Beyond Words Bridges the Gap for Israeli Arabs, Christians, and

by Isabelle T. Walker • Photographs by Paul

Group%20Paired%20Greet%20Web.jpgCarrying 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.”

Nitsan%20Gordan%20Group%20Sitting%20Web.jpgBeing 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

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.

Hands%20Web.jpgThe 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

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

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

That Friday, war broke out with Hezbollah.


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