One meets peacebuilders in a variety of ways, in diverse settings and circumstances. I came to meet Ruth Ebenstein, a library fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, where I also sit and write and think. Last year, Ruth came to hear me present the essence of my book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, A View from Jerusalem, and we had our first conversation. That’s when I began to learn about her peacebuilding work, in particular about her extraordinary friendship with a Palestinian woman from Abu Dis, on the other side of the security fence/separation barrier. This motivated me to interview her recently, at which time I discovered an amazing personal journey of someone who is becoming a devout peace activist.
Ebenstein was trained as a journalist. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois, and has worked as a journalist and a writer in Israel for many years. A Modern Orthodox Jewish woman, she made aliyah from Michigan just days after graduating from college in 1990. Since then, she earned a M.A. degree in German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, graduating magna cum laude. She is married and has three children and two stepdaughters. Her oldest child attends the Kids for Peace peacebuilding programs in Jerusalem, which is very important to his emerging identity as a Jewish young man living in Jerusalem.
Ebenstein was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 (while she was nursing her youngest son), which naturally changed her life in many ways. One of the most amazing changes took place via her participation in an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group in early 2011 called The Cope Forum. Through this group, she embarked on a powerful journey to meet the other, an experience that led her to explore and learn more about Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It was through this process that she met Ibtisam Erekat from the Palestinian Arab village of Abu Dis in East Jerusalem (her husband hails the famous Erekat family and is a distant relative of Dr. Saeb Erekat of Jericho, the leading Palestinian negotiator with Israel for decades). Ebenstein and Erekat, and their families, have become close friends over the past six years, so much so that Ebenstein is now writing a memoir about their friendship entitled Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. (Ebenstein has a website about the upcoming book with a very clever and enticing name: Laugh Through Breast Cancer.)
Among other powerful experiences, in May 2012 Ruth and Ibtisam traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a delegation of Israeli and Palestinian breast cancer survivors to meet other women who transcend cultural, religious and political divides, to support each other.
In recent years, they have begun to share their story, to explain to people what can happen when you reach “across the divide.” In 2015, they embarked on a joint speaking tour in the USA, where they presented to several schools (Stuyvesant, SAR Academy, Ramaz), spoke at the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom’s Annual Muslim-Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference, and presented together at the US State Department in Washington, DC. On her own, Ebenstein has shared their story with more than 60 groups, including synagogues, churches, Federations, Health organizations, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Islamic Organizations, Hadassah, and Israel Bonds.
Ebenstein and Erekat now give public talks about their unique friendship in Israel and abroad. In particular, they have given talks about their experience together in schools in Jerusalem, and they have plans to continue to speak publicly about their work together as a form of peace activism.
As a result of this powerful personal experience, Ebenstein has taken several important steps in recent years to become an effective and professional peace activist. In her previous life, she was a journalist and a graduate student, on the path to becoming an academic. Over the years, she has moved from academics to activism. In February 2018, she began a 16-month-long peace fellowship sponsored by Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam’s School for Peace, called Transforming Fear, Fighting Incitement and Building Support for Peace, earmarked for mental health professionals and community organizers. Through this experience, she met Palestinians in a substantive and sensitive way, via seminars and workshops in Beit Jala near Bethlehem, and in Aqaba in Jordan, across the border from Eilat. At the end of this process, she will be a trained facilitator for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups.
In addition, she recently started another program called, Lowering the Walls: Jerusalem Leadership fights against Racism, a seven-month course spearheaded by Shatil and the New Israel Fund that seeks to create links between Jewish and Arab change-makers, training them to foster tolerance and equality in the city and serve as a network to have a greater impact. Moreover, Ebenstein recently completed a third course called East of Us: Getting to Know Palestinian Jerusalem, co-sponsored by IPRCI (Israel/Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives) and Ir Amim.
Ebenstein draws on her experiences and encounters, using her writing ability and public speaking talent as a peace activist; soon she will add facilitation to her tool chest. In addition, as a journalist, she seeks out stories that describe peace-building programs in Israel and Palestine.
I asked her how she persists in her activism — and is even an optimist — when things appear to be getting worse all the time. So many people have given up in recent years. What keeps her going? Her answer was immediate and to the point:
First of all, I am a relentless optimist. I grew up in the American Midwest. I have a spunky optimism about me. That’s the kind of person that I am. And the more I engage in peace work, the more Palestinians I meet, as well as Jewish Israelis working in this field, the more hope I feel. I witness the ongoing commitment of so many people on the ground to make change.
What has Ebenstein learned from all her encounters with Palestinians in recent years, especially with regard to our shared humanity?
I believe that the human spirit and the commonality between us, Israelis and Palestinians, are greater than anything else. Cancer taught me that. I am not going to be dissuaded by political rhetoric or by nonsense.
This faith in humanity is central. It is a basic belief. And it can be a cause for hope, even in our ongoing conflict of so many years. Ebenstein has learned that she is not alone in her work here in Israel and Palestine. She has seen so many people involved in peace work; that uplifts her spirit, as it does mine. It is this hope that we want to spread to many others in our country, our region and the world.