When we think of Israeli/Palestinian relations, the first images that come to mind are those of violent conflict and the pursuit of peace that seems to go nowhere. It is an intractable situation – or is it?
Perhaps we just need to approach the issue from a different vantage point.
That is exactly what a group of 20 Israeli women from the Western Galilee – Jews, Arabs, Christians and Druse – are doing. Last month, 17 members of the Women Creating Dialogue: Breaking Down Barriers group came to Louisville to share their message of hope and understanding.
The program started last March when the Matte Asher Regional Council of the Western Galilee asked for volunteers to begin a women’s dialogue group among the different groups that live in the area. Twenty women answered the call.
“I’ve always wanted to create dialogue, but never had the chance to communicate and ask questions,” one of the women said. This group was an opportunity to “make a change or break a myth.”
The meetings started simply enough. Two members of the group from different backgrounds prepared a meal and the entire group got together to eat and to get to know each other. At first, the discussion was kept neutral. The participants soon discovered that they had much more in common than the expected. “We are just women,” one of them said.
And as women, with many common issues and concerns, got to know each other, they became friends. They tasted each other’s foods and experimented with each other’s traditions. For instance, they described a hijab party, where the Jewish women tried on the traditional Islamic headgear to see what it felt like.
Only after they had gotten to know each other and had become friends did they broach the more difficult issues, and by that time, they were able to agree to disagree.
Now the program is jointly sponsored by Matte Asher and Partnership2Gether, which is why the group came the Louisville, the final stop on their tour of three Partnership communities that also included Northwest Indiana and Indianapolis.
Their commitment to the project is evident in everything they do and say. In fact, many of the women are mothers of young children, including one with a nine-month-old baby. They left their husbands and children to bring their message to the Partnership communities in America. They came to dispel ignorance about what is happening in Israel and to showcase their commitment to change and their real hope for peace. It’s all about treating your neighbors as humans, they explained.
While in Louisville, the women spoke to a wide variety of groups and mixed in visits to some Louisville tourist attractions, including the Speed Museum.
The group’s first formal stop was a DuPont Manual High School, where they presented their story to journalism students and Dr. Muhammad Babar, a leader in Louisville’s Muslim community who frequently works with the Jewish community, served as moderator. The group reported that the students asked many good questions.
The women also visited Fred Whittaker’s class at St. Francis of Assisi, Louisville Beit Sefer Yachad and the Temple Hebrew School.
On Tuesday evening, September 27, Louisville’s Islamic Center on River Road opened its doors to a community event organized by Interfaith Paths to Peace. IPP Director Haleh Karimi welcomed everyone and coordinated presentations by Anne Walters representing the Buddhist Deprung Gomang Center; Rev. Susan EngPoole representing Christian tradition; Rabbi Gaylia Rooks representing Jewish tradition; Rita Butler from the Bah̕a’i tradition; and Imam Wasif Iqbal, the mosque’s spiritual leader, from the Islamic tradition.
Each leader spoke briefly about the traditions of peace within his/her own faith tradition before the Israeli women gave their presentation. Dr. Babar, who is also a member of the Islamic Center’s Board, and Matt Goldberg, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the facilitator for Partnership2Gether in Louisville, also spoke briefly.
The highlight of the evening came when Imam Iqbal invited everyone present to join in the Islamic evening prayers. It was an emotional and fulfilling experience for all. Aly Goldberg, who chaired the Israeli women’s visit in Louisville, said, “They allowed everyone to go and pray with the imam and the Jewish women came out in tears, saying how moving this was. This had never happened before and they said how fortunate they feel about being in this program.”
For the Israeli women it was another opportunity to share traditions. Earlier in their American they shared a Shabbat service at a synagogue, which was a first for many of the non-Jewish women. The shared experiences further strengthened their bonds.
The next morning, the group spoke at the Muhammad Ali Center and Christopher 2X served as the moderator. The audience included representatives from several nonprofit agencies, including women’s organizations and the Urban League.
2X talked his peace advocacy work, which focuses on reducing the violence, particularly shootings, in Louisville. He discussed his work with law enforcement that grew out of the shooting of Michael Newby, a 19-year-old Black teen killed by a white police officer in 2004. In that case, Newby’s parents sought 2X’s help to calm the community and prevent further violence following their son’s death.
2X called on those present to become peace and justice advocates. “Christopher 2X was inspired by the women, Goldberg said, “and was able to translate what they do into his interracial relations here in Louisville.”
The group’s final stop in Louisville was at The Temple’s Klein Center, where they shared a Middle Eastern dinner with a large group, mostly from the Jewish community before giving their presentation again.
What are the group’s next steps? The women will continue their friendship and plan to involve their husbands and children in their activities. But that is just the beginning. These 20 women are a leadership group. Building on their success, each plans to begin a new circle of 20 women to begin a growing circle of friendship and understanding which, they hope, will pave the way to a real peace.
“My vision,” one of the women added, “Is that one day, we won’t be so special. We will just be a group of women who do things together. And my hope is [that our project] will go through all of Israel.”
To ensure that their hosts would remember their visit and their efforts to build peace one friendship at a time, the visitors presented hamsas that they had made and cookbooks created from the recipes they had shared to their organizers and hosts.
While in Louisville, the Israeli visitors enjoyed the home hospitality of Eddie Cohen and Dafna Schurr, Jeff and Aly Goldberg, Mehdi and Haleh Karimi, Lisa and Robert Klein, Michael and Margie Kommor, Ron and Sue Paul, Matt and Cindy Schwartz, and Rick and Tamar Schwartz.
“All the host families did an incredible job,” Aly Goldberg said, “and received top scores on the surveys when their guests left. … Hopefully, we can do more programs like this in the future.”
Partnership2Gether is a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Federation of Louisville has participated in this project since its inception in 2017. Louisville is part of the Central Area Consortium that also includes Des Moines, IA; Ft. Wayne, Indianapolis and Northwest Indiana; Omaha, NE; Buffalo, NY; Dayton, South Bend, Toledo and Youngstown, OH; Austin, Ft. Worth and San Antonio, TX in the United States; Budapest, Hungary; and Akko and Matte Asher in Israel.
It offers opportunities for individuals and families in Louisville to develop personal connections with people in the Western Galilee. Past projects have been in the fields of education, medicine, the arts and business. Other projects can be developed based on individuals’ interests.
With this program, leadership of Louisville’s Partnership program transitioned from Laura and Jon Klein, who chaired the program for several years to Lisa and Robert Klein, who now chair the program.