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`Seeking Common Ground’ – a project worth supporting

July 10, 2007

An email came from a friend, Julia Blechar, a young Palestinian woman in Boulder, asking peace activists to support`Seeking Common Ground’, a Denver based project initiated and directed by Melodye Feldman that brings Palestinian and Israel teen age girls to a camp in the Colorado Rockies every summer and has been doing so for more than a decade…I think of it as `a child of Oslo’ in that it began at around the same time as the Oslo Peace Process was launched at a moment of hope and potential political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Hopes have faded some, but to its credit, not the project.

A few other Colorado peace activists that I have worked with are also involved, among the Dr. Pete Peterson and some members of the family of Dr. Ali Akbar Thobani (former chair of the Afro-American Studies Dept at Metro). A number of former D.U. International Studies students, including Liza Shalomova, have also worked closely with the project in one form or another. I have not, but support it and on occasion have donated to it.

My most recent experience with SCG came last summer just as Israel’s unconscionable war on Lebanon was winding down, when SCG held its annual luncheon. I went at the invitation of my friend Paula Van Dusen, although I forget how it was that Paula had tickets. It was to celebrate the end of their annual summer camp with brings Israeli and Palestinian teenage girls together in the Colorado mountains where they had spent a few weeks getting to know each other. The program also included several-day stays with local families many of whom show up at the luncheon to see how things went up in the mountains.

`How things went up in the mountains’ essentially means answering the burning question: did the girls get along? Did they find each other, as if, if 25-30 Israeli-Palestinian girls can `find common ground’ then perhaps their parents and both the Israeli-Palestinian nations can as well. That might seem an unrealistic projection – indeed it is completely unreasonable – but it is understandable that people involved feel just that way, especially those who hosted the young women that were already somewhat emotionally invested.

There was no need for Melodye Feldman, to explain that the camp `had worked’. Every last one of the 300 or so people in the room knew, that something positive had happened, that the girls had `bonded’. It was obvious when they walked into the hall together, giggling, holding hands, hugging that whatever had transpired between them, in the end they had found a way to find one another, that they had overcome mutual prejudices and made, at least temporarily, friends. And that is why many people in the room that day were in tears. If one can describe tears this way, I ‘m not sure one can, they were progressive tears.

The image of Israelis and Palestinians together is a powerful one. It speaks, I believe, to what Americans – and here I am referring to the broad majority – not just Jews or Arabs or some more committed constituency – hope to see in some way in the future. Admittedly there is a rather gaping hole between these aspirations for peace, and acheiving it in reality. Still, this is how good things start and it is worth something, quite a bit actually.

The last time I saw such hope stirred in Denver was several years ago when two signers of the Geneva Accord, Menahem Klein and Nazmi al Jubeh shared a podium at the Iliff School of Theology to a rather large audience of perhaps 300 or more people. But then the Geneva Accord, like so many other Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, evaporated and 3 years later, the prospects of peacemaking look that much dimmer, even if the Saudis have come forth with a proposal, which if taken seriously by the Israelis and the Bush Administration (but it isn’t), could provide a framework for a settlement. Still, the Geneva Accord event was instructive.


As I wrote to some Boulder friends, I know that there is much cynicism about `Seeking Common Grounds’ and its project. I don’t share this sentiment, but understand, I think, where it is coming from.

A. Such projects give the illusion of peace making at a time (like the past 40 years) when the situation on the ground is seriously deteriorating. Israeli and Palestinian teenagers might be making friends, but the Occupation continues, settlements are built in the West Bank, the Wall continues and attempts are made to squeeze Hamas Gaza into submission by sanctions reminescent of the seige of Leningrad. Under such conditions, people fairly ask, Isn’t it cynical for Israeli and Palestinian kids to be singing songs together in the Denver Marriott?

Well yes and no.

No, it does not do much, if anything, to bring the crisis to a political solution. In the short and medium term, it is easy to write all this off as p.r, `feel good stuff’ that doesn’t change the situation on the ground one iota (or hardly). It is also true that such organizations can be used to `give appearances’ of peace. Some politicans and community figures that were prominently profiled at last summer’s dinner had actively lobbied behind the scenes to squelch any public criticism of Israel’s war of carnage against Lebanon including pushing through lop sided resolutions at the state legislature, and in one case lecturing Colorado Democrats (at the Democratic Party headquarters) that Jewish funding to the Democratic Party would be cut off if grass roots criticism of Israel (still rather modest by the way) continued.

These things did happen. But, still, in the long run, such exchanges as those organized by Seeking Commong Grounds are vital and key, that is if the idea is for the two peoples – Israeli and Palestinian – to live together. Isn’t it always useful to touch the humanity – the hopes and fears – of those with whom one is engaged in harsh struggles? I think it is.

B. Another reason for the stand offish position from many local Arabs and peace activists, is the history of these dialogues themselves.

Something like `Seeking Common Ground’ – Arab-Israeli, Jewish-Moslem dialogues have gone on for decades (although not on the same level). They have been institutionalized not just here in Denver but all over the country. And isn’t it the unspoken (or openly spoken) rule in most of them that as part of the deal, no serious political discussions should take place, specifically any in which criticisms of Israel are raised. It also degenerates into what I call `the waltz of the two rights’, both people have legitimate grievance that someone equal each other out: – we’re right and you’re right – end of discussion. As such these become dialogues to silence dialogue, political Russian bear hugs.

Indeed these dialogues are not limited to Jews and Moslems,- now Christians also actively participate in them as well. While these interfaith dialogues are not totally useless, they are often mired in the mud. Everything is ok as long as the discussion remains private and does materialize into action for peace. Rather than develop a program, a vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue based on careful study and listening to all side and then acting programmatically to implement their vision, these processes bog down almost immediately, even those that have shown promise in one way or another.

Furthermore, it is often far more cynical than this. For in many cases these dialogues have been used to give the impression of informal, private, peace making at the same time that some of its participants are doing their utmost to lobby their Senators and others against peace plans. I call it `faking to the left while moving to the right’…an analogy from basketball. The illusion, is peace making, the reality is AIPAC, or something like it.

Many Palestinians and Moslems (they are not always the same thing) in Colorado has participated in one of these dialogues. Many weapons systems, Israeli settlements, decades and no peace later, very few have much stomach for these and the comments I have heard about them from Palestinian friends are very harsh. They’ve had it, or at least many of them have. Rather than entering into `dialogue’ which by its very nature suggests honest open differences, their (especially the Palestinian) voices have been largely neutralized and silenced by the process. Don’t take my word for it, ask any local Palestinian, all of whom have been at one time or another hussled into such charades, a harsh word perhaps, but mostly accurate.

As a result, most of these dialogues have simply collapsed, other continue in a state of something approaching cryonic suspension. I believe that Seeking Common Ground is representative of a much more wholesome, democratic process and is not quite so cynical an operation as some of those described above. It certain was in its origins a project of more than Melody Feldman, but of broader forces in the Jewish Community here in Denver. To its credit, it’s moved far beyond that – both in its funding base and its support network.

The key here, as I have come to understand it, is not to eliminate dialogue, but to change the basis, the assumptions on which the dialogue takes place, so it is more honest, less ritualized than it has become. Meaning what? For starters: That Israel and Palestine are not two equal entities. The former is an occupying power, the latter an occupied, colonized people and that the West Bank and Gaza are two of the last remaining outposts of colonialism in the world, in a world that has long ago rejected colonialism as anachronistic. There is more I could add, but the main point is simple – dialogue yes,…but on a new basis.

Can it happen after 40 years of occupation? I wonder? But an Irish friend of mine in California reminded me – when I recently expressed frustration of the festering nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – to look to the Irish, who had to wait 800 years. Nice gentle slap in the face…(you know – the `i needed that’ thing), but let’s hope and work so that it takes a little less time and so that we don’t have to be re-hashing this issue ten years from now.

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