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Multi-cultural Israeli women give lessons in waging peace

  • WomenWagePeaceIlan
What do a young Arab Israeli Muslim, a Christian Arab guidance counsellor, an Israeli music teacher, and an Israeli psychologist have in common?
by NICOLA MILTZ | Aug 08, 2019

Not much, besides a burning desire to help bring about a lasting peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a strong belief in the power of women to achieve this.

This week, four culturally diverse women from the Israeli-based organisation Women Wage Peace (WWP) stunned South Africans with their powerful message of peace through dialogue. They conveyed the importance of fostering understanding of the other, and how it can lead to peace and nation building.

“If we can heal each other from the circle of hatred, and look at the other not as an enemy but as an opportunity, we can change the discourse of the world,” said Hyam Tannous, an Arab Christian counsellor from Haifa.

Tannous’ love and concern for Palestinians and Jews has led her to promote dialogue between the two. As part of her work for the WWP, she lobbies for peace among Knesset members and other public figures, and participates in discussions at Knesset committee meetings.

WWP was founded in the summer of 2014 in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, in which there was conflict between Israel and Gaza lasting almost 50 days. A group of women from diverse backgrounds, who were sick and tired of deadlocked peace initiatives, got together. They believed that by bridging the divide through dialogue and understanding, they would one day find a lasting solution. The women aim to promote a strategic solution to the conflict by means of an honourable, non-violent, and mutually acceptable agreement.

They were brought to the country by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) to interact with South Africans across a wide spectrum of racial, political, and religious backgrounds, including youth from various student and political youth groups and members of the Black Sash in Cape Town.

In a series of appearances and events in Johannesburg throughout the week, they met International Relations Deputy Minister Candith Kwati Mashego-Dlamini in Pretoria, held talks with female business leaders in Hyde Park, and with youthful activists and faith groups, all of whom were spellbound by their tales of conflict resolution and sweeping efforts to combat barriers to peace in Israel.

In just a few days these women, united in their difference and unwavering belief in a solution to the conflict, have helped shift the narrative and open dialogue regarding conflict resolution, said SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn.

“Everyone in Israel and Palestine has been affected by the ongoing conflict,” said Yasmin Rubin-Cooper, one of the visiting women, “Our organisation brings people together from all backgrounds with a common goal to find a solution. We all want peace regardless of what we believe, and where we come from.”

The women shared their personal stories at an interfaith and intercultural event held at the Women’s Jail at Constitutional Hill, Braamfontein.

Rubin-Cooper, an Israeli mother, spoke of her anxiety when she found out she was pregnant with her first boy. “The only thing that went through my mind at the ultrasound was, ‘Oh no! My son will have to go to the army!’”

A former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) employee, she knew what this entailed. With a Masters in social-industrial psychology, she worked for ten years as a leadership development consultant in the IDF, and has been an activist for peace for many years. She has since found her home in the WWP initiative as it “brings together women representing every side of the conflict”, she told the SA Jewish Report.

The organisation held a congress last November which connected diverse families affected by the conflict.

“There was a settler from the West Bank who lost her son in a terror attack, and a Palestinian doctor from the Gaza strip who lost his two daughters and his niece. They came face to face, and embraced after they agreed that what they needed to move forward was for people to recognise what they had suffered. They just needed to hear that their suffering was acknowledged,” she said, pointing out that the conference was the first time they had felt any sense of hope.

WWP has arguably become the largest grassroots movement in Israel, with more than 40 000 members.

Its strength lies in the fact that it isn’t affiliated with any political party, and its members include women from different communities within Israeli society including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin, young and old. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t support any single solution to the conflict, said Rubin-Cooper.

“Language is important in bridging the divide,” said Manar Abu Dahl, an Arab Israeli who speaks Hebrew and Arabic. “I go to the West Bank and I show Arab children using photographs on my cell phone that not all Jews are soldiers. I speak to children in Arabic explaining that Jews are my friends.”

Abu Dahl is a Bedouin who grew up in the ancient city of Lod – a mixed town with Jews, Muslims, and Christians living side by side. She said it was a blessing as it had given her insight into the conflict from all sides.

“I see it as my responsibility to bridge divides and bring people together using the power of language as a tool and promoting positive and respectful discourse.”

Vered Eyal Saldinger said she joined the movement upon returning to Israel after living abroad. “It disturbed me that young people had to risk their lives in order to make me safe,” she said. It motivated her to bring about meaningful change.

“The ethos and values of Women Wage Peace have resonated deeply. I believe attitudes and beliefs regarding the Israeli Palestinian conflict were shifted in a positive way this week,” said Wendy Kahn of the SAJBD.

SA broadcast journalist Nausheena Mahomed from Channel M productions, who is Muslim, said: “It was refreshing to engage with social activists from Israel especially during Women’s Month. Hearing from Israeli women about concrete efforts being made to halt violence flies in the face of the stereotypical impression of Israelis that broadly prevails here. It demonstrates that there is much to learn about Israeli society over and above mainstream politics.”

South African businesswoman Soraya Zoueihid Benchikh described the women as “beacons of light”. “I’m Lebanese, and was raised during the war in Lebanon. I’m inspired by these ladies, who choose every day to do the most difficult thing, which is not to accept hate, cynicism, and wallow in the past, but move on, forge a better future, a future in peace.”

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