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Infinite Variety:...

Infinite Variety: Women of the Holy Land (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: A Christian Arab, a religious Jew, a Muslim who does stand-up comedy, an Israeli army officer, a gypsy with Palestinian roots hundreds of years old, and a psychologist with Uzbek ancestry: These are just a few of the women Patricia Smith Melton and our Peace X Peace liaisons interviewed for the upcoming book Sixty Years, Sixty Women. As residents of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, they share—uneasily—a common space in geography and history. Yet what Shakespeare said of Cleopatra can be said of the women of the Holy Land as, indeed, of brave women everywhere: “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

For more than forty-five years, Badia Khalaf has directed a center for children with disabilities. She is a widow with three successful children of her own. Her family has deep roots in Palestine.

The best thing in life is love, without love we cannot live. As Christians, we want only peace. This is our Christianity. We can love each other, we can live with each other. It’s not hard for us to live with Jewish people, Israeli people.

Q: You want to live the Golden Rule?
I hope to live with each other, and that we have our independent state beside the Israelis with peace for our sons and grandchildren.

Q: What happens without love? Do you shrivel up and die?
No, but I don’t want to live without love. Love each other, our sons, our country, the people, Palestine, I love Ramallah. I’ve been many places but Palestine is my country, and everyone loves their country. We hope peace comes and an independent state with Jerusalem as our capital. That’s our aim in life, nothing more.

I lived in bandit times in Jordan and, now with the occupation, I have lived hard times all my life. For my sons, for the Israelis’ sons, and for the people of Palestine, it’s hard.

Q: You’ve never lost hope?
A: Never. I always have hope in everything.

Q: Tell me about your family.
A: We’re from the original people of Ramallah. We moved from Jordan over 500 years ago to this area. My aunt established this association for children with special needs and hearing difficulties in 1925. My cousin was the mayor of Ramallah, Kareem Khalaf. They bombed his car and his feet were cut off.

Q: Who bombed his car?
It is the occupation. The Israelis, because he was political, the mayor. At that time, we were very angry because of the situation. Daily.

Q: Can you forgive?
A: God tells us to forgive, Christianity tells us to forgive. It is war, it is an occupation, so from time to time this happens.

Q: Do you ever get sad?
A: When my husband died, but it passed. I was twenty-four; now I’m seventy with three children. My daughter was born after her father’s death so I worked hard to help my children get a good education. They are in engineering in the United States. Osama has restaurants in Ramallah and Jericho. Because I had very hard times, I can now feel happy, and thank God for everything.

Everything is possible. Women can do more than men. I’ve been with the association since 1962 when we rented two rooms only. Now we own this center and the land around it, and a center for mentally retarded children, and we built another building that we rent so we can gain money from renting this house. We women did all this in the hard times of Palestine.

Chana Pasternak is a Jewish Israeli and the director of Kolech, the Religious Women’s Forum. Until recently she served in Meimad, a Zionist political party that allies with Labor and is conservative in religion but progressive on most other issues. She has four children and four grandchildren.

The men always express themselves, and they are heard, but the voices, especially of religious women, aren’t heard. And all religious responsibility has been for men, very little for women. It’s time women should be heard.

Q: What does it mean to be a religious woman?
For me it is to be obligated to your belief, to yourself, to your country, and to a feminist agenda. Together these things are hard. There are contradictions between religion and being a mother, between working outside and raising a family, between your obligation to your family and to yourself.

I was raised in a Cheredim school; my parents were ultra Orthodox. When I was eighteen, I decided to go to the university. My family was angry, and my high school teachers turned their heads when they saw me like I did something horrible against humanity.

My parents survived the Holocaust. My father lost his first wife and three kids. For such people, that their only child, a daughter, should go out to live another life wasn’t easy. But that’s what I decided, that’s what I did, and that’s what I do.

I opened myself and found a terrific world, so interesting, so fulfilling. I share beliefs of possibility with my friends: to live together and make a better community because, most of all, we are human beings who must live together.

Q: You call yourself a feminist.
To be a feminist is to see the need of every woman, to give space to every woman to live by her belief and her way of thinking. Every woman responds differently. If an Arabic woman or a Jewish woman is happy to have ten children, that’s fine. I don’t like the way extreme feminists say, “You shouldn’t have children, you should think about yourself.” The real feminist way is to let every woman feel happy with herself.

Q: Are you different from other women?
I am a woman so I am the same, but I am different in that I’m not afraid. I scream out, and I’m proud of it. I shout, “Equality!” Like a woman should be in the rabbinical court, but no women are Orthodox rabbis. Every morning I say, “Wow, God, help me today to do something to improve equality.”

So we speak to rabbis and say they are an important part of the religious community, but unfortunately, they are not very brave. Our belief is, there are “seventy faces to the Torah,” and to go to the extreme translation is not accepted by us. There are wise women who know their Torah, and who are able to teach different things than many rabbis say. It’s impossible that women should be prisoners by authority. These women are much more brave than the rabbis.

Q: You have a personal relationship with God?
We are good friends. At least, from my side! I don’t know about His side. I am thankful He forgives me, because I have many questions and I get so angry. I’m sure He helps me to fulfill my agenda and the agenda of many women.

Raised as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, Ihsan Turkieh learned early how to rise above circumstances. She insisted on equal education and opportunity but made her message more appealing by presenting herself as a comedian. Since 2002, she has worked with the Center for Peace performing with Israeli Jews, Christians, and other Muslim actors in Jewish and Palestinian schools across Israel.

A checkpoint is a horrible scene, but as a comedian, I like to play the simple Palestinian lady. She says to the soldier, “Please, my daughter, she is in the hospital, let me go to see my daughter.” He barks, “Do you have a permit? If you don’t have a permit, you will not pass.” She pleads, “Let me go, let me go.” He yells, “Yallah, get away from here!” She curses the Wall and yells back, “I wish a tsunami takes the Wall, takes you. Then both of us will be at rest at the end!” The Israelis laugh, but it is very black comedy.

Q: Are you ever sad?
A long time ago. … Okay, many things make me sad, but I learned to be strong and not to cry in front of people. When you face horrible things in your childhood, losing people you love, going from place to place because there is no place to live, after that the rest is nothing.

When I applied to act with Israelis, they asked me to write down terrorist countries I’d been to. I said, “I’ve lived my life in terrorist countries, my husband was a hero of the PLO killed in the war of Lebanon.” And I told myself, “Israelis are my archenemy, how can I work with them?” But you can’t change someone from right to left. First you have to take them over a bridge.

Q: Are you afraid of anything?
I am only afraid of God, not anybody else. If you are scared, you will not take a risk. Nothing is impossible. If you want to do something, just do it. But think carefully …  

The problem with many Palestinians is they become accustomed to any situation. They say to themselves, “Okay, the Israelis make checkpoints, but we will find a way and go. Okay, they built the wall, but we will find a way and go.” Always they create alternatives. Sometimes this is not good because you make the enemy smarter to create next steps to close the holes. He needs to realize he is the occupier, he built the wall, and he needs to fix the problem.

Q: Are there Israelis willing to fix the problem?
I’ve been interacting with Israelis for ten years. I’ve met many gorgeous people, very nice, talented, and human. Even in the States, I met Jewish Americans who don’t agree with many of Israel’s policies. I discovered something amazing about Jewish Americans. I asked them, “If you don’t agree with many Israeli policies and feel that it is tough on the Palestinians, why do you support them?” One gave me a good answer. He said, “Israel should stay.” I respect this. I wish for a day when we just say, “Palestine should stay, Palestine first.”

Part 1 | (Part 2)

By Patricia Smith Melton

About the Author: Patricia Smith Melton is the founder, board chair, and former executive director of Peace X Peace. Her vision of connecting women through the Internet as Sister Circles for direct private communication has guided the development of Peace X Peace and the Global Network in three years to more than 1000 women’s Circles in 65 nations. Smith Melton has a special interest in the Peace X Peace presence in Israel and Palestine.