Yesterday, I listened to two women talk of their experiences in the Middle East. Two women, both mothers, both wanting peace, both wanting the same thing for all the children – a “normal” life, with plans, hopes and dreams.
Both women have interesting stories to tell, stories you may not expect, given their background.
Nonie Darwish, a muslim, born in Cairo, Egypt, moved to Gaza in the 1950’s when her father, Lt. Col. Mustafa Hafaz was sent to Gaza by Gamal Abdel Nasser to create and lead the fedayeen. The fedayeen militant resistance movement’s sole mission was to destroy Israel. Hafaz was one of the first targeted assassinations carried out by the Israeli Defence Forces in 1956 and he became a martyr or “shahid”. By the time of his death, the fedayeen were well establised.
Miri Eisen, a jew, raised in San Rafael, California, moved to Tel Aviv, Israel in 1970, when she was nine. After completing school, she joined the Israeli Defense Forces for her compulsory service. After college, she rejoined military intelligence, eventually being promoted to colonel and often seen as the “face of Israeli security” on the television.
In the 1990’s, Israel experienced an economic boom and the population grew rapidly, fuelled mostly by immigrants. Israelis saw the 1990’s as a good time, but Palestinians saw a different picture. Palestinians saw a worsening economy and their hopes for statehood were denied. Their leaders blamed it all on Israel.
Nonie says that, as a child, she was taught to hate jews, at home and in school. In Israeli schools, the walls have drawings of families and everyday things. In Palestinian schools, the walls contain pictures of shahids – suicide bombers.
Miri says one of her biggest challenges in Israel was bringing up children and keeping them safe. She wants more for her children and more for arab children too.
The women got together only a week ago, to talk about tolerance and to bring their message to people across the USA. Yesterday, they completed a one-week sweep, talking to groups in Washington DC, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and San Jose and San Francisco California.
Not all groups were sympathetic to their cause, but Nonie and Miri seek people who are prepared to listen, no matter what their position. At the end of this initial US sweep, they are at the beginning of a journey for change.
I asked the women how they were going to get their message across, given the traditional stranglehold on control held by men who see violence as the way forward.
They said it would not be easy, because arab women are discouraged from speaking out. They generally lack education and under Sharia Law, women have no rights. Nonie, as an arab woman may not be listened to and Palestinians are not likely to trust an Israeli colonel. They are asking for more women to have the courage to speak out, but Palestinian women generally have no status, unless they bring their children forward for martyrdom.
Only when they sacrifice their children, it appears they have status, but only because the terrorists know the west values women. In Palestinian society, respect is given to radicals who promote violence, not to those wanting peace. As time goes on, the radicals become more powerful and moderates are repressed and silenced.
Nonie and Miri want to stop the brainwashing of their children. They want families to tell their children they can become anything they like. They want moderate muslims to stand up and take back their children from the terrorists. Nonie wants to reform her religion, so that the clerics stop calling for the destruction of Israel and America because this terrorism is hurting Islam.
The Palestinians are not being kept in refugee camps by Israel. It is the rich muslim world that keeps them as refugees, using the Palestinians to suppress and influence their own populations.
The women ask some interesting questions.
After getting their message across to people sympathetic to their cause and dissenters who are at least prepared to listen to what they say, the real challenge lays ahead.
The women don’t yet know exactly how they will get their message to the people who can make changes to stop teaching children to hate. It will be a gradual process. I suspect the message will flow from the west on the conduit of family ties, back into the middle east. Perhaps, if part of the story makes sense to the government, elements of their ideas will affect forein policy.
Whatever happens, it will be a long journey. Things must change because as it is, the Middle East is on a course for disaster. With people on both sides talking and teaching hate, it will not be easy, but it must be tried.