“Our Group Proved That Another Way Is Possible”

NIF grantee Arus El-Bahar (‘Bride of the Sea’) is a grassroots organisation in Jaffa, which builds women’s economic empowerment. Earlier this month, responding to the increased tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel as a result of the war in Gaza, they decided to organise a special dialogue meeting for local women. Over one hundred people attended. To find out more, NIF spoke to the organisation’s founder and executive director, Safa Younes.

Why did you organise the meeting? “One of our projects is a regular, facilitated meeting of Jewish and Arab women. That takes place every three weeks. We met during Ramadan and it became clear that, as a result of the war and the increased tensions, we needed to do a one-off meeting that would also be open to women who are not involved in the regular activities; a meeting where people could speak freely and listen to each other’s pain. That’s exactly what we did. We thought twenty or thirty would come, but 120 people showed up! We split them into five groups – each group was led by two women from our regular groups, one Jewish and one Arab.”

How did the meeting go? “It was very moving. All political views were represented – left, right, centrist. Everyone spoke freely without being interrupted, which isn’t always easy. Many participants were against the war, others thought it was necessary. Some of the Arab women talked about their families in Gaza – one person said afterwards that she finally saw the pain of the other person instead of seeing her just as a number. That was very important, everyone connecting with the other side’s suffering – a different reality.

Did the participants talk about how to solve the problem? “The focus of the meeting was on empathy and listening to the other side, but one of the groups did talk about solutions. There were a number of ideas, particularly about strengthening the voice of women and developing a language which is less militaristic. They also spoke about the importance of getting more women into politics.”

Do you think groups like this can help address the conflict? “I think our groups have shown that another way is possible. Relations have to be built before there’s a war. If you prepare properly, there won’t be a deterioration during a war. It’s important to give people the opportunity to take part in something positive – to show them that there’s another way.”

Did the participants talk about their experiences of racism and incitement? “The Arab women spoke about how they are more afraid to speak Arabic on the buses, that they’re afraid of physical attack and how difficult it is to be a national minority. The Jews spoke about how they’re afraid to go to Arab villages. This is how people feel at the moment. They also experience it in the media and politics.”

What impact do you think the event will have on Arus El-Bahar’s future activities? “A lot of women signed up for our mailing list and said they wanted to be more involved. Hopefully we’ll be able to open at least one more regular group. And perhaps we’ll do more monthly meetings like this. It’s clear that many people want to be involved.”

Do you have a final message for the Israeli public? “I know it’s sometimes hard to meet during a crisis, but it’s important that people meet up in organised frameworks and hear different perspectives. And when there’s calm, different organisations, not just Arab-Jewish, need to take this issue on so that there will be less trouble when there is a crisis.”

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October 2014