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Meeting Mohammed
Last uploaded : Saturday 12th Apr 2003 at 23:51
Contributed by : Len and Libby Traubman


We first met Mohammed - as did hundreds of Jewish educators - at the 2002 Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE). It was a hot summer week in San Antonio, Texas.

He was tall, dark, and imposing. A tattoo of a Kalishnikov rifle was on his right forearm from earlier days as a relentless advocate for his Palestinian people's human rights and national aspirations, in the Middle East and after he emigrated to America.

Mohammed Alatar -- grandson of a Muslim imam, with family roots in Jenin as many centuries back as anyone can remember -- began teaching us much about anti-Semitism and how to prevent it, not from a distance, but by personal, face-to-face dialogue and education. It begins, we've discovered, with compassionate listening to each other's stories, seeing one another as human and equal, and finally beginning to want the best for one other.

"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

This is, to us, the life of Shema. Listening and truly hearing not just ourselves, but all others, even our "enemy." And not only when it's easy, but also when the wind is blowing a hundred miles an hour. Listening -- one of the great acts of healing and of love.

And this compassionate listening was welcomed at last at CAJE, as the successful Dialogue endeavors of Californians and Texans combined to offer six workshops to the 1,600 teachers from the Americas, Israel, and elsewhere.

Several hundred participants viewed the Emmy Award-winning film "Promises," about the importance, challenge, and promise of Palestinians and Jews meeting face-to-face. In the ensuing discussion, many Jews expressed themselves freely. Then, one Orthodox educator in the corner burst out, "We've listened enough to ourselves. Let's hear Mohammed. We never get to be with Palestinians."

"I didn't hear about the Holocaust until I was 28 years old." He startled the packed auditorium. "After that, I spent two years studying to be sure it was true. I simply didn't want to believe it, because then I'd have to see the Jew as a victim, like myself. And human, like me. I'd have to change my whole way of thinking about you."

In front of those Jewish women and men, Mohammed was that changed man. "Instead of wasting our time apart, dehumanizing one another, we must start coming together like this, understanding each other's stories and histories.

"I'm learning yours," he said. "And all I ask is that you hear mine. And, that we become closer and more like the neighbors and great partners we can become."

Once "against Jews," Alatar now says "every time that I meet a Jew, I learn something new about them - their history, humanity, terrors, and dreams. "Just in return, please listen and understand me and my people -- how we experience unspeakable injustices, humiliation, malnutrition, lost education, and despair under an unkind military domination of decades." He pleads, fairly, that we also appreciate the intelligence, beauty, culture, and dreams of his fine people.

For Mohammed and us, Dialogue has been the transforming activity.

Meeting Mohammed Again

In October 2002, we initiated a Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue All-Day in Washington, DC. Participants from 14 states arrived. And, so did Mohammed.

On the second night of our DC visit, we presented the model of Dialogue to students at Georgetown University. Relationships had been poor, alienation everywhere -- typical of the sign-wars, shouting, finger-pointing, taking sides, and rallies that have added up to nothing at all on campuses nationwide.

But, at Georgetown that night was the diminishing of anti-Semitism - anti-anybody.

To everyone's surprise, this was the university's first unifying moment like this, co-sponsored by all the key student organizations: Jewish Student Association (JSA), Muslim Students Association (MSA), Young Arab Leadership Alliance (YALA), Georgetown Israel Alliance (GIA), and Students for Middle East Peace (SMEP).

Listening finally began between 80 Muslims, Jews, and Christians, especially including Palestinians and other Arabs, who had responded to the event flyer.

The presentation began with an understanding of the "public peace process" and of Dialogue -- what it is and is not -- by Libby Traubman.

Then, a Palestinian and a Jew -- Mohammed Alatar and Len Traubman -- told their "stories" about their ancestors, early lives, what they were taught about the "other," how they came into Dialogue, and how they have changed.

The room was open for students' comments and questions, and their own stories, with Libby facilitating.

"An enemy is someone whose story we have not heard."

- Gene Knudsen-Hoffman

It was an amazing, breakthrough experience, with a bearded Palestinian student standing up and reaching his hand out to a Jewish classmate from whom he had been totally alienated since an altercation.

The Jewish student responded in kind with his own public apology for his earlier insensitive language and poor spirit.

People cried.

That's what the evening was like, with many more narratives. And, that is what caused all the student participants to sign up to begin their five new Dialogues on campus.

"People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell."

- Elie Wiesel

We tell and re-tell these stories to show that Jews and Palestinians have settled for far too little. Our conflicts are not "intractable." Together, we can become "more." Together, we're better.

There is a way through our present dilemma. The life of Dialogue, of Shema -- listening as we've never listened before. For this is our dearest prayer for a very good reason: it is a pragmatic step toward our ideal, very attainable goals.

It works in everyday life because, in our experience, everyone has a soul whose oldest memory is of union, and whose deepest longing is for reunion.

So, after over 10 years of seeing anti-Semitism diminish around us, what is our prescription for others?

Find a Mohammed. Listen to each other. Grow together.

Libby Traubman, B.A., M.S.W. is a retired clinical social worker and co-founder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group. Len Traubman, D.D.S., M.S.D. is a retired pediatric dentist. He has authored and published "The Oreckovsky Family: From Russia to America." The Traubmans are on the Web at http://traubman.igc.org/ and also can be reached by e-mail at LTraubman@igc.org.

Originally published in Amin.org, March 15, 2003

Distributed by Common Ground News Service / Middle East


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