Walking for peace

Walking for peace

New Israeli movement has North Jersey supporters

The idea of taking politics out of the search for peace maybe isn’t so intuitive.

War is what happens when politics fails, it seems, so peace, as war’s opposite, must be the outcome of a successful political process.

If only it were that simple!

There is now a movement in Israel, Women Wage Peace, that brings together women from across the religious/secular divide, the left/right split, and even the Jewish/Muslim barrier. Yes, it sounds like it’s in airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky, yeah-right territory — and maybe it is — but it brought many thousands of activists — mainly women but men as well — together for a two-week walk through Israel, in what is likely to be an annual tradition, until the need for it is gone.

The walk culminated in Jerusalem on October 8.

Women Wage Peace is committed to bringing people together to achieve peace; its members forswear any politics, including their own, because the goal of peace is far more important than anything else. It’s a question of survival, they say.

Two of the women who walked this year are longtime friends, one American, one Israeli, who spend time together every year. Recently, the two talked about their commitment to the ideas behind Women Wage Peace.

MIriam Brenner, left, and Miriam Baker, friends for decades, walked together.
MIriam Brenner, left, and Miriam Baker, friends for decades, walked together.

Miriam Baker lives in Fort Lee and Miriam Brenner lives in Ganei Tikvah, near Bar Ilan University. The women trained together at what was then called Cornell Weill Medical Center; both are sex and relationship therapists who studied at the medical center psychology department’s human sexuality program. They met in 1985, when Ms. Brenner, then 38, her husband, and their four young children came to New York for the Cornell Weill program. Ms. Baker, then 30, had just gotten married and had not yet had children. Their interest in each other was piqued by the similarities in their names, their biographies, and their shared interests.

Now, more than 30 years later, both are well known in their fields, their friendship has grown as their familiarity with every aspect of each other’s families has evolved, and “we still are both practicing clinicians, but we have raised our families and are becoming more and more passionate about peace, and about women’s ability to bring about peace,” Ms. Baker said.

Ms. Brenner was born in Capetown, South Africa. Her parents “came to Israel in 1949, when I was a year old” and so was the state, she said. “My parents were Zionist leaders, and I grew up with Zionist ideals. I feel that what I am doing now is implementing the values I grew up with.”

She has 14 grandchildren, “and in addition to my professional activities, I spend my time going from one kid to another to be with my grandchildren.” One of her children and four of her grandchildren live in Philadelphia; the rest are in Israel.

It is her grandchildren who made Ms. Brenner a peace activist.

“I have been through all the wars in Israel,” she said. “I was in the army during the Six-Day War. It was absolutely horrible. Every time you think this is the last one. And you don’t want your children to go into the army, and then you don’t want your grandchildren to go into the army.

“Both my sons were in Lebanon and in Gaza,” she continued. “In 2014, when the war broke out in Gaza, it was just like the last straw. I felt that I was not willing to just sit at home and let men have wars. That was enough.”

Many women wore turquoise scarves, the march’s signature look.
Many women wore turquoise scarves, the march’s signature look.

In 2014, the first time a siren warning of a possible incoming missile sounded, “I was with one of my grandsons in the car, in the Tel Aviv area,” she said. “We had to stop the car and lie down on the floor. He was 9 at the time. It was during the school summer holiday, and I had five grandchildren sleeping at my place. A few times we had to get up in the middle of the night and go to the safe room.”

Those of course are experiences most Israelis share — and most of us Americans cannot imagine — but this one Israeli had reached her breaking point. “I swore to myself that my main occupation, no matter how much I work, is going to be to see how we can make peace.”

She heard about Women Wage Peace, which started at around that time, “and now it is the center of my life,” she said.

The two-week walk took thousands of women across Israel.
The two-week walk took thousands of women across Israel.

When Miriam Brenner became active in Women Wage Peace, Miriam Baker decided she had to join her friend in that work. “It is unbearable to me that my friend, who I love, and whose children I love, can be in such danger,” she said. There were times when “she would call me with a gas mask on, and my heart would be broken.

“I never forgot how lucky I was that my children were not going to war,” she continued. “My children were not in that kind of danger.” Her children grew up in Tenafly and went to school there.

“So I flew in. My own children are a little younger than Miriam’s, but they are just about ready to leave the nest.

“And now the United States also needs powerful women, because of what is going on in our government. So all of this was a song that was singing to me.”

The point of Women Wage Peace is that it is not political. Its goal is to bring people together — not only women, but everyone — and to somehow compel them to understand that peace matters.

“It is not a protest,” Ms. Baker said. “It is a sensibility. We finally have to understand that there cannot be violence, that war is not a solution, that war doesn’t ever bring results. It never has. It never does.

“There can’t be an agenda of silencing people.”

Ms. Brenner said that Women Wage Peace is a grassroots organization, based on a model developed in Liberia. Leymah Roberta Gbowee, the woman who developed the model, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work, which ended a civil war in her country. Her work, against huge odds, frequently flying in the face of what cynics would call common sense, is an inspiration to Women Wage Peace, and Ms. Gbowee has come to Israel to show solidarity.

Women Wage Peace works to break down barriers. “It is basically an organization without hierarchies, which means that we have a lot of different teams, with a lot of people who are leading the teams,” Ms. Brenner said. The country is broken into 50 geographic regions. “We have 30,000 women who are active now, and we are drawing more and more of them, from all across Israel.” Some of them are Arab, Ms. Brenner said, and the Jewish women come from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds.

Jewish and Muslim women here are framed by an iconic turquoise scarf.
Jewish and Muslim women here are framed by an iconic turquoise scarf.

“We have had religious women, women who are settlers, and we also have men who join us,” she continued. Recently Women Wage Peace held meetings in the south of Israel. They worked with Bedouin Israelis, and also with the mayor of Dimona, Beni Biton, who is right-wing. “We have a woman from Dimona, Daniella Hermon, who organized it,” she said.

Ms. Brenner’s team works with Knesset members. “Our goal is to make contact with all the members of Parliament, and to start working inside the Knesset,” she said.

One of the MKs who has chosen to work with Women Wage Peace is Yehuda Glick, who is a member of Likud. He’s right-wing, a vocal advocate for saying that Jews should have the right to go on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and most famous for having been shot and nearly killed by an Arab for that stance.

Arutz Sheva quoted Rabbi Glick, who has faced controversy for his friendship with Women Wage Peace, as saying:

“Anyone who meets with ‘Women Make Peace’ cannot help but be impressed by the positive and non-inflammatory discourse that they hold at a time when there is no terror wave on the streets. They turn the term ‘peace’ into something tangible. …We talk a lot about peace. We pray for peace, which is wonderful. But we cannot underestimate the need to change the discourse.”

Similarly, the Times of Israel quoted Michal Froman, a settler who was stabbed by a Palestinian during her fifth pregnancy. (Both mother and baby survived; the baby was not harmed at all and the mother recovered fully.)

“We must come together to be able to reach the peace we all want,” Ms. Froman was quoted as saying.

That’s exactly the two Miriams’ point.

“We don’t say what the solution should be,” Ms. Baker said. “We don’t say what kind of agreement the Palestinians and the Israelis should come to. What we are saying is that working toward an agreement is the most important thing, and that it should be on the agenda all the time.

“That hasn’t happened, but we are not going to let it go. We are going to make sure that it is always on the agenda.”

Women Wage Peace has grown virally, “and it is now the biggest grassroots movement in Israel,” Angelica Berrie of Englewood said. Ms. Berrie is the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation, and she supports Women Wage Peace. “They are signing people up on street corners, in kibbutzim, in moshavs. They are Knesset members, judges, right-wing people, left-wing people, charedi women who believe the messiah is coming.

“The thing that makes this movement unique is that no matter where they are, they all understand that peace has to come, and that they are not going to let politics get in the way.”

Yes, it is a hard sell in some quarters, Ms. Berrie said. There are many cynics in Israel. “We are so jaded, and Israelis even more so,” she continued. “Peace often is a bad word there. If you believe in it, you are a sucker. But these women just keep going at it. They say that they will not accept anything less than a peace agreement.”

She stresses the importance of the accomplishments of Liberia’s Nobel laureate, Ms. Gbowee, and of the inspiration she provides. “There are so many people who don’t know who she is, but she won the peace prize for a peace agreement that was not a political compromise,” she said. “It was a peace agreement. They had no conditions. They just asked for a peace agreement to be signed, and they did not stop asking for it until it happened.”

Although the Israeli-Palestinian impasse seems to the Jewish community to be the most intractable one on the face of the earth, other conflicts are equally hard, if far less well publicized outside their immediate area. The conflict in Liberia did not seem as if it would end in anything other than cataclysm — but it did.

There is hope for Israel.

“What happened in Liberia is inspiring,” Ms. Berrie said.

She talked about Yael Deckelbaum, a singer whose video, Prayer of the Mothers, has gone viral. The song, in Hebrew and Arabic, is a simple prayer for peace. The video, beautifully shot, filmed in Israel’s austerely stunning hills, featuring Jewish and Muslim women in flowing white, is deeply moving.

“Yael Deckelbaum is like the Joan Baez of Israel,” Ms. Berrie said. “The song has had more than four million hits so far, and it has brought others in from around the world. It seems particularly popular in Europe

“Women invited Yael to sing in Berlin, and schoolchildren sang it in Germany. She appeared in a march in Zurich, and one in Geneva, and in various places around the world,” Ms. Berrie said. “The song has taken the message to countries where it resonated. They didn’t necessarily know anything about Israel.

“They just shared the dream of peace.”

In a video that has gone viral, Yael Deckelbaum sings Prayer of the Mothers.
In a video that has gone viral, Yael Deckelbaum sings Prayer of the Mothers.

Ms. Baker and Ms. Brenner both plan to continue their work with Women Wage Peace. Ms. Brenner, who concentrates on the Knesset, is working with a committee that plans to have women, dressed in white shirts and turquoise scarves, Women Wage Peace’s iconic style, lobbying there every Monday “to remind them that having a peace agreement that is accepted by both sides has to be on the agenda all the time,” she said.

Ms. Baker compares the work Women Wage Peace does on a macro level to her own micro-level work with couples and families. “We teach people not to silence each other,” she said. “We teach them to listen to each other’s narratives. My main work is teaching people not to avoid issues, not to use revenge as a way to handle your problems, to respect your differences.”

She would like Women Wage War to become established in the United States. “We don’t necessarily live with the threat of war, but there is violence in relationships, and the threat of violence,” she said.

The two Miriams talk about the march. “We started in Sderot, and then we went from place to place in the south for a week,” Ms. Baker said. “By the Dead Sea, there was something called the Tent of Hagar and Sarah.” Hagar is the mother of the patriarch Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, progenitor of the Arab nations, the Torah tells us, and Sarah is the mother of Isaac, from whom the Jews are descended. In the Bible, in Genesis, Sarah convinces her husband to exile Hagar; he leaves his concubine and his son to die, but God saves them.

“We wanted to make peace between Hagar and Sarah,” Ms. Brenner said. “In the Dead Sea, we follow Abraham’s path. We told the story of everything that happened. We don’t want to stay in the past. We want to look to the future for our children and grandchildren in Israel.”

They walked north, seeing a great deal of beauty and hope. Among their stories was the time when they were in the desert, in a group of 10,000 people, at a concert. It was very hot — it was the desert, after all — and there were many buses lined up. “It would take hours to get all those fabulous women out of there,” Ms. Baker said. They decided that instead of waiting for a bus to shuttle them to the parking lot where they had left Ms. Brenner’s car, they would walk the two miles.

It was a mistake.

“I see that Miriam looks so tired,” Ms. Baker said. “The heat is bearing down on us. I realize that I have to find us a ride.

“I see a minivan, and I run to it, and I bang on the door. It is full of beautiful Arab women, and the man who was driving them. I bang on the door and say, ‘Please can you just give us a ride to our car.’ They said they were going to Ramallah, and at first they said, ‘No, we can’t give you a ride. We are full.’

“I put my hand up and said please please please, and he said, ‘Get on board,’ so Miriam and I jumped on.” The man spoke English but the women did not, and neither Miriam spoke Arabic.

“There was just nonverbal communication, but we laughed, we used hand motions, we talked with our eyes,” Ms. Baker said. “We showed pictures of ourselves on our phones. By the time we were dropped off, we were blowing kisses to each other. I gave my turquoise scarf to one of the women, because I could see that she really liked it.

“And we spoke not a word in the same language.”

It was an image oddly reminiscent of Sarah and Hagar’s tent. In the original story, Sarah casts Hagar out. In this story, Hagar’s descendants bring Sarah’s descendants in. They laugh, they show pictures, and then they part joyously.

It is a good way forward, the Miriams agree.

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