A Discussion with Elana Rozenman, founder and executive director of Trust-Emun
June 30, 2010
How did you get started?
I got started in a very intense, entirely unplanned, manner, about 13 years ago. My son, who was 16 at the time, was caught, walking down the street in Jerusalem in the middle of the day, between two Palestinian suicide bombers. One hit him first from behind, the second in front. My son was hit by at least 100 pieces of shrapnel, which tore off his flesh, broke bones, and left burns all over his body. A little girl right beside him was killed instantly, and other children were killed and hundreds were injured. I spent months in the hospital sleeping on a mattress beside him, as he slowly recovered, in intensive care, the burn unit, then in rehabilitation programs.
I had a lot of time to think about what was going on. I had been leading my life as a religious, Jewish woman, living in Jerusalem as God wanted me to live, raising my children as God wanted me to do. But that was not sufficient to keep horrific violence from striking my family. To do nothing was to collude with that violence.
After a couple of years when my son had finally recovered enough that I felt able to leave him, I decided to work with women. I had always worked with women, and knew that women are able to relate at the heart level far more easily than men. I also wanted to work with religion, because I was a woman of faith. Religion is one area that can transcend, that can overcome divides. The truth that is inherent to religion is about living in peace in the Holy Land, so that we can sanctify it.
So I began to work with women, and found Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women longing, indeed thirsting, to work with other women in normal relationships. They felt an intense need to bridge the divides. So we began to work together. And that’s how I got started.
I also felt that I was fortunate, and blessed by God, in the way I had lived my experience of pain. Even when my son was injured, and I rushed to the hospital, with urgent questions from doctors, a doctor grabbed me, asking, “Are you the mother? I’m Dr. Khoury. ” He said he must operate immediately. I asked him, "Are you not an Arab?” He said, “Yes,” and I said, “One Arab just tried to kill my son and now you will save him!” He said, “That’s our reality; please sign the papers so we can get to work to save your son.” I felt truly blessed by God that I had been shown that there was no way to go to a place of anger or revenge or hatred. I had a Palestinian surgeon, who saved my son’s life.
And even while I was in the burn unit, there were some Jordanian men who had been burned in a work accident. Their wives and mothers came from Jordan to visit, and we were all sitting there together, as wives and mothers, trying to get our loved ones through the trauma. We were relating to each other as women, as sisters, at the heart level, all helping sons and husbands to recover.
As you began to work with women, through religion, what were the means you found you could use?
The most important thing was opening our hearts, my heart also, and to keep them open. That is what is the hardest work, in a conflict situation where people are literally killing each other. It is very easy to be caught up in vengeance, anger, fear, and suspicion. What we need is a daily practice centered in the heart, in keeping it open. I have to be able to maintain this spirit and sense when a Palestinian woman looks me in the eye and says that suicide bombers are justified because “we don’t have Apache helicopters and that is the only weapon we have." I have to keep my heart open. And the same is true when confronted by a Palestinian woman who rejoiced that her own son had blown himself up and killed children, because I know that at some level she is my sister.
How do you find the people to work with?
Finding people largely follows the law of attraction. You can’t convince people to be in dialogue unless they want to be, unless there is either a desire or interest. So people find us. They are people who want some kind of normal relationship. We use word of mouth, and one woman brings another.
The same is true when we work with clergy, through another organization that I work with, the Abrahamic Reunion. There, however, the clergy are all male because men are the religious leaders, in the Middle East region, in all the faiths. Through these clergy, there are Muslim, Christian, and Jewish people who become aware of the work we do.
And we work to make our work visible as much as possible. For example, when we meet in a village, we have a public walk. People can see a priest, a sheikh, and an imam, together, walking with a veiled Muslim woman and a religious Jewish woman, walking arm in arm, in public. That is an important and powerful visual image. People want to find out what it is about. That is the way we spread the word.
And what do you do when you meet?
We often want to be religiously focused. We generally take a topic, like marriage, the status of women, or raising children, for example, and talk about it from the perspective of each religion. What do the religions teach? What does the Koran, the Christian Bible, and the Torah have to say on the subject? That way, we learn from each other. It allows all of us to deepen our knowledge of religions. We keep track of our progress, with evaluations, that we do in each meeting. Consistently, some 70 percent of participants said they had learned something new about another religion; 75 to 80 percent said they had changed their attitudes or learned something new about women of another religion; and 50 percent said they had learned something new about their own religion. At a basic level these are very simple but significant attitudinal changes.
And we decided that we did not want to do religious study by bringing in religious teachers, who would basically all be men. We did not need to rely on male teachers; we did not need to find a sheikh or priest of a rabbi. What we are interested in is women’s religious experience, not formal texts. So the discussion after the information from our religious sources is always about our own marriages, our daughters, and about how things really happen in our lives. And we become part of each lives—meeting in our homes, staying in each others homes—so that when my son got married (the one who was injured), my Muslim, Christian, and Druze sisters came to the wedding and danced with me.
Do you seek to influence policy through this work?
We are deliberately and carefully not political, in any overt sense. But you have to recognize that what we do, for example having different faiths at a wedding, is very political. But it is not done for a political purpose. There are other groups that are political, that do political advocacy, and they are wonderful groups doing wonderful work. Our work, we say is not political. It is holy work. We are focusing on religion, finding women of faith, and coming together around our faith. In doing so, we are working to reinforce nonviolence, and to bring all the wisdom and truth in our religions together for that purpose. Our meetings are to study, to celebrate holidays together, to strengthen our sisterhood. During Ramadan we break the fast together in the home of a Muslim woman. We celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish holiday, in the Sukka at my home. We see the Christmas trees in our Christian sisters’ homes at Christmas. We make food together so we can share meals. We bring each other to each others’ homes and invite our friends and relatives to meet us all the time. I have Muslims and Christians from other parts of Israel staying in my home and meeting my family. Sometimes we go to stay the night at someone’s house so we can plan together all night—an interfaith pajama party! We work in a way that is grounded in sisterhood.
How receptive do you find people? How large is this sisterhood, this movement?
Not large; if it were, we would have peace.
We find also that the size of the group expands and contracts, depending largely on the political environment and specific circumstances. When we have meetings in Jerusalem and in the north, they are affected by any specific political or security event, and when something happens, the group contracts. Recently, as a result of the violence on the Gaza flotilla, there was a sharp downturn in participation in joint meetings that involve Israelis and Palestinians. People have been more reluctant to get together. Another serious concern is that over the past year, the Palestinian Authority has taken steps that discourage normalization, making it harder for Palestinian and Israeli NGOs to work together. We are confronted with obstacles all the time. The actual directives are not very clear, and when we ask, we get varying answers. What I know is what Palestinian women who live near me and who I have worked with tell me, that their husband was beat up, that their children’s lives were threatened, that their work is in jeopardy if they work with a Jewish group. This affects people in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as well as people all over the West Bank, in Bethlehem, Nablus and other places. That is the reality I know.
Some people and groups are able to meet, especially those who work in political circles. A woman I work with, who is part of the Palestinian legislature, is able to move more freely and to meet other groups for political purposes, but lay and religious leaders, working at the grassroots, are stopped.
Beyond the women themselves, do you get involved in schools or with children?
Only if the women bring their children to meetings. And they do bring them, from nursing babies to teenagers, and we encourage that. There is one group called Mothers and Daughters for a Better Jerusalem which has four generations—a nursing baby, her mother, middle aged women, and an 80 year old great-grandmother. But these types of encounters have become difficult because of the normalization issues.
Last summer, we launched a beautiful program with teenage girls, Palestinian and Israeli, called Teen Talk. But there were some political problems in East Jerusalem. Then the parents of the Palestinian teenagers said that it was difficult for them to have the young girls meeting, at a time of so much tension, that it was not safe for their families. But we are creative and so we switched the focus of the group to national instead of bi-national, and instead had the Jewish teenagers from Jerusalem meet with Muslim Arab girls from the north of Israel. If there is a problem with working with Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, we continue the program with a different mix of Israeli Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze.
How do you work with religious leaders?
It depends. We have been very much blessed in the Abrahamic Reunion to have enlightened religious leaders, who have welcomed the participation of women religious participants and leaders. And they have changed over the years. In some ways, we have become like a big family. We have gone together to Turkey and Cyprus, on retreats and meet regularly together in our towns and villages.
And in this family setting the religious leaders have come to rely on the women for shared leadership. They consult us, and they see us as equals. There is a relationship of trust and respect.
More generally, however, we have very patriarchal religions in our region. There are no female clergy to speak of, just a few women Reform or Conservative rabbis, who are wonderful and I work with them, but they have no power. When the interfaith clergy get together, they are all males. They are interested in women and the issues we see as important, but with their own agendas and approach.
So what we prefer and do is to meet separately as religious women. If we women meet with clergy, the women will defer to the clergy through respect for their position and won’t speak up. Most religious women have their heads covered in our region. If we are alone, we can take off our hats and veils, and, quite literally, let our hair down. We can dance and sing together, which cannot happen if men are present. It makes a tremendous difference in our society for women of faith to meet alone, together, rather than as a mixed group. There is a process of strengthening that comes from being together. We find we are dealing with the same issues—our families, communities, about the problems of men dominating women, about sexual abuse and domestic violence, that have to be addressed also in terms of all the religions. It is empowering to be together as women, and to understand each other and work on these topics together. It enables us to realize that we are a sisterhood, and to relax and be joyful. We laugh all the time at our meetings.
That is a real difference between men and women, we find. When women get together, they immediately want to find out about personal issues, to share information about our families. Then immediately we move on from these personal topics and start work, far more easily.
Do you sense unease from men, especially men in religious roles, about this approach?
Yes, there is a syndrome that I might call male envy. Indeed, they want to come to our meetings, claiming that what we are practicing is a form of reverse discrimination. Why will we not let men in? They have so much to learn from us, they say. Yes, perhaps women do things differently; please can you teach us.
But this does create problems, from many levels. I don’t understand why men are threatened to have women meeting alone. We have a Youth Initiative—and I don’t need to attend their meetings—I respect their need to be on their own and develop. Religious women need to be alone to interact freely. Some of the rabbis say they want to be involved and support us, to be witnesses and observers. But I see how they relate to their wives, sisters, and daughters, and therefore at a certain level I do not believe them when they claim that they will listen and support, from what I hear and see about their personal lives. I really feel, as with the same argument that feminists made in their heyday, that there is a need for women to be on their own and to discover their innate strengths themselves. There is much good, joy, and power that emerges from women being alone.
Why is that? Do you see significant differences in the ways women and men approach the questions around peace?
Women just work differently from men. Part of the problem here, part of the horrible conflict we are living with, is the very macho model that has created it—a model built around conquest and warfare. We are all stuck in the mess that the men have created, and unfortunately the men have demonstrated that they do not have the capacity to get out of it. What is needed to get out of it is for women to extend the ways that women react and respond to each other, and to have this accepted, understood, and adopted by men.
I saw a wonderful quotation recently from Gandhi, about his vision for peace. He said that women must teach the art of peace to the warring world. Gandhi taught that societies become civilized only when men imbibe some of the positive feminine qualities—such as nurturance and revulsion at violence instead of masculinizing women and making them as adept at bloodshed as men.
The macho model is real and strong in Israel. There are many who believe and argue that there is real good in the current model, where all young people—young men and young women—go into the army. They feel it’s an accomplishment when women are combat soldiers and pilots. I feel that this is a misguided goal. Our purpose is not for women to be as adept in conflict as men. Rather, it is to show men that there are ways to solve conflicts non-violently, and to live together without killing.
Who are your allies in your work? What networks have you found most effective and useful?
Women from all around the world are our allies and networks.
I am part of the United Religions Initiative (URI) network and that gives wonderful support. Yoland Trevino is the chair of the Middle East and supports us in wonderful ways. We have a URI Women’s Coalition, and through it, I have sisters and enormous support from all over the world: Argentina, Kenya, Uganda, the Philippines, the US, and many other places. We have just had meetings in Amman, with both the URI MENA region and the URI Global Council. It is truly an amazing opportunity, because in this regional interfaith setting people from all over—Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt—everywhere could come together in ways that truly transcend politics. We can discuss issues of all kinds, from a religious angle, and appreciate and experience the truth of our religions. We talk about techniques of conflict resolution, how different faiths deal with the Other, about domestic and family issues in our religious sources, and how we’re instructed to treat the other as yourself. We learn what the Koran says and what the Bible and Torah teaches. For me this is such a blessing. The key is that it is beyond politics, because so much is mired in politics. But beyond politics, when we deal through religion, when we meet as people of faith, we can meet in a different and much deeper way.
How do you balance the practical and pragmatic and the intellectual, given that your grounding is deepening understanding of different faiths?
We did begin with building on some of the interfaith traditions of intellectual reflections, for example in working with the Elijah Institute. We attended open and joint meetings, with Muslims and Jews and Christians. But the teachers were always men, because they were theologians, and the theologians are almost all men. They were very intelligent and deeply versed in their subjects and the meetings were very interesting. But the intellectual model is really a male model, driven by the head. The woman’s model is the heart. These are totally different approaches. So I have trust in women’s interfaith approaches, which area different model. We host interfaith meetings with clergy and we conduct them. We sit in a circle. Clergymen who come are puzzled because they are used to being on a stage or behind a podium. We go around the circle and make sure everyone has a chance to talk. We seek enlightenment from everyone and give equal respect to what everyone says, whether they are an educator or housewife or religious leader. They discuss the status of women in religion based on their experience and from their hearts. The approach is inclusive and non hierarchical. Decisions are made by consensus. The clergymen are surprised and then intrigued as they begin to listen and understand the wisdom of our practices. It is a process that opens up their minds.
And men, when they relax into it, enjoy and appreciate it. But it is not easy. This is not the United States. The clergy come with their heavy robes, with hundreds of years of patriarchal systems and traditions behind them. They are used to people kissing their hands, and their authority cannot be questioned. Our style is different. It is informal and nurturing. It is inspiring. And it loosens the men up. They begin to smile. Of course they are self-selected. The majority of clergymen are too threatened to put themselves in such a position, but their numbers are growing.
In my house once, there were sheikhs and rabbis at a planning meeting. At eight o’clock, the Sheikh said he had to pray the evening prayer. So I gave him a clean towel and showed him to my home office. The Jewish men also needed to pray. So I took them to the same place. So, side by side, they prayed. And the women just observed them, watching the Sheikh touching his head to ground while the Rabbis swayed and chanted, doing their holy prayers side by side. It was an enormous blessing coming into my home. There was such a sense of respect and sharing. And the women were there supporting, and giving them their nurturing feelings. The men were very moved. It was simple and came by feminine instinct, to put them in the same place, so that rather than saying their prayers separately they shared the experience and it brought them together.
What do you see as some of the policy implications that come from your work?
Because my work is non-political, I do not get into the policy level and kind of questions. I have wonderful sisters who are serving in the Knesset and the Palestinian legislature, who do address these questions, and I encourage them. But I really feel that the world of politics is beyond me and leave it to them. We each have our role and our work.
I do support strongly the spirit of Resolution 1325, that calls for having women at the negotiation table, and I bring that up all the time, with officials and others.
But we are grassroots leaders. Other women and other groups are involved at higher policy levels, and have responsibilities in large organizations. They can directly affect policy. But that is a top down approach, and our work is from the bottom up. We need both to accomplish our goals.
And for me, in our region, the grassroots is most important and essential. Past failures, for example the failure of the Oslo process, have been due to the fact that they were done top down, with men sitting and signing papers. Neither civil society nor women were involved. One morning one could be jailed for talking to Yasser Arafat. The next day, there he was signing a paper with our Prime Minister Rabin. None of the groundwork had been done. And that is what we are doing, the groundwork, establishing cadres of women and sisters, doing our common work of reconciliation. That will strengthen the grassroots networks and understanding and prepare the groundwork, so that when there is the next round of signing of papers, hopefully with women involved in the signing, there will be the capacity to put the papers and peace agreements into practice immediately through beginning the reconciliation work that will have to take place in order for peoples to live in peace and harmony. But first we have to build the relationships. We have to build trust in teach other. That’s the holy work that we are doing.
I remember Prime Minister Rabin, when he signed the peace agreement with Jordan, made a statement that he was signing so that Israeli and Palestinian women could give birth without fear. One woman political leader challenged him: who is Rabin to be making peace between their wombs and mine? It is an example of how men try to capitalize on our feminine power, the ultimate power of the womb, which gives birth, for their own purposes. But women want their children to grow up safely in peace. We don’t want our children to be killed or to kill. We don’t glorify war. We don’t need men to use our wombs to justify what they are doing.
President Barack Obama made a salient comment in a speech to Turkish youth last year. He said that given the chance Palestinian and Israeli women could work out a peace agreement very quickly. He is right. Those who argue that women who are given power act like men and make wars, as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi, miss the point. They have it upside down. Women who have succeeded in politics had to be tougher than men to succeed in a man’s world. But that is not what we want. What we want is to feminize politics. We want not 10 percent of the Knesset to be women, but 40 or 50 percent. Then we will have the whole range of feminine behaviors and can truly bring feminine insights and perspectives and skills into the whole political process.