To describe Sarah (name is changed to protect her identity) in a few words is a difficult task, as she is a complex woman. She's a strong, dynamic woman of conscience who lives in several worlds. This sounds complicated, and it is.
I first met Sarah at our introduction to our EAPPI placement. She attended the “thank you party” that the outgoing team was holding as they prepared to leave. We spoke at length about her work for the organization, Combatants for Peace. (From their mission statement on their website, Combatants for Peace describes their formation in the following manner: “In 2006 Israeli and Palestinian former combatants laid down their weapons and established the organization. It is founded on the belief that the cycle of violence can only be broken when Israelis and Palestinians join forces. We work to end the Israeli occupation through nonviolence to build a peaceful future for all.”) It was immediately obvious to me that Sarah was a self-possessed confident woman, exuding warmth and a commitment to humanity. I was intrigued to learn more about her and was able to do that over coffee a few months later.
Sarah began our discussion by talking about her childhood. She grew up in an Egyptian/ Jewish family. Her grandmother did not speak Hebrew although her mother, speaking seven languages, favoured French the most. She shared ashamedly about her embarrassment as a youngster hearing her grandmother speak Arabic. This feeling gradually changed as her dad worked in Nablus in the 1970s, which allowed her to move between the two worlds of Palestine and Israel. Sarah confesses that her young life was one of conflict, living as a Jew, speaking Hebrew in Tel Aviv, Israel.
As she matured, she faced another conflict in her young life. As is still the case today, 18- to 21-year-old Israelis are conscripted into the Israeli military. Sarah is quick to tell me that she “did not choose the army but chose to go into the navy.” She said she “hated it, although [she does] not hate anyone in the military in particular.” After her decommissioning, she married and began raising her family, but something was not right in her life. She knew firsthand of the problems of the occupation from her time in the military. She felt a yearning for something else.
It came time for Sarah’s son to serve in the Israeli army. She feared for him and what he would be forced to do, as she was aware of the often-cruel tasks that the system of occupation imposes on the Palestinian people.
Sarah confided in me that “I feared for my son's psychological, as well as, physical well-being. I cautioned him against any actions he would not later be able to live with.” She knew, from her own experience, the cost of such actions.
However the turmoil continued in Sarah's life as she saw her son in the faces of every soldier she met on the streets and at the checkpoints, in Tel Aviv and in the West Bank. Her heart ached for all those soldiers and also for the Palestinian people being occupied.
The world, as it was, was not a world in which Sarah could comfortably live. Her desire to contribute to the dismantling of the occupation drove her to take positive action.
In 2001, Combatants for Peace held their first annual Memorial Day in recognition of all the people on both sides whose lives have been ruined by the consequences of the occupation. Sarah attended one of these ceremonies and knew immediately that it was a good fit for her. It encompassed all her values. She could contribute in a meaningful way. “It afforded me the opportunity to do something as an Israeli Jew, as a former member of the military whose children are soldiers. Combatants for Peace connects Israelis and Palestinians whose aim it is to stop the occupation through on-the-ground, non-violent methods.”
I can attest to this fact, as earlier this month I was present at an olive harvest in which Sarah and other members of Combatants for Peace took part. They were instrumental in negotiating with the soldiers (who shut down the harvest eventually). Without the presence of Combatants for Peace, Israeli activists and Internationals (EAPPI), perhaps there would have been no dialogue and the farmer would have risked being physically attacked.
Sarah confessed that “hearing combatants’ memories is painful” for her, but she also said that “…it made sense. Pain is the same for both people.” I mused as Sarah spoke – there is another way, an alternative to violence. Too many people are suffering. Too many have died.
When one makes such a commitment in an environment such as the one in Palestine and Israel there are bound to be repercussions and so I asked Sarah how her friends and family have reacted to her choice. “I have lost friends,” she says, “and relatives.” She paused. “My brother-in-law won't allow me in his house to see my sister. The commitment to peace is serious and stressful. Losing good friends over opposing ideologies and not having family around is painful.” We paused to sip our coffee, and then Sarah changed the subject.
“There are many Israelis, both men and women, in Combatants for Peace. There are not many Arab women,” she said. “Women see the world differently. The organization would benefit from Palestinian women's involvement. But, it is difficult as both sides are brainwashed.” She repeated the stereotype of each side: “All Palestinians are terrorists, all Israelis hate Palestinians, all Israelis are victims.”
As complicated as Sarah's life is, it is becoming more complicated. She has fallen in love with a Palestinian Combatants for Peace member who lives in the West Bank. They are engaged to be married very soon. Sarah and her children live in Tel Aviv, while her fiancé and his family live in the West Bank. She is able to live with him but he cannot go to Tel Aviv on a permanent basis because of the occupation. Sarah confirms that she will remain Jewish. They will be married in a civil service.
Stress of the long day began to show on Sarah's face. She had traveled from Tel Aviv after a long day at work. The discussion had been reflective for her, revisiting the pain she felt. Our conversation ends with a repeated admission: living in two worlds is difficult. Although she is ecstatic about her decision to marry her Palestinian fiancé, she continues to see her family in the faces of the soldiers she meets. Soldiers are the face of the occupation. She sees the faces of fear in her fiancé's children as they encounter soldiers on a day-to-day basis. What would she do if the unthinkable occurred? The irony of her situation is that this fear has already been realized by her future husband. He was injured by soldiers and must now use a wheelchair. “My fiancé and I both hope that the world for our children will be different. We have to have hope.”
Sarah's personal history and her experience as an advocate for peace are inspiring. She is paving the way as she challenges, in a non-violent way, the normalization of the occupation and its violation of human rights. It is fitting that she share the next chapter of her life with a man whose passion, commitment, and humanity are equal to hers.
— A. Margaret is a retired secondary school teacher and Curriculum Leader from the Toronto District School Board and an active member of The United Church of Canada. Her strong faith has led her through the long journey to participation in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). She feels it is a privilege to act out her faith in a practical manner as peace and justice have been on her radar for many years.
The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is an initiative under the WCC’s Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East. Its mission is to accompany churches in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in their non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation and support a just peace in the Middle East.
Does this blog pique your interest to participate in people-to-people opportunities with global partners? Interested in having a speaker visit your community? We invite you to find out more at the People in Partnership webpage or by emailing us at pip [at] united-church.ca.