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What is Needed Now

Demonstrations in Israel and the world are urging the return of the hostages and support for Israel war of extermination against Hamas; opposing rallies in the Arab world and around the globe are calling for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid and chanting “Palestine shall be free from the river to the sea.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of a two-state solution is slowly withering with Israel’s center-left parties lacking the popular vote and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. At the same time, right-wingers in Israel pursue their vision of a Jewish one-state solution mirroring the Jew-free version of a one-state solution offered by Hamas and its ilk. The region is led by men who have been in power far too long and the unresolved issue of Palestinian statehood means that Israel’s control of the West Bank and, now, Gaza, will continue to eat at Israel’s soul and feed into Palestinian extremism.

What can be done to shatter this terrible status quo, which only sustains the rejectionists on both sides? In my humble opinion as a man living in the US, I’d like to give women in the region a chance to change things. What if women in Israel, the Palestinian Territory and Gaza, supported by women elsewhere, came together on their own behalf and on behalf of their children and grandchildren and generations yet to be born, to declare: enough victims; enough bloodshed; enough war; enough with tired old male leaders and their worn-out political ideas? To quote John Lennon, you might say I’m a dreamer—but look at what the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was able to accomplish to help break that region’s decades-long political deadlock. What if we explored that model?

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), which was created by Catholic and Protestant women who were concerned about the exclusion of women from mainstream politics in Northern Ireland. Beginning in early 1996, a number of these women convened to discuss the upcoming peace talks and lamented the fact that women’s voices would not be heard or considered by the politicians negotiating plans for Northern Ireland’s future. They also wanted non-party organizations to be included in the peace talks since women were primarily active in community-based groups and their voices and experiences would be of value. Notably, the NIWC declined to take a position at the outset on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the Great Britain or Ireland and instead declared that the task of peace building should involve participants from beyond the traditional political parties:

It is crucial that we identify mechanisms that will enable and encourage local communities and various interests to participate in this process of peace building, and to feel a share of responsibility for the future of this society, rather than leaving this task exclusively to the owners of this negotiating table … [This] negotiating table is not the exclusive deliverer and sustainer of peace. We need to examine how we can bring all sectors of our society to a point where they feel that they are respected, and that they can associate themselves with the peace-building process. We believe that people cannot be expected to vote in a referendum without an understanding of how, and why, we arrived at our eventual conclusions.

Controversially, they believed that the Agreement should seek input and approval from all parties. Consequently, the NIWC stood against the expulsion of the loyalist Ulster Defence Party (UDP) and the exclusion of the republican Sinn Féin, even though both groups had broken the ceasefire. The NIWC maintained that if a group was not given the opportunity to have their views heard and included, it would be ‘much less likely that they would sign up to the outcome, let alone support any eventual agreement.’

The NIWC’s delegates to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement talks (chaired by US Senator George Mitchell) were able to secure very important aspects to the peace agreement, namely integrated education, restitution for victims, and the creation of a civic forum rather than just a concentration on decommissioning and disarmament. These aspects were key to the successful approval of the Agreement, which 72% of the public voted in favor of. To date, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has held firm.

It is obvious from the current conflict that it is Israeli and Palestinian civilians who bear the brunt of their leaders’ ineptitude and lack of vision for a peaceful future. Consequently, real political change must begin with ordinary people clamoring for an end to the ongoing violence, a replacement of the status quo, and the commencement of a real peace process. Grassroots organizations like Parents’ Circle/Family Forum, which brings together families who have lost loved ones to the conflict, and Standing Together, a movement mobilizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in pursuit of peace, equality, and social justice, show that this is possible on a smaller scale.

I hesitate to apply specifics from the case of Northern Ireland to that of Israel/Palestine but I think that the call of Israeli and Palestinian women, working together, and supported by like-minded men, might be enough to tilt the region from rejection, war, and bluster to serious, heart-felt negotiations.

Men have had their turn to run things for the past seventy-five plus years and failed to make peace. I’d like to believe that Israeli and Palestinian women might offer a different perspective, they who continually offer up their spouses, siblings, and children as cannon fodder for this seemingly endless conflict.

I think that if women of the region spoke up, they would be heard—but if the Israeli and Palestinian politicians don’t listen, women can always choose to pursue the Lysistrata option.

About the Author
Anson Laytner is a happily retired liberal rabbi whose career focused on building positive interfaith and interethnic relations in the Seattle area. As a volunteer, Laytner is president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and has edited its journal, Points East, for the last 38 years. He is the author of six books, most recently “Choosing Life After Tragedy” and the forthcoming novel "The Forgotten Commandment." Visit him as his website www.ansonlaytner.com.