Last Sunday, I attended a meeting of the Mid-East Dialogue/Peace Cafe at Busboys and Poets. The Peace Cafe has hit some rough times recently, falling prey to some of the increasing divisions between Arabs and Jews. It is time for some reconciliation.
And Sunday’s session was perfect for the task in that the featured guests and speakers were the very appealing mayors of Pardes Hanna and Kfar Qara, Jewish and Arab cities in northern Israel, where under the auspices of Givat Haviva, an NGO which has long sought to brings Jews and Arabs together, a sister cities program has recently been developed to enable, from the ground up, citizens of both communities to to get to know each other, work with each other, and trust each other.
The programs are still small (a women’s group working on putting together a recipe book; young children working together on photography projects), but they are a start, and a way to break down the otherness which each group feels when looking at their neighbors. The two towns are under 15 minutes apart. Where the tale will be told, suggested one of the participants, will be at the time of the next crisis.
Can it work in other places, or even on a national level? No one knows the answer to that question, and no one will even hint that they think it likely that it will. But it is clearly important to try, recognizing not only the built in historical biases each group has, but the differences in the life styles of the two communities.
The thought of it reminded me of time in 1973. I remember it was 1973 because the last stages of the Yom Kippur War were in process – some Israeli troops were still surrounded, and many Egyptian troops were unaccounted for. At that time I had recently hired an Egyptian secretary, a young woman born and raised in Cairo, whose brother was one of those unaccounted for Egyptian soldiers. Another women in our office, a young Jewish woman, was hosting an Israeli friend of hers (I forget how they met) who was visiting the United States, and she decided to have a party in her honor and to invite everyone in the office. Many of us, including my Egyptian secretary, accepted.
I was (in my 1973 mind-set) very concerned that having an Egyptian woman and an Israeli woman at the same party was a big mistake, and that nothing good could come from it. They were introduced to each other, and politely greeted each other. The evening went on – it was an informal party, mainly in the Glover Park back yard, food being barbecued, certainly nothing fancy.
I began to notice something – the Israeli and the Egyptian were off in a corner talking to each other. For most of the evening.
I drove my secretary home. I asked her if she had a good time. Yes, she told me, she had never talked to an Israeli before. Was it a problem, I asked? Not at all, she said. We were a little uncomfortable at first, I believe, but we got beyond that. We had so much in common, I think because of the geography. We talked about weather and deserts, and the differences between the air here and there. It was like we were from the same home town.
The Israeli’s reaction was similar, I learned.
I took from this that, if you could pull people from their surroundings and daily pressures, they might look at each other differently, and that this fresh look could perhaps be transported back home. Sure, I was very naive then, and the two women might have been atypical besides. But I found it encouraging, nonetheless, and have continue to consider it as evidence that reconciliation is possible.