After listening to news accounts of Palestinian homicide bombers and Israel’s military response, Eddy Ehrlich feels ready "to explode."
Then Ehrlich, a self-described political centrist, goes to his monthly Jewish-Arab dialogue circle and comes away feeling like a changed man.
"Thirty souls have opened up and the humanity flows," Ehrlich says. "I go out so relieved."
Bassam Amin, a Palestinian living in Brooklyn, had to force himself to go to his most recent dialogue group. Israeli soldiers on a Ramallah street had recently shot to death one of his cousins, a mentally disabled man, he says. Amin, who spent the first half of his life in Kfar Malek, near Ramallah, says he now has nightmares about Israeli soldiers coming to his door in the middle of the night, dragging him out, naked, into the street.
"I have to challenge myself to sit across this table and speak about peace" while feeling so angry, he says
At the same time, Amin struggles to teach his 6-year-old son to eschew hatred. "This is a huge dilemma for me, to explain the destruction to my son. I try to explain to him that not all Israelis are bad, that not all Jews are bad."
Ehrlich and Amin are both part of a fledgling network, The Dialogue Project. At a recent session, in the back room of a Brooklyn Middle Eastern restaurant, a small group of Jews, Muslims and Christians, including Israelis and Palestinians, engaged in one of today’s thorniest (and most elusive) endeavors: talking to "the enemy."
Their dialogue grew passionate, even heated, but with great effort remained respectful. Afterward, conversation was animated as participants caught up on each others’ personal lives while scooping up hummus and salad with warm pita.
"This is not a feel-good touchy-feely thing," says Marcia Kannry, founder of The Dialogue Project. "But the news is pushing us along to keep it up."
The idea first occurred to her after she found herself overwhelmed by grief in September 2000, when Israel’s now-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a walk on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and violence let loose in the start of the current intifada.
Says Kannry, who had lived in Israel as a regional director for the Jewish National Fund, "My choice was to stay in bed and moan, or figure out a way in my own community to confront this."
So she began talking with Palestinian shopkeepers in Park Slope and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she does her errands, and with school administrators at area schools with large Arab student bodies.
About 14 months ago, she started to organize her new network into dialogue groups.
Result: three dialogue circles, each with 15 to 30 participants, two in Brooklyn and one on the Upper West Side. Four more (in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Riverdale and New Jersey) are in formation.
Each dialogue circle meets once a month for several hours, led by a facilitator. Kannry tries to balance participation between Jews, Muslims and Arabs, with non-Arab Christians involved as "supportive others," but says it’s much easier to get Jews involved than Arabs.
About 800 people of the 1,100-plus on a dialogue circle waiting list are Jews, she says.
"People know that their passions run high, and that they want to be polite. Those from Muslim communities are not used to speaking in a circle. They’re not therapist-oriented like we are," she says.
The currently explosive level of tension around Israeli-Palestinian issues makes the work of The Dialogue Project more difficult: and even more compelling.
"Many ongoing participants haven’t wanted to come because they feel so angry," says Kannry. "The feeling is, ‘The fire is burning. Why are we talking about picking up the hose rather than actually picking it up?’ "
At the dialogues she says, "You can feel people palpitating with rage but nonetheless following the guidelines" that are part of the project.
And they persevere.
"I come in wanting to explode but have to pick the one thing I can talk about, and then listen to 29 other people," said Ehrlich, who participates in the Park Slope dialogue circle and works as an occupational therapist. Two of his brothers live in Israel: one on a kibbutz, the other in Efrat.
There are a few other similar efforts in existence.
According to the Web site Middle East Web (www.mideastweb. org), nine groups meet in other parts of the U.S., from San Francisco to Orange County, Calif., from Duluth, Minn., to Charlottesville, Va.
There are nine more in Israel and the Palestinian territories through peace-making organizations there, three in Europe, and five that exist only in cyberspace.
The Dialogue Project’s circle discussions maintain clear guidelines: The purpose is dialogue, not debate. Meetings begin with a classic conflict resolution exercise: mirroring. People pair off to share their perspectives on a particular topic for a few minutes. Then the circle comes back together as partners synopsize each others’ stories for the group.
Then participants start to discuss a specific theme, trying to stick to statements that begin "I feel…" One month the topic might, for example, be current events. At this month’s meeting of the Park Slope Dialogue, held Sunday at the Ethical Culture center, it was the Holocaust.
Through the process members say they begin to know "the other."
"I better understand the Israeli obsession with security and defending themselves," says Diane Chehab, a Christian Lebanese-American who still has family in Beirut. "Being able to listen in a better way, I now understand what they’re talking about, even if I don’t agree."
One evening before a recent meeting, several dialogue members joined other interested people in a visit to El Maqdies Mosque, in Bay Ridge. It marked the first time that the mosque, which attracts Sunni Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds, had hosted Jews. A reciprocal trip to a Brooklyn synagogue is being planned.
And it was the first time that most of the Jews had been in a mosque.
"I was actually scared," says Alexander Gonenne, an American Jew whose father and stepsiblings live in Israel. "As soon as prayers began, I felt frightened. I tend to associate the prayers with a negative connotation, based on my experience in Israel."
Bassam Amin, the Palestinian Muslim pharmacist who works in downtown Brooklyn, says, "The call to prayer is not a call to war."
Says Benny Davidovitch, an Israeli who has lived in the U.S. for the past year and works as a physicist, "it’s very hard to hear" strong critiques of Israel. "I feel very sorry and guilty. … I feel confusion, because this is about my survival. It’s my family’s life, my friends’ life."
Eddy Ehrlich, of the Park Slope circle, says that "there isn’t equity" in his group. "Jews are being asked to examine what evils they have perpetrated, and that question isn’t being asked of the Palestinians," he says.
Part of the problem may be the inherent bias that stems from self-selection.
Most of the Arab participants are "non-radical," Ehrlich says; most of the Jewish participants see themselves on the liberal-left of the political spectrum.
Ehrlich calls himself "a pragmatist, somewhere in the generally silent middle." He says he is the only Jewish participant who, while introducing himself during a dialogue, describes himself as a Zionist.
"I end up feeling like I have to represent the part of the spectrum that isn’t there. At the last meeting there was justifying of suicide bombers. To me, it was a real problem that there was a lack of historical context, and a lack of religious context" in understanding the Jewish connection to Israel.
"The idea that is convenient for Arabs to latch on to is that the Holocaust is the reason for the creation of the State of Israel," he says.
So then "why go?" Ehrlich asks rhetorically. "What choice do I have? The alternatives suck.
"The choices are to yell at the radio or to get together with close-minded Jews, pat each other on the back and feel sorrowful or justified.
"I do it," he says, "to invest in a future that’s grounded in reality, in a reality that recognizes the other. It matters how we behave now, while we wait to see what happens.
"It’s better to be angry up close than hating from afar."
For more information, look at www.thedialogueproject.org, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone Thomas Cox at (718) 965-3830.