1969 was a year that changed the lives of Len and Libby Traubman. Their first child, Eleanor, was born. And like millions of other people, they saw the first photos of Earth taken from space. The image of our planet “embedded itself in us,” notes Len, and “emphasized the idea of echad, of wahad,” as “oneness” is known in Hebrew and Arabic. While it was a particularly formative year for the Traubmans, their life’s work to promote dialogue had not yet begun.
After years of volunteer work, in 1984 the Traubmans went to the Soviet Union as part of the Beyond War movement to find out whom these "enemies" actually were. In meeting face to face with many Soviet citizens who were assumed “ready to extinguish us at a moment’s notice,” they “found a way to connect through the telling of personal narratives.” The two had come to the table of dialogue with one “internal set of images” but left with another.
In the late 1980s, Beyond War and the Traubman couple were approached by Palestinian and Israeli citizen-leaders to apply their knowledge of dialogue to deeply troubled Middle East relationships. This resulted in the historic June 1991 conference in the California redwoods, which established a signed "Framework For A Public Peace Process” and affirmed that authentic citizen-to-citizen relationships and models of cooperation were necessary for any government treaty to succeed. This 1991 moment introduced to the world the term "public peace process," having previously been known as "track-two diplomacy." Even as government representatives meet to negotiate what everyone hopes will be a final peace accord, true peace cannot be reached until large numbers of individual Palestinians and Israelis engage to humanize one another by hearing one another's stories with a new quality of listening-to-learn.
Back home, after “scratching around” for a few courageous Palestinians and Israelis willing to take part in neighborhood dialogues, they set out to create a phenomenon known as the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group. Libby describes the early years of the program as a “crucial process of learning what worked and what didn’t.” The biggest lesson was to “stick to talking about what was meaningful to each individual, not only the problem at large and governments.”
Seventeen years later, The Dialogue Group is set to have its 214th meeting. The participants range in age from 20 to over 80. They include Muslims, Christians, and Jews – Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, and many Jews with immediate family in Israel.
The Traubmans have also developed a series of programs and initiatives designed to amplify the impact of their Living Room Dialogues. These include: Oseh Shalom~Sanea al-Salam Palestinian Peacemakers Camp for youth and adults; a 100-page illustrated cookbook, Palestinian & Jewish Recipes for Peace; two documentaries – Dialogue at Washington High, and Peacemakers: Palestinians and Jews Together at Camp; a document about change, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English; and how-to guidelines for facilitating successful in-home or public dialogues.
Len and Libby have expanded their activities to include dialogue programs for high school students, allied military officers, mosques, synagogues, and even a forthcoming campus-wide dialogue at the University of California at Berkeley. As Libby puts it, she and her husband are “responding to a need and a call and truly seeing what it means to have empathy.”
So what have the Traubmans learned from their 214 Living Room Dialogues and countless other initiatives? Len suggests that “Most people don’t practice dialogue as we know it; they talk about only the government process [toward peace], which is neither a whole nor adequate view.” Libby argues that there may be far broader possibilities for dialogue: “We have not just entered into doing this for Jews and Palestinians… What we are doing is a small model for all relations between human beings.”