Four Stories of Hope, Persistence and Leadership

Last week I spent a while inside a hole in time. In the early hours of Saturday morning I flew to Washington DC and on Wednesday I was already back in Israel, enveloped in the warmth of my family, everyday life, work, home and activism.

I traveled to DC in for the JStreet National Conference, as a representative of Women Wage Peace, to speak at a panel sponsored by the JStreet Women’s Leadership Forum. The conference this year was organized in the theme of “Defending Our Values, Fighting For Our Future” – a strongly appropriate title given the public and political climate since the election of Trump as president. 3,500 participants from all over the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority came together to think, listen and voice ideas about how to keep moving toward a two-state solution in a time when no politician in Israel or the US persist in this.

I came to the conference to express a gendered, critical view, a perspective which is not sounded enough even in the progressive Jewish left. I came because I believe that In times like these, it is critical that we work closely together to promote our shared values of peace and democracy and hold courageous and vital conversations about resistance and hope

As a story teller, I was constantly looking for stories I would want to cherish and take with me. Here are 4 short stories and an epilogue.

Lens

The panel I participated in, sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Forum, was titled “Change makers on the Ground in Israel”. I talked about Women Wage Peace, and why I am so committed to this movement. I told the listeners that we view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a powerful inter-sectional gender lens.

The audience, mostly women, were nodding in agreement and understanding. The attentive faces told me my words were welcome and relevant. I hoped my message would trickle and resonate outside that room and was overjoyed when my friend and collaborator Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, echoed my words in a panel that took place the following day in the plenum.

I did come out feeling that we still have a long way to go until women from diverse communities are equally represented in formal negotiations and in civil society efforts to end this conflict. However, in order to demand that of our elected officials, we must implement principles of inclusion and diversity in our own spaces. The gender lens is not a “prop”, it is a way to examine our political reality fully and comprehensively, without overlooking the perspectives, needs and assets brought to the table by 51% of the participants.

Hope

I also talked about the significance of hope and the notion that we cannot live without hope. During the conference, speakers kept stating that “despair is not an option”, which is very true. Despair, in the sense of apathy, indifference and resignation is, indeed, not an option.

But sometimes we’re moved to action by a sense of desperation and urgency, driven by the feeling that we have nothing to lose. Alongside that, there must be hope. Hope in the sense of believing in future good even when it seems despairingly remote and impossible.

Hope means insistence on believing in that good even when it seems we got dealt a lousy hand this round. Hope is the stuff from which the greatest stories about the human ability rise above hardships and challenges, above the doubts and disregard are made of. Do not mistake hope. It is not a “nice feminine quality”. Hope is a radical idea that sees far and beyond. Hope, if you will, is a very serious business.

Seriousness

In my last day in DC I got to meet Congresswoman Barbara Lee for the 13th District of California in the Democratic Party. Lee was elected to congress for the first time in 1998 after a long and impressive career as a civil rights activist, a member of the Black Panthers and a Senator in California State Senate.

I admit I was nervous before the meeting. This was my first time meeting a Congresswoman, not to mention a woman who is a model of brave leadership, determined and committed to justice and equality through and through.

We had 15 minutes together. I told her about my work in the Dafna Fund and about Women Wage Peace. I spoke of the magic that was created in the Palestinian and Israeli women’s march Qasr Al Yahud, on October 19th, 2016. I told her about the tears and joy of women who had only met for the first time, falling into each other’s arms in an embrace that spoke closeness and faith in partnering for peace. As I spoke with a trembling voice, I knew she understood.

congresswoman-barbara-lee

Determination

All the while, I kept getting updates on current affairs in Israel: the State Comptroller’s report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge and the winds of war stirred in order to distract public attention from the high ranking political officials’ oversights that cost us in dear life.

From time to time I stole a glance at my email and IM messages from Israel. I read the Letter of the Mothers, which my friends at Women Wage Peace had written and watched as they stood firm outside the Ministry of Defense, demanding the defense cabinet to take responsibility for the Comptroller’s report and act immediately to end the conflict by resuming negotiations to reach a mutually binding peace agreement.

I saw, in the pictures of my friends’ faces, the hope, determination, persistence and willingness to lay everything aside and rise again and again to act in favor of the only logical solution that will end the bloodshed, suffering and loss that is binding us in a forcible grip for too many years.

Written in Jerusalem, in deep appreciation to our dear partners of the JStreet Women’s Leadership Forum.

This world needs mothers

“Motherhood is not limited to the act of bearing and rearing our own children. Motherhood is a spiritual and ethical position of responsibility for the world and for future generations”.

I spoke these words spoken at an event that Women Wage Peace held in the Baptism site north of Jericho on October 19th, 2016, as part of the movement’s  March of Hope.

It was an historical event; for the first in a very long time, Jewish and Palestinian women from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met and marched together for a peace agreement in our region.

It as a political event; a clear and resounding statement by women who are tired of war and bloodshed; who have had enough of being excluded from discourse and action for peace and security.

It was a formative event for me, personally; an opportunity to reflect on my own actions and leadership.

As we were getting ready to march to the sounds of drums and joint singing, I shed sweet tears of excitement and joy. Months and weeks of preparations and hard work culminated in this watershed moment. Holding and being held by other women; supporting and supported, I marched knowing that we are going to get far, together.

My face was beaming with tears and laughter; it reflected deep feelings of gratitude and determination. I knew there and then the mental and physical sensation of being in the presence of collective greatness.

As we took the stage, Huda Abu alarquob and I, to MC the ceremony, the collective greatness embraced and inspired us. “Women of the world, today is our day!” I heard Huda’s voice resonating in the desert. Her voice empowered mine. The blazing sun and the beaming faces of the women sitting in front of us shed their lights on us both.

qasr-march
The March of Hope at the Baptism site near Jericho. Photo by Anat Saragusti

I continue to cherish these moments as I return to my daily routine. Thoughts of womanhood and leadership linger in my mind; thoughts of all that I am learning from my many partners to the March of Hope and the journey towards social change.

I am a feminist activist and professional; I am well aware that the discourse on the qualities of motherhood is a slippery slope towards essentialism; towards the quicksand of social constructs of “femininity” and “masculinity” that do injustice to all genders. Yet, I am compelled to make motherhood –  as position of moral leadership –  present in the political discourse on peace and security.

Society tends to perceive motherhood as a personal and intimate position that belongs in the private realm of the family. The tender care and containment that are essential to raising children are appropriate for “feminine” caring professions but less so executive positions of management and leadership that require firmness, decisiveness and determination. These “soft” qualities and skills that are vital for raising families and managing relationships are often shunned as unwelcome or irrelevant guests in the boardroom. The qualities that are the life line of human existence and perceived as signs of weakness at the negotiations table.

We tend to think it is so; especially in our region where the conflicts dictates a language of zero sum game.

Really?

In every human encounter; personal, professional or political a rainbow of emotions comes into play. Each situation triggers us and pushes unconscious buttons. Minor and major crisis erupt when we act out of blindness, vanity or aggression. In times of crisis, our own responses can calm things down or cause an escalation. History shows that in cases where political leaders on both sides of a conflict chose the path of increased aggression it only led to more violence and bloodshed; loss and grief. However, when leaders chose a different path; when they reached out and shook the hand of the enemy, they changed history. The willingness to make painful concessions and let go of past grievances led to breakthroughs in the relationship between people and countries in the Middle East and around the world. Some of those leaders paid with their life for their courage; their political adversaries made their peace seeking stance look like acts of weakness. However, the images of Menachem Begin and Anwar a-Sadat, of Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein shaking hands are engraved in our collective memory. Those images remind us that peace agreements are possible.

I was only four years old when I ran with my mother and sisters to the bomb shelter in Jerusalem during the 67 war. I was ten when we ran for shelter in 73. I was a young mother when I caressed my 18-month-old son through a plastic sleeve during the first Gulf War in 1991. I can still recall myself considering how to get home when buses exploded in Jerusalem after the collapse of the Oslo Agreement. I recall my eight-year-old daughter and me venturing to walk to the community garden after a Red Alert during the Protective Edge war in 2014. I recall looking at images of the destruction on Gaza; images of parents on both sides of the border – their hearts broken – weeping over the bodies of their dead children. I sat and wept for those children.

Motherhood is not only about giving birth or raising our own children. Motherhood – or indeed parenthood –  is an ethical and moral position of responsibility towards the world we live in and towards our fellow human beings. It is a position of self-restraint, attentiveness and inclusion. It a position of passion and love and of setting high standards of human behavior.  It is a position of compassion and dedication; of determination and resilience.

The world we live in is harsh and complicated; it contains too much injustice and violence; too much cruelty and misery. Our world needs compassion and healing; forgiveness and reconciliation. The world we live in needs that we see the person in front of us in their full humanity; it needs that we raise our voices against acts on acts against humanity.

“I see your humanity; do you see mine?” said Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Prize Laureate in 2011 from Liberia who came to Israel for the March of Hope as a special guest of Women Wage Peace. She told us that raising hope in the hearts who have lost so much to conflict and war is a huge responsibility. “Do not get into it if you are not serious”, she said.

We are serious. As serious as the giants who paved the way for women as equal and engaged agents of change. As serious as the giants who fought for women’s voting rights; as serious as the giants who fought and are fighting for gender, social and racial justice and for human rights. As serious as the women who fought for peace in their countries.

We are serious and we will not stop until there is a peace agreement. We are serious about creating a new political discourse based on mutual recognition and care. We are serious about putting peacebuilding back at the heart of the work of our communities.

Motherhood is not only the act of baring and rearing our own children. Motherhood is a spiritual and ethical position of responsibility for the world and for future generations.