Travel Diaries from the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Israel and Palestine: Part Three

We are really excited to have Jaclyn Friedman share with us her travel diaries from her current travels to Israel and Palestine with the Nobel Women’s Initiative. This is part three, you can check out part one and part two if you haven’t already.

Monday, 10/4

Today was the last full day of delegation work. We started the day meeting with members of the Parent’s Circle – Families Forum, an organization that works with bereaved families of Israelis and Palestinians killed in the ongoing conflict. They meet in pairs – one Israeli, one Palestinian, and slowly get to know each other and come to understand how much they have in common in their grief. And together they are working to build a framework for reconciliation between the peoples, so that it will be in place when and if a peace agreement is made. They often do this work in creative ways – from developing a soap opera that aired on prime-time Israeli TV, to curating “Cartooning in Conflict,” to a new project through which bereaved family members had the possessions of their lost loved ones ground, and then made paper from the resulting powder, and then made art from that paper.
Meeting with them gave me so much heart. In the end, all of the violence is in their names – endlessly avenging the deaths of their most loved ones. They even shared with us a their powerful definition of forgiveness: giving up your just right to revenge. If they can be at peace with each other, if they can (and trust me, you can see it in their faces, they do love each other), then everyone can learn to.  If you can, please give them a donation – they’re in urgent need of funding.

Next, we met with New Profile, an organization that helps Israeli teens refuse military service on conscience grounds, and agitates for a generally demilitarized society. This was in preparation for our lunch and tour with Sahar Vardi, an extraordinary 20-year-old Israeli who was jailed for her refusal to serve. Sahar took us on a tour of Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood in which we’ve been staying when we’re in Jerusalem, and also the site of a very heated conflict over the evictions of Palestinians from their homes on specious grounds – namely the government using documents from centuries ago to claim that this was once Israeli-owned land, and so must be returned. The Palestinians living there are evicted, whole extended families at a time (that’s up to 50-60 people), and given no compensation or new housing. Their houses are then given to Jewish settlers. Many of the recently evicted Palestinians are refusing to go quietly, instead living in tents in front of what used to be their homes, and organizing demonstrations every week against their eviction.

We met with one such man, as we perched on plastic chairs on the sidewalk in front of what used to be his house. He was the first Palestinian I’ve met who said some things that made me see red – he recited the oft-quoted-on-both-sides line: “we want peace, but we have no partner for peace on the other side.” But this time with a twist: he claimed that the Palestinians actually offered TWO partners for peace – one of them being HAMAS – while the Israelis offer zero. He also claimed that the pro-Israeli-government bias of the US media (each side claims the US media is against them, btw) is because “the Jews” control the US media, and he offered as proof Fox News, whom anti-semites on the international right have long “accused” of being Jewish (the jury is out on that one). We tried to convince him that the American media can be racist and hateful without that being the fault of Jews, but to no avail. Still and all, this man and his entire extended family has been made homeless by the Israeli government, and his extreme views don’t change that fact. A younger woman (his daughter?) who was with the group made it clear: this is on our heads as US taxpayers, and we must do something to return them to their homes. It’s hard to disagree with that.

In the evening we returned to Ramallah for a dinner with members of the International Women’s Commission, a coalition of leaders from around the world working to find paths to peace in the Israel/Palestine conflict. You can read the liveblog of that event here.

As the dinner was breaking up, and everyone was preparing to leave, I found myself sitting next to a Palestinian woman who began quietly to sing: “We shall live in peace… We shall live in peace… We shall live in peace someday…” I began singing with her, and soon maybe seven of us were singing together, Israelis, Palestinians, Americans. I’m having shivers now just remembering it. On the verse “We’ll walk hand in hand…” we all joined hands, and we ended with a verse of “Palestine will be free…” I can’t imagine how else I could have wanted this week’s official work of our delegation to come to a close.

Back at the the hotel, I took a bath. I can feel my body relaxing a little, I can feel myself re-entering myself. And it makes me nervous. I’m afraid of what I’ll find there. Afraid of the pain, of the things I now know, in my body, that I can’t ever un-know.

Tuesday, 10/5

Finally, finally made it to the old city, on a walking tour with some of the delegation. Went to the Western Wall and wept. I’ve been dreaming of praying there since I was a small girl, dreaming of wedging a note to God in the Wall’s cracks. It’s been a nagging frustration all week – I never imagined I’d make it to Jerusalem and do anything but make a beeline for the Wall, and yet I had to wait an entire week. But in the end I’m glad I did, because my prayers were so much different than they would have been just seven days ago.

Tonight we met for the last time as a group, to share our reflection and intentions, and one last meal under the stars of Jerusalem. It felt much like the end of camp, only with more drinking and a more sobering bond. Before we even finished eating, a few delegates had to depart for the airport, and just like that, it was over.

Some last observations and intentions:

Themes that emerged time and time again included:

Urgency. Again and again, from a broad range of people, we heard that the time is now for a peace agreement. That if the Israeli government builds many more settlements on Palestinian land, there will be no pathway to peace. This is probably the number one new information I learned – the idea that finding a path to peace between Israel and Palestine is urgent is something I’ve heard for 20+ years. But there is a new urgency, a sense that we are now in a small window that won’t be here forever. We must act now.

Fear. Especially fear of the “other.” Both sides are so afraid of each other, and not without historical reason. The settlers we met believed that if they went into Ramallah they’d be murdered in the street – a belief I checked with numerous peacenik Israelis who said it just wasn’t true – and in fact, we met with many Israelis in Ramallah, as it is hard for Palestinians to leave, so if you want to work in coalition, most meetings have to take place in the West Bank. There’s also a great fear of hope – most people on all sides want peace (that’s polling, not just my observation), but most also believe it will never happen. They don’t want to get their hopes up only to be crushed again, so they detach and accept the status quo

The role of education. Both peoples are passionate about education, risking and sacrificing much to make sure their children can get to school. We didn’t learn much in specific about what Palestinians are taught in school, but we did learn that Israeli public education erases any perspectives not sanctioned by the state, and teaches militarism from a very young age. Change what children learn, and you can change the adults they will become.

Blockade mentality. I noticed myself assuming every fence was a hostile security fence – even the one around the Jerusalem busyard. I had to remind myself that busyards often have fences for perfectly mundane reasons. But if I’m seeing things this way after only a week, what does every fence look like if you grow up here?

Stop talking about the past. Start talking about the future. Most peace activists agree: it gets neither side anywhere to argue that they’re the real victim, or that the other side has committed the worst atrocities, or started this conflict, or whatever. There has been pain and violence on all sides (though I must in the same breath acknowledge the vast power asymmetry that currently exists between the parties.) The only way to build peace is to start from today – acknowledge that each side has their own narrative of how we got here, and not try to reconcile them. Just look at what exists now and try to make things better for the future.

There is a partner for peace. There are thousands of Israeli and Palestinian people sacrificing and struggling for peace. Next time you hear one side or the other say “we want peace, but we have no partner for peace on the other side,” remember that. Just because the political leaders aren’t ready yet, doesn’t mean there aren’t partners for peace. Let’s get these folks a seat at the negotiating table.

Ending impunity for the Israeli government: Nearly everyone agrees – they way to create a possibility for a peace agreement is to end the Israeli government’s impunity from consequences. (I’d also add that the Palestinian government must be held to account – they recently canceled municipal elections, and they have a long way to go toward becoming a democracy.) And everyone agrees that the US, UN and international community are required to make this happen. There must be consequences when either side commits war crimes or acts in bad faith. And the Israeli government, as a brutal occupying force, is acting in bad faith every day.

How do we make that happen? There are several ways – just pick one you like best and run with it:

1) Donate. I’ve highlighted dozens of organizations working for peace in Israel and Palestine, and there are hundreds more. They’re all in desperate need of funds  – think about all the US money that’s going to support war here, and spend whatever you can spare to strengthen the organizations that are actively supporting peace.

2) Boycott. Smart, well-intentioned people disagree about the boycott. Some argue it will just make the right wing in Israel stronger, others believe it will do that in the short-term, but eventually force them to the table. Read up, and make your own decision.

3) Divest. There is a lot more agreement on this one: don’t invest in companies that support or profit from the occupation, and if you’re already invested, divest. And then press to ensure that your college or alma mater, your bank, the company you work for, and any other organization you have influence does the same.

4) Lobby for Sanctions. Those of us who are US taxpayers bear a direct responsibility for this war, as our money is funding it. Without US funding, Israel couldn’t sustain the occupation. Call and write your representatives in Washington, and tell them to pull our financial support from Israel unless they stop building settlements and get serious about negotiating for peace now. Those not in the US can still lobby their governments and  the UN to issue sanctions – click the link above for more info.

Alright. I want to thank Feministing for hosting this series from the bottom of my heart – I wish you could all have been here with me, for real. If you want to read more about the delegation (what I’ve written here is only a drop in the bucket) and see photos and videos, check out the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s site here. If you want to follow me as I try to put everything I’ve learned into action back in the US, please follow me on facebook and twitter.

That’s all from me for now – I’m headed to the Dead Sea for a couple days of R&R, and then I’m coming home to work on all of the above. I hope you’ll join me.

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