MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. This year marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. For most Israelis and for many Jews around the world it was a day of celebration. But for many Palestinians, it was the 60th year of Naqbeh, the catastrophe. That fundamental difference in worldview has informed so much of the debate about peace in the Middle East since. And although the region has produced many notable women leaders, for the most part the voices of women are unheard.
A new book highlights the struggle and hope for peace in the words of women. The title of the book is "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women." Joining us are editor Patricia Smith Melton and two of the women whose voices are heard in the book. Barbara Sofer is a journalist and author who lives in Jerusalem, and Reem Alshareef is the principal of a school in Hebron in the West Bank, and they're all here with me. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. REEM ALSHAREEF (Principal, Cordoba School, Hebron): Hi. Hello. Great to be here.
Ms. PATRICIA SMITH MELTON (Editor, "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women"): Hi.
Ms. BARBARA SOFER (Journalist): Hello.
MARTIN: Patricia, if you'd talk to me about the idea for the book. It comes out of your organization, Peace X Peace, which aims to foster relationships with women around the world who are working toward peace. But why the book?
Ms. SMITH MELTON: Well, I have a special heart place for the Middle East, for Israel and Palestine. And Peace X Peace was active there. We had our fist liaisons there, both the Palestinian and Israeli. And in June 2007, I was going to make about my fourth or fifth trip into the area, and there was fighting at that point between Hamas and Fatah. They were using guns against each other. And my Palestinian liaison said, perhaps this wasn't the time for me to go into the Palestinian Authority. And I said, let me think about it. And then I realized the next morning that it was the time to do more, not less, that when there is a crisis you have different responses, and one could be to pull back, and sometimes that might be appropriate. But as a third party, I had the ability to go on both sides of the wall that the people there do not have, and so I could help them bring their voices at a time when it seemed even more needed than usual.
MARTIN: The book says that the book's agenda is to show the richness of female minds and hearts. I'm sure everyone would agree that that's worthwhile to do. But also, to quote, "demonstrate that women are best prepared to reach across differences and to build peace on mutual goals." Who says? I mean, it strikes many of us that women can be as vicious as men, as violent as men, as duplicitous as men.
Ms. SMITH MELTON: Absolutely. What we're talking about is generalities or the majority. And what we now know - well, we always knew that when a man is frightened, that when they're fighting there would be a fight or flight response. What we now know is that with women it's not a fight or flight response. It's attend and befriend. You want to find out who that stranger is. You want to connect with them so that you get your security through knowing each other. And that is absolutely fundamental if you're going to have a meeting of the minds that is needed to build harmonious societies.
MARTIN: The book has a very interesting format: 30 Israeli women, 30 Palestinian women. The book is in English, Arabic and Hebrew on every page. It's visually quite arresting. How did you figure out which women to profile and list?
Ms. SMITH MELTON: Well, I had these great liaisons, Elana Rosemann(ph) in Israel, and Arula Soleman(ph) in Palestine. Now I knew some of the women, but I also could say that, well, I want a Palestinian policewoman. I want an Israeli soldier. I want a businesswoman. I want a teacher. I want a professional. And they would go and find these incredible women.
MARTIN: Barbara, let's go to you, Barbara. You are one of the Israeli women profiled in the book. You're a journalist. You're also the spokesperson for Hadassah, which is a women's organization which is responsible for a number of health-care institutions, also well known in this country. How did they find you and why did you want to participate?
Ms. SOFER: Elana approached me, asked me if I would be willing to do it. I think that she knew about my connection at Hadassah, which has been profiled very often as a bridge to peace because it's one of the settings in Israel where you'll see Israelis and Palestinians working together, being healed together, waiting together. I'm not sure what inspired her to ask me. Maybe she was looking for religious women who would be open. Maybe she'd read one of my columns in the Jerusalem Post. But she did turn to me. And so here is an opportunity to get my opinion out there and to take part in something that was larger than just me.
MARTIN: One of the - this year, one of your columns - you mentioned you write a weekly column for the Jerusalem Post. This year, one of your columns won a prize, and it focused on your experience sharing a room with a Palestinian woman from Hebron in Jordan, I think it was. Will you tell us a little bit about it?
Ms. SOFER: Yes. And in fact, that started with the interview for this book, "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices." And after hearing me being interviewed by Patricia, Elana said to me, you know, you'd be good to go to Jordan, and she invited me to go Jordan. We were five Jewish women, five Muslim women and five Christian women. And the subject was religion, which could be very explosive, but in fact, we found we had many things in common. I, for instance, a Jewish woman who covers her hair, and I had a long conversation with a Jordanian woman who covers her hair who felt that she was sometimes patronized by the men with whom she worked. She's a consultant with an MBA, and I had been patronized enough myself for covering my hair. So we had other things in common.
And my roommate and I - I didn't realize I'd have a roommate when I first went. That's always a surprise. And there I was sleeping with just a small table between - with a Palestinian woman from Hebron, and she had to sleep with me, a Jewish woman from Jerusalem. On the first night, we watched James Bond until we both fell asleep. The second night was Friday night and she was very sensitive because I'm an observant Jew and she didn't turn the TV on. So we talked all night, and I'd say somewhere about between two and three o'clock we solved all the problems of the Middle East. So it was a great night sleep after that.
MARTIN: Also - I want to get back to you. I want to bring Reem into the conversation, but you also, in the piece and in the book, don't pull any punches about the very real, deeply felt concerns that you have about security, about governance, and we're going to get back to that in a minute. But Reem, I want to bring you into the conversation. You're the principal of a school from Hebron, which is a divided city since 1997. Your school is inside an Israeli-administered zone, and you talk about what that means for you and your students. If you'd talk about that.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: OK. The school's name is Cordoba, and it's in the - we call it, as Palestinians, the occupied part of the city. Now it's called - after 1997 it's called H2. H1, which is about 80 percent of the city, is under the Palestinian Authority control, and H2 is the old part, which is also about 20 percent of the city is under the Israeli control. To reach Cordoba, you have to go through a checkpoint to be searched every morning, to walk in a street which is not allowed for Arab cars, only for Jewish cars, or you have to take the other way, which is the Islamic cemetery, a very big and - it's a cemetery to pass to come to the school. Either way is very difficult for children, for teachers, if you're a journalist, for everybody. Both ways are very difficult to go.
MARTIN: Can I just ask? How old are the children who attend the school? What grades?
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Yeah, yeah. Between the age of six and 16, from the first to the 10th grades.
MARTIN: And you were saying in the piece that kids would actually be beaten by settlers on their way to school, attacked with sticks and rocks, even by women.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Yeah, yeah. It happened several times.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Because the Jewish community there, which is only about four or five hundred living in a city filled with Arabs, about 40,000 people, Arabs, living there. They want to take control of the old city, let's say, of the occupied part of the city. They don't want Arabs to be around. So they're trying to make their lives as hard as possible so that these people will leave this place. Just leave it.
MARTIN: And you're saying this is very traumatic for the children, as you wrote in that piece, that sometimes the kids need counseling as a consequence of this.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Of course. Of course. Our school can't do without a counselor in the school we have. And also, we have special programs for kids to help them to resist, to stay.
MARTIN: You say that this has happened less recently, and I'm not sure what time frame you're talking about as recently. Why is that?
Ms. ALSHAREEF: I believe it's the new policy that I started when I first came to this school, when I first was appointed to run the school. Myself, I'm more moderate, and I try to think before doing things. So I try to be a diplomat, and maybe we also made a special schedule for the school so that we can avoid troubles in the mornings and in the afternoons. Our schedule is very tough.
MARTIN: But you also tell the children not to fight back, that fighting back, it gets more violent?
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Yes. Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: But is that philosophical or practical?
Ms. ALSHAREEF: You can say both, but we choose the safety for our children because in the end, our children are not soldiers. They are students, and they're blessed to get some education. They're not fighters yet.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the editor of "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices." It's a book capturing the voices of 30 Israeli and Palestinian women. And we're also speaking with two of the women profiled in the book, Barbara Sofer and Reem Alshareef.
Barbara, in your piece the book, you also talk about some of the hospitals which serve both Palestinian and Israeli patients and are staffed by Israelis who are treating people who they are afraid of. Can you talk about that?
Ms. SOFER: I don't think that they're afraid of them when they're in the hospital. I think that the only enemy we have inside - in the hospital is the disease, and that's a wonderful feeling. But what you find that's really impressive about the Hadassah hospitals is that half of the terror victims in the entire country were treated in those hospitals. Twenty-two members of staffers lost first-degree relatives - a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife - during the Intifada. And yet, when you walk into that hospital, everybody is able to kind of move a switch inside and to elicit your best self because there we're able to. People share the same room - Israelis, Palestinians, people who were injured on both sides. We have teams working together of Israelis and Palestinians, and they're all involved in saving lives. It doesn't mean you're angels. It doesn't mean that you don't have your political opinions.
MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, you don't pull any punches, either, about an issue which is a very sore point with your Palestinian neighbors, security fence or the wall. You say, I don't like these walls. I know it makes it harder for people to get to the hospital but I like feeling a little bit better protected, and if people really need to get to the hospital, they'll get there.
Ms. SOFER: Well, it's not only the hospital. My office is in the hospital in downtown Jerusalem, and within one block of where I work, where I go to work every day, there were 12 suicide bombers. So that number is cut down by the existence of the wall. Now, I hate building any walls. I'm a no-wall person. I don't like them in houses and I don't like them out of houses and I think it's a huge waste. I think it's terrible that we have to have these divisions, and I would love to see them come down. I believe they can come down, and it makes me extremely sad and disappointed that we had to use them as a measure to put up those walls to protect ourselves.
MARTIN: Reem, in your piece the question was asked if peace talks start again, do you have any faith in them, and you said, no. After every peace talk, if they come to a conclusion, it's against Palestinians. We lose more land or more rights after these talks. Maybe they'll consider the wall as the border and forget about the Green Line and we'll lose more land.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Yes. That's right. That's what I said. I don't know. It seems our men are no longer doing their job properly. That's why I believe in "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices," women voices, that more women should be included in these negotiations because we should take some role in leading, in doing something. Men have been doing this for over sixty years and they have failed. I'm talking about ourselves. We are losing. So maybe they have to do it differently this time.
MARTIN: Patricia, one of the things I think that's - you know, you look at a book like this and just, to be honest, you think, oh, that's nice. You know, Pollyanna. It's going to be all nicey nice and people pretending that - you know what I mean, just sort of pretending that it's all kumbaya and everything is great when you can just pick up a newspaper any day and realize that it's not. And the book does not pull punches. People are very clear about their very sharp differences of worldview, and they're not hateful in the way they express - you know, there's no one in the book I'm reading who's hateful in the way they express themselves and expressing the desire for other people to disappear from the face of the earth. But yet, there are completely different perspectives about the same set of facts viewed very, very differently. How then does one bridge that, regardless of gender?
Ms. SMITH MELTON: Well, Michel, I thought in order for there to be value in the book, for there to be accuracy, you had to have all of this diversity, and that's one thing I wanted to show to the outside world and also for the women themselves to be able to read each other's voices and hear each other's voices.
What's important here is that despite the differences and that the women say that they are willing to talk, they're willing to connect, they are ready to listen, and that's important. You can have different realities but if you have an agreement that the future must be better than what is currently existent and that you set up those ground rules, then you have a place, a goal that you can get to. And the women in the book have their priorities, their commonalities - care of the children, a means of financial equity, education. Women know on the ground what's needed. They're not going to be spending quite that much time disputing who's the strongest. They're going to be saying, how do we get what the children need? How do we get what we need for the future?
MARTIN: Barbara, it seems as though Israel is poised to have another female prime minister.
Ms. SOFER: Perhaps. It's not for sure.
MARTIN: Perhaps, it's not for sure? What are your thoughts about that?
Ms. SOFER: Well, I love to see women in all political positions. I think we agree about that, but what we were talking about among ourselves in an informal way isn't always to have people within the political structure making those decisions. It'll take too long. But I think that we need to produce alternative decision-making areas, at least to come up with protocols of ours that we can produce by coming together and dealing with some of the problems. I agree with Reem that we women certainly can't do worse than the men have done in terms of making peace. And we want peace. I think the first part is, the most important part, and that really is emphasized in "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices," is that let's get down to what you really think. Let's not just sugarcoat everything.
MARTIN: Do you think you'll see peace in your lifetime?
Ms. SOFER: Yes.
MARTIN: Reem, do you?
Ms. ALSHAREEF: No. That's what I think. But I believe maybe if we start working like this, if we have the opportunity to buy this book or to get this book, to start reading, to know how other people - other women, I mean, on the other side think, maybe it will bring us closer together that we have something in common. And this is something that we can start with.
MARTIN: Patricia, do you think we'll see peace in the region in your lifetime? Our lifetime?
Ms. SMITH MELTON: I think there's an opportunity for dialogue to begin at all levels. And that I do think it is up to citizens. I think it is up to women to come forth. I think that's the key. Men need to listen. Women need to speak up.
MARTIN: Patricia Smith Melton is editor and photographer of "Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women." Barbara Sofer and Reem Alshareef are two of the women profiled in the book. They were all kind enough to join me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. I thank you all so much.
Ms. SMITH MELTON: Thank you.
Ms. ALSHAREEF: Thank you.
Ms. SOFER: Thank you.
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