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Ann Arbor News - Friday, March 16, 2007

Building understanding Film made about local Arabic/Jewish dialogue group

News Arts Writer

For nearly five years, the members of Zeitouna - an Ann Arbor-based group of six Jewish women and six Arabic women - have been learning about the transforming power of honest dialogue.

Now those experiences are set to reach a wider audience, via a new documentary having its world premiere Sunday at the Michigan Theater.

The hour-long film is called "Refusing to be Enemies: The Zeitouna Story,'' and it features not only excerpts from the group's discussions, but also footage of six Zeitouna members' trip last year to the Middle East.

"I think what struck us the most was the separation of our two peoples,'' said filmmaker and Zeitouna member Laurie White of the trip. "People don't get a chance to know each in the ways we've gotten to know each other. It's much easier to demonize the other or fear the other if you have no knowledge of them.''

And while you might expect events like last year's battle between Israel and Lebanon to strain such groups to their breaking point, Zeitouna found itself paradoxically strengthened by it.

"What we found, actually, is that getting together was one of the few places that allowed us to experience the full range of the emotions that we were feeling,'' said White. "There tended to be a lot of polarization (at that time), and everybody was circling the wagons, but we didn't want to do that.

"Being together was one of the few places where we felt like there were other people who understood what we were going through, and the complexities of the feelings that we were feeling, and the upset. It brought us closer together.''

Some question value of dialogue

Not everyone outside the organization has understood its value or supported its mission.

"Initially, the people from the Arab community would look at me and say, 'Aren't you wasting your time?' and 'Dialogue does not solve the problem,' '' said Wadad Abed, another member of Zeitouna. "And they're right. No one thing solves the problem - the problem is huge.

"But it is an approach to try and understand the other, because I personally believe that ... unless the Jews and the Arabs in this country work together, and the Israelis and the Palestinians work together, we're not going anywhere except to destruction. ... If we do not acknowledge that our destinies are intertwined, and if we do not decide to live together, we are going to die together.''

Group began meeting in 2002

Abed was an original member of Zeitouna ("olive tree'' in Arabic), which began meeting in August 2002. Tensions ran high at that time, so a representative from Ann Arbor's Temple Beth Emeth contacted Abed to see if she'd be interested in a Muslim/Jewish dialogue group. "I said, 'Well, that would be wonderful. However, I am not a Muslim, so I can't be part of this group,''' Abed recounted. "'And two, if you are trying to have a conversation about Israel/Palestine, I don't think it's a religious issue.'''

The group's focus thus shifted to its current Arabic/Jewish orientation, and though members began by meeting once a month for a few hours at a time, they soon decided they wanted to meet twice a month (and still do).

Even so, they proceeded with baby steps in order to lay a strong foundation. For the first year, the women primarily shared personal narratives, examining how their experiences and origins shaped their identity.

The group - members range in age from early 30s to mid-70s - decided early on that when speaking, they would never represent anyone beyond themselves. "We weren't there to represent our respective groups, because you really can't,'' said White. "That's one of the things that I know as a member of the Jewish community, is that there's as much diversity in the Jewish community as there are people. And of course, that's true for the Arab community as well.''

White - who began her career in film as a producer of Michael Moore's first film, "Roger and Me'' - had the idea to make a documentary about the group soon after it formed, but she originally hesitated to suggest it.

"I knew that the group needed time to coalesce and gel without any extra pressure, or anybody else's agenda,'' said White. "So I really didn't even bring it up until a year and a half later, and at that point, I was a known and trusted person, and we were looking for ways to share with others what we were learning and discovering.''

Skeptics might wonder how a dialogue group that discusses Middle East issues can affect positive change, but Abed views Zeitouna's impact on a personal, more localized scale.

"It's an advantage that we are away from the conflict,'' she said. "We have the luxury of not having walls and checkpoints or anything to separate us, so we can go into each other's homes with no problem. But we also know that we're not necessarily dealing with a solution. It is not up to the 12 women to decide what's going to happen there. Our focus is first on us transcending prejudices and transforming ourselves.''

Since Zeitouna limited membership at 12 - so they could comfortably meet in each other's homes, and everyone would always get a chance to speak - two sister groups formed; and because White plans to send her documentary to film festivals, she's hoping that Zeitouna's lessons will soon reach a broader audience.

"I've found that that medium (film), by design, helps people literally focus together on a common vision,'' said White.

Jenn McKee can be reached at 734-994-6841 or jmckee@annarbornews.com.

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