Notes From the Levantine Project:
Hatred is Not a Four-Letter Word

by Jordan Elgrably

LOS ANGELES---Recently, at the close of Yom Kippur, considered the holiest day of the Jewish year, an educated and attractive woman of perhaps 30 or 40, turned to the others breaking the fast and said that in Hebrew "the only good Arab is a dead Arab." We were all discussing the unfortunate events of the past few weeks; some of us expressed empathy with the rage and frustrations of occupied Palestinians, who feel cheated by the peace process; others sided vociferously with the Israelis. An Egyptian Jewish
friend of mine and I were shocked by her comment, in part because she was of Tunisian Jewish descent, for we often find that Jews of the Arab/Muslim world are more progressive in their relationships with Arabs (contrary to the reigning Western belief that most Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews are rabidly anti-Arab).

How, I reasoned with her, could we ever hope to make any progress toward peace and coexistence, if we continued to harbor what are stereotypical biases against our potential friends? "Some of my best friends are Saudi Arabians," she countered, without blinking. I asked: "And how would you feel to know that right now, this very minute, they are saying that they can never trust Jews? Wouldn't you feel betrayed?"

The other night, Open Tent Middle East Coalition convened the first meeting of the new Levantine Project, a monthly community encounter series designed to bring together Arabs/Muslims, Jews and others for dialogue and reconciliation. The series was announced weeks before the September 28 conflict began in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; the timing, however, could not be more propitious. The organizers working in Open Tent, including myself, Elham Ezzati, Max Daneshman, Susan Chatman and others, wished to rekindle our community-building efforts and maintain them much more regularly, after having successfully produced two annual versions of the Middle East Film Fest: A Cultural Conversation. We also wanted to revive the spirit of a group that met in Los Angeles during the 1980s called the Cousins Club, and a more recent but defunct incarnation, the American Alliance of Arabs and Jews.

Elham Ezzati, a psychotherapist who works in Los Angeles with recovering drug addicts, co-facilitated the evening with Max Daneshman, an organizational and business coach. Elham is an Iranian Jewish woman with a soft-spoken approach to bringing people into conflict-resolution. She began the evening by talking about her own life experience, as a child in Tehran, during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when she recalled feeling fear and paranoia at being a Jew in a tense environment, in which "we went into hiding," and "Muslims were looking for who to blame for their problems." Only nine years old at the time, Elham nonetheless vividly recalls a Jewish community which feared for its future---Jews afraid to go to temple or to appear on the street with any telltale signs oftheir identity. The Ezzati family emigrated to the United States and 20-some years later, Elham explained, she went on an identity quest which took her to Israel and Egypt. In Israel, to her surprise, she found that Palestinians felt some of the same emotions of fear and persecution which she experienced as a child. "I found that my own people were not the victims," she said, "but the perpetrators."  Ever since, she told us, she has wanted to focus her life on resolving conflict.

Max Daneshman is also a native of Iran. Although he did not indicate his religious background or personal experience, he has chosen to be a mediator---a facilitator for conflict-resolution---and the first task he set for himself during the evening was to nurture a younger Iranian lawyer to his left, F., whose father had been executed in Iran, sentenced to death by a judge who deemed his intellectual activities threatening to the regime. F. still longed, admittedly, for revenge, for justice, which another gentleman named Ken,
a self-identified Jew from New York, defined as "correction of a wrong."

Most of us, however, wondered how it might be possible to effectively eliminate the need for revenge, and Max asked F. to produce not a desire for a correction of a wrong from the past, but a "present need." What is it, he asked, that he, Max, could do for F. in the here-and-now? Within a short time, while discussing his need for emotional resolution of his feelings of impotence and anger over his father's unjust death, F. indeed appeared to have made forward progress---moving away from the revenge need to the resolution
need. Max, who works with Friends of the U.N. and the Center for Non-Violence Communication, among other organizations, explained that when we air only our grievances against others, we remain in our heads, trapped in a kind of intellectual impasse; but when we express a genuine emotional need, we move out of our head and into a heart-felt dialogue with others.

One of the most passionate participants of the Levantine Project was Vera, a leader in the local chapter of an international relief organization. A native of Bosnia, Vera explained what it was like to have been from Sarajevo, with its cooperative, multicultural environment, and how she spent the early part of the Yugoslavian wars in Belgrade, organizing protest demonstrations against violence---regardless of the ethnic group. She declared that for many years, she refused to identify herself according to her ethnic or religious background, but in the early '90s, when Serbs were killing Croats and Muslims and every group engaged in "ethnic cleansing" actions against other groups, Vera felt increasingly marginalized, since the people protesting in Belgrade numbered only about 150, out of nearly two million, and half of them were regular dinner guests at her home. Vera's frustration in Belgrade, she noted, was that everyone expected her to take a side, never to remain neutral, and she felt increasingly isolated and even foolish. Vera's dilemma, it seems, was that she was not wired for hatred.

Other participants in the evening included an architect named Antoine who grew up in Lebanon and was 12 years old when the Civil War broke out, in the spring of 1975; a Palestinian playwright named Saleem raised in Saudi Arabia, who has produced a play, "Salam-Shalom," about a relationship between Israeli and Palestinian lovers; and Claude, an Egyptian-born film scholar who has very strong feelings about Israel's colonial/Zionist history in the Middle East. Antoine had studied the three monotheistic religions as a result of confusion over the nature of Lebanon's Civil War and came to the conclusion that only a "secular, democratic, rational approach" could address the ongoing Arab/Jewish conflict. Saleem explained that it was by taking a  "personal risk," daring to have a strong intimate relationship with an Israeli, that he overcame many of his own inner fears and reservations. "Change worked for me," he said simply. Claude asked "what is it that really separates people? Is it religion or is it something else?" His question hung in the air long after the meeting broke up.

There were also several seasoned activists from other causes (anti-Nuke, Cuban-American relations, dialogue facilitation between Balkan ethnic groups, etc.)  who brought excellent insights to the evening. Grace, for example, commented on how she felt "we are educated into this insanity of hatred of others." Her father, an Italian, was biased against every other social group during her New York childhood, and her Polish mother also harbored a range of social prejudices; but growing up in such a family, Grace said, produced in her the opposite result: a woman with an open mind. Since we are all educated to hate, she reasoned that we can also un-educate people. Grace urged us to use the tools of mass media (movies, books, music and so on), and on the whole had such an upbeat, optimistic tone that the entire group seemed infused with hopefulness. Her husband Ken pointed to the example of Nelson Mandela and his Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where people are asked to talk about wrongs committed, but are not being prosecuted for them. Ken proclaimed no attachment to his Jewishness, and in fact rejected ethnic identity as a viable social behavior mechanism. "I want to create myself," he said.

Andy, a Jew from the Midwest who grew up in the Reform tradition, said that he had experienced more prejudice coming from Conservative and Orthodox Jews judging his level of observance than from anti-Semites; Dolly, a native New Yorker, talked about how she never wanted to take part in an "us and them" discourse, which was a common perspective in her neighborhood as an adolescent. Also, she recently recognized the folly of the need to be right all the time, acknowledged that she had been coming from an ego place, and now was learning how to listen to her friends---relinquishing the need to have the last word.

A designer named Joel noted that he grew up never knowing any prejudice as a Jew, until he traveled to Israel where "I was shocked to find racism, light Jews aligned against dark Jews, Ashkenazim against Sephardim." And Art, a Spanish Jew whose family emigrated from the island of Rhodes, talked openly about this small ethnic group which continued to live in its own ghetto in L.A., long after leaving the island, speaking its own dialect and casting aspersions against other ethnicities. "We did voice concern over
civil rights for blacks, for example, but always from a distance." (Art's view about hatred and discrimination is that it is a genetic trait, not so much learned as inbred.) A retired historian, Art noted a 99-year period in European history that ended with WWI and suggested that only when countries obtain secure borders and fair trading rights do they achieve peace with their neighbors.

Susan Chatman, who defines herself as a progressive and who has many Arab friends, rejects strong identification as a Jew; she came to the Levantine Project intent on lecturing conservative or right-wing Jews, but instead found that through the compassionate-listening approach, advocated by Max and Ellie, she had acquired more than she had expected to give to the meeting---a new skill set, a dialogue model she felt might change her future polemic discussions. And Yael, an Israeli, marveled
at the recently televised bonding between Louis Farrakan, known for colorful anti-Semitic rhetoric, and several Jewish friends, some of them rabbis, whom he embraced during the Million Family March in Washington, DC. The feeling seemed to be that reconciliation is indeed possible between the most aggrieved parties.

The Levantine Project provided a comfortable, safe space for Arabs/Muslims, Jews and others who are angry, confused, or feeling helpless in the face of continuing violence---either between their own social groups or in any number of regions of the world. Activists and "victims" seem to find a common ground, a formula for airing not only their intellectual expressions but intimate, emotional feelings regarding conflict and its affects. The hope I enunciated, as Open Tent's co-director, is that participants in a monthly series like this will in fact become friends, and that together, as the group evolves, we will be successful in creating a city-wide coalition effective in producing meaningful conferences, cultural programs, community-based projects and grassroots initiatives  yet to be devised by participants in the Levantine Project, which meets every third Wednesday of the month.

Hatred is not a four-letter word. Although it may sound sentimental to say so, love is.

Opinions expressed are solely those of their authors and do not reflect any official position taken by Ivri-NASAWI.

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