Dialogue for Peace

A grassroots initiative confronts issues of justice and peace in the Holy Land.

text by Michele Chabin
photographs by Miriam Sushman

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It is a hot, muggy day in the Holy Land. The heat has driven most people to the cool shelter of their stone houses or to the relief of air-conditioned shopping malls. Nevertheless, a hearty group of 20- to 40-year-olds has gathered on a busy street corner in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. Dressed in shorts and sandals, they wait patiently for a hired bus to take them to the Christian Arab town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.

While no one would have blamed them for choosing a Tel Aviv beach over Beit Sahour, the members of the Jerusalem-based Rapprochement Dialogue Group have no regrets. They fall into easy conversation, catching up with old friends and welcoming newcomers.

During the 20-minute ride to the picturesque town where church steeples dominate the hilly landscape, the discussions take on a political tone. The group of 15 – comprising American Jews who have immigrated to Israel, a handful of Jewish and Christian students studying at Israeli universities, and a couple of native Israelis – enjoys the natural rapport that is a part of everyday life in Israel. By the time they arrive at their sister institution, the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour, just about everyone is commiserating over the snail’s pace of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

When the Palestinians arrive a few minutes later, the veterans are disappointed. The Palestinian contingent consists of only four or five people, and only one of them is a current resident of the West Bank. As they serve cold drinks, the Palestinians explain that most of their “regulars” are away on summer vacation. Perhaps feeling a bit intimidated by the size of the Jerusalem group, they suggest that the planned dialogue be postponed for a couple of weeks.

“Let’s talk for a while and then decide whether to go to a cafe,” says Shraga Gorni, an Israeli organizer in his fifties. “Let’s give it a try.”

Giving things a try is what Rapprochement is all about. Founded in June 1988, just a few months after the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the nonprofit organization has tried to foster Israeli-Palestinian understanding and mutual respect through face-to-face meetings and grassroots activism.

Rapprochement was founded by Israeli peace activist Hillel Bardin, Palestinian physicist Ghassan Adoni, and a core group of Israeli and Palestinian academics and professionals. The organization has weathered the most violent days of the intifada, including terrorist attacks and military retaliation, security closures of the West Bank and Gaza and the divisive Gulf War, when Palestinians largely supported Iraq.

After a decade of frank, often painful meetings with the “other” side, Rapprochement’s organizers admit that dialogue alone cannot change the world. Andoni, for example, sees dialogue as a necessary tool to overcome mistrust, but rejects the notion that it can end the long-standing conflict.

“I don’t think dialogue will stop the problem. We must fight for justice, but at the same time we cannot get caught up in the cycle [of violence]. Dialogue isn’t a way to solve political and national crises, but it makes the fighting more human.”

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