"I want to feel more confident."
"I want to lose weight."
Suha Khoury reads aloud from slips of paper that have been written on and tucked into a plastic cup by the women now sitting in a circle on name-tagged chairs. They've gathered in a school classroom, festooned with student artwork, for the first meeting of a ten-session weight loss group. Strangers still, they cast their eyes downward, offering only shy, brief exchanges.
Khoury, the group dietitian, continues pulling slips of paper from the cup, reading each woman's goals in staccato succession. Then she gets to one note and takes a breath: "I want to get to know Palestinians." An attendee shifts in her seat, another clenches her jaw.
The fact that these 14 Israeli and Palestinian women have shown up at a school in Jerusalem to support one another—in the everyday fight for slimmer bodies—is in some ways unthinkable. Outside this room, their two peoples are engaged in a much bigger war—one that has been raging for nearly a century, with no end in sight.
The women are part of Slim Peace, a program started by Yael Luttwak, a 36-year-old American filmmaker who is also a citizen of Israel and now lives in London. Using the common denominator of weight—and women's near-universal anguish over it—as a way to bridge deep political, cultural, and religious divides, the project's sixth group will meet for ten two-hour sessions. The idea came to Luttwak about nine years ago when historic peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians completely collapsed. At the time she had managed to drop a few pounds through Weight Watchers and remembers thinking, "Ariel Sharon is very overweight, and Arafat is not thin either. If they lost weight together, maybe they'd be in a better mood and make better decisions."
It took six years for Luttwak to organize the first group of women, and they became the subject of her 2007 documentary, A Slim Peace (you can see it on Sundance Channel June 15). Supported by the Charities Advisory Trust in London, the program selects candidates (through word of mouth and SlimPeace.org) based on interviews to determine whether they are open and expressive, and asks them to pay a nominal fee of about $50. To date, the groups have combined women who often reside only blocks away from each other but nevertheless live in entirely separate worlds. "I've been struck by what little opportunity they have even to speak with one another before we bring them together—and by how, within just a few hours, they find similarities," Luttwak says. "It's always heartbreaking and hopeful for me."