They sat side by side, but their backs were slightly turned. Brigadier General Amira Dotan and Mariam Mar’i, two prominent Israeli women, had begun their visit to the United States to speak about Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel.
Their shared goal is peace, and their shared country is Israel. But for all that they have in common, there is a silent tension between them as they sit together telling guests of the New Israel Fund (NIF) about their separate lives and their separate devotions.
Mar’i is a Palestinian from Acre, where generations of her family have lived. The only Arab woman professor at Haifa University, she specializes in childhood education. She is co-chair of “Shutafut” (partnership), an organization promoting Arab-Jewish harmony in Israel. Dotan is a Jew whose parents were born in Israel. She is the first woman to be given the rank of general in the Israeli Army.
For Dotan, who is about to retire after 22 years in the army and who was recently appointed Vice President for Development of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the land is connected with sacrifice. “I was born to a family with no money but with a lot of pride and respect,” says Dotan, whose father’s father was an Egyptian Jew.
For Mar’i, a member of Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir’s Advisory Committee on Arab Women, being an Israeli means “that we are guests and if we behave we are welcome, and if we behave we accept that we are third, fourth, fifth-rate citizens. One begins to strive more and more for a state of her own,” she says, “because we all want to be a first-class citizen.”
Dotan and Mar’i visited cities across the U.S. during their three-week-long speaking tour, sponsored by the New Israel Fund. “In at least two or three cities,” recalls Simkha Weintraub, an NIF spokesperson, “after a heavy duty program where people would worry if the tour would go on, Amira and Mariam would go out together afterwards. Amira had never gotten to know an Arab woman this well,” he added. “It was exciting for them, but it was also painful. They really understand even better what they’re up against,” he said.
Weintraub suspects that two men could not have done what Dotan and Mar’i did.
One day, he and the two women were sitting in the restaurant of a New York hotel where many well-known Israelis stay. A couple of military men recognized Dotan and greeted her. “If they had seen a male brigadier general sitting with a male Palestinian, it would have shocked them,” Weintraub said.
The women had met once before, in Israel, and during their U.S. trip they shared the podium and accomodations — two women who represent age-old fears and animosities, as well as a strong desire for peace. Here are some excerpts of their talks;
MAR’I: Before I share with you what I’ve prepared, I would like just to say that when this tour was decided upon by the New Israel Fund, it was nine months ago, and nothing of the latest upheavals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were actually in place. Our main topic was “Women and Coexistence.”
After touring with Amira for the last nine days, I have really been able to find out that she and I, with all the different realities that we live, also share a lot in common. We have our differences, yet we have our shared aspirations, which in itself gives a lot of hope. Her coming from a military kind of education, and me coming from a Palestinian background, I found out that we both are human beings aspiring to one thing, acting to see to it that our people will be able to live peacefully and successfully and securely without losing identity respect or dignity. We are also women who are working towards women of our societies expressing their potentials. And we are also both mothers who are ready to fight till the end to create a better world for our children. For example, there is no law in Israel that says Arab children cannot go into Jewish schools or vice versa. Yet those two systems have been created to maintain culture and language. Maybe we should start a school that has Arabs and Jews, as a curriculum, not just because it opens its door.
We are here, hoping to convey to each other that living peacefully and securely is not and should not mean endangering the life of the other; that the desire to live in respect and dignity does not and should not mean humiliating the other; and finally, creating a better world for our children does not and should not be on account of the other.
DOTAN: The first time I heard Mariam speak about her experience, I felt that within her voice was a lot of anger, a lot of anger that I quite understood, being a part of being Israel 40 years, as Mariam is. Now, I just say to her that this evening it was less anger and a lot of more warm feeling within it. So I don’t really know whether it’s the tiredness and the hectic sort of days or really getting to know each other and really lessening this kind of anger.
The other thing that I feel is that Mariam and I were both raised in Israel, and I think this is part of exercising being an Israeli: living to your utmost equal opportunities and equal rights as part of Israeli life.
My grandmother — till now she is my best friend — she is living with us, and we are really the branch of her family coming from Russia. I don’t need to say that she is the only one who is with us, because all the others were destroyed in the Holocaust. My other side were born in Israel for four generations now, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and come from the Spain Inquisition, going through Italy, Egypt, and then to Israel, to live in Jerusalem for years.
The understanding that this is the only place and no spare place that we have, is something that I had grown up with. I have nothing else but this small piece of land — but it’s mine, it’s mine because there was a Declaration of State that it’s mine and it’s mine because of a lot of blood, a lot of sweat and a lot of tears.
MAR’I: I remember a moment in 1950, when part of my family — including myself — was standing in a big crowd in Lebanon, waving and bidding farewell to the rest of the family as the bus took off to take us home, not knowing then that it meant separation forever. This particular image of me, waving goodbye with one hand, especially to my eldest brother while trying to dry the tears falling from my eyes, never faded away.
This and other experiences made me hold many secret conferences with myself; Why is my mother always so sad? I wondered. My father so unhappy? People around my town wear black? Why my elder brothers and sisters can’t come home? Why people are so afraid? What does the word “border” mean?
The separation of the family, the shabby house that we lived in after the return from Lebanon, the confiscation of my father’s flour mill — his business then — are only a few of the many real experiences that my family had passed through. Everybody around me was whispering, and I never talked.
DOTAN: I was nine during the Sinai War [in 1956] when my father was drafted to the reserves. I am the elder child of the family and I felt the responsibility So I was nine years old and it was winter time and we lived in a small house, and the wind blew our roof away. And believe me, even now, a general at 40, when I hear the wind, I am scrambling. It’s a fear of whether I will be part of this house, whether my father will be able to come back from war; what are the Arabs doing to him?
So I can understand and I can share Mariam’s feeling about her family being away, but being away is quite different from not being at all. And this is my kind of experience. And it’s here, it’s every place in my body and my feelings, and it’s part of what I am as a human being — a mother and an educator.
MAR’I: A few years of schooling, mastery of writing, a little maturity, combined with the readiness to uncover my inner world made a new person out of me, a person who was ready to break the circle of silence my own way. I sat down and secretly wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of the State, then Mr. Ben Gurion. The letter was the story of the agony of my family, asking him for a solution to the never-ending suffering of my mother that was affecting all of us.
The letter never reached his office, because it was never mailed. The postman, instead of doing his duty as an employee, preferred to stand for his social obligations. The mailing address frightened him, and as a result of his fear, he sent for my brother, handed him the letter and advised him to read it first. The rest of the story is as you might expect it. My fear got bigger and bigger, yet with it, the inner resistance to accept the fear got stronger and stronger.
My participation in a demonstration that took place in our small town as a sign of protest for the brutal Kling Act (that was practiced against five young Arab boys who tried to cross the Lebanese borders) marked a new era in my life. It was indeed an act of rebellion against all kinds of authorities. I was able to challenge the Chief of Staff of the Police Department. After separating me from my friends, he told me that I should not be afraid, as all he wanted from me was to chat a little bit and ask me a few questions. Instead of listening to his question and trying to answer it, I asked his permission to ask him a question. He kindly accepted my request, and I asked as frankly as I could: “Why did you kill those five young boys? I believe all they wanted by crossing the borders was to see their brothers.” All I remember after that was the banging on the table and the screaming voice telling me to shut up; “I’m the one who asks questions around here, not you. Get out, out of here.” I trembled from fear, yet deep down, in a small corner of myself, I giggled, because I knew by my instinct that I had won my first battle with someone that symbolized the authority.
DOTAN: A lot of Israeli parties want Mariam to be part of their party and to be elected to the Parliament of Israel in the election of November ’88. So I really feel that something is happening. I see myself a blessed woman, a blessed woman as part of a blessed generation that will really be able to grow up with their country.
I am very proud to be part of the Israeli Defense Forces. I am very proud that I was the one in the last five years to handle the position of the chief of the women’s corps and really be able to make life here better and more modern than it was before.
It is the only armed forces that I know that are taking those who are underprivileged and through the two or three years of service are educating them in order to cope with civilian life. And by speaking about modern, it’s not only the kind of thing that I spoke about — taking the underprivileged and making them cope with society — it’s really shifting a lot of thousands of Israeli women from traditional jobs to the new vocational world of jobs of high-tech, electronics, electro-optics, and computers. And only within a society that is able to change, can you do something like that.
But I have to admit I am tired. I am feeling that I am wanting more for my children than I had. I want them to live in peace. I want them to be able to feel something that you, sitting here in Seattle, have felt all your life.
It’s quite a process but I feel more mature. Maybe this is the mystique of the number 40, because 40 years our people the Jews went through the desert, and after 40 years, we came to our promised land, and we had our life there. So maybe really this kind of a crisis that we are all having now will be the last one, and we can start our forty-first anniversary with peace.
Toby Axelrod is a New York-based journalist who often writes on Jewish topics.