The continuing quest for Middle East peace is usually cast as a high-stakes political drama involving top officials from the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Yet significant peace-making efforts are also underway on the grassroots level.
The classroom at New York's Columbia University was packed earlier this month (February 9) with students for the Mothers for Peace event. It was the fourth stop in a six-city tour co-sponsored by a pro-Israel education group called The Israel Project and by a student organization called Pro-Israel Progressives.
The two mothers on tour are Nonie Darwish. an Egyptian who grew up in Gaza and moved to the U.S. over 25 years ago, and Miri Eisen, a recently retired colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, where she worked for 20 years in Army Intelligence. Each woman is the mother of three.
"We are not political," says Darwish. "We have no agendas except peace. We don't want to run for office. We are just mothers and we came out here to speak and actually inspire others to speak."
Eisen nods respectfully. "I think the fact that we stand there together makes a huge difference for the public and for ourselves," she says. "This isn't a publicity stunt. It's something that we're doing as part of a dialog that we hope will go further."
Their joint tour culminates a long inner pilgrimage for both women. Darwish is the daughter of an Egyptian military officer who she claims was assassinated in Gaza by Israeli operatives. She says she was brought up to hate and fear Israelis and Jews.
"They told us: 'They [Jews] are evil monsters who want to kill Arab children. This is their mission, and that they were 'apes' and 'pigs,'" she recalls. She also remembers being told as a child "'don't take candy from strangers. It may be a Jew trying to poison you.'"
Darwish never questioned that attitude as a girl. Then, one day, when she was 21, she was sitting on a hilltop with a Christian friend within earshot of a hate-filled sermon issuing from a loudspeaker atop a nearby mosque.
"Every prayer ended with a cursing of the enemies of Islam," she recalls. "My Christian friend actually looked scared. And when I saw her eyes in fear, that's when it struck me 'I am embarrassed… by the way my religion is being taught.'" Darwish calls that incident "the first seed," because it marked the beginning of her interest "in knowing the history from the other side."
For Miri Eisen, understanding their true history seemed to her a possible breakthrough on the path to peace. As a woman who has spent her entire professional life defending her country against attacks by Palestinians and other Arabs, she doubts that the issue of the land will ever be completely resolved.
"And, in that sense," she says, "I'm a realist."
But Eisen believes it is a good start to encourage people on each side to try to understand history from the other's point of view.
"Both sides have different histories, and they don't look the same or sound the same. But I can understand their history," she says. "I can go out of my way to read their history and look at their perspective, and I don't have to agree with it. But by opening my mind to look, and realizing that they have a different story, we may be able to arrive at a livable community."
Because Nonie Darwish advocates the official recognition of Israel by all Arab states, she has put herself at odds with many of her fellow Arabs. However, she insists she is not anti-Arab. To the contrary, she says, recognizing Israel and denouncing terrorism is actually pro-Arab. "Because terrorism is not just hurting the enemy," Darwish says. "It's hurting our culture. It's hurting our society. It's hurting our families. It's hurting our people."
Miri Eisen agrees. However, she believes that most people on both sides are going to be very unhappy with whatever solution is arrived at. Still she cherishes the hope that "by listening, through that tolerance, we can achieve a situation where [most people] are willing to accept a compromise."