Beacon of hope

Gwen Ackerman’s book spotlights an inspiring friendship between two women reaching across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

A Palestinian woman and an Israeli woman together (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A Palestinian woman and an Israeli woman together
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
WHEN VETERAN Israeli journalist Gwen Ackerman set out to write her first novel she did not expect her fictional work to mimic real life.
Her book, “Goddess of Battle,” which was 12 years in the making, follows two young women on opposite sides of the Palestinian- Israeli rift as they reach across divisions of hatred and fear to form a friendship and create a peace-dialogue movement.
And less than a month after the book’s Jerusalem launch in September, the real-life Israeli-Palestinian women’s movement, Women Wage Peace, started on a two-week march with thousands of women walking from the Negev desert in the south to Jerusalem, demanding a political solution to the conflict and a larger role in the peace process.
Women Wage Peace was established after the 50-day Gaza war of 2014, after Ackerman had finished the first draft of her novel.
Their march culminated in a meeting in a “tent of reconciliation.” Though there is no such tent in Ackerman’s novel, the two female protagonists manage to bridge the divide separating them to create a peace movement, which ends with a joint demonstration on both sides of the wall separating them on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem border.
“It was pretty amazing that what I was imagining in my head was happening right then,” says Ackerman, sitting in an Ein Kerem café as she discusses the development of her book from the original short story manuscripts with three characters including an American-Palestinian woman, an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman, written 12 years ago, to the one which eventually got published with Jewish-American Tyra and Palestinian Noureen as the protagonists.
Three of her short stories have been published in literary magazines; one of them, “Survival,” published in the Spring/Summer 2006 edition of the Ontario Review, tells the story of a Soviet immigrant to Israel who is wounded in a suicide bombing, and was a runner-up for the Ontario Review’s 2005 Cooper Prize. Ackerman’s life in Israel is her muse for her fiction, and her story “Lynne,” which appeared in Quality Women’s Fiction Magazine’s 2007 issue, follows a woman as she goes to live in a settlement because of her husband, and then witnesses her friend shot and killed on the way to Jerusalem.
A third short story, “Hummus in Jaffa” (2017) was included in the Main Street Rag’s Anthology “Of Bars & Barrooms.”
But to sell her series of short stories, which eventually evolved into “Goddess of Battle,” an agent told her it would be easier to sell a collection of short stories if she also had a novel.
“Women are always more vulnerable and more emotional and I feel closer to writing about women than men,” she says. “When I was on the street (as a journalist) looking for a human story, I would go to the women.
The stories they tell us are more heartfelt.
There are all kinds of women who I’ve met and their stories stood out for me.”
The first version of the book included a suicide bomber but she grappled with the ending. She wanted the book to end with a sense of optimism and hope.
“The characters led me to [the ending of the book]. In the other version I didn’t let the characters lead me,” she says. “There is a point in the book where a Palestinian and an American-Israeli must decide to do something. Like Women Wage Peace decided to do something.”
At 53, Ackerman still has the lithe body of a dancer, which is what she had majored in at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and then at Hunter College in New York, where she also studied creative writing.
Her original plan had been to cover the arts and write novels. But when she came to live in Israel from New York City, after having gone back and forth several times since 1981, she fell into journalism first working on the news desk of ABC News one week before the outbreak of the first intifada.
Her journalism career stretches from desk assistant and writer, to bureau chief and senior writer. She has worked for The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg News and has covered the main news stories of the region starting from the first intifada to the current political stalemate, with stories of Israel’s start-up nation successes in between.
But there has always been the need in the back of her head to delve deeper into the story here, which is not always possible when working with a pending deadline.
Ackerman, who grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and New Jersey, came to Israel for the first time as an 18-year-old in 1982 spending half a year of high school in Israel, a young ingénue like her character Tyra. She was impressed by the informality of the country, she says.
“In every character we write there is something of us in them. Some of me is in Tyra, and there is some of me in Noureen,” she says. “We write about what we know.
But I grew up in a household interested in the Middle East.”
She credits her mother Shirley with showing her the power of women and exposing her to the diverse peoples and cultures she grew up around first in Chapel Hill, and then later in New Jersey. At a time when there had been race riots, her mother had friends of all races.
“The idea of stereotypes never entered our lives,” says Ackerman, now herself the mother of two young adults and a teenager.
In her book, Ackerman says, she wanted to show that women do not only have to be victims of the conflict but can be active in working towards its end.
After more than two decades of facing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional politics head on as a journalist, Ackerman still feels lucky living in Israel.
“I’ve gotten to meet lots of people, have gotten so many stories on both sides. There is so much that enriches your stories, that gives you material,” she says.
Indeed, she already has two new novels in the pipeline, one of which will deal with the high-tech world.
Being interviewed after the publication of the book has also made her more empathetic to the people she has been interviewing or will interview in the future, says Ackerman.
By writing fiction, which interweaves different narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian reality, she says, she has been able to reach readers she many not normally have been able to connect with.
“Most people choose to read the papers, which best fit in with their beliefs,” she says. “With fiction it’s different, it’s not only people who already knew [this narrative].
Only fiction lets you identify with a character you normally would not have.
We have to keep pushing, not just get depressed.
And we can’t give up.”