For 16 years, the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group has brought together Holocaust survivors, 20th-generation Palestinians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, young adults and aged grandparents. Each month they meet in homes from Palo Alto to San Mateo in search of common ground.
Nothing is held back in the living rooms.
Sometimes they scream. But each time, they end in hugs.
"Listening is one of the great acts of healing," co-founder Len Traubman said.
"Damn the Jews; damn them," Elias Botto, 76, a Palestinian immigrant, vented in Traubman's living room this week during an interview, as he related the images of bloodied children on the evening news.
Traubman, who is Jewish, was not offended by Botto's outburst. His greatest fear is that the fragile peace he and others have built will be threatened by the Gaza conflict, he said.
"I don't take it personally as a Jew. I experience it as a fear that Elias will lose his quality of communication and perception to see both people's narratives; that he will return to one side. My great fear is of losing my Palestinian partners," he said.
The living-room group's progress has been hard-won, according to former member and Palo Alto attorney Walt Hays.
"When the group started, there were high emotions between both sides. As time went on, people became friends. They would have heated and frank discussions," said Hays, who was part of the group with his wife, Kay, for 12 years.
When Botto and his wife, Fanny, joined the group at the urging of a friend, he went with one goal in mind: "It was an opportunity to tell those Jews what they did to me and my family and my land," he said.
But his perceptions have changed.
"Little did I know a dialogue isn't just to tell your story, but to know the other side of the story. Only then will my narrative become complete, when it includes the Jewish narrative," he said.
Now, "the living-room sessions are what's keeping my sanity, not to blow up completely with what's going on there," said Botto, an affable man with a warm, welcoming smile.
Since 1992, the group, a project of Palo Alto's nonprofit Foundation for Global Community, meets with the firm belief that getting to know "the other" is the only lasting way to unleash creativity and form a lasting peace.
"We live by our darkest stereotypes and do unkind things to each other when we live in fear. ... All of our perceptions come down to our reptile brains. There is no creativity. We see that in bold relief in the Middle East conflict," Traubman said.
"The mainstream of either side focuses on a single narrative: 'my fear; my pain; my victimization; my dreams.' The enemy is one whose story is not heard," he said.
But when fear goes, it unleashes unprecedented creativity, Traubman said.
Getting to know each other has led to innumerable creative ideas that have forwarded understanding, the members said. The group published a cookbook filled with Israeli and Palestinian recipes and "recipes for peace" based on their living-room dialogue model; and held Palestinian-Jewish Family Peacemaker's Camps near Yosemite, where Palestinians and Jews from 32 Israeli and Palestinian villages met for the first time and lived together, bringing back their shared experiences of "the other" to their homelands.
They have written hundreds of letters to government officials; held workshops at dozens of schools, universities and professional groups; created two DVDs related to conflict resolution and the talking-story, living-room approach that have been distributed to 4,000 people in 60 countries and to 1,000 groups; raised money to rebuild schools equally for Israeli and Palestinian youth; helped NASA develop its list of candidates for the first joint Palestinian-Israeli student research project in space, on the Space Shuttle Columbia; and presented their model at hundreds of conferences and events.
The Traubmans started the group after being inspired in the 1980s by gatherings in apartheid South Africa of blacks and whites, when people committed to changing the system met in public to share food and stories, Libby Traubman said.
In 1991, the Traubmans, the Hayses, other founding members of the Beyond War Movement (now Foundation for Global Community) and Stanford University academics developed a conference for Palestinian and Israeli community leaders in Boulder Creek that resulted in a groundbreaking peace agreement. The agreement stated that a political treaty process must be parallel with a public-peace process, according to Hays.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the "public-peace" process occurred at a gathering in Colorado.
A Palestinian girl who was committed to being a suicide bomber changed her mind after meeting Jewish youth at a Colorado Building Bridges for Peace camp and attended two of the living-room group's family peacemaker's camps in Yosemite. The young woman now works with other youth, Libby Traubman said.
When people make that connection, Len Traubman said he cries out of joy.
"We are becoming more human. It is a shared life experience to discover our equal humanity. The real change is inside. As human beings, we begin to see each other as equal and want the best for the other. If people do that on a universal basis, we will have given consent to government to end war," he said.