The making of a peace activist

Ruth Firer
16 July 2003

Sometimes, I wonder how a Jewish, Israeli, Ashkenazi, secular woman, the daughter and granddaughter of Polish officers, who served as an officer in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), became a soldier of peace.

The Nazis in Poland exterminated my entire family; the only survivors were officers, expelled by the Russians from Poland and thus rescued. The Bolsheviks murdered my grandfather in the Katyn forest massacres of 1940. My uncle and father escaped death; they were sent to the army to fight the Germans. I was born in a Sofchoz, a Soviet agricultural camp on the border of Mongolia that was meant for Polish prisoners.

After the second world war my father began the long search for our family. No one was left. No one in my family ever talked about the Holocaust after that. After staying in an American camp for displaced persons in Stuttgart, Germany, my father decided to try his luck in the new state of Israel where he felt Jews would be able to protect themselves. This forged the basis of my Zionist Israeli identity. If Freud’s analysis that one’s childhood is central, my route to peace education began in my military family against the background of the silenced Holocaust.

As a young woman, I was a leader in the Labour Zionist Pioneer youth movement, and later trained as an officer in the IDF. I felt divided: both part of Israeli society, and an outsider. I graduated in General History, Jewish History and English and American Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Through my studies I sought my Jewish, Zionist, Israeli identity. The Holocaust represented the past, and Zionism the future.

As a history and civic studies teacher at the Hebrew Gymnasia in Jerusalem, the students quickly dubbed me their teacher of Zionism. As a result, I decided to learn something about real politics and joined the Labour party in Jerusalem.

An education in peace

In the early 1980s, I established an umbrella organisation of 58 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported by the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. My aim was to address issues including coexistence, democracy, and anti-racist education; to promote equal co-existence between Israelis of all nationalities and religions, and to shift the focus of the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict from cultural to political issues.

This was the first time that I had worked with Israeli Arabs (some of them preferred later to be called ‘Israeli Palestinians’); all I knew about them was based on information drawn from Israeli mass media and officially-sanctioned publications.

During these years I learned that Zionism’s fulfilment in the long term depends on Israel living in peace with her Arab neighbours. This belief was tested during the first intifada (1987-1993) and validated during the Oslo period (1993-2000).

As a result, I established the Forum of Peace Education at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I began to teach a course entitled: ‘From War Culture to Peace Education and Conflict Transformation’ to a mixed class that included Jews, Muslims and Christians.

At the same time I also met fellow researchers from Palestinian universities, and invited them to cooperate in a joint research project. As a historian and teacher I was very aware of the significance of history in moulding the national memory and attitudes to war and peace.

My doctoral thesis was on Israeli history and civic studies as “agents” of national education. Comparing Palestinian textbooks (at the time Jordanian and Egyptian, and genuinely post-2000 Palestinian ones) with the Israeli textbooks was and still is a joint challenge.

I believe that such a comparison, and ensuing recommendations for improvement, can be the start of change from the culture of war to the culture of peace in schools of both nations. Action research followed the theoretical analysis, and with my Palestinian colleagues, we inserted units of peace education into Israeli and Palestinian middle schools and scouting movements.

Working so closely with Palestinian colleagues was an education in itself: as a feminist, western, secular Jewish woman I found it difficult to work with traditional Muslim men; those very reference-points alone can generate communications problems on each side. From the beginning, and perhaps because of former prejudices, I was afraid that my colleagues would not treat me as an equal research partner. Fortunately, I was surprised - and for the better.

Learning to trust

The development of personal relations was based on mutual readiness to invest energy, to empathise and to spend time in building social connections – including small talk, laughter, and eating together. From the beginning, we decided that this would be the nature of our work. It was a long road to mutual trust, perhaps best illustrated by two anecdotes.

The first story happened during the seven Oslo years. Since invitations to private homes are not only an integral part of personal and social relations in the Middle East, but symbolise friendship and commitment, I especially appreciated a (Palestinian) colleague’s invitation to have lunch with his family at his home.

Usually, I would meet him at the border checkpoint; this time I drove directly to his home. I did not know his exact address and in those early days he had no telephone. I found myself completely lost in an unknown landscape.

For a very short moment, I thought: “Well, if I disappear now no one will ever know about it...”. But I overcame my fear by later sharing it with my friend, who understood me completely. I had a fabulous lunch with his wife and children and, by proving trust and respect, was accepted into their family. I reciprocated, inviting my Palestinian colleague to lunch at my home, and thus the process of mutual acceptance was completed. Having reached this level of friendship, it became easier to face other differences and obstacles.

The second story followed a conference I attended in America. I had to leave before my Palestinian colleague, and he asked me to take back some electrical goods as presents for his friends and family. At the airport, American and Israeli security staff asked me if I was carrying anything on behalf of a third party. Knowing the implications, I faced a momentary dilemma: I could lie, while genuinely trusting my colleague, or I could be honest.

As an Israeli raised on bomb threats and their horrible consequences, I decided that while I have the right to endanger myself for the sake of advancing peace education, I do not have the right to endanger others, however remote such a threat might be. I had to be honest. I told the security staff about the presents. It took them an unpleasant two hours to check and question me until they told me I was free to fly home. I am positively sure that my colleague knew to expect such a procedure (being Palestinian, he experiences this all the time) but he also knew that I trusted him, and was ready to prove it.

We also have to overcome daily problems that result from different cultures and languages. My colleague’s material and native language is Arabic, mine is Hebrew. We decided to conduct our research and indeed our relationship in English as a “third language”. Of course, we still think in our respective languages and cultures and that sometimes leads us to different interpretations.

The same is true of the school textbooks and history curriculum of both nations. For example, the war of 1948 is called in Hebrew ‘the war of independence’, while in Arabic it is called ‘the disaster’ (an-nakba). Israelis and Palestinians refer to the same people in different terms: Israelis call the minority in the state of Israel ‘Israeli Arabs’ while many of them prefer to be called ‘Palestinians’. The respective ‘facts’ of both past and present are often very different.

We realised that we could not decide what constitutes the ‘objective truth’, but that mutual respect would prevent disagreement over both historical and contemporary facts from becoming a means of expressing aggression; we could agree to disagree. Whenever one of us makes a mistake, due either to a lack of knowledge or a different terminology, the other mentions it and receives the appropriate apology and explanation. We have learnt that having a sense both of humour and proportion is very important. At present, the second intifada has put our friendship and our work to the test. The fact that we still continue our theoretical research, preparing the data and recommendation for better days, is proof that it can be done.

An ordinary life

On the whole, I have had a very ordinary life. I raised children during non-stop wars and terrorist attacks. I was left alone with my babies while my husband had to go to the army. I slept with my female neighbours and our children on the floor of our shelter during those nights. I have always been afraid that one of my family members will be killed or injured by the daily terrorist actions.

This is ordinary life, isn't it?

Once, when my youngest son was in the army, I received a telephone call (something that we all dread). “Ima (‘mother’ in Hebrew), I am in the Hadassah hospital, please bring me something to eat and drink.” My heart skipped a beat. I found my son in his dirty khaki uniform lying on the bed in the emergency hall. He was thin and pale, a boy in pain. After he drank and ate, he told me that his officer had sent him to patrol the narrow alleys of Nablus. From the rooftops of the buildings some Palestinians children had stoned him and his peers.

“Couldn’t you have protected yourself?” I asked.

“Ima, could I shoot at children…could I?” he answered, and with a grin of pain, “with your peace education?”

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