Ruth Lee lost her son during the '67 war - he was killed on the border of Egypt and Israel. "Let us stop the bloodshedding," she said as she organized a women's peace movement called "Gesher," which is Hebrew for `bridge.' One on one, Arab and Jewish women meet in each other's homes and begin the process of making friends with their most bitter enemies.
A letter was sent to Jihan Sadat, wife of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was later assassinated for his unprecedented peace agreement with Israel. Mrs. Sadat encouraged the women to continue in their efforts to bridge the gap of enmity between Arab and Jew.Sixteen years later, the organization is 200 strong and one of 16 such peace groups operating in Haifa. "Things can be accomplished from the bottom up just like from the top down," said Vivian Gold during a Gesher meeting with American journalists.
Hana Jacobsen, an Israeli, said of the gatherings, "We can share things in an informal setting, in the more intimate atmosphere of a home." She told about meetings that took place in Daliyt el Carmel, the Druze village that overlooks Haifa from Mount Carmel and also in Acco, just north of Haifa.
The women of Gesher consider Haifa the perfect prototype of a city where peace between Arab and Jew can exist. They point with pride to the Arab professors at the University of Haifa and to the number of Arab doctors and professionals. "If we can show trust, security and confidence, then we will bring a new atmosphere," said Mrs. Mansur Lank.
They have joined with "Peace Now" in supporting an Arab professor demonstrating for him at Beir Zeit University.
Ruth Bear explained the high cost of living in a country that has seen four wars. "After the '67 war a new word came into our dictionary: hatred." Bear found that her involvement in the peace group angered many of her hardline Jewish neighbors. "Some of my friends don't speak to me anymore," she said.
One of the Arab women at the Gesher meeting requested that her name not be used. She said, "When I was younger, I never hated Jewish people but as I grew up, I came to feel the inequality here. We don't hate this country, but we want to be full citizens. We want our rights."
Vivian Gold told how the group went into the West Bank to show support. "A little understanding on both sides can contribute to Arab and Jew working together," she said. Gold was touched by the response from Arab women when the Jewish women of Gesher went into East Jerusalem hospitals to visit injured Arab youths. "They really thought that Jewish women hated them and didn't care what was happening to their sons," she said. "I was very hurt when (Defense Minister) Rabin came out with the iron fist policy. Beating people doesn't make friends."
Newsweek International reporter Joan Westreich stayed on in Israel at the conclusion of the press tour. In a telephone interview from New York, she told of visiting members of Gesher individually. "There were many differences of opinion when I met with them one-on-one," she said. "They were not as united as when they met together."
But the group is undaunted at the monumental task of structuring peace between two such disparate societies. Arab Lanya De Pina related her feelings about the inequality an Israeli Arab faces. " We have not open fields for work, there are many jobs forbidden an Arab. Because of security, Arabs cannot serve in the army. But when hiring for jobs, priority is given to those with army service. The financial aid in municipalities and schools is not equal. It ends up with all of us afraid and not able to trust each other," she said.
De Pina was angry that her daughter was prevented from serving in the Israeli army. "My daughter wrote a letter saying she was an Israeli citizen and wanted to give service to her country," De Pina said. But when she and her daughter went in for interviews, discrimination was evident. "They said they would speak Hebrew slowly so my daughter could understand. She speaks fluent Hebrew. Then they said they'd have her translate for her mother because she obviously wouldn't speak Hebrew, which was insulting to me." De Pina said they finally left after her daughter was asked if she would become Jewish if she went into the army.
But the crucial fact that Israel is a democracy in a non-democratic area is not lost on the women. The meeting, which was sponsored by the American Jewish Federation, was often extremely critical of Israeli policies. The Arab women were adamant in their support for a Palestinian state and for full equality of rights for Israeli Arabs. But they did not want to live in the new Palestinian state. "I'm an Israeli," said the Arab women who didn't want her name used. "This is my country."
-Karen Boren Swedin spent 12 days in Israel on a press tour partially subsidized by the American Zionist Federation and the United Jewish Council of Utah.