Cover Story in the Detroit Jewish News - Friday, July 11, 2003
Refusing To Be Enemies
Personal connections promote understanding and
support across the Arab-Israeli divide.
Ann Arbor - As 12 women arrive at a comfortable Ann Arbor home, arms swing open to embrace and hug one another. The buzz of conversation and laughter fills the air. Some gather in the kitchen to whip cream and scoop gifts of food into bowls for the beautiful table already topped with platters of spinach pies, baba ghanoush, salads, fruit and cakes.
It would seem a usual gathering, yet this group is composed of six Arab and six Jewish women from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. All are American citizens. They are a dialogue group and, over the past year, have found ways to discuss the Middle East, including their own personal stories and the politics of peace.
Unlike the American Arab and Jewish Friends in metropolitan Detroit, which is a social and education group whose members avoid political debate, these women have set up ground rules to allow them to tackle tough topics like Israel's defensive actions in the West Bank, anti-Semitism and Israel's right to exist.
At last week's meeting, they practiced dialoguing and listening skills in preparation for upcoming discussions on such charged topics as a "right of return" for Palestinians to Israel, a Jewish and Palestinian state side by side and suicide bombings.
Early on, when once a month didn't yield the headway they wanted, they started meeting every other week.
They named their group Zeitouna, Arabic for olive - both the fruit and the tree. And the group is a collaborative effort - a peace offering they hope will spread beyond its immediate membership. Word of mouth and their group presence at local peace demonstrations prompted other Arab and Jewish women in the Ann Arbor area to inquire about membership. Though their group is closed, Zeitouna is hoping to help other groups form.
Hard Work And Chemistry
Their process is not always easy.
"We are starting to get to a place where people share deep emotions," says Laurie White, 48, an Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah member. "There is anger, impatience, tears and laughter. And we really try to be respectful of each other and make this a safe space. We are careful in building our process."
Wadad Abed, 54, of Ann Arbor, a Christian Palestinian, says, "Sometimes, we have to remind each other, with a nudge or a look, to listen. But it's important that we hear each other, even if we don't agree with what someone's saying."
They may have expressed sadness over another suicide bombing or a breach of peace during "check in" before their meetings begin, says member Irene Butter, 72, of Ann Arbor, a Temple Beth Emeth member. But once their meeting begins, they have an agenda and refuse to be derailed, she says.
Their ages range from 29-72. Members include a Holocaust survivor whose daughter and her family live in Israel and four Palestinian immigrants from the West Bank and Haifa. Another is an Arab Algerian raised in France; one is a Jew raised in a Zionist family. Two of the Jewish women have children living in Israel.
Most are secular Muslims, Christians and Jews. Several belong to a synagogue; none are members of mosques or churches. All the Arabs interviewed said they are culturally Arab and enjoy their holidays, the food and family gatherings. Two of the Arab women are married to Jewish men.
Although several have belonged to Arab-Jewish discussion groups before, this one, all agree, is the most successful for them. There is chemistry among them. Their commitment to each other - no matter the pressures from their communities - has been very important, along with the comfort and trust they share with each other.
Both Arab and Jewish women have complained about pressures from their own groups.
"We're asked to take a stand with our respective ethnic group and we're perceived with some sense of suspicion or threat when we're open to hearing the stories from all perspectives," says White, who lived on a kibbutz in Israel.
She says it's always easier to establish a person-to-person connection and find the common ground than it is to struggle with the more entrenched institutional framework.
Several Arab women who had been in Jewish-Arab groups in the past expressed ambivalence when first joining another. Rabia Shafie, 57, a Muslim from Nablus, says that in a former group, Jewish women backed out when they wanted to go public with a newspaper article.
Randa Nasir Ajlouny, 29, of Ann Arbor, a Palestinian, had reservations. Her friends did not think this group would be worth her time, but her mother and other Zeitouna members encouraged her to give it a try.
"We're very open with each other and we're not afraid to speak our minds," says Ajlouny, whose parents live in the West Bank, where her father is president of Birzeit University.
She says it was important that the group hear her family's story.
Ajlouny's personal narrative involves her father, who was deported from Birzeit when she was 1. Her family eventually moved to Jordan to be with him until the Oslo accords 10 years later, when he was allowed to return home.
But even today, she says, it is difficult to visit her and her husband's families in the West Bank. She told the group that clearing protective checkpoints set up by Israel can be an extremely long and sometimes insulting process.
Toward A Just Peace
The ability of the group to hear each other - whether they agree with the perspective or not - has been a moving experience.
"This group is sheer pleasure," says Benita Kaimowitz, 68, a member of Temple Beth Emeth, who grew up in a Zionist family. "With these women, I feel an optimism for a situation that for so long has been very painful to me because of my deep care about Israel."
Abed, who came to this country from Nablus with her family 36 years ago for safety and education, says, "My humanity is restored here. We meet at each other's houses, eat each other's food, meet our families. We discuss difficult issues but we also celebrate life."
Says White, a psychotherapist and filmmaker, "This group creates optimism about the Middle East situation by refusing to be enemies. We see the richness and complexity of people and don't have simplistic solutions [for how to live with each other]."
"It's a safe haven," says Carol Haddad, 53. "When I leave, I can't wait for our next meeting."
Her grandfather was from Lebanon and Syria, and he studied in Jerusalem before coming to America.
"We are learning together," Shafie says.
"I'm finding commonalities," says Johanna Epstein, 47, a member of Ann Arbor's Jewish Cultural Society. "We even look alike. It's very nice and comfortable to be in a room with all Semitic women."
Yet, pain brought Zeitouna together, along with a strong commitment to peace, justice and political action.
Abed is a marketing director for a consulting firm. She said she was very upset when Israel re-occupied the West Bank in the wake of the suicide bombing at a Passover Seder in 2002, when 29 Israelis were killed. While despising the killing of the Jews, she says, she also was "overtaken by hatred because of the brutality of the re-occupation."
"And I refuse to indulge in hatred," she says. "It's the worst thing to do to myself. It's important not to lose my humanity. And both Palestinians and Jews have become so dehumanized."
Nine years ago, she joined then-State Sen. Lana Pollack's dialogue group with Arab and Jewish women that lasted a little over a year.
With the recent Palestinian terror and Israel's response, Abed reached out to Pollack, telling her "if there ever was a time we needed to dialogue, it's now."
Thanks to Pollack, also of Ann Abor, Abed got a call a month later from Irene Butter, a University of Michigan professor emeritus of public health. Pollack put the two in touch. With a daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Israel, Butter also felt the need to talk and do something for peace in the Middle East.
They gathered others, and as the group grew, they made sure there were equal numbers of Arab and Jewish women. Together, they all worked to develop a process and a structure that would allow open expression of their thoughts, fears and pains.
"We use dialogue, not debate," White says.
To build trust, group members first talked about their personal stories, "our individual narratives, not just those of our people," Abed says.
"We had to be as honest as possible, even if it rubbed someone the wrong way," she says. "If there were differences, we'd utilize dialogue."
To Hadad, raised Roman Catholic and a second-generation American, "there are two narratives regarding Middle East history."
"The Jews were persecuted in Europe and saw Israel, or Palestine - what it was called before the state was formed - as the vehicle for their liberation," she says. "And given their biblical attachment to the land, that's very real.
"Another real narrative is that many then came to a land and displaced the existing population. Each side needs to understand the other's narrative for a meeting of the minds on the Middle East conflict. And the greatest obstacle to peace is that both sides, to some extent, demonize each other."
After meeting for several months, the women decided to have a retreat, a weekend to put together their mission statement and formalize guiding principles.
"I came away feeling energized. There's a discovery process happening to each in the group," says Jewish member Manya Arond-Thomas, 53, of Ypsilanti, an executive coach and organizational consultant.
"I was high for days by what we had achieved together," Abed says.
The group credits Arond-Thomas for guiding the process to such a high level.
"We learn to engage in conversations without judgment," she says. "We also learn how to examine our assumptions."
Their resulting mission statement reads: "To embody and promote the peaceful and just coexistence of the Arab and Jewish peoples through connection, trust, empathy and actions focused on the creation of a sustainable future for Palestine and Israel."
Hearing The Unhearable
Zeitouna's hard work yielded impressive results.
Issues never before acknowledged by group members were discussed at their meetings. Arab members for the first time could listen to stories about the Holocaust, and Jews heard about the Nakbah, the Arabic word for catastrophe, used to describe Israel's Independence Day as a Jewish state (May 14, 1948); Palestinian Arabs in Israel were given refuge in United Nations camps.
"That catastrophe lives with us every single day," says Shafie. "It's when our society began to be destroyed."
Abed says, at first, she would not hear about the Holocaust because her belief was that the Holocaust was the reason used to justify taking away her homeland. Then, as part of her personal growth, she realized the Holocaust was something she had to deal with. Because of her experience with Butter, she says, she is reading other personal Holocaust accounts.
"I love this human being who has this horrendous experience and comes out the other end with so much love and wisdom," Abed says. "She represents a person who has dealt with ugliness and turned it into beauty and hope."
Still, it has taken the group almost a year to begin to hear each other's stories, and the discussion that follows.
Says Abed, "I'm beginning to understand the fear and concerns Jews have. It's a legitimate feeling of being subjected to one atrocity after another throughout the world."
She now accepts Israel's right to exist, she says.
The Jewish women, in turn, learned about Abed's emotional pain when they talked about going to Israel.
"American women talk about moving or living in Israel for a while and that upsets me," Abed says. "All Jews - from the United States, Russia and Europe - can have automatic citizenship in Israel, and I can't. Yet my family goes back for several generations there."
Open Hearts And Minds
"The future of peace will fall upon people like us," White says.
"We are each other's destiny. Neither Arabs nor Jews are going away. Our futures are so entwined. We need to start building for our children and our grandchildren," Abed says.
And while the women in Zeitouna find it difficult to get excited about the current peace efforts - pained by past failures like the Oslo accords - they all express hope for the future when it comes to their group. They are planning a trip together to the Palestinian-administered territories and to Israel next year.
"Women are doers, the key to peace," says Shafie. "And Zeitouna can be an example of how people can share and live together."
When asked what's unique about the group, she says, "We're so much alike."
"I hope we inspire other groups like ours to create a place of sanity where people with similar feelings and passions can meet," Epstein says.
Abed dreams of many Zeitouna groups that eventually form a solid base for peace.
"The draw of this group is comfort and commonality," White says. "We came together with open hearts and minds."
"And now," Abed adds, "we can envision peace - and go for it."