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Focus on Issues: Arab and Jewish Interns Forge Relations Far from the Middle East

August 12, 1997
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What if the heads of Jewish and Arab American organizations were to come together once a week over lunch to engage in heated discussions, bat around ideas and get to know each other?

Some would call the idea ambitious. Others might dismiss it as pure fantasy.

Jonathan Kessler, executive director of the Middle East Insight Policy Forum, believes such gatherings may be possible one day. He’s already laying the groundwork.

This summer, he brought together Washington-based interns from Jewish and Arab American organizations, think tanks and government offices for a series of roundtable discussions addressing a variety of issues related to the Middle East peace process.

More than 100 interns — most of them college students — took part in the forums, which were clearly targeted at the next generation of policymakers and public opinion leaders.

“We have no doubt that these people who interact with each other as students will interact when they’re in positions of influence, maybe even in positions of enormous influence,” Kessler said.

The lunchtime gatherings, which spanned five weeks, included presentations from the White House liaisons to both the Jewish and Arab American communities, representatives from the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Jordan Information Bureau, key congressional aides, and a candid question-and-answer session with Aaron Miller, a senior member of the U.S. peace team.

More than anything, participants said, the sessions provided a safe environment and a unique opportunity to make personal connections and engage in wide- ranging discussions with people on opposite sides of the issue.

Many students, Kessler said, “stayed behind after the sessions ended to speak, in calm voices, sometimes for long periods of time.”

While some discovered they had little more in common than a shared interest in the Middle East, Marissa Jacobs, a Lebanese American interning at the Arab American Institute, said, “Just the fact that people are able to come here and want to be in the same room, there obviously has to be a goal reached already.”

The interns, eager for a chance to continue their dialogue in a social setting, capped off the summer forum by breaking bread together over a seven-course Moroccan meal at the popular Washington restaurant Marrakesh.

At that dinner, some talked about gaining insights and making strides toward mutual understanding.

“You find people who disagree on 13 out of 14 things, but the idea is to get them to realize that that 14th thing that you agree on is a fundamental concept and something that should be built upon,” said Matt Kirschen, a sophomore at Brandeis University interning at AIPAC.

Others found the search for common ground more elusive.

“I did my best to just present what I had been taught and what I had learned,” said Samer Obeid, a sophomore at Cornell University who is interning for an Arab American organization.

Young Arab Americans and young Jewish Americans “grow up learning completely different perceptions of history. When we come together we can at least get a window into what those different histories are.”

Yahya Jaboori, a 23-year-old intern at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, said the fact was not lost on him that many of the people participating “are being groomed for leadership positions.”

He said he walked away with a better sense of “what you have to deal with if you are going to be in the international community working in this area and dealing with diplomatic circles.”

The program concluded one week prior to the recent suicide bombing attack on a Jerusalem market, which dealt the peace process yet another major setback.

Noam Shelef, a 20-year-old intern at Americans for Peace Now whose father was in Jerusalem having lunch near Mahane Yehuda when the bombs went off, said he viewed the tragedy in a slightly different light because of his participation in the forum.

A better understanding of opposing views, he said, “allows you to disassociate the stereotypes that might come up from this and puts into greater perspective the kind of terrible statements you might hear.”

Kessler said he has been struck by the change he saw in students. By establishing personal connections, he said, “they’ve put a human face on their differences. They see each other as people and not just stereotypes or examples of categories.”

Hoping to build on the summer’s experience, at least two of the participants are planning to bring the idea back to their college campuses.

Jacobs, a student at Boston College, and Kirschen, who attends Brandeis University, are planning to work together to start similar discussion forums at their own schools, while trying to get students from around the country interested as well.

Picking up on one of the central themes of the summer sessions, Kirschen said, “We want to create that safe environment so that Jews and Arab Americans, anyone, can feel free to express their views.”

Kessler, meanwhile, plans to continue the intern sessions into the school year and “take advantage of the enormous number of students in the Washington area.”

Specifically, he wants to reach out to students visiting from the Middle East whom he said may otherwise never have an opportunity to interact with each other.

“Our goals, in one sense, are straight-forward and, in another sense, quite ambitious and quite radical,” he said.

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