A small measure of hope came into the Middle East when the dialog and
peace efforts of many individuals and governments bore first fruits in the signing of
peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the signing of the Oslo treaties between the
Israelis and the Palestinians. These events are part of what is known as "the peace
process," a long, arduous and often discouraging journey back from the edge of
despair to the beginning of hope.
Many have the impression that the 'peace process' is just a phrase, or a
label for a political process; some decry it as a hoax. It is no secret that the Oslo
agreements have been bitterly and vigorously attacked from the first by doctrinaire
opponents on both sides. The delays in implementation and violations on both sides have
lent legitimacy to the 'anti-Oslo' sentiment, and generated pessimism about the possible
success of the peace process. In fact however, there is another dimension to the peace
process, beyond political haggling, that may be of equal or greater importance. It is the
fostering of a genuine social process that will hopefully survive and support an eventual
rapprochement, even if the current peace negotiations fail. This process began before the
Oslo agreements, was in part responsible for bringing them about, and received a great
impetus from the public, political peace process.
The agreements, the attendant media publicity and the examples of leaders,
have slowly, and with great difficulty, brought about a basic change in the attitudes of a
small but growing segment of the population on both sides. This includes not only those
who were active for peace and dialog before the beginning of the 'peace process,' but also
politicians, journalists and people from all walks of life. These people had, if but for a
moment, a glimpse of a better future, and are becoming convinced that we must build that
future despite the very real obstacles in our path.
How the PEACE Group Began
The PEACE dialog group was born in February of 1998, when an Israeli
software consultant and technical writer answered a letter on an Internet forum from a
Jordanian free-lance journalist and Web-page designer. Two 'just plain folks': myself and
Ameen Hannoun. Ameen's letter struck me because he said essentially, "If the
future of the Middle East will look like the past, there is no hope for any of us here.
Let's forget about history and try to build the future based on friendship and mutual
respect." We exchanged letters about the next step. Despite the peace treaties,
travel between Jordan and Israel is still cumbersome because of visa restrictions and
fees, so we decided to begin with an e-mail newsletter and Web pages, I wrote a 'Letter
from a friend and neighbor' that Ameen could use for recruiting among his friends in
Jordan. Ameen wrote a recruiting letter for me. In this way we had 'evidence' that the
other side was in earnest, which we could use to persuade the skeptics. It seemed like a
quixotic venture based on the most naive premises, initiated by two people who should know
better. A friend wrote that he doubted very much whether a Jordanian student and a
middle-aged Israeli technical writer could contribute very much to the cause of peace. I
had to agree with him, but I had to try in any event.
We thought that if we could find a dozen people who would be interested in
this project, we could consider it a success. Within a few weeks, we had about eighty
participants, many of them active contributors. We now have about seven hundred. We
publish a weekly political column and a dialog forum newsletter. We publish different
opinions, tell about events, tell about other peace and dialog efforts and initiate letter
PEACE is Not Alone
We were surprised to find that we were not alone at all. There are dozens
of Mid-East dialog efforts of every description both in the Middle East and abroad. Many
of them did not know - and many others still do not know - about each other. Len Traubman
of the Living Room Dialog Group in California found us, and told us about another group in
Basle Switzerland, as well as several in the U.S. Later, we found people in our 'own back
yard' who running face-to-face dialog meetings, organizing dialog through culture ( Ada
Aharoni ), and running professionally mediated dialog encounters, such as those at the
Arab-Jewish community Neveh Shalom. Sa'ida Nusseibeh in London, who has been engaged in
these efforts well before the 'peace process' began officially, told us of the varied
dialog and peace efforts in Europe. Many of the smaller groups had the illusion, as we
did, that they were more or less alone. PEACE has tried to help bring these people
I am also active in a small face-to-face dialog group that meets in a
restaurant near Qalqilia in the occupied West Bank. The struggles and the successes-or
failures of this group reflect the objective and subjective problems of establishing such
dialogs in our area: language barrier, ubiquitous checkpoints, security fears of Israelis
entering the occupied territories, Palestinian concern that they will be viewed as
A Careful Balance
The daily events and history of our area generate a great deal of news,
mostly bad. Massacres, stabbings, kidnappings, house demolitions, firebombs, extremist
statements, mobs screaming about holy war, and soccer fans screaming "Death to the
Arabs," form the backdrop of all attempts at dialog in the Middle East, including
ours. These events are featured in the media. Certain groups, including those who announce
that they are for peace, specialize in amplifying these events. Anything hateful that can
be said about either side is 'news:' prostitution in Israel, corruption in the PNA. An
Israeli officer insulting a Palestinian University official was the occasion for a Web
display that lasted over a year, serving to perpetuate the event and amplify the hate. If
there is no news, then news is invented: "the city of Ashqelon is radioactive",
"a Washington pro-Arab Mid-East lobby group assassinated PM Rabin."
Well meaning PEACE readers send us items about vicious statements of PNA officials or
Israel government actions, or historical incidents, and ask "Is this true?" Very
often it is true. We cannot ignore these items entirely. We try to remember that part of
what we are trying to do is change this reality. We try to persuade Web masters and
journalists and forum moderators to present a more balanced and less hate-filled view of
the Middle-East, to help solve the problem rather than spreading the hate that is part of
the problem. In some cases we are successful. Others tell us that we are limiting 'freedom
of the press' and that they want to 'hear all sides of the question.'
Dealing With Events
PEACE has not hesitated to take stands on individual issues and to
criticize national leadership on both sides. It is impossible for an Israeli involved in
such activity to avoid the "Left" labels, and it is impossible for a Palestinian
or Arab to avoid the "apologist' labels that are attached to us by extremists on
We cannot avoid discussion of the events that occur around us every day.
It would be hypocritical and unrealistic to discuss the soccer scores and the hot weather
and ignore the house demolitions, shootings, extremist statements by Palestinian leaders,
terrorist acts and other 'colorful' events of the Middle East. We have found that by
expressing compassion and fairness, trying to understand such events and to find ways to
prevent them, dialogs such as PEACE can survive and grow stronger. What we are trying to
do, and perhaps very slowly succeeding, is to instill the sense that there are three sides
to the conflict - the adversarial 'sides' represented by the leaderships of both nations,
and the side represented by all of those seeking a solution.
Cases in point are the shootings of Palestinians that occurred at the
Tarqumiah checkpoint in March, and the tragic events of Naqba riots in May. Naqbah means
catastrophe in Arabic. To counter Israel's fiftieth anniversay celebrations, the
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) held large demonstrations on May 14 1998. These
turned violent, resulting in the deaths of several Palestinians. We could not ignore this,
yet as I turned to write about it, I had the feeling that nothing I could say would be
right. This is what I wrote:
The biggest job of dialog is changing basic perceptions. The two 'sides'
have nurtured their belief-systems, self image, and image of the other in total isolation,
each in the conviction that they are right, of course, and that all 'decent people'
believe as they do. To a large extent, each side view themselves as 'innocent victims' and
the other side as 'perpetrators.' Palestinians see themselves as dispossessed and
Israelis see Palestinians as terrorists and aggressors. Palestinians
see Israelis as all-powerful conquerors, and themselves as helpless victims. Israelis look
at Israeli soldiers and see in them their precious little children. Palestinians
look at the same soldiers and see instruments of occupation and oppression. An Israeli
settler is convinced that 'everybody' has agreed that the settlements will never be
returned to Palestinian sovereignty. A Palestinian is convinced that 'everybody' agrees
that Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians alone, and that the 'everybody knows'
that the war in 1948 was begun by the Zionists.
Breaking the Ice
Dialog groups, both e-mail and face-to-face encounters in the Mid-East,
have to overcome the very strong social and psychological barriers to communication that
have been erected on both sides. A typical reaction when soliciting new members is 'I must
first know if you are really for peace.' Each side is afraid of the social condemnation of
their peers for 'talking to the enemy.' Each side is afraid that they are being inveigled
in a seditious group, or a brainwashing initiative. A Palestinian wrote 'My mind is the
last unoccupied territory.' Recruiting a new participant - even convincing them to be on
the mailing list without participating, often requires many hours of dialog in itself.
The Toughest Cases
Apart from self-declared opponents of peace, the toughest cases, the most
difficult people to persuade, are those who are already committed to a particular
political peace solution. They do not see people and facts, only ideological abstractions
and stereotypes: "Zionist expansionists" "Right-Wing Zionist
Propaganda," "Arab Propaganda" and "Blood thirsty Arab Masses."
It is possible that some of the layers of ideological non-thought and hate can be
dissolved by the chemistry of personal contact, but some of these people have engaged in
face-to-face dialogs with little noticeable effect. They have lost the will and the
capacity to listen, and may never regain it, because their entire sense of self, and often
their sense of mission in life, is bound up with hating and fighting the other side.
Lack of publicity is a persistent problem for dialog and peace groups. A
group that takes an extreme political position is likely to attract media attention,
especially if they hold a public demonstration accompanied by violence. Dialog groups and
dialog efforts do not. A Palestinian-Israeli dialog conference was held recently (July,
1998) in Rhodes, between Palestinian and Israeli journalists and politicians. Possibly a
landmark event, and somewhat unique in that it brought together people from all parts of
the political spectrum from both sides. It received the most minimal and perfunctory
coverage in Israeli news, probably none in world media. A similar fate attended the
Copenhagen declaration issued in January 1997. A reaffirmation of the commitment to peace
by Arab and Israeli leaders issued during the long nadir of the 'peace process' should
have been headline news all over the world, but it barely touched the public conscience.
At a dialog meeting in Qalqilya, I met Mohammed Joudeh of the Palestine
Peace Movement. I asked him why practically nobody in Israel knew of the existence of his
group. I explained to him that the Israeli stereotype is that there are no Palestinians
who are willing to speak out for peace, and that the public presence of a group such as
the Palestine Peace Movement was vital to the development of a grass-roots peace movement.
He said that his group had held numerous demonstrations jointly with Israeli peace groups
, but had failed to attract media attention, because the press was not interested in
seeing Israelis and Palestinians cooperate. "We invited the press, but nobody came,
because nobody was throwing rocks. The press in Israel is not interested in the man-bites
dog story, only in the usual violence," he said.
The Web as an Instrument of Change
There are two views of the role that the Internet will play in modern
society. One is that it will be a force for democracy and peace, since it is a medium that
is, at least for now, open to everyone. The other view is that Internet communications, as
is the case for other media, will soon be dominated by governments, mass entertainment and
It is still too early to tell who is right. The Web is still, especially
in areas such as Palestine, a marginal means of communication. Even in the United States
and Europe, it will be a while before the Web assumes anywhere close to the omnipresent
power of television, if ever it will. Necessarily, it reflects social trends and thinking,
rather then being a catalyst or initiator of change. There are some very bad signs.
Political leaders, organizations of different sizes and descriptions, and governments have
said up Web sites and e-mail addresses, to give people the feeling of participation. For
the most part, however, these sites function as broadcasters of opinion, rather than
points of interaction. Most groups are willing to tell you what they are about, few are
willing to listen and help, Politicians and large organizations maintain large staffs of
people whose job it is, apparently, to open the mail they get, send a reply saying 'Thank
you for your mail to X. X receives hundreds of letters and cannot respond personally...'
and then delete the communication unread.
Web sites that should be points of dissemination of information, are often
sources of hate propaganda and misinformation, perpetuating fables about the forged
Protocols of the Elders of Zion or equally fatuous notions about the other 'side' of the
The evolution of the Web will, for the most part, reflect the state of
human society and culture. A site featuring pornography or a site featuring sports news
will get many more visitors than a site featuring news and views. A service featuring
'consensus' news, will get more readers than one featuring dissident views. Large
organizations, which reflect establishment views, will have more resources, and more
attractive sites than small grass-roots efforts and well-meant home pages.
Electronic forums, supposed to provide a meeting place for dialog, rapidly
become an arena for exchanging insults and trashing your opponent, especially when the
Mid-East is discussed. PEACE has managed to avoid this kind of futile interchange,
primarily by moderating the tone of letters, and setting an example. We have gotten very
few real 'flame' letters - despite what one might anticipate. We published the worst one,
which called us 'self-hating Jews and anti-Zionist hoodlums,' as a joke and a means
of promoting solidarity, and people understood.
PEACE Dialog Forum has published dozens of interchanges between Arabs and
Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, all reasoned presentations of viewpoints, sometimes very
different, but almost always constructive. On occasion, a bit of editorial work is
required. Phrases such as 'ethnic cleansing,' 'terrorist' and 'bloodthirsty Arab mobs' are
usually deleted because they generate heat, rather than light. Sometimes I send these
letters intact to understanding people on the other side, in the hope that the originator
will see their mistake when confronted by an actual 'adversary.'
Strength and Weaknesses of E-mail Dialog
There is no doubt that nothing can replace the immediacy of personal
contact however. Written dialog messages must be short. Sometimes they are personal
glimpses, usually they are political.
E-mail dialog cannot bring about the depth of participation possible in
personal encounters. It takes a special gift to transmit feelings through the printed
word, and a special gift to sense the person who wrote the words. A few people in our
group have the gift of showing their concern, commitment and compassion in everything they
write, and of convincing readers on both sides that here after all is a person just like
themselves. It is very easy for such dialogs to lapse into stale political discussions.
Because of limitations of internet penetration and language barriers,
dialog cannot be carried on by e-mail alone. Perhaps when the Internet is more ubiquitous,
it will be a better tool for catalyzing grass-roots social movements.
On the other hand, e-mail dialog can reach potentially tens of thousands
of people each week, informing, encouraging, convincing and reminding them of their
commitment. It can be a forum for reasoned and continuing debate. A well written essay, a
poem, a person relating a dream, can have a lasting impact that is lost in most personal
discourse. We are still learning how best to use this medium.
The Next Step
One of the first e-mail letters I received from my friend Ameen, after we
had decided to do 'something,' was headed 'the next step.' Now it is time to take another
step. We never intended that PEACE be limited to e-mail dialog, and so we are seeking ways
and means of encouraging live grass-roots dialog between Israelis and Palestinians, and
Israelis and Jordanians.
We have far too few readers in the Middle East. It is good to reach
interested bystanders, but our most urgent need is to reach people in Israel, Palestine
and the Arab countries, as well as expatriates and students living abroad. Palestine is
not 'wired'-only a small percentage of people have access to the internet, and are fluent
in English. We want to translate materials into Arabic and Hebrew and hope also to have
resources for a dialog or newsletter to be conducted by regular mail.
We may be engaged in a noble moral pursuit that will have no other fruit
than a few good long distance friendships and moral satisfaction - themselves sufficient
rewards, perhaps. However, my pragmatist Yankee upbringing and Labor Zionist ideological
roots force me to ask whether relatively modest efforts such as ours can effect a change.
After all, much larger Israeli peace movements have been in place for many years, with
little or no effect on the attitude of the Israeli public at large. I cannot judge the
situation in Arab countries.
It may be true, as some social change researchers claim, that it is enough
to convince the innovative 5% of society to eventually effect a change. However, the
Israeli peace movements have convinced much more than 5%, without effecting any real
change. These theories of societal change are based on the pluralistic U.S. model of
society. Israel is in many respects a compartmentalized Middle-Eastern society however.
Just as Jerusalem has an Armenian quarter, and a Jewish Quarter and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish
quarters in the different parts of the city, so Israeli society is divided into subgroups
that live beside each other in relative isolation. This is true of Arabs and Jews,
Orthodox and Secular, Ashkenazi (European Jews) and Sepharadi (Jews of 'Spanish' origin,
mostly from Arab countries). To an increasing degree, it is also true of 'Left and Right.'
The Israeli peace movements are largely identified with a small segment of the Israeli
secular left. The same compartmentalization is no doubt found in Arab societies. If a
movement for change is to succeed, it must carefully avoid identification with a
particular segment in society, to avoid isolation. It must find a way to cut across the
compartmentalization of society. Dialog groups can do this, perhaps, with great effort and
dedication. Secular Israelis meet and find common ground with secular Palestinians.
Observant and even Ultra-Orthodox Israelis meet with Islamic groups and both are surprised
to discover common ground as well.
PEACE is not afraid to speak out against the leadership of either side
when they are not acting in the interests of peace, and to commend leaders of both sides
when they take a step in the right direction. Speaking out against Palestinian leadership
has been taboo among many Palestinians and the Israeli left. Speaking out against the
Israeli government is taboo among right wing Israelis. Our outspoken stands have
lost us support of large doctrinaire groups perhaps, but they are hopefully winning for
us, slowly, the support of a less vocal and less active silent, basically apolitical
majority, who cannot relate to slogans and obviously one-sided viewpoints, but can be
taught to relate to the other side as people.
The major strength of PEACE and groups like it, is that unlike the Israeli
peace groups, they are composed of members of both 'sides.' This makes it easier to
demonstrate that there are in fact people of good will on the other side. This is an
important point in overcoming one of the major stumbling blocks of all conflict
situations: the built-in perception that only your side wants peace. As people learn to
listen to each other, they begin to understand also that they must shed the national
historical myths that portray their own side as blameless and insist that only their own
cause has justice on its side.
Whatever the political outcome of the 'Oslo Peace Process,' it has
initiated a fledgling social phenomenon: the people-to-people peace process. We hope that
this social dynamic will grow from its present fragile and tentative state to a recognized
part of the social reality that educates for peace and forces the political leadership to
take it into account - a grass-roots lobby for peace.