Finding Hope in Political Dialogue Between Women

By Samia Khoury, Terry Greenblatt, & Gina Benevento
Originally published in The Witness magazine, September 2001
Saturday, September 1, 2001

Samia Khoury is president of Rawdat El-Zuhur, a coeducational elementary school for the lower-income community in East Jerusalem, and treasurer of the board of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Terry Greenblatt is director of Bat Shalom, a national Israeli women’s peace organization that is the Israeli partner in the Jerusalem Link, and co-founder and former director of Kol Ha-Isha, West Jerusalem’s feminist center. Their conversation, held last May at the offices of the Sabeel Center in Jerusalem, was moderated by Gina Benevento, a filmmaker currently producing a documentary on Hayder Abd al-Shafi, chief Palestinian negotiator at the 1991 Madrid and 1992 — 93 Washington peace talks.

Gina Benevento: The conversation today is between a Jewish Israeli woman, Terry Greenblatt, and a Palestinian Christian woman, Samia Khoury, at a time of extreme political crisis here in Israel/Palestine.

Samia, a recent e-mail you sent out commenting on the crisis here opened with a quote from Mark 14:34: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” What is the reality that you live today as a Palestinian?

Samia Khoury: Discouraged. For the first time since the occupation, I really feel scared. I am normally a very optimistic person, even since the 1967 war. And in all of my volunteer work, I have never given up hope on anything. I work with children, and I feel that it is very, very important to keep open and to look at the bright side of life, in spite of everything that’s going on. Sometimes even my friends are surprised. I walk in a room and say, “Good morning.” And they say, “How can you be so bright this morning with all that’s happening?” It’s surviving. But these days I cannot help but be scared, be worried. Every day my grandchildren go to school, I pray for the day to end without any injuries or any drastic happenings. So it is this heavy burden on my chest. It just shuts you off, your imagination, your freedom, your thinking, everything. You cannot think to yourself, I want to go see my brother, see my sister, or see my relatives at a funeral. You realize, Oh, this needs a lot of planning! You have to call so many people to check whether the roads are safe or whether you can get there. So it’s very dismal.

I personally have a share in all this suffering. One of my cousins was assassinated. My brother was deported. My son went to jail. At the beginning of the occupation in 1967, the Israeli Army took part of the Birzeit College buildings that my family had founded and owned before it was developed into a university. We gradually were able to get over these things and forgive for the sake of peace. We made more and more concessions. But now it is as if they’re telling us, “We just want to get rid of you and that’s it.”

The complacency of the world community is also unacceptable in this time. After the Nazi regime, when people used to say they didn’t know, still we blamed them. Now it’s happening again. Of course, the Jewish community always said, “Never again.” But it should be never again for everybody. Everybody!

This desperation is what’s worrying me. The desperation of people. When people become desperate it is catastrophic. You don’t know what they will do. And this is why I say the world community is stretching their luck. And Israel is stretching its luck with these young, desperate people who have nothing to lose.

Still, I cannot lose hope. I keep having hope in the humanity of people.

Gina Benevento: Is there a difference between your generation of Palestinians and the younger generation of Palestinians?

Samia Khoury: I always feel privileged that I belong to a generation that experienced living in Palestine before 1948 as Palestinians, whether we were Christians, Jews or Muslims. When we were young people and children, we had Jewish neighbors, and they were very friendly. We were all the time taking back and forth plates of goodies. And these people even came and visited my parents after 1967. We were all moved by that gesture, but I was not at home to see them. My children and grandchildren don’t know the Jews except as an Israeli occupying force. And it is very difficult to explain to them the difference.

Gina Benevento: Terry, what is your reality now as an Israeli?

Terry Greenblatt: It’s probably better for me to address that on a few different levels: Terry the Jew, Terry the director of Bat Shalom, Terry the activist, someone who believes that it is my responsibility, it is my duty, during these times, to protest in whatever way I can what is being done in my name. As a Jewish Israeli living here for about 32 years now, I have to say that it has never been more difficult to simultaneously stay open-hearted and clear-sighted to what is going on and at the same time not become self-hating. I believe that if there are enough people like me who are willing to look at the truth with an open heart and mind, that we will eventually have some sort of an impact on the policies and the ideologies that seem to be driving our leadership and the majority of our population. But we have not found the way of challenging ourselves to accept that there is another story or another narrative. Nor have we been forced by the international community to maintain reasonable, responsible international standards vis-à-vis our behavior. So without generating internal pressure and unchallenged by external pressure, we can look at what’s happening in Israel today and say, “No surprise.”

We founded a country that was supposed to provide its citizens with all kinds of security. And those very seeds that were planted to begin this enterprise, were mostly planted by people who had come from outside of this region. So there was no real ethnic connection. There’s a religious connection, there’s a historical connection, there’s a connection as a result of our historic persecution, but we’re not of the earth. That became very clear, certainly, as the Palestinian dialogue became more articulate and more effective at pointing out the connection between people and land, the community and its land.

And the other thing is that we came very damaged. There’s a whole psychology of Holocaust survivors and what that means. We never went through a process where we said, “Wait a second, we experienced a hell on earth. That had to affect us. That had to twist our ability to see, to hear, to do, to love.”

Gina Benevento: Why would Israel ever make the changes you say are needed?

Terry Greenblatt: As you know, one of the political positions that Israel has taken for quite a while now is that without being forced to, we won’t. Therefore we are turning to the international community and saying: You need to come, number one, to protect the Palestinians and, number two, to protect us against ourselves. So, no, I don’t see the signs of Israel coming to some enlightened position and saying, “Wow!” But there are these small groups of people and organizations who remain committed to holding a clear vision of the possibility of a just peace and are using the almost insignificant power that they have for those purposes. So, even in these days, there’s a voice coming out of Israel that will never allow anybody to look back and say: There was a consensus in the country that what was happening was okay. No. There were those who stood up and said, “Not in my name, not representing me,” and who did whatever they could to try to stop it.

Gina Benevento: Should you two even be here talking to each other? Samia, isn’t there the whole question of not engaging with “normalization”?

Samia Khoury: Well, I don’t think talking to Terry is normalization. I am a woman and she is a woman and we’re both concerned about peace and justice. I think that’s not creating an artificially “normal” situation. This is our duty, our responsibility as women to care for the human life.

Terry Greenblatt: Nobody likes to sit with the enemy. The only reason you do that is because if you don’t, you’ll die. There’s no other choice. So I certainly appreciate the importance of dialogue, but the word is problematic. “Dialogue” has been co-opted to be a label on efforts that in the past have not challenged in the ways that they needed to challenge.

But political dialogue between women is where I find hope. This is because women bring ourselves to the table. We don’t separate out the pieces that are inappropriate. We have fewer rules, we have fewer constrictions.

Gina Benevento: For the West and for Israelis, the Oslo peace process was great. There was peace, things were improving.

Samia Khoury: There was euphoria about the peace process on the Palestinian side, too. Of course, many of us realized that Oslo did not have the components for the just peace we sought. But people were so tired of the occupation, they felt maybe the peace process was a good sign. It was a start. I remember the first Christmas after Oslo, the euphoria. People went to pray in Bethlehem. There were no soldiers, Israeli soldiers, there was nothing. So the euphoria, I think, was in both places. But the disappointment for the Palestinians was much more than for the Israelis, because the Israelis were simply giving back what was not theirs in the first place.

Gina Benevento: From the signing of the Oslo accords up through October 2000 I moved between the two societies and it was clear to me that there was going to be an eruption, that Palestinians couldn’t continue to live this way. It was also clear that Israelis were blissfully unaware of this, or they didn’t want to be aware. So when the peace process fell apart, it didn’t surprise me or other people, but it surprised Israelis. Terry, what is your recollection and experience of that?

Terry Greenblatt: During the peace process, you couldn’t have listened to Palestinian women and remained inside of that bubble of: Oh great, the Palestinians are walking toward peace and soon we’re going to have a peace and it’s going to be over. But, you’re absolutely right, that was the pervasive sense in the country. It was, of course, supported by and encouraged by the American and Western press. Meanwhile, the Palestinians were adding up another year of occupation, another year of occupation, another year of occupation and nothing was changing on the ground.

So, post-October Israeli Jews were surprised that all of a sudden we don’t have a peace partner and the dream is gone. And the other surprise was what happened vis-à-vis Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, that moment in which Israelis felt an attack from inside. What that gave birth to was Sharon as our prime minister, with no effective political opposition inside of our government.

I read the other day that a survey of Palestinian citizens of Israel showed that only 32 percent considered themselves Israeli. So that means that 68 percent of Palestinian Israeli citizens living inside the country who are due equal rights and equal access don’t feel identified at all with their nationality. And for the first time they were unequivocal, they were articulate, they said we will no longer accept second-class citizenship and we will no longer be forced to show our loyalty to this country by cutting off our connection and our solidarity with our people, with our brothers and sisters, which has been the “catch-22” that they have been in all these years.

Samia Khoury: How much can these women’s peace groups make a dent on Israel? I read this item about the Israeli soldier who refused to serve and how supportive his mother was. Will the Israeli women be able to get their young men out of the Occupied Territories? This seems to be our only hope. Our hope and your hope.

Terry Greenblatt: Right now, I see three things that are happening — and happening dynamically. One is the women’s protest movement. There is almost not a day that goes by that there isn’t somebody somewhere out in the streets protesting something. Which is a new peace process — in other words, an energized anti-occupation peace process that acknowledges that when one country is occupying another, they cannot simultaneously sit down as equal partners in negotiations.

Number two is the effort of Bat Shalom and other groups to create as many opportunities as there can be for providing women — and men — with the opportunity to talk and learn.

And the third thing that is happening is that for the first time there is a willingness to consider as part of legitimate public discourse the issue of conscientious objection, which has been, as you know, a taboo in our society. While there is a women’s group that has initiated support for conscientious objectors and is talking about the connection between militarism and feminism, militarism and peace, my sense is that this movement is being energized by young people.

Samia Khoury: Well, that’s good.

Terry Greenblatt: Yes, but somehow we women forget that we still have no power and as wide as the circle has become, somebody has still created the circle. Otherwise, they would not let us be doing what we’re doing. We need to be able to envision beyond the structures and the institutions and men’s either/or. As women, the first thing we should think is: If he’s saying there’s only one option, there must be 20; now I have to think of those 20, and then make my decision. But I will not accept the proposition that I either love you or you’re my enemy, you’re either Israeli or Palestinian.

Samia Khoury: You’re very right about this option thing. I mean, when people tell me: You have no other option, if you don’t get on the train now, you’ll miss the train; you’ll miss the bus. Well, I’d rather miss a bus that’s going to crash than get on that bus. Talking about the Palestinians inside Israel, have there been Palestinian women, from inside Israel, active with you in a large number?

Terry Greenblatt: Yes, they have been active. We have two centers, one in Jerusalem and one up North. The Northern region is more heavily populated with Palestinian citizens of Israel than Jewish citizens of Israel. However, if you’re asking me if their agenda, if their political agenda, has informed Bat Shalom’s policies and declarations, the answer is no. If Bat Shalom is an organization that represents Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis, then it almost needs to have two agendas, two political understandings. That is something that we have been pushing for in the last year and a half, or trying to raise in whichever way possible. Because Bat Shalom’s position, up until now, has basically been a Bat Shalom Jewish Israeli position.

As one of the Palestinian women on the board of Bat Shalom said to me two or three months ago, “Because I like you and respect you, I’ve got to tell you something.” I said, “What?” She said, “I love that you brought more Palestinian women onto the board of directors. And I love that you keep pushing us to bring our agenda. But you have not heard our agenda yet, because we understand that the crisis, the critical situation, is with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Once that is finished,” she said, “I will blow you all out of the water. You need to know that there are mornings I wake up and before I open my eyes, the first thought in my head, I only wish God will only allow it, is that I will open my eyes and not see a Jew today.”

Samia Khoury: My heavens!

Terry Greenblatt: This is somebody living as a citizen in this country, in Bat Shalom, continuing to work with Jews. You cannot say she is somebody who is a separatist. And to wish me good morning, to participate, she needs for me to know that that’s what’s going on with her. I need to be able to hear that. I can’t invisibilize that. I can’t say: “I love you when you come and speak with me to a group, but I don’t want to hear that you can’t see a Jew because of what the Jews have done.”

That’s the way we’re trying to work. That’s what it means to prevail.

Samia Khoury: This is the hurt of injustice. But I think the Israelis and the Palestinians are destined to live side-by-side. Even destined to live together. I always say it’s like a Catholic marriage. I think there is so much animosity, though, that maybe there needs to be a break, a complete Palestinian state, and a complete Israeli state. And then, maybe, once there is peace, this eventually will go back to one democratic secular state because for both Israel and Palestine that would be much healthier and more viable.

Gina Benevento: I thought maybe we’d touch a little bit on what kind of religious and philosophical basis you’re working from. For me, as an international Christian, it is what Martin Luther King, Jr., said when he went to Birmingham: “I’m here because injustice is here.” Unless the Israelis deport me, I will stay here until I can help make some change. I know that Sabeel also has a credo that: I will stand for justice, I can do no other. So, I was curious about the commitment that you have to justice, you as a secular Jew, Terry, and you, Samia, as a practicing Palestinian Christian?

Samia Khoury: As a mother, if you treat one child differently to the other, you know what that’s going to do. That’s going to bring trouble. That’s going to have them at each other’s throats. Even not in your internal family. On Sunday, if one aunt comes in and treats your son differently to your daughter, your daughter is going to say: Oh, that’s a nasty aunt; why did she give him two pieces of chocolate when she gave me one? This happens every day in life. So, whether you’re religious or not, this is the structure of life. If you want peace, you have to have justice. Justice is the code of life, I feel. It is basic in everything. It gives you peace of mind, it gives you peace of your home, peace of your office, and so it extends to peace of your society. People live equally. Justice prevails and everybody is happy. If only the world community can abide by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.”

Gina Benevento: How do you, as a Palestinian, keep that belief and commitment to justice when every day, everything that you do, you’re met with injustice?

Samia Khoury: I don’t know. You just have to work at it and prove that if you don’t have justice you’re not going to have the security, you’re not going to have the peace. And this is proven every day. You cannot really back up and say: Okay, I’ll give up on justice. You cannot give up on justice, because it would be catastrophic. Of course, you can never talk about 100-percent justice, especially in terms of political issues. If I wanted 100-percent justice, I would say, “I want to go back to my house in Upper Baka’a in West Jerusalem, I want my house where I was living.” This is 100-percent justice.

This is why I think the Israelis are scared of the word justice, because they feel that justice means annihilation of the state of Israel. But in my dictionary, justice does not mean annihilation. It has been very clear that what we are asking is for relevant justice. We have accepted to establish our state on 22 percent only of historic Palestine. We are saying that very clearly. When you want to make peace, everybody has to make compromises and we have already made ours.

Terry Greenblatt: I continue to work against injustice because it is intimately connected to my own freedom. As long as I understand the world in that way, if justice is the social contract, the ideological contract between human beings or countries, then that’s the denomination that I deal in. As an Israeli Jew there’s an element of undoing or redoing or feeling that sense of responsibility to do better, do different, to try and make an individual and a communal contribution to this land that is so very special and so unique, that does justice to this divine piece of land so that whatever history will remember, or whatever contribution the Jewish people will be able to make here, that it is one of honor and deserving of the other people who live here, deserving of the other religions that are here.

Gina Benevento: Terry, what do you expect of the progressive Jewish community? And Samia, for you, what do you ask of the Christian community in the U.S.?

Terry Greenblatt: For the progressive Jewish community to be a friend and an ally to me and what I’m trying to do here, I need them to understand that they are no longer supporting Israel, or at least the kind of Israel that I believe that they would like to see, by not doing whatever they can to pressure their own governments, their own communities, to hold us accountable in the same way that they themselves hold their own countries accountable. This separate, special standard that they have awarded us, if in the past it was believed that this was the way to show your love, solidarity, support for Israel, no longer is acceptable.

Samia Khoury: Well, I would say the same thing about the Christian leaders. If Christians had been more vocal in 1948 even, it would have made a difference. Now we are hearing more voices. We see church commissions coming and they’re more interested. But interest is different from action. There has to be more action. If this is their duty as Christian leaders, as church people, are they willing to stand up in the pulpit and say: We have done these people wrong, we have to address this injustice and help force Israel, force the American government to stop sending aid to Israel to oppress people? Justice will liberate us and it will also liberate Israel from being an oppressor, because in the process of being an oppressor, you are being dehumanized.

Terry Greenblatt: I just want to add one thing. Many of the groups who have been coming since October have been Christian church-related, interfaith, and so on. Something I hear again and again is how difficult it is to try in America to present an alternative view because people are immediately labeled anti-Semites. So I think the Jewish community needs to serve as allies with the Christian community so that when they are attacked in that way, they are not left out there hanging.

Gina Benevento: Is there any reason for hope for the future?

Samia Khoury: That’s just like asking us: Why don’t you die tomorrow? Of course there’s hope. As long as there is life there is hope. I continue to have hope as long as there are Terrys, and Samias, and Ginas in this world — and as long as there are children who come and say, “Good morning Grandma,” there is reason for hope.

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