then there's the leap of faith that if enough of us can learn how to accept each other, and even like each other, somehow it back-feeds into the Middle East in a good way."

Kramarz is one of several dialogue group members who spoke to the Bulletin about why he participates. Members are of all ages and backgrounds.

For example, Jean Harb, 71, a Palestinian Christian from Ramallah, is a member of the new San Francisco group. A retired beauty salon manager, she came to the United States as a young child, and her best friend is Jewish. One of her sons married a Jewish woman, and those grandchildren celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah.

Although Harb has been comfortable around Jews all her life, she participates in dialogue because she hopes it will have a domino effect.

"Every person helps, every person makes a difference," she said.

American Jews and Americans in general are mostly ignorant when it comes to the Palestinian narrative, she maintains.

"When my son married a Jewish girl, we talked to her friends and family members, and we had more influence on them than their listening to any lectures," she said. "They began to see the Palestinian point of view."

Like Harb, Muhammad Baluom, 32, sees his stay in the United States as an opportunity to inform American Jews about his community. Baluom is active in both San Francisco dialogue groups, as well as the Alliance for Justice in the Middle East, which began as the Alliance of Middle Eastern Scientists and Physicians at UCSF.

From Taybeh, near Kfar Saba, Baluom is a Muslim who identifies not as an Israeli Arab but as "a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship." He is enrolled in a post-doctoral program in biopharmaceutical science at UCSF

Baluom spent some of his childhood years in the mixed city of Haifa and attended Hebrew University, so he always had Jewish friends.

Americans and specifically, American Jews, are deeply influential in his homeland, yet few are familiar with the identity issues faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, he maintains.

"If you try to make the people feel your problem and feel your needs, maybe by this way, they will go towards you," he said. "We are like a lost tribe, we are not considered as Palestinian. People are more familiar with the Palestinians in the occupied territories, or the Palestinian refugees, but nobody knows that there are 1 million Israelis who are originally Palestinian."

On the other side, Gladys Wagman, 80, is a Jew who has been attending the older San Francisco group for about four years. While she is grateful for the opportunity to hear the grievances of the Palestinians, what keeps her going to meetings is her belief that it is just as crucial for Palestinians — who are mostly younger — to hear a voice from the Holocaust generation.

"The Palestinians have to understand that there is an Israel because there was a Holocaust," she said. "This is my role. And if I can be accepted and accept them, than maybe there's hope for what's happening in the world today."

Adee Horn, 36, the daughter of an Israeli mother and American Jewish father, had a fear of Arabs so entrenched, that just hearing an Arabic accent made her uncomfortable.

A conflict between Jewish and Palestinian students at the public high school where she teaches compelled her to seek out dialogue.

And in the dialogue, she admitted her fear to a room full of Palestinians. While Horn is involved in alliance-building and anti-racist activity through her work, it was only through dialogue that she learned that when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "I had blinders on, because of fear and misinformation I got all my life around the innocence of Israel and its history. Like everything, there are two sides of the story."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."