uploaded : Sunday 13th Apr 2003 at 01:02
by : Lauren Gelfind
It was ten days since Holocaust Remembrance Day; ten days since she memorialized her parents who perished at Theriesenstadt and Auschwitz; and ten days since her grandson was killed in Jenin.
Ester Golan, 79, was sitting in her Jerusalem apartment flipping television channels.
The seven-day period of mourning was easier, when the living surrounded her and the daily activities were prescribed, she though to herself. In the background, the drone of every station focused on one tragedy after another and the heated disputes surrounding Operation Defensive Shield.
Suddenly the doorbell jarred her from a scramble of recollections and thoughts, and she half-smiled. Nothing would eradicate the pain, but her unusual visitors would remind her of something she felt short on that month: hope.
At the door, an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Christian Arab woman coming together to pay their respects embraced Golan.
On the heels of terror attacks and Israeli raids that month that led to scores of Israeli and Palestinian dead, the visit was a loaded gesture, the women would later say.
Indeed, the members of the Womens Interfaith Encounter dont come together because they are old friends, political comrades, or outsiders to the despair, rage or pain of the conflict.
Many of the women, like Golan and her visitors, have been personally affected by the hostilities: losing loved ones and neighbors, and witnessing horror, antagonism and injustice.
But though-and perhaps because--they come with strong emotions and opinions from their disparate communities and experiences, they are hungry to find a bond through their shared sisterhood and faith, to temper the bitterness of their despair.
THE WOMEN"S INTERFAITH ENCOUNTER is a program of Interfaith Encounter Association, which brings Jews, Christians and Muslims together in Israel for faith-based and non-political dialogue.
Elana Rozenman, an Orthodox Jew, 60, felt dissatisfied with mixed gender dialogue. After proposing a women-only group, she joined with Christian and Muslim partners to recruit 30 women-10 each from the 3 religions-to commit to monthly study of religion from a womans point of view. The WIE was officially launched in December 2001, with a joint study of Chanukah, Ramadan and Christmas traditions.
"We were concerned that interfaith dialogue was basically dominated by priests, rabbis and sheiks, with very few women," said Rozenman. "WIE created an opportunity for women to talk intimately and freely, without worrying about modesty issues."
For others, who expressed concern that interfaith dialogue until then was not based on equal planning between the faiths and did not attract equal numbers from the faiths, WIE offers a novel solution. It also differs from local peace groups that bring Arabs and Jews together because of shared political ideology.
Focusing on the study of faith, the women say they learn more about their own religion while breaking stereotypes about the others.
At a recent meeting, 21 women spanning 6 decades discussed how religion views purity and women. With neither Hebrew nor Arabic a common language, conversations were in English, with occasional translation.
A few raised eyebrows when hearing about the ritual bath and sexual separation during menstruation among religious Jews. Jewish women explained how laws of purity enhance their romantic lives, and how rejuvenated they feel after the mikve.
"It makes a big difference to hear how you appreciate these laws," said one Muslim. "Sometimes we are also forbidden to touch. The man is then forced to see you as a human partner--not just a sexual partner. On the other hand, if you are in emotional pain and you want to lay your head on his chest and you can't, that's too restrictive for me."
A Christian woman quoted Jesus, explaining that Christianity has a totally different approach. "It is not what goes into mans mouth that makes him unclean but what comes out of his mouth."
Evil thoughts, words and deeds are what create impurity, she said. "Purity is in the heart and love makes us pure."
These meetings help Suheir Siam, 45, a Muslim teacher pursuing an MA, distance herself from the conflict outside. "I study in Ramallah so I have to deal with a lot of checkpoints; its so humiliating. I come home exhausted and depressed," she revealed in a private conversation. "But I know problems are from the governments and people are another story. So when we meet I think it does influence me to feel better-you know other people, see that they understand you, you share your ideas."
At the meeting's end Siam, like most, leaned into the other group members for double-cheeked kisses and hugs.
For many this camaraderie represents an alternative reality.
"I dreamed if only the outside world could look like the inside world that we created," said Safa, 27, a Muslim from East Jerusalem, remembering this years festive Chanukah, Ramadan, Christmas party. "This gives me hope that maybe someday it can work in real life. Im sure women can contribute to helping the conflict in a big way, in a different way, we just need to explore how."
"Women have a different way of relating then men do," said Shibli. "Beyond religion we find commonalities in relationships, emotions, and our status in society. We also have a more gentle way of solving problems. And when we need to hug or be hugged, it isnt loaded with all that other stuff that could be uncomfortable with men."
A group piled into a car recently to visit one
woman when she was sick; and another when her father died. And they meet up for occasional movies, dinners, and walks through the others neighborhoods.
Most recently an Orthodox Jewish woman and a religious Muslim woman paired up, giggling, to go see the feminist play, the Vagina Monologues.
Some say they must keep their activities under wraps.
Though Ahuva (a pseudonym), 49, feels Jewish law and tradition stand firmly behind her involvement, she prefers not to tell her neighbors. "I dont talk with anyone in my [haredi] community about it because there is tremendous fear that if you become friendly with others that are different that we will lose our identity, and our children will be attracted to the glitter of the outside world," she said.
"Because of Jewish persecution throughout the generations and a valid fear for physical and spiritual survival, Jews have had to be defensive. But it is my understanding from rabbinic teachings that when we put others down, we also bring ourselves down, because all men are created in Gods image. Therefore we are obliged to love everyone."
Some others also keep mum, but for reasons that are based more on fear of appearing to side with the "other" against their own. "These are very difficult times and not everyone can be open to what we are doing," said Shibli, 29, the new Muslim coordinator, echoing the sentiments of other Arabs and Jews.
While members focus on understanding the other, rage sometimes leaks in.
In November Shibli, a Beduin, drove passed Jerusalems bus No. 20, shortly before a suicide bomber aboard blew himself up, killing 11 and wounding 50. Shaking, she arrived to work at Hadassah Hospitals emergency room, where as a nurse she would push aside her own feelings of trauma to treat the wounded. Later that night, a gang of local teenagers surrounded her as she spoke in Arabic on her cellphone. An Israeli security guard intervened: "Get inside, lock the door, and close the windows," he said. "Since the terror attacks, Arabs walking through the neighborhood have been harassed."
"To say I feel upset and unsafe would be an understatement," Shibli told a friend on the phone, once home. "I am a nurse, committed to healing. Why should I be afraid to speak my language and sleep in my own home? I have to get out of this city."
A few weeks later, Shibli turned to her interfaith friends and explained how such incidences made her feel more alone than when her husband left her. The women nodded, some of them blinking back tears.
"I knew that was the right place to talk. Even the Jewish women hugged me and said they understood my pain," said Shibli. "They knew they couldnt do anything to change this reality, and some of them even have children who are soldiers. But I could see in their eyes that their support was genuine. And thats what gave me the strength to stay in Jerusalem and with this group."
But one of the Jewish members held back. "I think those teenagers were wrong to treat every Arab like a stereotype and I understand why Aida was so upset," said Inbal Flash, 28, a biologist.
"But I am so angry about the terror attacks. When I feel like people are trying to kill us I dont know who to point the finger at. Sometimes I feel angry at the Arab women because I dont know who to be angry at. Usually once we talk I calm down; I think we are the heroes who are finding a different way to deal with the conflict and prevent violence. But if it seems they dont understand why those teenagers were so upset, well that makes me angry too-the whole point is that we should understand both sides."
Though some of the Muslim and Christian Arab women said they participate simply to know other religions and have others know their religion, a couple expressed disappointment that the group is not open to political discussion or action. They raised such subjects as roadblocks and military occupation, and dismay that their Jewish friends dont protest with them against injustices.
On the flip side a few of the Jewish women complained they feel pressured by the more political members of the group who try to change the agenda towards politics, and also by the sense that such suggestions only focus on what Jews, not Palestinians, should do differently.
Tension peaked in the spring last year, and for the first time a meeting was cancelled, following a string of terror attacks and military raids that left the women from all backgrounds reeling.
After every terror attack Rozenman relives a small bit of the trauma she faced when her teenage son Noam was severely wounded in a 1997 double suicide bombing. Interfaith dialogue helps her to lessen the intense fear and mistrust she reports feeling when "there are no human faces on the Other-when theyre just an undifferentiated mass of people who are alien or hostile to us," she said. "I decided to better know the faith of the other, hoping together we could plow a path to nonviolence through religion."
But it's not always easy. "It has been a shocking and painful experience for me learning about some of the things that Arabs have gone through," she said. "Sometimes I have to push aside my own pain and thoughts about what the Jews go through in order to listen."
A Muslim woman said she had similar thoughts when learning that Golan's grandson had been killed after being called up to serve in Jenin.
"We have our anger and pain but we have to decide what to do with it. Making contact with Jews, telling them about our pain, listening to theirs, that is a choice."
Golan found the visit to her of women of all faiths during this time extremely moving, even if she understands it was difficult for some, she said. "I think the visit meant something to them and to me. I hope they can see through me and my grief, the humanity of my grandson, who reflects my values and the values my parents taught me-which is that all people are equal, created in Gods image. When they embraced me, I could feel it was sincere, and that helped me to start getting back on my feet."
Some of those who mourned with her, despite anger about Israeli soldiers, said they did so as one human to another.
When asked if the visit helped humanize the soldier, one Christian Arab, who was very upset about Israeli military actions, said: "It certainly made me more human."
"To my great amazement the date of the meeting since then has never been cancelled come what may," said Golan. "This to me is a sign that deep inside we have a need to be together in spite of it all. The fact that the group goes on is certainly something which justifies my hope that things will get better."
Lauren Gelfond writes for the Jerusalem Post.
Distributed by Common Ground News Service / Middle East