Some had never spent time with ‘the other’. Some had been in a Palestinian-Jewish discussion group that soon failed and fell apart. We were Muslim, Christian and Jewish, with Middle Eastern, American and European backgrounds and we brought our individual histories, assumptions and fears with us, so our expectations were qualified and tentative.
With our strong desires and firm opinions, we could not foresee that years later we would still be together, would be intimate and caring friends, and would be changed profoundly by the experience we shared in Zeitouna.
We made some decisions early on:
- to be a group of women only – this after seeing a video of a mixed group where men did most of the talking.
- to invite others until there were twelve members – not too many to meet in each others’ homes but always enough for a good discussion.
- to be a balanced group of six Palestinians and six Jews
- to meet once a month – soon changed to every other week, once a month seeming insufficient.
- to begin each meeting with dinner and conversation, everyone bringing a dish to share. This too changed when all these good cooks brought way too much food. So we decided only half would bring a dish at a time.
- To name the group Zeitouna, Arabic for olive tree, which is an international symbol of peace-seeking, a strong and resilient means of sustenance, and an ongoing source of both contention and cooperation in Israel/Palestine.
One member was trained in Dialogue facilitation, and Dialogue made all the difference. Instead of immediately debating “the issue”, a practice that has doomed countless well-intentioned groups to finger pointing and frustration, Dialogue emphasized slowing down and listening well. It gave Zeitouna time for us to gradually hear about each others’ lives and to approach “the issues”, not as a debate but as events and feelings actually experienced by the woman speaking.
Inspired by the possibility of a just and peaceful world, we eventually decided on a mission:
Zeitouna allows us to practice concrete ways to make peace in our lives and communities. ‘Through Dialogue, we seek to embody, model and promote, justice, peace, and sustainability for the Palestinian and Jewish peoples through connection, empathy, and action.’
The women of Zeitouna share our personal narratives, practice Dialogue around difficult topics, and read pertinent articles and books together. We engage the community about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through presentations, seminars, and panel discussions. Part of the group traveled to Israel/Palestine in 2006. With the film Refusing To Be Enemies – The Zeitouna Story, we extend our voices far beyond the range of a small group of women.
A question that emerged early on was whether to engage in active politics as a group, but we decided against it. Zeitouna would be a model of coexistence. For those caught in the cross currents of the conflict, Zeitouna would provide alternatives. Zeitouna would create a safe place for each member to learn and to grow, to explore feelings and possibilities. Then each would be able to engage in actions she chose as an individual, an individual with a voice informed and strengthened by her Zeitouna experience.
Today Zeitouna still thrives. There have been changes — when a life became too full to commit to meetings twice a month, when a woman wanted a more activist organization, or when someone moved out of town. Five of the original members are still in Zeitouna. All of the us are still convinced there must be a better way and that a better way can only be found together.