The Human Spirit: One in 60

Many of the voices grated on me, as mine must have done on them.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
With considerable nervousness, I recently picked up my copy of a new book called Sixty Years Sixty Voices, Israeli and Palestinian Women. Mine is one of those 60 voices. I have spent most of my life interviewing men and women, asking them to allow me to write their life stories and share their thoughts on issues that count. It seems only fair that when I'm approached to share my own stories and opinions I readily give my consent. And so it was when Jerusalem peace activist Elana Rozenman, herself a mother of a survivor of terror and a woman I very much admire, asked me if I would be interviewed by Patricia Smith Melton, an American photographer and writer who lives in Virginia. Smith Melton is the founder of an organization called Peace X Peace (pronounced Peace by Peace), the main activity of which is weaving a network of Internet-based communication for women in 120 countries. Smith Melton's premise is that the very act of enabling women to connect and to be heard will ameliorate their lives, if modestly. She wanted to record the voices of Israeli and Palestinian women to show their richness and diversity and the ability of women in general to overcome their differences and build peace on mutual goals. She not only provided the resources for this ambitious project, but also fearlessly carried it out herself. Smith Melton's interview style was non-confrontational. You could say whatever you wanted - no one was going to argue with you. Each voice was separate and judged to be authentic. LIKE MOST Israelis, I'm accustomed to exploring the variegated sides of our conflict, both by internal dialogue and spicily, over dinner tables with friends and family. But I still entered the project with a certain wariness. So many representatives of foreign so-called peace organizations arrive with thinly disguised, if well-intentioned, agendas of convincing us errant Israelis to repent in our ways. I refuse to share their negative assumptions about my country, nor approve of the blank check of sympathy extended to the Palestinians. So, although I liked Melton Smith, she elicited a nationalistic interview from me. Of course, I wanted to be sure that my opinions would be plainly stated and not taken out of context. The participation of Rozenman as a project consultant provided that trust for me. Another concern was that taking part in such a project would lend legitimacy to fallacious accusations against Israel in the Palestinian half of the book. No one likes to be a fig leaf. But if you refuse to take part in a discussion because you don't like everything the other side says, then you guarantee that your own views won't be heard at all. I DIDN'T remember exactly what I said in the interview, which took place on a busy day more than a year ago. Sixty Voices turned out to be a beautiful coffee table volume with stunning photos of women and of the region. Because the interviews were reproduced in English, Hebrew and Arabic, they're vastly shortened, so that you get the sense rather than the exact expression of each voice. As best I could remember, the selection from my interview represented a fair, if truncated version of what I'd said. The book is divided in two parts, first the 30 Israelis (mostly, but not all Jews) and then the 30 Palestinians. The Israeli women, selected by Rozenman, were from all sectors of Israeli society and held a wide variety of opinions. Several women were connected to political parties on the Right or the Left, yet others included an IDF sergeant, a Holocaust survivor, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, a woman from Sderot, another from Nokdim, young adults, and grandmothers. The Palestinian women also represented a diversity of ages and professions. Many were very high academic achievers - lawyers, business executives, a film producer, an architect, a physician - but there were also students and women with limited educational backgrounds. To my Israeli ears, the Palestinians shared a more consistent political agenda of complaint against Israel. Behind their personal stories was an assumption that the Israeli military judicial system is a random and pitiless system of repression. Many of the voices grated on me, as mine must have done on them. Even though Sixty Voices made no pretensions of creating a dialogue, however, taking part in such a project raised the question of what it would be like to get together with the other participants? But then again, what would I have to say, for instance, to a woman who claimed Hamas is a movement that loves peace and life, or to another who has seven brothers in prison because they are cultural leaders. On the other hand, I was drawn to the one Palestinian woman who condemned suicide bombings and spoke of her weeping at the site of Israeli children killed by a suicide attack and quotes Jewish physician, Janusz Korczak, that "the tears of any mother are equally salty." MY FIRST experience of actually meeting some of the others was at the Jerusalem book launch at the Cinematheque, which took place a day after a similar event was held in Ramallah. One of the Israeli women admitted that she was disappointed and uncomfortable to find that not all the women with whom she shared the Israeli half of the book, also shared her views about peace. I was then invited to Washington, DC by Smith Melton to take part in the book launch there. Suddenly I found myself drinking coffee in Virginia in Smith Melton's living room overlooking the racing Potomac river with the very woman with whom I thought I might have dialogue. We started off promisingly. We even knew a fair number of people in common. But within an hour we were engaged in a fierce argument about the usual subjects - suicide bombers, roadblocks, Gaza, Kassam rockets, what constitutes the so-called "occupation." In the escalating unpleasantness, it became apparent we might threaten to leave and not take part in the book event after all. Smith Melton, the gracious hostess, made a valiant effort to bridge the gaps and find common ground, but at last, she burst into tears. I can't speak for my Palestinian counterpart, but I was embarrassed. Here we were, some 7000 miles from our homes in Jerusalem bringing our conflict like our carry-on suitcases, wherever we went. So okay, we'll never agree. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, is it possible to reach a peaceful solution? Smith Melton had said that when she asked all 60 interviewees if peace was possible, that each one ultimately answered "yes." In the aftermath of our row in Virginia, we weren't ready to get to that "yes." But we'd go as far as a shrug and a maybe. So maybe, just maybe it was possible.