ROME (Jun. 13)
According to one school of thought, the most important work at seminars and conferences takes place during the breaks.
This was the driving concept behind a three-day brainstorming session by an influential group of 25 Israelis and 25 Palestinians that took place over the weekend at a secluded villa in Rome.
“There was no agenda, no papers, no speakers, just a theme and 50 people,” said Nicoletta Gaida, president of the Centro Dionysia, the Rome-based cultural group that organized the retreat in association with the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Dutch-based Education for Life organization.
“In three days, what happened is something that doesn’t usually happen — an exchange of honest, down-to-earth, painfully true feelings about what the situation is and what can be done to get out of it,” she said.
The encounter took place behind closed doors — or, rather, behind the closed gates of the elegant, 15th-century Villa Piccolomini near the Vatican, where the Centro Dionysia is headquartered.
A full list of participants was not made public, but attendees represented a cross section of civil society from both communities, including prominent academics, lawyers, journalists, businessmen, political strategists, governmental advisers and other such figures.
On the Israeli side, participants included people from the right and the left, secular and religious.
“We came and spoke as individuals,” said Orli Shani, a businesswoman whose husband was a former adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and who coordinated the Israeli group.
“Some people had never met before, but we all came with an open heart,” she said. “We all have different ideas, and it went deep. Some cried; some laughed. There were amazing moments. But no one left the discussion. This in itself is a great success.”
Participants proposed topics they wanted to explore and then broke into discussion groups, which continued through mealtimes.
“The talking never stopped,” one participant said. “It was particularly amazing to see the intensity of people, Palestinians and Israelis, sitting elbow to elbow around the circular lunch or dinner tables and talking and talking. Among other things, it was the first time the Palestinians had met people from the right and religious Israelis and heard clearly what they had to say.”
The theme of the retreat was “The Day After — Issues and Opportunities for Building Trust.” This represented an anticipation that, sooner or later, there will be a “day after” the current conflict and bloodshed and that Israelis and Palestinians must start forging links to work toward that day.
The aim was not to arrive at decisions or even agreement on anything. Rather, it was to hear, firsthand, the concerns of individuals from the other side — and to recognize that many of the concerns are mutual.
“We somehow are fed up with the violence, on both sides, and with the inability of the politicians to find a solution,” said Haifa Baramki, the Palestinian director of the center of continuing education at Bir-Zeit University in the West Bank. She attended the encounter with her husband, a former president of Bir-Zeit.
During the three days in Rome, she struck up a friendship with Chana Levitan, principal of the Hebrew University’s secondary school. The two said they planned to stay in touch, by phone and e-mail, when they return.
“Both of us work in education,” Baramki said. “It is a crime to see the young people who are killed — and to see the way those who are not killed are affected by the violence. The traumas of the young generation are tremendous — but they are our future.”
Both Israeli and Palestinian participants said one of the most important aspects of the encounter was to recognize that they share needs and feelings with people on the other side.
“It was very important for us to understand that there are people on the other side who are ready to listen,” said one participant, an Israeli factory owner.
Said Haifa Baramki, “Before coming, we didn’t know what to expect, but now we know that this is the solution. We have to empathize, we have to put each other in the skin of the other.”
Organizers and participants said they hoped somehow to continue the contacts.
At the close of the three days, Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee and one of the conference participants, performed a wedding ceremony for a young South African couple on the tree-shaded grounds of the villa.
Rosen carefully explained each step of the ceremony for the benefit of the Palestinians. One of the Palestinian participants, a prominent businessman, smilingly held one of the posts of the chupah, or wedding canopy.
“Any kind of human encounter that can overcome stereotypes and the barriers of mistrust between the two peoples is a blessing,” Rosen said after the ceremony.
“I’m hopeful, because such a remarkable gathering of an Israeli-Palestinian cross section of civil society gives the possibility that there will be an outcome of more consequence than just personal encounters,” he said.