A friend wrote me from St. Paul in the midst of my week-long trip to Israel and Palestine, asking if I was staying at the King David Hotel, the elegant, history-filled hotel in the heart of West Jerusalem. His assumption was not far off. When visiting Jerusalem, I nearly always stay in a hotel in the heart of Jewish West Jerusalem, if not with friends.
But this time I had come to view this place that I know so well from a very different vantage point. I had been invited to join a delegation of women leaders traveling with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a project of six of the seven living women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. The delegation was to be led by Jody Williams, who won the Nobel prize in 1997 for her work with the successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and by Mairead Maguire, who won the prize in 1976 for her work leading to the end of sectarian violence in her native Northern Ireland. The goals of the delegation were to listen and learn about many dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to bring support and visibility particularly to women leaders working for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
We moved through long days of politically explosive and emotionally evocative meetings, cycling through moments of exhileration, outrage, turmoil, and painful understanding, in rapid and dizzying succession. My role, as expected, was to be the deeply pro-Israel member of a delegation with a progressive slant. It was not an easy trip, nor had I expected it to be.
There were moments of great pain, even shame and outrage, when confronted with what I considered to be unwise and unjust decisions of the Israeli government. Stimulating visits with activists and civil society leaders alternated with news of legal proceedings concerning the detention of Mairead Maguire, who was denied entry into the country because of the government’s contention that she had been deported after her participation in the flotilla challenging the Israeli blockade of Gaza last May. A visit to Hebron painfully revealed the way in which the commercial center of this Palestinian city of 400,000 had been virtually closed down by the Israeli authorities in order to protect freedom of movement for 450 radical Jewish settlers, provocatively living in the middle of this Palestinian city. A tour with Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project vividly displayed the way in which the route of the wall/separation barrier is frequently determined by the needs of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank rather than by security needs alone.
There were also many moments that made me feel inspired and hopeful. Sitting with 20 women, both Israeli and Palestinian, of the Bereaved Parents Forum/Families Circle palpably demonstrated the ability of “enemy” groups to embrace one another as loving friends and fellow sufferers in this terrible conflict. Palestinian leader and democracy activist Moustafa Barghouti demonstrated his deep commitment to peace with Israel and to vigorous democracy and women’s empowerment in Palestine. Jessica Montell, the executive director of B’tselem, and Rabbi Arik Ascherman, founding director of Rabbis for Human Rights, two of Israel’s foremost human rights activists, offered a glimpse of the dedication, sophistication, and passion of the leaders of Israeli civil society. A festive evening with the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace, complete with a spontaneous eruption of “We Shall Overcome,” exemplified the capacity of Israeli and Palestinian women leaders to work as partners for the common benefit of both of their peoples.
No, this was not my usual view of the Jewish face of Israel. The political perspective and the high-level access afforded the group by the Nobel women offered a complex and nuanced picture of the conflict, bringing moments of both despair and hope. As Palestinians and Israelis alike wait to see whether the latest round of talks will finally chart a course toward the end of the conflict, I leave the region with both deep pain and profound respect for the many unsung heroes on the ground who courageously work for a just peace. And I remain more convinced than ever of the wisdom captured by the Bereaved Parents group’s slogan, “It won’t end until we talk.” Only the challenging work of opening hearts and minds to hear people and perspectives far different from our own will lead this tortured region toward reconciliation.