Lose weight, make peace at Middle East diet group
JERUSALEM: There's the weekly weigh-in, the tips on healthy snacking and the chit-chat between women about unruly kids or errant husbands.
But this is a slimming group with a difference: half its members are Palestinian, half are Israeli and the aim is to foster dialogue, through a common battle with weight.
"I never felt good about myself and my body, and that's something that women all over the world struggle with," said Yael Luttwak, an American-born Israeli who started the groups.
"I thought this would be a great way to bring together women who wouldn't normally meet each other."
Israelis and Palestinians around Jerusalem are separated by Israel's West Bank barrier and a network of checkpoints, which Israel says are needed for security, but which Palestinians call collective punishment.
Decades of conflict have entrenched mutual suspicion and ordinary people from across the divide rarely get the chance to sit down and swap stories, let alone form friendships.
Luttwak, a filmmaker, set up the first Jerusalem-based diet group for a 2007 documentary called "A Slim Peace". She won funding from the UK-based Charities Advisory Trust for subsequent courses and the fourth has just started.
Sceptics might dismiss this unusual attempt at coexistence as naive, noting peace remains elusive despite a string of initiatives using everything from haute cuisine to surfing to try to promote ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
But while small-scale initiatives like these rarely make headlines, proponents argue they work because they make peace-making personal.
"Let it all out: work, the news, kids, the husband, the no-husband, the ex-husband," says Israeli facilitator Odelya Gertel-Kraybill in a warm-up exercise at a recent class in Jerusalem.
The women collapse into giggles.
Israeli women embraced diet support groups decades ago and the Jewish state was one of the first countries to establish a branch of U.S. weight loss group Weight Watchers.
Dieting is a more recent trend in Palestinian society, but it is catching on fast thanks to the influence of Western television shows and given relatively high obesity rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At the "Slim Peace" groups, women are bound by a common and intimate interest: their bodies.
"Before, the only Israelis I knew were soldiers at checkpoints, I thought they were all brutal," said Palestinian student Enas Smoom. "But in the group, we forget we are Israelis and Palestinians -- we are just women talking about nutrition."
Palestinian dietician Suha Khoury and Gertel-Kraybill lead discussions about nutrition and self-help. Seeking neutral ground, the women meet at an international school and speak English rather than Hebrew or Arabic.
The Palestinians come from the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
"This class offers a vision of hope, and the women see it can really work from their own experience," says Khoury.
"I think they will transmit that to their children."
The women talk about their lives, families and bodies, and are often surprised to learn they have much in common.
But it's not all light-hearted. Women on both sides struggled at times of heightened tension between the two sides -- after heavy Israeli bombing in the Gaza Strip or intensified cross-border rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.
"I was angry the Israeli women didn't understand how people in Gaza are suffering," said Smoom, the student. "But then some of them said they had children serving in the army and I realized they want to protect themselves and their families -- just like us."
Telma Shwartz, a chatty 55-year-old Israeli, said she quickly formed friendships with the Palestinian women but was unsure how to bring up the prickly subject of her children's mandatory military service.
She also felt uncomfortable talking about the Palestinian militants who fire rockets at towns near her daughter's home in southern Israel.
"When the time was right I spoke about it, and I got very emotional," she said. "My daughter was irritated by me coming to this group. She wanted me to tell the Palestinians about the terror in her life, but I told her in Gaza they suffer too."
The women have no illusions about solving one of the world's most intractable conflicts with a 10-week diet class. In fact, several of them say they haven't even lost much weight. But they do argue such groups can change attitudes.
"I hope the Israeli women will tell others about the Palestinians they met who were not just terrorists -- women who were willing to talk," said Smoom. "It might not solve the peace process, but it helps us see each other as human beings."
(Editing by Keith Weir)