Sarkis Elmassian and Irit Goldman had never met until they visited The Bee last week.
They didn't need a formal introduction. These Modesto residents knew why they were there and began their debate the moment they sat down. They didn't need any help, prodding or mediation. The bitterness runs deep. It began in the Holy Land thousands of years ago and transcends them both.
They were born to disagree, and it didn't take long to figure out that "disagree" is a pretty wimpy adjective.
Goldman, a native of Israel, and Elmassian, an Armenian from Lebanon, graciously accepted our invitation to discuss the violence that has long plagued the Middle East, including recent events involving the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel.
Solve in an hour or so the myriad social, spiritual and political problems that began more than a millennium before the time of Christ? Nobody's
that naive or foolish -- least of all Elmassian and Goldman.
Instead, it was an opportunity for two local residents with strong opinions and strong ties to their homelands to frame the reasons why peace never seems to be an option there. Perhaps they could explain the issues to generations of readers who don't know the source of the conflict -- only that it's gone on for an eternity, with no end in sight.
Last week, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian farmer along a border fence, a day after Palestinian militants fired a half-dozen rockets into the city of Sderot in Israel, causing no damage or casualties.
Elmassian is 59 and a Christian. Goldman is 57, a Jew whose parents survived the Holocaust, and she comes from Ashkelon, an Israeli town recently under attack. They share this much: They came to Modesto, five years apart, from the same part of the world. Both are psychologists. Both say they want only peace for their homelands.
And both believe the media, The Bee included, routinely fail to accurately tell their side whenever the region makes the news. Such was the case over the past month when Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement voted into power in the Gaza Strip, shelled Goldman's hometown of Ashkelon, and when the Israelis retaliated against towns in the Gaza Strip.
For 6,000 years, groups have fought over a region that gave birth to three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and they're still fighting over it today.
Israelis decry the violence when their people are killed by Hamas. Palestinians decry the violence when their people are killed by the Israelis.
The violence has gone on for so long that every attack is a response to a previous attack. Who started it? Who remembers?
That became clear as Elmassian and Goldman talked, challenging every statement or assertion the other made because they simply do not and cannot agree.
Count Elmassian's Lebanon among the nations at war with Israel at some point. Tensions are always high among Israel and its neighbors: Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Elmassian said he does not support Hamas, but said the Israelis' treatment of Palestinians perpetuates hostilities.
"When a kid is being abused as a child, he'll grow up being abusive as an adult," Elmassian said. "It's not surprising the Palestinian kid grows up to be a terrorist if he doesn't know anything else growing up. The suffering. If you were a Palestinian living there, you'd be crazy not to have a hatred for Israelis."
Although some Christians live in the Gaza Strip, where 1.44 million people live on just 146 square miles, the population mainly is Muslim.
Goldman said that when Israeli forces retook the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in 1967, "they found school books that taught them to hate the Jews," she said. "(Children) are taught from a young age, instead of let's make peace, they're taught to hate."
When Elmassian questioned why Israelis are in the region at all, she answered: "This was the promised land, in the Old Testament, when we were brought from Egypt."
To which Elmassian replied: "If you believe that legend." He said the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, includes stories that predate Abraham, the father of Judaism, by 1,500 years, in essence challenging the Torah's validity.
Goldman told of an Israel in which Arabs live, work and trade in peace.
She spoke of the suffering imposed upon the Arabs by Israelis during the attacks or responses (again, depending on one's perspective).
"I agree, they are suffering terribly," Goldman said. "Guess who succeeded in bombing Ashkelon? Who brings it on themselves? Hamas does, for its own people."
Elmassian quoted former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin calling Palestinians "insects that have to be crushed." (Begin's actual quote read: "We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects.")
Goldman spoke of the reasons Israelis must defend themselves and criticized Hamas for destroying holy sites in Ashkelon.
"Throw rocks, and you'll get rocks back," she said, though rockets are more like it.
Their arguments predate them both. The question is, will it ever stop?
"How can we solve the problem between the Palestine and Israel?" Goldman asked. "Where no children are killed, where no holy sites are destroyed?"
It's continued for thousands of years. It's something world leaders haven't been able to settle in the past 60 years.
Mostly, these two explained the passionate feelings that have prevented a true peace in Palestine.
They did so without guns, rockets or car bombs. By historical standards, it was a pretty good first meeting.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.