Last March while attending a Women in Black demonstration in Jerusalem, I had a wonderful reunion. I was about a week into an intense tour of Palestine and Israel with a group called Interfaith Peace Builders, which focuses on seeing, listening to, and recording the experiences and perspectives of a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli voices. We had already visited with a number of Israeli human rights organizations and Palestinian groups committed to non-violent resistance.

I was particularly pleased that Women in Black was on the agenda. I have been a fabric artist for over 30 years and much of my imagery is drawn from my Jewish heritage and the Middle East peace movement. A number of years ago, while watching the 1989 National Film Board Production, "Half the Kingdom", a film on Jewish feminism, I had seen a very short clip of Women in Black, the Israeli peace activists who dressed in black and took to the streets, holding signs that said in Hebrew, English and Arabic, "Stop the Occupation". I was struck by both their mission and their visual effectiveness, and I started incorporating them into my artwork.

I spotted a photograph in Penny Rosenwasser's "Voices from a 'Promised Land'; Palestinian and Israeli Peace Activists speak their hearts" (Curbstone Press 1992), of an elderly woman, her purse held firmly in one hand, and in the other, the distinctive shaped sign protesting the occupation. The caption read, “This woman is demonstrating because her family was killed in Auschwitz, and she doesn’t want the Palestinians to suffer as she has suffered”. Inspired, I stitched her portrait with her words embroidered behind her.

In 1994, I attended a Women in Black conference in Israel, and I found the subject of my portrait. Her name was Anna Colombo, she was 86 years old, she had grown up in Italy and those were indeed her words. I gave her the portrait I had slipped into my backpack in the hope that we would meet.

Later she wrote to me that she had once been asked why she wasn’t afraid living in Europe under Hitler, and she had replied “Why should I be afraid? All Hitler can do is kill me, but he can never be right”. Anna Colombo became one of my heroes, and I have taken great pleasure in telling her story over the years.

I work in community arts, and one of my favourite projects has been a workshop I developed called "Stitching for Social Change; the Use of Fabric to Build a Better World”. In this workshop we look at how fabric projects like subtly subversive traditional quilts or the arpilleras of Chile, or the Names Quilt remembering people who have died of AIDS, have changed people's lives and changed the world. Through this work, I came to realize that quilts could create a meaningful conversation about Israel and Palestine.

My Middle East Peace Quilt is an international community art project made by over 300 people, women and men of all ages and backgrounds, including Jewish and Palestinian, professional artists, and people new to artistic experience. It consists of 30 panels with nine squares, each created in answer to the question “What is your vision of peace in the Middle East?” The completed Quilt opened in Vancouver in September 1999, and has been touring North America ever since. Many of the places it goes Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims work together to organize the exhibits in their communities.

When the Quilt was on display at the San Francisco Jewish Community Centre a dinner was held as part of the programming. Of the 100 people who attended that dinner, half of them were Arab. In New York City the exhibit of the Quilt was organized by a coalition of community organizations which included a Synagogue, an inter-religious centre, an Arab Jewish Dialogue Project, Islamic Cultural Center and Servas International, a home stay organization with a mandate of World Peace.

The work of building peace is fraught with challenges. When I speak about the Middle East, I speak with a grief that springs from a deep sense of caring about both the Palestinian and the Israeli people. I’m very aware of the atrocities of the Israeli government and of some Israeli settlers, the arrests, the harassment, the check points where even seriously ill Palestinians are prevented from receiving medical care, the curfews, the shootings, the wanton demolitions of Palestinian homes and destruction of olive orchards, the constant humiliation imposed on the Palestinians.

I’m also very aware of the fear in which Israeli’s live, the fear of suicide bombs, the terror of being surrounded by hostile nations, the very live memories of the holocaust which are so hard to shed, and the grief and frustration that the land that many truly believe God gave to the Jewish people is not theirs for the taking. Some days I am overwhelmed and I need to stop and cry.

But the Middle East Peace Quilt is a project of hope. I think of it as a lot of people who will never meet being in the same room together and listening to each other’s stories. I think of it as a way that people who are unable to articulate through words or listen to political speeches are able to express themselves and hear other points of view. Conducting the workshops, designing the panels, sewing them together has been an exciting and moving experience.

This year, with some trepidation, I returned to Israel and Palestine. I was prepared for things to be difficult, but not for them to be so bizarre. The Separation Wall is everywhere. It is more than twice the length of the 1967 border, looping into the West Bank and fragmenting towns and villages, cutting off farmers from their fields. Small pockets of the West Bank are under Palestinian jurisdiction although the Israeli army still has free access to them, but most are either entirely or partially under Israeli control. New Israeli settlements are everywhere, connected by roads on which Palestinians are not allowed to drive. Families in different towns can no longer visit each other, and with the confiscation of agricultural land, there is less and less of an economic base on which to build the country. Palestine is indeed a country under occupation and it is heart breaking.

The story is best told in the words of Marcelle, a 13 year old Palestinian girl in Bethlehem, who attended one of the three art workshops I held in the course of my trip.
I invited the youth to create fabric self portraits and write messages expressing what they wanted to say to young people in Canada Above a smiling portrait of herself in basketball attire, she has sent this message to Canadian young people.

fabric self portrait by Marcelle

“ I am a Palestinian girl, I don’t know much of politics. But what I do know is Palestine is my country and I have the right to live in it! I wish I could go out of Bethlehem to see the rest of my country, but I’m not allowed. Why? Sometimes I wish I could scream so the world could hear me and maybe open their eyes to this injustice. If everyone opened their eyes they’d see that there is something wrong! I play basketball so I could forget all this INJUSTICE!!!!!!”
Despite the disheartening circumstances around us we did have many encouraging encounters in our travels.

Daoud Nasser owns a farm near Bethlehem which has been in the family since 1924. Even though they have titles to the land from both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, since 1991 they have been involved in an ongoing court battle with the Israeli government about the ownership of the land. In every direction around them you can see Israeli settlements built on the land appropriated from Palestinians. Daoud is not allowed to make any renovations or even basic improvements to his land without an impossible-to-obtain permit. Among other structures slated for demolition by the Israelis, due to lack of a permit, are a flagstone patio and a tin roof he has erected to shelter his goats.

photo of Daoud by Lisa Nessan

And yet Daoud is full of hope. He recognizes that each side in the conflict has a story to tell and human rights that need to be met. He organizes activities with Palestinian youth to keep them on a positive path, and works with women in the village to teach them computer and other skills. He has welcomed settlers to his home, just asking them to come without their guns. The day after our visit he was serving lunch to a group of 45 rabbinical students.

Ruth Hiller lives on Kibbutz Haogen. When her third son came to her at the age of 15 to say he he was a pacifist and didn’t want to go into the army, she was ashamed, and at first could only speak about the situation in whispers. At that time 25% of people on the kibbutz were officers. Israel was just coming out of the first Lebanon war.

Now Ruth is an active member of “New Profile”, a group of Israeli feminist women and men, which describes itself as “a movement for the civil-ization of Israeli society”. New Profile works to demilitarize Israeli society. As part of this mandate they will support any Israeli who doesn’t want to do his or her compulsory military service for whatever reason.

Bassam Aramin is a member of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian prisoners who are committed to working together non-violently for peace and justice on both sides. On Jan 16 2007, as his ten year old daughter, Abir, was walking home from school she got caught in an altercation between Israel Border Guard troops and some older children who may have been throwing stones and she was shot with a rubber bullet. At the hospital as Abir held on to the last two days of her life, Bassam was joined in his vigil by both Palestinians and Israelis.

He continued, “my friends thought I lost my mind. For 3 days, while I stayed at the hospital Palestinian and Israeli stayed with me. It was an opportunity to use Abir’s blood as a bridge between people.”

One of those Israelis was Rami Elhana the proud father of an Israeli ex-combatant, his 30 year old son, and proud to call Bassam his brother. “What ties us together,” he explained , “is the power of pain” because 10 years ago in 1997 Rami’s daughter was murdered by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem.

“ What ties us together is the most powerful tie on earth. You can use this power to destroy or bring light. We can use this to bring two nations together. I’m proud to call Bassam my brother and with people like this I believe there is hope.”

Bassam and Rami are among the 500 families in Families for Bereaved Parents the organization in which Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost members to the hostilities come to grieve together.

As for Anna Colombo, my elderly Italian Israeli friend, when we arrived at the Women in Black vigil in March, , there she was, still dressed in black, now 98 years old and proudly holding up her Stop the Occupation sign for all to see. She remembered me perfectly although her hearing is poor and we spoke through a translator. But we had hugs and took photos, and although I can’t possibly carry her in my heart more than I already do, I’ve been given a huge gift in meeting with her again.

I'm so glad I went on this trip. I didn't learn a lot of new information, but seeing the situation over there is very different from reading about it. There is, of course, as wide a spectrum of Palestinian opinion as there is Israeli opinion. But there really is an occupation, and it's terrible, and not, as far as I can see, in the best interests of Israelis, any more than of Palestinians. Among people I talked to on both sides, there did seem to be a fair amount of at least theoretical acceptance of the idea of a two state solution divided along the 1967 borders. Such a plan is complicated by the rapidly increasing number of Israeli settlements built in recent years on the West Bank, and by the issue of Palestinian right of return for the refugees. But as one Palestinian put it when a member of our group asked him if he favoured a one state or a two state solution, "One state, two states, six states, who cares? We just want a good future for our children." And of course the Israelis want the same.

-Sima Elizabeth Shefrin

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