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Israeli and Palestinian Women Meet on a Mountaintop

And despite the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006, two wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, continued rocket fire, and worldwide conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, our women's group in Akko continues to meet -- an accomplishment in itself.
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With the radio newscaster announcing that peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were floundering, once again, I got ready to attend a Palestinian-Israeli women's meeting in Haifa the other morning.

"Again?" my husband Jonny asked. "It's a waste of time!"

Undeterred, I still drove with my women friends -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai and Druze -- all of us members of a peace group in the mixed city of Akko, Northern Israel, to welcome a delegation of 23 Christian and Muslim women who'd made a reverse pilgrimage from Bethlehem, in the Palestinian Authority, 80 miles away to Haifa, Israel.

We gathered at the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center which, since 1995, has sponsored more than 1,000 Palestinian women to come to Israel for a few days of travel and meeting with their Israeli counterparts for what Bracha Steiner, the Social and Cultural Coordinator at the Center calls "intensive days of debate, discussion, soul-searching and friendship forging."

The women, coming from in and around Bethlehem, are chaperoned by Antoinette Knesevitch, a 78-year-old Christian woman from Bethlehem who views these trips with missionary fervor. Over the years, Ms. Knesevitch said, she has brought women from the Palestinian Authority who "lived their lives with only hatred for Israelis in their hearts." But after the three-day trip in and around Israel, meeting women and seeing a different reality, "they change their ideas. We're all tired of the conflict. We all want peace."

Those words are music to the ears of this New Yorker who grew up attending peace demonstrations against the Vietnam War and moved to Israel to work for peace in 1991. Since I've lived in Northern Israel, I've attended more than my share of peace meetings. Sometimes, I come home encouraged; other times, I'm ready to call it quits. That happened a few years ago, after attending a dialogue session with another Palestinian women's delegation at the Center. The meeting happened to fall on Holocaust Memorial Day. I'd arranged for a Holocaust survivor to share her life's experiences, followed by some of the Palestinian women to share their life stories, thinking that it would be enlightening for all of us. I was naively thinking along the lines of an American-style self-help group and I was shocked when some of the Palestinian women shouted down the Holocaust survivor and refused to let her speak. That day, I learned the bitter lesson that the Western concept of civil discourse -- the idea that we can agree to disagree -- is hard to come by in the Middle East.

I stayed away from the meetings for a while and then I returned because not trying to find some way for Israeli and Palestinian women to connect with one another seems far more depressing than attempting some kind of dialogue. Even if it's only small talk about children, families, cooking, and men.

"We've learned to keep the discussion away from politics," said Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah, a Druze professor of Gender Studies at Haifa Teachers' College who is also founder of our Akko group. "If we keep talking about whose fault it is, then we'll never solve anything."

The meeting this time was more celebratory and less confrontational, including short presentations by the Ambassadors of Finland and the Republic of Slovenia, both women. ("Let's face it," Yvonne Jaar, a Christian visitor who works as clothes importer in Bethlehem, said to me during a break, "No matter where, religion causes problems.) I had a few nice conversations and left, once again, doubting that small groups of women getting together on a Haifa mountaintop can influence our nations' leaders. Ms. Knesevitch disagreed. "A thousand women here and there will spread the message of peace," she said, quoting that amusing adage, "Woman is the neck and the man is the head, but the neck moves the head, right?"

And despite the Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006, two wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, continued rocket fire, and worldwide conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, our women's group in Akko continues to meet -- an accomplishment in itself. For the past 10 years, we've held city-wide student writing contests in Arabic and Hebrew, festivals for Jewish and Arab artists and we've even built a peace playground in the city.

"So was it a waste of time?" Jonny asked when I got home.

"Maybe," I said. "But giving up and refusing to try is a waste of time."

And time is running out.

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