Ramzi Dalbah set up a lunch of baklava desserts and kibbeh meatballs on the Quad Tuesday in preparation for a meeting he never thought he’d have.
With floating Arabic music in the background, Arab Students Association President Dalbah shook hands for the first time with Student Alliance for Israel President Scott Wasserman.
They met only four blocks from the White House, where Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin joined hands in 1995 in a promise of peaceful coexistence.
Student leaders at GW came together to continue the peace process the two international leaders began three years ago.
The Day For Peace Through Coexistence, a celebration co-sponsored by the ASA and SAFI, marked the first time in GW’s history Arab and Jewish groups successfully came together to address Arab-Israeli relations on campus.
Last September, the ASA was slated to participate in a meeting with Jewish students from GW Friends of Israel to discuss the issue. The attempt to celebrate the 1978 Camp David Accords never came to fruition because of miscommunication and animosity between the two groups, leaving Jewish students handing out fliers alone at the event.
But Dalbah said the partnership between ASA and SAFI has turned out differently.
“We designed a platform that neither side would go against each other. There was a formulation of a friendship instead of trying to prove something,” Dalbah said.
The situation was marred when the two groups tried to prove they were more peaceful than their counterparts, Dalbah said.
“But now it truly is about unity between both groups,” he added.
Maha El-Sheikh, ASA secretary, said the failed event last fall was evidence of the chasm between Arab and Jewish students on campus.
The ASA restructured its leadership and mission “in part because of what happened and in an effort to break the stereotypes about the clubs,” she said.
“We got together and said things have to change. This is a step beyond what happened. Now we’re really trying to open dialogue,” El-Sheikh said.
“I think we all have, even though we may not want to admit it, fears and prejudices about each other,” she said. “There is such a division, even in our classrooms, because you don’t know if it’s okay to approach that other person.”
Wasserman sat with El-Sheikh during the peace rally flipping through listings of international organizations that promote peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“How many people have decided that this is the right goal,” he said. “Look at how many other organizations there are that have the same feelings we do. We can’t all be wrong.”
ASA and SAFI also are planning to send a student-signed letter to Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Wasserman and the movement for coexistence faces some opposing views.
Sophomore Aaron Pool, who is Jewish, said he wants peace but does not agree with the way the process is conducted.
“While what these students are doing at this program is great, it fuels the peace process, which on the whole I don’t agree with,” Pool said. “I’m not saying I don’t support peace. I’m saying I don’t agree with the methods being used.”
Wasserman said he was not surprised by Pool’s response.
“A lot of Jews were raised to think a certain way about Arabs. When I grew up it was a part of what was around me,” Wasserman said. “For these students to do this together is shocking and unsettling. All of the sudden Arabs and Jews are sitting at the table next to them – together.”