WASHINGTON - Some people know a lot of things about some people who live in Israel or Palestine, but to apply the word "expert" to any one person for the region is problematic. One person's expert is another's fabulist, or even propagandist. "Expert opinions", and there are many, contradict each other, whether they read as rational or emotional.
Even with the best of intentions, no one person can have the brain power, detachment from conscious or unconscious personal agenda, historical knowledge, on the ground connections across the divides, or calculation moxie to be expert on the whole of the Palestinian and Israeli people, their histories, intents or hopes. The infinite variety of historical and perceptual "truths" form a mosaic that looks different depending upon where you stand and the amount of metaphorical sun or dark at that moment.
In the region we can only know what we witness first hand, and even that goes through personal filters. My own witnessing has been with Palestinian and Israeli female activists, on both sides of the wall. Over the past three years I have also witnessed, and put through my filters, several trends: subtle but significant changes in language, emerging concepts, and fluctuations in the hope quotient.
First, the women: by definition a female leader is a woman with both the personal power and a cultural "window" through which to rise to her uniqueness within the crucible of the Holy Land. She is tempered out of fire. These self-selecting women possess certain qualities that I witnessed across the cultural and physical divides of the region. They include emotional resilience and stamina, confidence in themselves that started when they were young, the capacity for inner joy, comfort with command positions, the ability to strategize, the willingness to try new methods, and the courage to face off entrenched male leaders in their governing bodies.
Whether the woman is Jihad Abu Zneid, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Jerusalem and founder of the Women's Centre of the Shu'fat Refugee Camp, or Tal Kramer, Executive Director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers of Israel, these qualities prevail. Whether she is Shula Keshet, Executive Director of Ahoti, the umbrella organization for Mizrahi women (Jewish women from Arab or Muslim countries) of Israel, or Ghada Issa, co-director of Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, the women know what they are up against and they are not daunted by it.
Whether she is Michal Yudin, founder of We Power (Women's Electoral Power), bringing Israeli women into the political process, or Dr Jumana Odeh, founder of the Happy Child Center, tending children with special needs throughout the West Bank, she sees her task, assumes it with grace and pushes daily through to the goal.
At Peace X Peace we use the Internet to join women's groups ("Sister Circles") cross-culturally for direct e-communication and bonding. We have learned that throughout the Middle East, as well as in India, Afghanistan, Argentina, Kenya and elsewhere, that women are the organized force in the culture building the components of peaceful societies. They organize for finances, education, prevention of violence, political power, emotional support, communal farming, care of HIV/AIDS orphans, and more. Women are usually more focused on raising families than possessing territories, and their instinct is to "tend and befriend" a stranger for their safety, rather than "fight or flight". Call it practical, call it skirting around the big issues, call it what you will, women working together to heal families, villages and cultures is the cultural glue against the divisive forces of fear, violence and anger in Israel and Palestine.
Palestinian and Israeli women are organized in many ways: as women's centres in refugee camps campaigning against drugs and early marriages and for women's rights, as micro-finance groups for needlework and agriculture, as empowerment groups for politics, as legal forces against violation of human rights, as arts and media training groups for youth, as after-school care for children in traumatic situations, and more.
What I have witnessed about the women who found and run these life-giving programs includes:
1) A large percentage of these women, especially the Palestinians, have never been married or are divorced or, less often, are widowed. In one way or another, they are free of answering to the social strictures on "the place of women". They were often, also, the favourite child of their father and given opportunities denied other girls. This phenomenon should be further studied.
2) Women who head ongoing successful groups have an ability to identify with the "other" that is strong enough to override abiding cultural animosities. They recognize, and work with, their similarities with the "other"; and they know how to strategize in ways that do not jeopardize their heritage or authority in their home community.
3) Many of these female leaders, and male leaders, are now working together, quietly or loudly, across the divides. Israeli women monitor actions at Israeli checkpoints. Former Israeli soldiers take a stand with ex-Palestinian fighters that none of them will ever again use violence against each other. Israeli and Palestinian media are finding ways to keep each other informed.
Working together is a mode of activism resurfacing after the disappointments of the Oslo Accords. In line with this trend, I have found that as a neutral "third party" representing an apolitical international organization, I can serve not only as a mirror to all the people in the region, but also that Peace X Peace is superbly situated as a venue for e-connection in this land criss-crossed by concrete walls, barricaded by law and held hostage to conflicting cultural narratives.
When Peace X Peace came to the region three years ago, I had to explain the importance of connection and communication - and that was for women from the region to women in the United States, not with each other. Regarding connecting Palestinian and Israeli women to each other, I was warned repeatedly, "Don't even try". So I didn't. Peace X Peace connected women living on both sides of the wall as Sister Circles to women in the U.S. while I continued to return to Israel and Palestine as a neutral person who cared. And I waited.
Now Peace X Peace members throughout the region work hard to meet with each other (where and when it is legal) and with our Palestinian and Israeli liaisons in or near Jerusalem. They email each other, plan to visit refugee camps together, and some call each other "sister". While some women are not interested - some Palestinians particularly refuse to meet with Israelis - many Peace X Peace members are frustrated at their inability to be together easily, to be friends face to face.
To be sure, this is a select group of women and men, but it is a courageous, even heroic, group well placed for leverage in their cultures. Their number is not small and they are connecting. In my last visit in early 2007, I witnessed a hope, a seasoned "veteran's" hope, rising as key people connect dots of light from both sides.
Elana Rozenman, an Israeli Jew, is a Peace X Peace liaison living in Jerusalem. She says: "A hero is a person who is able to remain peaceful in the midst of enormous conflict and violence. A hero is a person who does that through being able to identify with and understand all the people around them, and being able to put themselves in the situation of all the people around them. This takes enormous courage, enormous deep understanding, and enormous love."
What I discern is: out of the crucible of the Holy Land people are coming forth who give the deepest meaning to hope and to love; and women are key to making it real on the ground.
* Patricia Smith Melton is the founder and chairperson of Peace X Peace ("peace by peace"), an international organization that uses internet to connect women around the world. Smith Melton was executive producer of the award-winning documentary Peace By Peace: Women on the Frontlines. She is also a poet, playwright, and photographer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 31 May 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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