Talk therapy

Though there was no Jerry Springer-like throwing of chairs, feelings ran hot just below the surface at an Israeli-Palestinian workshop held over the weekend in Berkeley.

The organizers — four highly poised Jewish high school seniors — wanted their event to be as much a workshop in respectful listening as a primer on the Middle East. But judging from the majority of views expressed in an opening panel and subsequent small-group discussions, there was a distinctly pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel tenor to the proceedings.

About 50 participants of all ages crowded into a sunny upstairs social hall at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists to engage in the dialogue on Sunday, June 13. Organizers Mollie Wolf, Sascha Atkins-Loria, Talia Kostick and Hannah Perrin welcomed everyone and then set the ground rules.

“We have no political agenda,” said Atkins-Loria. “We must listen and learn to form opinions.”

Panelist Yossi Fendel, an American Jew who has lived in Israel, started things off expressing his “sense of disappointment and betrayal” at the way the Palestinians handled the aftermath of the Oslo accords collapse.

Palestinian American Dina Ramaha thought the responsibility for the lack of progress fell at the feet of the leadership. “The leaders of both sides took it upon themselves to do what they think is best. Things would be different if people took it on.”

Maayan Ravid, an articulate Israeli American teen and daughter of San Francisco Israel Center Director Shlomi Ravid, echoed her sentiments, saying: “The question isn’t ‘Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine?” she said. “It’s ‘Are you pro-human?'”

Former Israel Defense Forces soldier Yishay Boyarin raised a very different Israeli American voice. Shocked by the brutality he witnessed during his military service patrolling the Gaza Strip, he proclaimed, “I’m not a Zionist anymore.”

Paul Larudee, an academic and activist with the ardently anti-Israel International Student Movement (ISM), called for an “equality of caring,” which in his opinion included a full right of return to Israel for all Palestinian refugees. He also suggested that a combined Arab/Jewish one-state solution — an option rejected by nearly all Israelis — should be on the table. His comments went unchallenged.

From the panel presentation, attendees broke up into small-group discussions. The young organizers made sure mutual respect remained paramount. An extensive discussion about why and how people find it difficult to acknowledge views with which they disagree preceded all talk about the Middle East.

Once things got going, facilitators had group members write questions on note cards. The questions were then transcribed onto poster paper and hung up. A survey of the group posters showed that issues of concern included such topics as “Israeli persecution,” “Israeli brutality,” “cycle of violence,” “harming children” and “powerful vs. powerless.”

In one group, Larudee said that the conflict is “asymmetrical.”

“Palestinians live in abject misery,” he said. “That’s not the case with Israel.” He added, “Palestinians do need to understand Israeli suffering.”

Others in that same group condemned Israel as a brutal colonialist oppressor. One woman said she keeps on her refrigerator a photo of Palestinian youth throwing rocks at an Israeli tank just to remind her of “how powerless Palestinians are.” When another man called Israel an “apartheid state,” it proved too much for Ravid, who began weeping.

Eloquent through her tears, Ravid said: “The saddest thing would be if everyone left here feeling the same way they did before. The blame game will not get us anywhere.”

As attendees returned to the social hall, a woman from the Unitarian church gave a plug for House Congressional Resolution 111, which calls for an investigation into the death of ISM activist Rachel Corrie (killed last year in Gaza by an Israeli tractor while engaged in anti-Israel protests). Organizers asked her to refrain from making such overt political statements, but the woman pressed ahead anyway.

Afterwards, attendees gave the event mostly positive reviews.

Gordon Gladstone of Berkeley Hillel, and one of the panelists, said, “Here, people from diverse viewpoints talked civilly to each other. It was unique to what I’ve encountered.”

Said Laiah Idelson, 16, of Walnut Creek: “It was great how people of differing opinions can share their beliefs. There were no hard feelings.”

That wasn’t exactly the case for Ravid, however. “The people I would most expect to be working for peace were pushed to extremes. I heard so much sympathy for Palestinians and a lack thereof for Israelis.”

Libby Traubman, co-founder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, enjoyed the experience, but added, “There’s a difference between a single event and a sustained dialogue. This type of event brings up feelings that take time to be plumbed. But for a beginning, it was a beautiful thing.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.