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September 8, 2005

Hope In Israel and Palestine

Living Room Dialogue with Peggy Ray

This was Peggy Ray's second report on last summer's trip to Israel and Palestine with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She focused this time on signs of hope by talking about individuals and groups she met with who were seeking ways to bring people together.

There are few opportunities for contact between the two peoples and they are becoming more and more limited all the time. No Palestinian can come to Israel without a permit and these are difficult to obtain. Palestinians usually only meet Israeli soldiers and settlers, both armed and often deadly. Besides the resentment they feel as a result of the occupation, they often say that they are not interested in dialogue any longer because it doesn't change their situation.

Israelis can go to some places on the West Bank but few are interested in doing it and most have never even seen the separation wall that Israel has been constructing to block in Palestinians even further.

What gave Peggy the most hope were the courageous Israelis and Palestinians who nevertheless persist in attempting to find a way to peace non-violently. As examples, she discussed two Israeli women who impressed her deeply.

One was Ruti Altman, the head of a program called Windows, which is based in Tel Aviv. Through a careful and sensitive process, Windows brings Israeli and Palestinian youngsters together to write and publish a magazine.

The work begins in the children's home settings where they learn to think critically about their sources of information. What do they learn at home? At school? In the media? Using a metaphor to help with making an analysis, they are asked to imagine a window. Through it, you might see a tree with the leaves and branches moving. If you are curious, you might wonder why they are moving. Perhaps there is a wind? Or maybe something happened before you looked out -- a cat jumped into the tree perhaps. Perhaps the tree always trembles. There might be other reasons, too, why the leaves are moving. What might they be?

Windows also works with children to develop writing skills. Problems here are that Israeli children have better schools, are freer and more accustomed to taking initiative. Palestinian children who live in Israel (usually called Israeli Arabs) often are made to feel inferior in Israeli society and are slow to say what they think. The Palestinian children from the West Bank have the most difficulties of all. Because of living under occupation where there are rules blocking people at every step, the children have acquired a kind of "learned helplessness." Discussion of these issues is on the table, too.

The next stage in the process is an exchange of letters. These may contain information that is difficult for the children to take in. For example, a Palestinian child might write, "I saw a soldier shoot my friend." The immediate reaction of Israeli children to such a statement would be disbelief. They have heard that Palestinians lie all the time. Then, Israeli soldiers are good people who would never do such things unless they were necessary. That child's friend must have been a terrorist.

The approach that Windows takes is to teach the children that certain situations can lead good people to do monstrous things.

The last step in the process is to bring the children together. Windows teaches them interviewing skills that help them get to know one another better. Children then choose what they want to research together and work in teams. This gives them an opportunity to find their own views of the conflict. Different points of view are represented.

Another group that impressed Peggy was New Profile, an organization of Israeli women who define their mission as recivil-izing Israel, that is de-militarizing it. One of the New Profile women she met was Dorothy Naor. Dorothy maintains an active listserv, daily sending out information and alerts. She takes part in non-violent demonstrations against the wall organized by Palestinians, braving tear gas and rubber bullets to do so. She takes visitors and Israelis to the West Bank on tours and finds the time for such personal acts of friendship as bringing Palestinians through checkpoints to their medical appointments or raising funds for a child needing a kidney transplant.

As an organization, New Profile counsels young people interested in refusing to serve in the army, keeps track of refusers who are in jail, and organizes educational exhibits and discussions on the extreme militarization of Israeli society. Such events as a TV broadcast on which an immigrant mother whose soldier son had just been killed said that through his death she felt she was now a true Israeli, New Profile created the slogan "Bear babies, not soldiers!"

There were many other people and groups doing excellent work that we do not hear about in the media in the U.S., Peggy said. She did not have time to describe more of them in this session. In the discussion following the presentation, the group reflected on the difficulties in communication between the people in this situation.


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