Beyond Words Bridges the Gap for Israeli Arabs, Christians, and Jews
by Isabelle T. Walker • Photographs by Paul Wellman
Carrying her lunch tray, 13-year-old Nitsan Gordon entered the room full of boisterous adolescents and looked for a place to sit. For an Israeli girl on the brink of womanhood, attending public school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1974 was too often a lesson in loneliness. But because her dad was finishing his doctorate at nearby Peabody College, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make in order to avoid a prolonged family separation.
After finding a welcoming table to join, Gordon began eating. Then, from a gaggle of eighth-graders close by came the unforgettable slur. “Dirty Jew. Look what she eats.”
Being the only Jew in the school, Gordon was stunned, speechless, and horrified. Her classmates were just warming up. They threw food at her, followed her home tossing rocks at her back. Once, they even remarked within her earshot: “Don’t you wish all the Jews had been killed in the Holocaust?”
It wasn’t until Gordon’s dad came and spoke to the class about Jewish experiences in Nazi labor camps that the abuse subsided. But for Gordon, the prejudice had already affected her deeply. She spent much of her early adulthood healing its wounds. In the process, she discovered a talent for helping others heal from bigotry, particularly Israeli Jews, Christians, and Palestinians.
Twelve years ago, Gordon and a respected Arab-Israeli educator named Marian Mar’i Ryan cofounded an organization called Beyond Words. By bringing Arab and Jewish women together in intimate groups once a week to share their deepest fears and distrust of one another, bit by bit, they are creating a foundation for peace.
This January 13, Gordon and 22 other Beyond Words members — 11 Arab and 11 Jewish women — came to Santa Barbara’s La Casa de Maria for a three-day retreat. All live in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, many in or near the ancient cities of Galilee and Nazareth. The retreat, which was organized by 20 Santa Barbara women, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, who are friends of La Casa de Maria, came at the tail end of an 18-day intensive training in non-violent conflict resolution at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and provided a welcome interlude before their long trip home.
The women arrived at La Casa de Maria just after midnight Saturday morning, having driven down the winding, cliff-bound Pacific Coast Highway in the dark — an eerie metaphor for the journey they’ve chosen in life. Three of the women had taken a wrong turn on a nature hike that day and become lost in the thick brush and wilderness surrounding Esalen for nine hours, delaying their departure for Santa Barbara. For Gordon, it was a reminder. “It wasn’t just the three members of our group who were lost, it was all of us,” she said. “We are all connected.”
Gordon was born in a Kibbutz near the Jordanian border. Her brother was severely wounded in 1986 while intercepting a suicide bomber, an experience that could have easily hardened her heart. Yet Gordon is determined to remain open. For her, it seems a choice she must make again and again. Her beautiful, yet sad brown eyes and soft way of being and speech draw people to her.
Saturday morning, Gordon told La Casa staff that the group’s time at Esalen had been hard, and she wasn’t just referring to the five hours they spent outside in the cold waiting for news from search and rescue crews.
“There is deep pain around being Jewish and having no other place in the world to be safe,” she said. “And the Palestinians [in the group], they have other countries they can go to but they feel, ‘No, this is where our ancestors are from. This is our home too.’”
Mervat Hamati, an Arab Christian with Beyond Words since it was founded, agreed. “I’ve been friends with a woman [in the group] who is Jewish, and I knew there was some prejudice there, but we couldn’t touch it. It was too painful. Then [in Esalen] it came up, and at first I thought, ‘Wow, this is awful what she is saying.’ But then I thought ‘No, it is her truth and it is safe enough for her to say it.’”
This is the heart of the work Beyond Words is doing, according to Gordon. In every group, the two facilitators, one Arab, one Jewish, work to create a safe environment in which the women can access and express their feelings, often through dance and body work. In a region where violence is as ordinary as the weather, the feelings that emerge can be profound. “But sometimes when we have a place where our pain is really heard, we can let go of it,” Gordon said. This is the goal.
Miri, a dark, slender Jewish beauty who is a social worker in Nazareth, said the group has helped her find peace inside herself, and that when she’s out in the world, people notice it. They come up to her and want to know how she can be so centered. But when something like last summer’s 34-day war with Hezbollah happens, inner peace goes out the window, she said, recalling the way she ran from work to get her children when the sirens warned of a bomb. The problem was, they were all in different schools. “I didn’t know whom to save first,” she said. “I can’t think about peace in this moment,” she recalled thinking. “Someone’s trying to kill me.”
Beyond Words started after Gordon was hired by Mariam Mar’i Ryan, the first Muslim woman in Israel to earn a doctorate. Mar’i Ryan was running a center for Arab childcare workers in Israel, raising their educational standards and helping them nurture their students’ sense of connection to their culture. She hired Gordon, who has an M.A. in dance therapy, to teach these teachers to become more open to their bodies and feelings and to claim their power as women. The classes were such a success, Gordon and Mar’i Ryan received a grant from The New Israel Fund to expand the work to issues of coexistence. They began with kindergarten teachers — to influence kids before they’re even capable of prejudice.
The first group of women teachers stayed together for a year and included Hamati, Mar’i Ryan said. “No one left and each teacher influenced 30 to 40 children.” Since then, more than 200 teachers have participated in a Beyond Words group.
When they return to Israel, Beyond Words will initiate another expansion — the founding of a women’s peace center in Nazareth, which will be called “Women in the Center.” A more audacious project is its Women’s Peace Alliance. Members of the group will make contact with women in positions of leadership in Israel and, using their hard-earned listening skills, invite them to join new groups. One Beyond Words member at the retreat, a feisty Arab woman named Itaf Awad, is considering running for elected office herself.
At La Casa de Maria on Saturday, the women came together in a circle once again. This time what was offered was training in a technique called Capacitar — the Spanish verb to empower or encourage. Taught in more than 30 countries, it includes a series of body manipulations and movements that help release the effects of trauma that become locked in our tissues. Each woman surrendered to the movements, sometimes releasing deep, animalistic sounds from their innards. As a buffer against the cold morning air, many wore long skirts and scarves around their shoulders. There was no way to tell who was Arab and who was Jewish. They were simply brave women sharing a dream.
On Sunday afternoon, the women of Beyond Words gave a public presentation to 150 Santa Barbarans intrigued by the idea of women creating unexpected alliances with their supposed enemy. In La Casa Director Stephanie Glatt’s introduction, she reminded the audience that this wasn’t La Casa’s first peace retreat. In 1985, it hosted a group of Soviet and American religious women working for peace — raising more than a few eyebrows at the time.
To open the presentation, the women proceded in pairs through the banks of chairs, each holding a candle and singing. They told personal stories, sang, and read poems they had written. Each story conveyed a sense of the grief that permeates the Middle East today, but also hope.
Maureen-Amelia Brodie described the weekly trips she’s been making to a town called Bartah, which is a no-man’s land, neither truly Israel nor part of the occupied territories. One side of the main street is considered the occupied territories, the other is Israel; the true border — and everything that goes along with it — is several blocks away.
Brodie had been visiting once or twice a week to bring toys and play games with the Palestinian children when it became clear that what the children really wanted was a trip to the beach. For months she and her friends tussled with Israeli bureaucracy to gain permission for the outing, which was to have included 80 children. Finally she succeeded and the trip was set for a Saturday in July.
That Friday, war broke out with Hezbollah.