"Exhibiting You" - Story

Dialogues from the West Bank

Palestinian and Israeli Women Talk Religion, Peace and Politics

Submitted: 06/26/2008

Over time, a grassroots movement has emerged of activists and citizens determined to promote interfaith dialogue and mend regional divisions. The International Museum of Women spoke to three such women from different religious backgrounds who share their views on peace and politics between -- and within -- Israeli and Palestinian groups.

Taghreed El-Khodary is a Palestinian independent journalist for The New York Times who grew up in Gaza; Lucy Talgieh is a Christian-Palestinian human rights activist; and Gal Harmat is a Jewish-Israeli academic of peace and gender studies.

The politics of Israel and Palestine often overshadow the personal stories of those whose lives are shaped by the conflict. Tell us more about your personal histories.

Taghreed: I was born in Gaza City. I studied abroad in Egypt and the United States and returned to Gaza during the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising]. I covered it intensively for the New York Times and for an Arab satellite news channel. Even as a journalist, you are stuck like everyone -- so you feel the story more. For example, I don't have an international press card nor an Israeli press card that would enable me to move freely. I cannot leave the place whenever I want. I feel very frustrated because I am stuck in one box and one narrative of the story. I'm resisting being in a box and work really hard to learn about the other side. As for politics, I have never been affiliated to any political party. I'm one of the rare independent voices in Gaza. When you are an independent, you can see the whole picture and you are not stuck defending one group. As for religion- - it is good to listen to all and to understand them. Respect is the keyword.

Lucy: I was born in Bethlehem and I am working at Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center located in Bethlehem. During the 1967 war, the first bomb to fall in Bethlehem hit my grandmother's house. My grandfather, aunt, and uncle were all killed. Growing up I saw my mother carrying a picture of her family and often crying. She never taught us hatred, but I often grew up feeling hatred and wondering why. I often asked, "Why is Israel doing this to us" or "How should I get revenge for my family?" So my political interest came from my environment and the violence that had happened to my family. My father was a man who always told us the history of Palestine and the occupation. He put into our minds that this was our land and we should be free in this land. Through my work, my paradigm shifted. I transformed the revenge and hatred I felt into nonviolent resistance against the occupation. I no longer hated the people, but rather the systems of oppression.

Gal: I grew up in the Jewish part of Nazareth, which is a city segregated along Jewish, Muslim and Christian lines. I went to a Jewish school where some of my classmates were Palestinian-Israelis. I saw that they were treated differently. Teachers would say racial things to them. I didn't know what to call it at the time, but now I see that it had to do with power relations. Growing up, I met a lot of Arab kids and Palestinian-Israelis in my town. The friendships made me experience the conflict on a very emotional level. For example, I could go to a dance club and they couldn't. I paid a very high social price for hanging out with them, and it developed into a lifestyle of struggling for peace. I do not consider myself a religious person. I see being Jewish as cultural and ethnic, and growing up I was very involved in a secular Jewish youth movement.

Many say that the conflict in Israel and Palestine is not just a political disagreement but a religious conflict. What are your opinions? How has religion affected the way people see the issues and their ability to work together?

Lucy: The conflict is about occupation, it is not a conflict between religions. It exists because Palestinians are treated like secondary people. Their land has been stolen, and their future is still insecure. Many people believe the Palestinian-Christians are stuck between the squabbles of the Jews and the Muslims. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that Palestinian-Christians exist in the region. As a Christian living in the land of Abraham, I do believe the three religions should live in peace and should respect each other by granting all equal rights and entitlements. All three should live in freedom without one faith having priority of the other.

Gal: The conflict here has religious aspects. But it is also ethnic and cultural, and based largely on economic and social gaps. Religion is a coin with two sides -- on one side, religion can bring people together because it is easier to communicate with people who understand your culture. The Bible stories here are very similar and so are some of the cultural customs. For example, during debates over the sale of pork, Muslims collaborated with Orthodox Jews to support a ban. I often see more conflict and hatred between secular and religious people in the region than among religions.

Taghreed: Whether it is the Israeli side or the Palestinian side, religious groups are strong at this time. To exclude them is not a good idea because it will only alienate people. In Gaza, Hamas [Islamic political party] women and secular women don't talk to each other, which is a mistake. I was attending a conference recently where these women were not talking, so I brought them together to have coffee. Their conversation was really healthy and they were surprised when hearing each other. I think there is a need for both religious women and secular women to work together. They can learn a lot from each other.

This year marks sixty years after the establishment of the Israeli state. The region seems more divided than ever. A wall now carves a barrier between Palestinians and Israelis and peace talks have all but stalled. How has this tense situation affected your work?

Gal: I feel the privileges. I am living in central Tel Aviv, earning income and living very well. I know that 15 miles from here, people do not have the same quality of life. For the 60th anniversary, there was a big military parade on Independence Day with tanks and fighter jets flying overhead; at the same time, Gaza was sieged and curfewed. The jets were terribly loud all day and I couldn't help but think that this is what people in Gaza experience regularly. If I wanted to ignore these inequalities, I could. But I have made a conscious decision to see it.

Taghreed: The situation in Gaza is very grim. People are in a state of wait and see. People need to breathe; they need to have a good night sleep. Everybody is waiting for fuel to come. It has been a very hard year. People are hoping for an opening of the closures so they can move freely and go on with life.

Lucy: If there were no walls, checkpoints, and no strangulation of movement we could do more outreach to both Palestinians and Israelis -- even we are separated from the Palestinians that are living in Jerusalem. We need to build bridges. These barriers limit our ability to work together. When we want to demonstrate together, we must do it on the borders with the wall separating us. I get hope through conversations like this though. I want people to hear my story and to work with me for peace and justice.

When we think Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we usually picture media images of men sitting around the bargaining table or men in uniforms talking militarism. Where are the women? Why are they not more present in these high-level meetings and is it important for women to be involved?

Lucy: I do not think the peace process would change if more women were involved. This is not an issue of men and women. The conflict is about who has the power, and the Palestinians do not have power. However, this is not to say that women in politics do not shape civil society. If there were more women involved in politics it would shape Palestine's more tribal and patriarchal society.

Taghreed: Women have been very active in Hamas movements. But are they influential in the decision making process? I do not see this. A woman like Hanan Ashrawi, for example, is a very prominent Palestinian politician and peace activist and many respect her. Still, I don't think she is that influential at this time because she is not active on the ground. Women like her must be present on the ground. I think there has to be a change. There is pressure from women to change. This is how it works; it always comes from the ground up.

Gal: Women are almost non existent in the peace talks. I want people to see peace as more holistic. For example, Israeli and Palestinian school curriculum is very militaristic. Students often go to military bases or historical combat regions. Why are we not taking our students to go bird watching or to where the peace agreements with Jordan were signed? I want us to think about what it means to have a culture of peace.

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