Looking beyond Rabin Square

Activist Noam Shuster-Eliassi believes the Israeli ‘peace camp’ is too Ashkenazi and secular, and thinks the only way to end the Arab-Israeli conflict is to engage the wider public.

Left-wing protesters at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, 2015 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Left-wing protesters at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, 2015
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
"The Israeli ‘peace camp’ is dying partly because it is exclusively dominated by Ashkenazi secular Israelis,” argues activist Noam Shuster-Eliassi right at the beginning of our conversation. “Most of them,” she explains, “come from Tel- Aviv, who snub other sectors of society.”
At the young age of 30, Shuster-Eliassi already has years of experience as an activist both in Israel and the US, working with youth in Rwanda and in the past five years as a leader in the Interpeace Israel chapter.
Interpeace is an international peace-building organization that was originally established by the UN in 1994 and became independent not too long after. The organization’s mission varies from country to country. Interpeace Israel chapter’s task is to engage what Shuster-Eliassi calls “communities excluded from the peace process” in reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from unusual perspectives.
Her hope is to break the glass ceiling of peacemaking in Israel and on her path to it she became a frequent guest in rabbinical courts and women’s circles in remote settlements. Her projects included practical experience and a visit to Northern Ireland to expose those leaders to the Good Friday agreement, training for mid-level leaders of various communities that include visits to the West Bank.
She underlines that what is critical for peace isn’t pompous declarations, but enabling more sectors of Israeli society to partake in the process. “Mizrahi, religious Zionists, haredim, people from the Ethiopian and Russian communities and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are excluded from peace-making,” she told the Jerusalem Post Magazine. “Even when there is an attempt to include leaders from these sectors, they are often tokenized, included in the photo op, but not in drafting policy papers.”
For Shuster-Eliassi, changing this reality isn’t just a job, but a personal calling.
One of her earliest memories is from the age of four. Her mom, Ruti, who was seven- months pregnant at the time, took her to visit her dad at the IDF penal institution, Prison Six. Her dad, Hezi, was arrested for being unwilling to serve as a reserve solider in the West Bank during the first intifada. His wife and daughter were not allowed into the prison, but they were able to wave to him from afar when he was let out to the yard. Standing near them was a small crowd of leftwing activists. Yet, four-year-old Noam and her mom stood out as the only women with dark skin around. Some people assumed they were Palestinians.
“This would happen very often,” she says. “People around us were always confused when they saw us in demonstrations or conferences of the Left.
They immediately assumed that if you are brown (and attending a demonstration), you are Arab, as if Mizrahi Jews have no part in supporting peace.”
Shuster-Eliassi, as her surname implies, is “half-half” – her dad is Ashkenazi of Romanian decent, and her mom was born in Abadan, Iran, and came to Israel with her parents at a young age. Both parents have been peace activists for many years. During the joyful optimism that washed over parts of the country before the Oslo Agreements collapsed, the family moved to Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace” in Hebrew) – founded in 1969 by Jews and Arabs – with their daughter and three-year-old son.
“Neve Shalom is the only place in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together by deliberate choice,” she says. “My parents wanted me to see that water flows on both banks of the river, that there is more than one version to this story.”
The community, located midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is home to 260 inhabitants who live on the green low hills at the outskirts of the Jerusalem range, overlooking the lowland and coastal plain. The kindergarten and primary school of Neve Shalom, founded in 1984, was the first bilingual school in Israel. Soon after joining, Shuster-Eliassi picked up Arabic, something that smoothed her integration into the community.
“There were many new things. Suddenly I had to write everything in two languages. Also, while I knew which of the holidays were mine, other holidays became part of our yearly calendar. It was not easy, at first, to interact with the narratives of my Arab friends. In many ways it detached me from the world outside the village and from my extended family. Already then, I understood that my parents are doing something different, but only when I graduated from the sixth grade and went to study in Tzafit, the school in Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, did I feel it on my own skin.”
When she moved to the new school, the class started studying Arabic, which led to some friction.
“The teacher was a soldier mine, and I’d often correct her when she erred. I understood there is something off about the Arabic they teach us. It wasn’t what I was familiar with from my friends’ homes. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it then, but today I’ll say that the Arabic we learned was exclusively framed as an enemy’s language; they trained us to become intelligence soldiers. The readings were about wiretapping, terrorist squads and explosives. During the waves of bus bombings in the mid and late 1990s, I found myself in a doubly awkward situation in the class.”
She attributes this feeling to her origin.
“Not only was I clearly not as Ashkenazi as the rest of the class... I was also considered to be the Palestinian advocate in my class.”
HOWEVER, SHE also felt a misfit in what she calls the “peace camp.”
“It struck me that this is a camp that has no religious and Mizrahi people. It’s a shame because in many ways we – Jews and Muslims – have a lot in common when it comes to tradition and religion.
My Persian grandmother, for instance, who would say when she came visit us, ‘Lock the door, there are Arabs outside’ once came with me to an [Arab] engagement party, a hina, of my best friend’s older brother. Afterwards, she told me, ‘this was the first time I felt like I’m back in Iran since I left it.’ I think that she felt at home in a way she didn’t find in other places.”
When she graduated from high school and her peers began enlisting in the army, Shuster-Eliassi had to make a critical choice. On one hand, she didn’t want to exclude herself from the rest of the Israeli-Jewish society, and on the other, she couldn’t see herself wearing a uniform and participating in an army that sees the people she was raised with as enemies.
She started the process of opting out.
An official IDF committee was assembled to asses her unwillingness to serve, and whether the army should accept her appeal. When she entered the room for the final interview, a female solider who was taking notes angrily lashed out and yelled, “Who do you think you are? Why should you not enlist when we all must?” There was a rabbi in the room and he gently asked the minute-taker to calm down, telling her, “In the same way that we allow religious women be dismissed from military service because of their tradition, this one, too,” he pointed at Shuster-Eliassi, “was raised in a tradition that doesn’t allow her to serve in the army.”
Shuster-Eliassi went for National Service instead, working in a hostel for children who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be raised with their parents.
The following year she was accepted to a yearlong program in film acting at the New York Film Academy.
“Living in Manhattan was both exciting and lonely,” she says of the experience.
Despite her longings, not too long after her return to Neve Shalom, she applied to Brandeis University, located just outside of Boston.
“Brandeis offers an annual scholarship for two Israeli citizens, an Arab and a Jew. It’s called the Sylvia and Joseph Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship,” she says. Brandeis is famous for its Jewishness and strong ties with Israel. As its former president Frederick Lawrence often mentioned, the university and the Jewish state were both established in 1948. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, received an honorary doctorate from it and to this very day there are many Zionist clubs and organizations on campus, as well as an established Israel Institute.
During her first year, Shuster-Eliassi became an activist.
“At Brandeis it was fair game to criticize the US but talking about the wrongdoings of Israel was taboo. The Israeli narrative is very present there and there are a handful of Zionist student clubs and organizations. Some are more politically oriented, such as chapters affiliated with AIPAC, others are about Israeli culture or entrepreneurship. The year I arrived was Israel’s 60th anniversary and the student union tried to pass a motion that all students – whether they were from the Midwest, Haiti or Pakistan – had to celebrate it.
For me it was a wake up call. I felt like it is on my shoulders to add more colors to the monolithic overtone about the Middle East and the conflict. We created the first university club with the word “Palestine” in it. At first we were told that we cannot do such a thing because there is no such place. Long story short, it was a long struggle to just carve out a little place for the side of this story that isn’t American Zionist. I felt an urgency to address the unsaid things about Israel there.”
“It’s true that Israel is home to many people who had no other place to go to,” she explains. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, so we don’t easily forget where we came from and why.
My way of loving my home is by looking at its problems straight in the eye everyday and try to better it. Some people will call me a traitor or say I don’t know how to be grateful. That’s fine. Perhaps they think that Jewish suffering allows us to look after ourselves and overlook others. I think otherwise.
“Jews, especially because of what we went through, must be even more careful about abusing power and sensitive to the blindness it brings. As someone who truly believes that a better future is possible here and that the first step toward such a future is equality, I must sweat for it. I feel comfortable about my identity, about my strength and where I got it from. I also think it’s more appropriate to speak from one side of my mouth, and if I take issue with Israel in Hebrew, I’ll say the same things in English as well. This doesn’t mean that American-Jewish communities are disconnected from Israel. They are actively connected through funding raising and lobbying their senators. But they need to know what really goes on.”
In her third year, Shuster-Eliassi was granted university funding to travel, work and study in Rwanda. She worked with women and children, developing reconciliation programming for HIV-positive youth. She developed strong relationships with many people, and returned the next summer, and then again and for a whole year after graduation.
“HIV raises many complicated issues.
For instance, there is a policy in Rwanda that mothers who have it must inform their children about it when they reach the age of 12. At that age, children start having sexual encounters so it’s important to know if they are carriers of the virus or not. At the same time, it often creates a divide between mothers and their children. Some children become upset and leave their mothers. When I was there, the Health Ministry was reexamining this policy and we shared our input based on our work with them.”
Rwanda is still recovering from the 1994 Hutu genocide against the Tutsis.
“Oftentimes,” says Shuster-Eliassi, “people would relate to me because of the shared suffering. They would tell me, ‘You are Jewish. You have been through the same things we did.’ At the Kigali Genocide Memorial there is a room dedicated to genocides of other peoples, the Armenian, the Jews… It is a good way to show that these atrocities and tragedies aren’t just African issues, but that they are a human problem.”
After four years at Brandeis and a year in Kigali, she was ready to go home. “I understood that I don’t want to live or work in a country that isn’t mine. There are so many Western aid workers there that perhaps have good intentions, but since they don’t understand the culture well enough and don’t participate in it, they sometimes cause harm to Rwanda... and I told myself, I came here, I learned plenty, but I have my own struggle and conflict to try to resolve.”
NOT LONG after her return, Shuster- Eliassi was invited to join the Israeli chapter of Interpeace.
In 2004-05, 10 years after the Oslo Agreement was signed, a group of Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian researchers assembled to assess the failures of the agreement. They concluded that many sectors of Israeli society weren’t engaged in the peace process. This is where Shuster- Eliassi interjected. For the past five years her job had been to figure out ways to change this reality.
When asked what she means by “populations excluded from the peace process” she responded, “By and large, it’s most of the country. Those who aren’t left-wing supporters from Tel Aviv. It includes Russian immigrants, Palestinian citizens of Israel, religious communities of all shapes and colors…” Shuster-Eliassi worked closely with haredi leaders, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s followers, Itizik Soudri and his daughter Adina Bar-Shalom.
“In many ways I found that looking into Jewish law and trying to tease out lessons about our situation is inspiring in ways I hadn’t imagined before. The deeper I dug and the more I met people, I understood that there is a lot going on outside Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.”
She organized workshops, conferences, led tours, researched policy and what she calls “the usual things,” but there are many more exciting initiatives of which it’s too early to speak, especially since they are sensitive.
“What I can say is that it was moving and rewarding. For instance, when I just started working with some rabbis – I cannot mention names – they weren’t willing to say ‘Palestinian,’ but instead said, ‘Satan.’ I had to bite my tongue.
Then, months later, after many conversations and meetings, they were willing to accompany me on a visit to Ramallah.
This sort of change takes time, patience and sensitivity, and if there is one thing I learned it is that if you want to make change you must be ready for a long journey.”