Engaging Grandmothers: Israeli and Palestinian Women Share Their Stories

In a small office in the West Bank town of Beit Jallah, just 10 minutes by car from Jerusalem, Tamara Rabinowitz and Siham Abu Awwad sit sipping thick Arabic coffee and finishing each other's sentences. To many in their communities they would seem a very unlikely pair of friends. Tamara, who immigrated to Israel from London in 1960, lost her son Ido in 1987 when he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon. Siham's brother Youssef was shot and killed by an IDF soldier at a checkpoint near their village. Her mother was a Palestinian political activist who served time in Israeli prison, along with three of Siham's brothers.

Tamara and Siham are members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of 600 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian family members meeting face-to-face and working toward reconciliation and peace since 1995. Through dialogue groups, educational high school programs, public events, media campaigns and more, the organization works to humanize the other side of the conflict, change attitudes and improve each group's understanding of the other so that a durable peace can ultimately be possible. The Parents Circle-Families Forum was recently commended as a model voice for peace and reconciliation by President Barak Obama in his Middle East speech on May 19, 2011.

The Parents Circle Women's Group has held three meetings annually since its launch five years ago, creating the space for women to speak candidly with one another about their thoughts and experiences in the conflict. Through facilitated workshops as well as activities such as art, dance and cooking, the women of the forum are able to engage in fruitful dialogue and build bonds of friendship.

Tamara and Siham laughed as they recounted a past meeting of the Parents Circle Women's Group at Tamara's home that entailed an exchange of Israeli and Palestinian recipes and a lesson in sushi-making. Siham, who claims to hate the taste of fish, threw up her hands in mock exasperation. "The things I do for peace!" she joked.

Tamara joined the Parents Circle early on. "As soon as my son was killed I knew I wouldn't allow my children to think every Arab was an enemy," she said. "The easiest thing is to be angry. It is a harder choice to choose peace. But once you've made your choice you can breathe again."

After the death of Siham's brother Youssef, Siham's mother became very active in the group but could never persuade her daughter to join. It was not until Siham met Tamara at her mother's memorial service and felt what the two describe as an instant chemistry that Siham also made the difficult choice to work toward peace and reconciliation instead of revenge. Siham gave Tamara, who reminded her of her mother, a dress her mother had embroidered during her four years in an Israeli prison.

The Narratives Unfold

The pair jointly facilitated a series of workshops over six months in 2010 between 16 Israeli and 16 Palestinian grandmothers as part of the Parents Circle's History Through the Human Eye Program. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded program centers on reconciliation through the use of personal narratives with the aim of building trust, empathy and mutual understanding of each group's parallel narrative. The grandmothers group is one of 12 different groups, including students, educators, the media, farmers and politicians.

"The basis is storytelling," Tamara explained. "We wanted to hear the narrative of the other side, which isn't always easy to listen to since we are so-called enemies. Narratives don't have to meet though. We don't have to agree - just to listen and to try to understand."

Participants in the "Grannies Project"1 included women who were members of the Parents Circle as well as women who had never before come face-to-face with someone from the other side. For some of the Palestinian women the only Israelis they had ever met were soldiers, while for some Israeli women their knowledge of Palestinians came primarily from the media.

Prior to the project, a few of the Israeli participants had spent time monitoring checkpoints with Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch), a group of Israeli women peace activists who document the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, yet they had never gotten to know a Palestinian on a personal level.

After decades of segregation, mutual vilification and dehumanization, several participants from both sides were initially reluctant and defensive prior to meeting the other group. "The idea of the other having their own narrative was not acceptable," Siham said, recounting the tone of the Palestinian group's first meeting in preparation for the first joint meeting. "For many of them this is the first time you meet someone as a human with a real life. You see they are normal people. They get married, raise children and have a life."

At one point, Tamara recalled, one of the Israeli women walked out of the session in tears, overwhelmed by the stories of hardship from her Palestinian counterparts, which she had never before heard. Reaching that level of understanding and empathy, however, took time.

The project featured four components in its series of meetings and workshops. In addition to hearing lectures on each group's collective narrative, participants engaged in personal storytelling, sharing their own individual narratives of pain, hope and the stories of their lives as women. "We can look at each other as humans, as mothers, as grandmothers, as women," Tamara explained. "It doesn't matter what our heritage or our narrative is. We have so much in common."

As co-facilitators and dear friends, Tamara and Siham served as a model for the group in communication and coexistence. "We are like yin and yang when we work together," Tamara said. "There could be tension in the group but never between Siham and me."

Despite the physical and psychological walls that initially divided the two groups of women, by relating to one another on a personal level the women of the Grannies Project were able to chip away at those walls until ultimately they came tumbling down.

"Without men around, the women were empowered to tell their story. They didn't need permission from anyone. This strengthened them as individuals, as a group and as women," Tamara explained. As the meeting progressed the women developed friendships and empathy for one another. "It is part of our DNA as women to relate to other women and ask what we can do for each other," she said.

Together the group visited the Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem and the Arab village of Ein Karem, abandoned in 1948 when its inhabitants were forced to flee. The family of one of the Palestinian participants was among those who fled the village in 1948. This was the first time she had ever been able to visit. Hearing the stories of the Nakba, Israeli women learned the significance of the old keys to the abandoned or destroyed houses that so many of the Palestinian women still held onto.

At both sites, the women confronted the tragedies that shape each group's collective narratives. For some, this was their first encounter with these dark events in the other's history and a pivotal moment of understanding the origin of the other's fear and pain.

"You cannot compare between the pain," said Siham. She recounted the story of one Palestinian woman in particular who left the Yad Vashem museum distraught. Pouring water over her face she kept repeating the words "I did not know. I did not know." Another Palestinian woman asked for copies of the photographs she had seen in the museum so that she could tell her family about what she had witnessed.

The Ripple Effect: The Impact of Humanizing the Other

Tamara and Siham describe what they call "the ripple effect" of this type of face-to-face encounter with the other and the other's narrative. This effect is especially powerful in a women's group since women, and particularly grandmothers, in Palestinian and Israeli society command tremendous respect and influence over their families. These grandmothers return to their communities and recount what they have experienced and people listen. The Grannies Project paints a whole new picture of who the other side truly is and empowers them to refute the idea that everyone from the other side is the enemy.

During the last session of the Grannies Project participants were divided into small groups of Israeli and Palestinian women together. They were handed a large piece of paper with the outline of a house sketched on it and nothing but a roof filled in. The groups were told to draw their dream house, one that would accommodate all of them, regardless of their nationality. The women drew vibrant pictures and symbols of their lives - children, olive trees, water wells and, notably, not one symbol of hatred or violence.

Although the Grannies Project has formally ended, the women have been paired up across groups and will carry their friendships and dialogue well beyond the project. Their stories, along with the other narratives collected through the History Through the Human Eye Program, will be transformed into a book and a film, extending the impact of the project far beyond its participants.

Meanwhile, through the Parents Circle Women's Group, Tamara and Siham continue to work tirelessly for peace and reconciliation between their societies, supporting each other as colleagues and friends and proving that the psychological barriers constructed between Israelis and Palestinians can in fact be overcome.

"There are two types of people you cannot stop," Siham explained. "The suicide bomber and the peacemaker…. They can talk about a two-state solution, a one-state solution, a thousand-state solution. I say I don't care about states. I do not want a state for graves. I want a state for my kids. I don't want to be the mother of a dead body."

Tamara nodded in agreement. "Some things are right and some things are wrong," she added. "You just have to be human to know that."

1 There is also a "Grannies Project" in California.