Working toward civility

Working toward civility

Local philanthropist, Israeli group work in different ways for a renewed sense of hope

No matter what you think of the outcome of the presidential election, it is clear that it has roiled a sense of unease, disorder, and prickling discomfort that is new to most Americans. It’s stirred up anti-Semitism, which always has been under the surface, we realize, but has not been socially acceptable for decades — until now.

As Time magazine’s cover put it when it named President-elect Donald J. Trump its person of the year, he will take over the leadership of the “Divided States of America.” Very often during this last year, we have not seemed to be “One nation, indivisible.” We are not only divisible, we are extraordinarily divided.

That bothers many people, including philanthropist Angelica Berrie of Englewood. She believes, however, that we will not be stuck in this dismal situation forever, and that it is up to women to lead the way out of it.

In a post on her blog,, Ms. Berrie talks about her hope in the power of women to effect change. She cites a few groups as examples; one of those groups is the Israeli one called Women Wage Peace.

Ms. Berrie begins by talking about the power that unarmed, sincere, earnest, faithful people can have on their oppressors. Not always, to be sure; it often depends on whom those oppressors or their agents are. But sometimes.

Ms. Berrie, who has become Jewish, is a powerful force in the local Jewish community. She is closely allied with the liberal Orthodox thinker and leader Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who now heads the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute begun by his father, Rabbi David Hartman, but also spent many years teaching at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Ms. Berrie grew up Catholic in the Philippines, though, and one of her formative experiences was standing with her classmates, all girls, in front of the tanks of President Ferdinand Marcos, armed only with rosaries and hope. The girls survived, and eventually Marcos’s regime fell.

“Marcos was overthrown by a completely peaceful movement,” Ms. Berrie said. “We were able to depose him. It was grassroots, completely intuitive, with nothing organized or rigid about it.”

Although most women around the world are poor, Ms. Berrie said, women in the United States control 60 percent of private wealth. Although the words “women” and “power” rarely are used together, she continued, when women reach across divides to work together, their power can be palpable.

This election has galvanized the country, she said. “Whether we do or do not like the outcome, it has made activists of all of us. Look at the success of the Trump campaign.” And Trump’s women opponents are planning a huge march on Washington the day after he is inaugurated; it has been put together not by professional organizers but by energized people, and it is planned to be peaceful but highly visible.

“We are all completely awake, and you can’t put us back to sleep now,” Ms. Berrie said. “We are looking for a way to channel that energy. The question is how we organize, what we stand up for, how we stand up, and how we build coalitions.”

She sees some hope. “Right now, our community has been so divided because of Israel, which puts us at odds with other communities that used to be our allies,” Ms. Berrie said. “We marched in Selma with the African American community, we were allies with the gay community, but now everyone sides with the Palestinians, even if they know that the Palestinians would kill gay people. It is so unnatural.

“But now, we have shared values. They will try to pull us apart, but we have to find a way to come together.”

The presidential campaign laid bare some of the ugly truths we’ve glossed over, she added. “We sort of sat back on our haunches, nothing was threatening us, things were going okay, so we didn’t have to do much. The election has made us more aware of the inequality of economics in our country. The gap between rich and poor is so great that you can’t be blind to it, but we’ve all been living in a little cocoon.

“Philanthropy is my work, so I have to look at those outside the cocoon, but we here have had a relatively comfortable life in New Jersey and New York. We forget that there are people who have lost their jobs, don’t have health care, don’t have much education, don’t have skills, don’t have much hope. We can’t just say this all will be solved by a new president.

A marcher celebrates in the Women Wage Peace walk to Jerusalem. (Women Wage Peace)
A marcher celebrates in the Women Wage Peace walk to Jerusalem. (Women Wage Peace)

“We have to be responsible for our neighbors. We are our brothers’ keepers. There are some forces for democracy that can’t be controlled. If the desire for democracy comes from the highest purpose, if it comes from a place of integrity and principles and justice and humanistic values, then it becomes a groundswell and you can’t keep it down.

“So I am not depressed now. At the end of the day, I believe, goodness will prevail. But we have to do our part.”

In her post, Ms. Berrie mentions extraordinary movements led by extraordinary women who did not know their own power until they had to. Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace ended a civil war in Liberia; its founder, Leymah Gbowee, received a Nobel Peace Prize for her work. And the Northern Irish Peace People, led by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, two housewives personally affected by the violence, managed to stop the war in northern Ireland. Ms. Corrigan and Ms. Williams also both won Nobels.

And then there is Women Wage Peace, the Israeli group Ms. Berrie mentioned in her post.

Vivian Silver, an Israeli who made aliyah from Winnipeg 43 years ago, lived on Kibbutz Gezer for 16 years, and has been a member of Kibbutz Beeri since 1990, is active in Women Wage Peace. “We were founded two years ago, in the summer of 2014, as a result of the last war in Gaza,” Ms. Silver said. “I live right on the border of the Gaza Strip. Everyone here was tremendously affected by this war, just as we were by the two previous wars in Gaza. But this one was over the top.”

Over the top? “I mean that it went on for a very long time, and people were killed in the area, and people were wounded. Two kibbutz members were killed, and another became a double amputee. It all seemed endless, and it seemed as if there would only be continuous wars. That the government had decided that for some reason the status quo not only was acceptable, but that it was better than any alternative.

“And then women from across the country started getting together and saying no. This is not acceptable. We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want our children to sacrifice their lives. This does not bring security.

“The whole rationale for Women Wage Peace is to change the basic concept, to acknowledge that continued wars were not going to bring security, so what would bring security is a political agreement.”

But, she stressed, Women Wage Peace is different from most groups — and very unlike what most people would expect — in that it is foundationally “not a protest movement,” Ms. Silver said.

“We are an advocacy movement. We will be the first to stand by our prime minister’s side, no matter who it is — Netanyahu, Liberman, Herzog, Livni — when they receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

“We don’t have any other agenda. Our agenda is not to bring about the downfall of the government. It is to see that whatever government that is in power reaches a political agreement.”

She is not naïve. It will not be easy. “That means changing the language that we use,” she said. “It means reaching masses of people, so that we have a critical mass that will allow us to have the impact that we need to bring about change.”

But it is necessary. “Protest movements remain tiny because they are ideologically pure,” she said. “They take whatever position they have, and they stick to it.”

There are some similarities between the language Ms. Silver uses and what we hear in the United States, although the stakes are different. “The biggest enemy we have is despair,” she said. “Hopelessness. The feeling that nothing can change. That nothing will change.”

In October, Women Wage Peace held a march. Twenty thousand people, most of them women, walked from near Jericho to Jerusalem. “1,000 Palestinian women participated,” Ms. Silver said. “The buses that brought the women there were funded by the Palestinian Authority, and that is extraordinary, at a time when any Palestinian doing any kind of outreach to the Israeli side is denigrated, and immediately accused of normalization.”

But as pleased as she was by the Palestinian women’s participation, “we are not a joint Palestinian-Israeli movement,” she said. “We are an Israeli movement. Our target population is within Israel. We are not looking for international support to pressure our government. We want to work from within, and the only way to do that is by growing our numbers.

“We want Israeli Jews and Arabs and Druze, we want people from the right and the left, we want the religious and the secular. We want those who live in Tel Aviv and those who live in the periphery. We cross all traditional ideological lines.”

Of course, it’s easier to say this than to accomplish it. “It is a very slow process,” Ms. Silver said. But they are working with some settlers, and hope to attract more. “We use the movie ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell,’” she said. It’s a documentary by Abigail Disney that shows the ways that Liberian women ended the civil war in their country.

“We screened that movie in parlor meetings all over the country,” she said; the more they showed it, the more people they attracted. Eventually, the woman at its heart, Leymah Gbowee, went to Israel and marched with Women Wage Peace.

“I have been a peace activist for 45 years, but I have never experienced anything like I am experiencing now,” Ms. Silver concluded. “That’s because we are not following the same pattern as the other movements.

“We are not coming up with a particular solution and fighting for it. We are purposely saying that it doesn’t matter what the solution is as long as it is acceptable to both sides.”

That forces her and her colleagues to be particularly careful about language. “We don’t ever say ‘occupation,’” she said.

“We are under attack by everyone. The left is very critical, because it seems that we are too bland, and we don’t have a position. We are pushing to meet with women in settlements. Women on the right have the problem of defending working with what would typically be considered a left-wing organization.”

But it is because the organization is neither right- nor left-wing, in fact no wing at all, that the women hope eventually to win peace. Compromises are hard, but they are necessary, and peace is the goal.

So it makes sense that Angelica Berrie can take inspiration from an organization like Women Wage Peace and she — and we — confront the fact that whether we like it or not — and the fact that some of us like it and some of us do not — the world around us has changed. It is up to each one of us to bring civility and decency back to it, she believes. And it is possible. It’s happened before. It will happen again.

read more: