ICCJ Women's Conference, Jerusalem 22nd June, 2008


The Contribution of Women to Peace Building in the Middle East

Women certainly have a unique contribution to make to Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue and peace building in the Middle East.  Some fifty women from Israel, and different parts of the world came to this conclusion on 22nd June, when they met in Jerusalem before the start of the ICCJ conference on this theme. Fund raising had enabled several more local women to participate. Gunnel Borgegard, the chair of the ICCJ Women's Committee stressed that it is meaningful for women to meet by themselves, for there is a different dynamic at the meeting when the group is mixed.  Over the course of seven hours the group exchanged views on the role of women in peace building. First  there was a panel discussion moderated by Sarah Berstein, from the Israel Interfaith Commission (ICCI). Nadia Harhash, a Palestinian Peace Activist, Wilma Viswanathan, of the Uniting Church Interfaith Group in Australia and Rabbi Amy Eilberg, from the Jay Philips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning addressed the group in turn. The panel topic was  the unique contribution that women make to peace dialogue and we asked the question:" Is there a specific contribution women bring? Are women more peace builders than men?"  Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who was the first woman ordained a rabbi by the Conservative Movement, shared on her work of  listening to people in pain and at times of illness, and in her work of counselling.  She experienced a dramatic call to peace making after 2000 and felt that the best way to work at bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together was by listening and being attuned to others. Precisely because women still suffer discrimination and marginalization, they can take that gift to peace making.

Wilma Viswanathan, who spoke next  was secretary of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, is a member of WIN-Women's Interfaith Network, which consists of women from different faiths-Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha'is and Hindus.  She is a widow and left Sri Lanka because of the problems in that country.  She cited the Hindu greeting: "I salute the divine in you." What motivates us should be love without limit and without end, to bring about forgiveness and healing. In interreligious dialogue we find that true friend. Women are able to discuss, ask questions and to listen. At grassroots levels we are in the forefront of peace building.  She cited the statement made by the World Council of Churches in 1988 – at the end of the Women's Decade – which said that by looking at a vision of economic justice we must eliminate all biblical and theological justifications of violence and genital mutilation. In the end it comes down to what we value. "Let us recognize the divine in each other." Nadia Harhash  said that as a Muslim and a woman, she had suffered pain, suppression and injustice. Women were the victims of history. There was the dilemma of preserving culture and modernization, and being trapped within a patriarchal system. Women need to be liberated from being so submissive. Women are being denied basic rights.  Women need to be listeners, but need to get rid of much pain  inside of themselves in order to be peacemakers. How can one sustain hope in peace building in this conflict that prevents it? How does one continue to live as one is supposed to live? In an ideal world one would bring women into parliament.

After the panel we broke into discussion groups to explore strategies for women's involvement in the peace movement. Some points raised included the importance of creating a space for peace where people will come. The opinion was expressed that it is important to fail in peace making as it is one way of strengthening relationships.  Women need trust and tend to save lives. Education is an important tool for change.  Women work more from their hearts and are story tellers. It was realized that the role of women in peace making in Israel is more complicated. The real potential of their contribution has not been realized, and a dilemma in the three faiths is that the top positions are filled by men.  The reports and open discussion helped us to make several resolutions. It was thought that a good idea would be to arrange for a group of women to travel together to Christian and Muslim sites.  It was decided that a small working group would formulate a prayer for peace that could be used round the world in interreligious women's meetings.  Each one was asked to walk away from the meeting with a resolution to do one new thing for peace.