"Forward" Op-Eds by Four Palestinian-Americans (The Jewish
Guest Editor: Letty Cottin Pogrebin
(submitted to Portside by the author/guest editor)
The Jewish Daily Forward
Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
Almost three years ago, Feda Abdelhady Nasser and I met at a
seminar on the Middle East, took a liking to one another,
and decided to start a dialogue group in which Palestinian-
American and Jewish American women could candidly and
confidentially discuss any and all issues relating to the
We started with 10 women, the two of us plus four
participants we each chose from our respective communities.
That winter, when Israel attacked Gaza, one Palestinian
dropped out of the group to protest what she considered to
be an inadequate response by the Jews to the egregious loss
of Palestinian life. After some reshuffling on the Jewish
side, the Dialogue jelled with eight of us who've been
meeting once a month for dinner and conversation - or, more
precisely, disputation, ventilation, mutual edification and
some of the most heart-warming, soul-wrenching,
intellectually illuminating discussions I've experienced in
40 years of political activism.
Over time, as we've grown more comfortable with one another,
we've begun to share news about our families and work lives,
our illnesses and injuries; we've met two members'
significant others and one woman's mother, thanks to Skype
(the videoconferencing service). Until recently, we convened
in a neutral space - usually one or another of our offices,
but our last three gatherings have taken place in members'
homes, a change of venue that clearly symbolizes a new phase
When I was invited to guest-edit this page, my first thought
was to have all eight of us contribute our impressions of
the Dialogue. However, each essay would necessarily be too
short to be anything but superficial. Instead, my Jewish
sisters - Katie Halper, high school teacher by day, stand-up
comedian and filmmaker by night; Talia Hatzor, a
psychologist specializing in trauma cases, and Kathleen
Peratis, attorney, and a director of the Forward
Association, which publishes this newspaper - trusted me to
introduce the group and ceded the rest of the space to our
Palestinian members. Jews, and others who are routinely
bombarded with anti-Arab bias and stereotypes, would do well
to heed their moderate voices before such voices are drowned
out by extremists on both sides.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a leading figure in American Jewish
feminism and a founding editor of Ms. magazine. The author
of numerous articles and 10 books, including "Deborah, Golda
and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America," Pogrebin was a
founder of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and is a
past president of Americans for Peace Now.
[picture accompanying article: The Power of Talk: Members of
the dialogue group. Top row (l-r): Katie Halper, Jeanine
Shama, Sabah Allen, Kathleen Peratis. Bottom row (l-r):
Talia Hatzor, Nadia Saah, Feda Abdulhady Nasser, Letty
Cottin Pogrebin http://www.forward.com/articles/133039/ ]
Moving Beyond Stereotypes
By Sabah Allen
At the beginning, I thought, "We will go and show those
Jewish women who is the aggrieved and who is the criminal
I anticipated a head-to-head confrontation when we talked
about Israel's injustices and human rights violations. I
thought the Jews in the Dialogue would try to convince us
that Israel has the right to do what it does. Frankly, I
expected our first meeting to be the last. But here we are,
two-and-a-half years later, still talking.
The reason I keep attending our meetings is that I know we
all share the goal of a peaceful solution to the conflict,
and I believe the Jewish women in our group understand the
pain we have endured in our struggle for national
liberation. Though they weren't the first Jews I heard
express support for a Palestinian state, they are the first
I've met who genuinely sympathize with our plight.
Two of them call themselves Zionists and two do not identify
with the label - which, in and of itself, was interesting to
me - but all four want to learn more about how we feel, who
we are and what we want. Moreover, all eight of us are
committed to moving beyond each group's stereotypical
perceptions of "the other."
As a result of our intense, often volatile, discussions, I
came to see that each side perceives itself as the victim
and sees the other as the aggressor. I also realized that
Israelis feel as vulnerable and scared as Palestinians, even
though Israel is so strong and Palestine so weak. And I see
that Palestinians are imagined powerful enough to influence
the entire outcome of the conflict by ending our resistance
to occupation, which, whether violent or non-violent, Israel
The trouble is, recent events give the lie to that scenario.
The hundreds of Palestinians who've lately embraced the
strategy of passive resistance do not seem to have won the
heart of the oppressor. On the contrary, during several
peaceful demonstrations in West Bank villages where Jews
have been appropriating property for their own use, video
footage shows the Israel Defense Forces provoking violence.
I believe change happens exponentially - two, four, eight
people at a time. By carrying our process outside of our
closed-door meetings and onto this page, we are modeling
mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. I hope our group
inspires other Jewish Americans and Palestinian-Americans to
come together to find light at the end of this very long
[Born in Gaza in 1951, Sabah Allen, a writer and editor,
became a United States citizen in 1988. Currently she serves
as an Adviser at the United Arab Emirates Mission to the
Challenging Each Other, in Good Faith
By Jeanine Shama
I was born and raised in New York City, yet when I arrive at
Ben Gurion airport I don't feel protected by my American
My heart pounds with anxiety and I feel literally sick to my
stomach at the possibility of being interrogated and
humiliated. The reason: My father was Palestinian. My Jewish
colleagues are sympathetic, but they can't relate viscerally
to what I am subjected to as I enter and exit Israel.
So, why do I participate in this Dialogue? My Arab friends
ask, "Will this group of yours end the occupation?" No, it
won't, and some days when a meeting is scheduled, I don't
feel like going. But I go because I believe it is my
responsibility to make Palestine and Palestinian views,
politics, and culture accessible to all who want to listen.
Sometimes I educate them; sometimes I learn from them. I
remember one session that included a "show and tell." Each
of us was supposed to bring an object that symbolized our
connection to Israel/Palestine. One of the Jewish women
brought in a Jewish National Fund collection can from her
childhood home, a blue and white tin she called a "tzedakah
box." She told us that she and her family put coins in the
box every week no matter what. "We did without, but money
went into that box," she said.
I was awed by that level of commitment and later mentioned
it to some of my Palestinian friends and they concurred that
we, too, needed to have collection boxes of our own.
Because I lived in Ramallah for a few years, I'm able to
bring to the group some critical insights about life in a
"five-star prison" with limited to no freedom of movement.
To reach my father's village, normally a 15-minute drive
from Ramallah, we had to circumvent all the special roads
that Israel built - mostly on confiscated Palestinian land -
for settlers' use only. Now the trip takes an hour and a
half. Thankfully, my father's village, unlike many, is not
(yet) obstructed by a high concrete wall with a gate
controlled by Israelis who decide whether and when to let
schoolchildren and villagers pass in and out.
But today, as I ready myself for a trip to the region to
help with the olive harvest, I'm angered by the news that
Jewish settlers are poisoning Palestinian olive trees and
preventing villagers from accessing their land. I know for
certain that my Jewish Dialogue colleagues all agree that
these actions are despicable and unacceptable. They
understand the Palestinians' connection to their land and
their olive groves.
Nevertheless, there have been times when I was disappointed
by the lack of reaction or empathy from our Jewish
counterparts. During the Gaza war, my Palestinian sisters
and I were all distraught - we expected some kind of
outreach from them, and there was none. Occasionally, I've
found Jewish ignorance of Palestinians quite shocking.
Such frustrations aside, what makes this Dialogue work is
that for two-and-a-half years, we have listened to one
another respectfully and challenged each other in good
faith. This is what happens on a daily basis in Israel in a
place special to me: Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, the
cooperative village where Palestinian Israelis and Jewish
Israelis coexist on a daily basis. Once a month, here in New
York City, we in our small group, are trying to do the same.
[Jeanine Shama is affiliated with various Arab-American
organizations and was formerly with the Arab-American Anti-
The Deeper We Go, the Clearer Our Understanding
By Nadia Saah
My connection to the Jewish experience didn't begin in our
Dialogue. It started at birth.
As a Washington, D.C. native, born blond and "Barbra"-esque
to Palestinian parents who fled West Jerusalem in 1948, I
was strangely more mishpucha than habibi. My brother spent
his afternoons spouting Mel Brooks-isms while I ran around
the house belting "don't Rain on My Parade."
On family trips to the Occupied Territories, children in
Ramallah or Silwan greeted me as "Yahoodiyeh!" - the Jewess.
In Amman, Jordan, my cousins would flat-out say I was a spy.
During elementary school, I'd hang out at my best friend
Susan's house until she came home from Hebrew school. Though
we were aware of our people's enmity, it was never an
obstacle to our constant companionship, even when we shot
hoops to see who would win Jerusalem.
I began hearing the details of our Nakba (the catastrophe of
1948) around the same time as "The Holocaust" aired on TV,
and the narratives echoed each other in a profoundly sad
way. My parents had fled; Susan's grandparents had fled. My
people were butchered; her people had been gassed and
butchered. Both were terrorized, despised and cast from
their homes in fear and humiliation. Fortunately for Susan,
her people resurrected themselves. Unfortunately for me,
that occurred on the broken bones of my people who were now
being oppressed by Susan's survivors.
My growing awareness of this mindboggling transference of
victimhood did not stop me from feeling compassion for
Jewish suffering. However, what I grew to understand, I
could not reconcile. How could Jews hide behind their
tragedies and hardwired insecurities and deny or rationalize
Israel's crimes against Palestinians? How could they market
Palestinian victims as aggressors and blame them for their
own suffering? Why does the world stand idly by when
Palestinians are brutally punished for daring to resist the
stranglehold of Israeli occupation, losing more of their
land each day?
Despite the Dialogue members' shared commitment to a just
peace and our growing affection for one another, painful
questions continually arise in our meetings. I joined the
group to understand Jewish fear in order to speak to it
without becoming overwhelmed by anger. I also joined to see
if blunt talk mixed with genuine empathy could translate
into substantive action among Jewish opinion makers.
But it made my brain bleed to hear one of the Jews say that
the Palestinians have the power to make Israelis feel secure
enough to demand peace. How, I asked, can a systematically
oppressed, impoverished, ghettoized and entirely insecure
people make Israelis feel safe? Israel has the fourth most
powerful army in the world, a thriving economy, control over
roughly 86% of historic Palestine (including settlements),
and the unconditional love of the world's superpower. Of
course, with occupation there can be no security, regardless
of walls, checkpoints and prisons.
On that last point, all eight Dialogue members agree. And as
we continue to grapple with these extremely difficult
issues, I find that the deeper we go, the clearer our
understanding of our parallel narratives, and the more
imperative our need to find the most effective and human way
to individually and collectively impact our shared futures.
[Nadia Saah is a partner at BoomGen Studios, a film company
that produces and markets entertainment content about the
Greater Middle East, its people and cultures.]
We Believe We Can Make A Difference
By Feda Abdelhady Nasser
I have devoted most of my adult life to working as a
diplomat on behalf of Palestinian rights, foremost their
right to live as a free and dignified people in their
homeland in peace and security, side by side with all their
neighbors, including Israelis. Despite many setbacks on the
long road to freedom, I have done this work with energy and
conviction, taking on both friend and foe in defense of the
two-state solution, the necessity for compromise and the
possibility of peaceful coexistence. My efforts have been
grounded in my understanding of the historic injustices
suffered by both peoples and my belief that the fate of both
is inseparably intertwined.
Recently, I have begun to seriously question my commitments
as I watch the failure of negotiations and the waning
influence of Palestinian moderates like myself. Yet despite
those depressing realities, I am still hopeful.
The source of this hope? A women's dialogue group in which I
have found compassion, understanding, friendship and a
common yearning for peace. This, for me, is an unlikely turn
of events. I'm a professional diplomat; I've never been
involved in grassroots initiatives. I'm also a mother trying
to juggle the demands of work and home, so my free time is
precious. Moreover, I'm surrounded by nay-saying colleagues
and friends who insist: "Nothing you do will make a
Nonetheless, I decided to give dialogue a try, and once the
group was underway, I realized that it is indeed worth my
time. It is my first close encounter with "the other side"
that has not involved intimidation, humiliation and
posturing. (Sadly, those words describe my experiences with
This is not to say that the process has been easy. In the
beginning, our disagreements and misunderstandings filled me
with tension. Many times, I thought of walking away, an
impulse I know was shared by my Palestinian sisters as we
collectively questioned the group's value and viability. It
was painful grappling again and again with the same issues,
each side trying to convince the other to accept its version
of reality, both sides struggling to find common ground. I
frequently questioned my sanity for exposing myself to the
contentious debates of the United Nations during my workday,
then more of the same as our meetings extended late into the
I am proud to say that we did not give in to our impulse to
quit and even happier to say that the group has been of real
value to me on both personal and professional levels. The
Jewish women I've come to know have opened my eyes and my
heart to the perspective and humanity of "the other side."
When I most despair about the political process - as I do
now, with yet another deadlock over the settlements issue -
I reflect on our discussions, recalling the rational and
just positions voiced by my Jewish sisters, their support
for a peaceful solution, our shared concerns and fears.
The Jewish women in our group tell us there are many more
like them, Jewish Americans who want peace, who want
justice, who want to coexist. I wonder where these people
are and why they let their voices be drowned out by the
shouts of hardliners and extremists.
I realize that making peace is about solving the core issues
- refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, borders, security and
water. However, thanks to our group, I have come to
understand that making peace is also about seeing ourselves
in the eyes of "the other" and accepting that our destiny
lies in sharing this small piece of land. Getting to know my
Jewish sisters has persuaded me that the people-to-people
connection must be pursued at a more expansive level between
our communities. Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews
must believe that they can make a difference. We do.
[Feda Abdelhady Nasser is the daughter of Palestinian
immigrants to the U.S. She is a Counsellor at the Permanent
Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations.]
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