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FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2006
Eastern Echo (Eastern Michigan University)
Twelve women. Six Arabs. Six Jews. One dream
Zeitouna builds friendship, puts aside differences
By Chris Azzopardi

The six Jewish and six Arabic women of Zeitouna share more than hummus and spinach pies during their meetings. They share, through a fondness and respect for each other, a relationship that doesn't exist between most Palestinians and Israelis.

"The most important thing was how they radiated friendship for each other," said Laurie White, a member of the group, psychotherapist and filmmaker, of Ann Arbor. "We're looking for a way to broadcast that nationally."

Out of frustration with the Israel-Palestine dilemma, White documented the efforts of Zeitouna ("olive" in Arabic)—a group helping to close the Arabic and Jewish divide—in "Refusing to be Enemies."

"I have felt torn because of my Jewish identity, my identity as an activist and the current situation 'on the ground,'" White said during the film's 17-minute trailer premiere at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater in November.

White edited one hundred hours of footage to represent the "root suffering of the two peoples and the complexities that have been created from these histories," which "has left me overwhelmed and confounded about what I could do to help alleviate the suffering on all sides."

In the film, White, who's taking on producing and directing responsibilities, documents the women from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti sharing cultural food, personal narratives and houses, and, most remarkably, exemplifying the possibility of a healthy bond between two groups of individuals from different—and conflicting—backgrounds.

"Since I am a filmmaker, I know that the medium allows me to express things for which I don't have sufficient words," said White, who co-produced Michael Moore's "Roger and Me."

Following Sept. 11, the assistant imam—a Muslim priest, from a Superior Township mosque—was picked up on the last night of Ramadan and jailed in solitary confinement for 18 months. Growing out of the injustice experienced by the mosque's imam, the women combined efforts by asking Irene Butter to bring some Muslim women together from her former dialogue group—a stream of meaning flowing through a group that may illicit new thoughts on an idea.

"Initially there used to be the sense that things were split down an Arab/Jewish line," Zeitouna member Manya Arond-Thomas said. "The point is that there isn't one Arab story and there isn't one Jewish story; each person has their own perspective, each person has their own story."

At that point, Butter contacted Wadad Abed, who reached out to skilled dialoguer Arond-Thomas and in the summer of 2002 they, along with White, met at Arond-Thomas' Ann Arbor home.

"The fact that we had an in-house person [Manya] that was knowledgeable about using the formularized process to come together in ways that were productive was very helpful," Zeitouna member Benita Kaimowitz said.

Abed hopes the conversation Zeitouna has began will reach out to others far and wide. "We're the same human being for goodness sakes," Abed said.

To show the bridge between us, White will distribute her one-hour film to educational, faith-based and community markets, as well as film festivals following Zeitouna's trip to Palestine and Israel this spring. White believes instituting these ideas to the youth is where the cycle of change begins.

"That's where change needs to happen, that's where it's most likely to happen; it's already happening," White said. "The world is getting a lot smaller, we're a lot more aware of each other, it's really likely that, if the older generation doesn't screw it up and destroy the planet before they all get a chance to step up to the plate, it's quite likely they'll be the ones to change the paradigm."

For the group, the film is their way of promoting change nationally and showing the possibility of uniting with unlikely groups of individuals. "We're a small group of people and we can't replicate our selves and we can't get all over the country to tell people. Obviously this [the film] is a vehicle for that," White said.

Zeitouna's work has already touched a local student who attended the premiere. "If people see these 12 women and they can use these people as their role models as a positive influence for what's to come, I think that everyone will have a better and more open understanding of the situation," UofM junior Alyssa Fetini said.


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