On the eve of this year's Gazan war, I listened to the Israeli radio calling up battalions to report for duty -- it can be so easy to hate. Every American, every Israeli, and every Palestinian knows this. Since September 11th, Americans have known the heartbreak of innocent lives lost from hate and zealotry. We three groups also know that giving in to hate will solve nothing -- lessons we have painfully learned.
What we need now, what we have always needed, are those in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Europe, and the United States to stand up, be brave, and find ways for those divided to come together. This is not some idealistic wish-thinking -- I have seen it happen; I have seen it change lives. And if it can do that, it can change countries.
Nearly ten years ago, I filmed A Slim Peace, documenting what happened when women who were secular Israeli Jews, Jewish settlers, West Bank Muslims, and Bedouin came together in a health and nutrition group run by a Jewish and a Muslim woman. Most had never met the likes of their counterparts before, and most never would have. But in that setting, they connected and empathy and understanding grew. 20 more groups like that followed.
Some on the right labeled these efforts to bridge the divide futile; some on the left labeled them agents of Israeli occupation. The women who participated in them knew them for what they were -- one of many possible ways of rebuilding connections and empathy for groups emotionally divided but physically less than miles apart.
It is haunting, sometimes, the timing and coincidence of things. Gush Etzion, outside Jerusalem, is where the group in A Slim Peace met. It was also from where the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped. The day we learned about the kidnapping was the final session of Slim Peace Chicago. Slim Peace Boston ended a few days before the Boston Marathon tragedy.
Chicago? Boston? We and the women who have participated in these programs have found there is a need for them in the United States and that Boston was not unlike Jerusalem -- just as segregated, just as full of prejudice and anti-Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. In the Middle East, we had terrorist attacks outside our meeting site. And so we did in Boston.
The women in all of the groups have shown we need bravery from Israelis and Palestinians. It takes courage to meet in the middle, to eschew hate and tolerate differences. It takes courage to recognize that we are more alike than we are different and then to act on that recognition.
Speaking recently with a Muslim dietitian who helped lead one our U.S. city's groups, her tears came. The images from both sides of the conflict are heartbreaking. She is not sure she can continue to lead her city's groups. She is afraid; she is ambivalent.
This conversation was an echo of one I had nearly seven years ago with a Palestinian coordinator we worked with in Bethlehem. A Palestinian Ministry of Education official had urged her not to work with us, not to send the seven Christian-Arab and Muslim teenage girls she had recruited to participate in the upcoming group to meet seven Jewish teenage girls in Jerusalem for eight weeks, once a week, in a health program.
The co-director at the time, a Palestinian dietitian, called her and told her "don't let them win." She didn't. She sent the girls, who did not talk politics -- they wanted to know what their principal looked like, how many hours of homework they had.
For many, it was like meeting someone from another planet: most of the Palestinian girls had never met a Jew who was not a soldier; most of the Jewish girls thought all Arabs wanted to kill them. Some became friends, but all left with the fact they were all human beings desiring peace, love, health, a full life.
And so I said to our Muslim dietitian in the United States what had been said to me and the Palestinian coordinator years ago: Don't let them -- those people who hate, hate Israel, hate Jews, hate Muslims, hate tolerance -- win. Be brave. It is easy to hate and pick sides. It is much harder to step outside your group and meet "the other."
And so I say to those who, within the Middle East and without, believe that you cannot build tolerance, that it is unwanted, that those across the border are "other" -- you are wrong. And, with your help, they can prove it.