C.W. Gusewell


Courage shows in small gestures

It is inspiring to see the way that, simply through innate decency, ordinary people can sometimes breach barriers that political leaders – prisoners of history, dogmas and their own ambitions – are incapable of crossing.

During a past year, when we lived for a time in Paris, our young daughters attended a school whose population was representative of the world – all races and nationalities and faiths.

Indian or Pakistani, Arab or Israeli, Muslim or Catholic or Buddhist – such distinctions were of no consequence. The students were all just youngsters together, sharing the adventure of youth in a glorious city. Their friendships were immediate and easy.

Even among adults, differences can be bridged. Old hostilities and hateful rhetoric need not rule. But rapprochement requires courage, and understanding does not come cheap.

Nowhere is that truth more evident than in the tormented Middle East.

In 1970, at a luncheon in Ramallah, I heard two Palestinian men and two Israeli colonels – one of them the commander of the occupied West Bank – discuss their shared yearning for peace.

Intermittently, the conversation grew heated. But they argued respectfully, as equals. The problem was not simple. On that much they agreed.

“Complications, yes,” said the older of the Palestinians. “But there are others on this West Bank who think as we do. Good men, strong men.”

If people on both sides would just talk, he said, peace would be possible “on this land where, God help us, whether we like it or not, we must live together.”

Riding down from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I asked one of the colonels what future he saw for a Palestinian of such reasonable outlook. The reply: “I think he will one day be killed by the fedayeen,” the militants.

Sure enough, not long after, word of that man’s assassination came over the newsroom wire.

Traveling again on the West Bank in 2000, this time with friends, we ate in a restaurant called the Peace Tent, whose proprietress, a Palestinian woman, welcomed all guests – Israelis, Arabs or visiting Americans – with equal hospitality.

Now, more than a decade and a second intifada later, peace seems if anything even further away. Which explains the mix of emotions – admiration and joy – I experienced when reading in The New York Times a report out of Tel Aviv about a group of Israeli women whose hand of friendship, extended across barriers of culture and law, puts to shame the rigidity of blundering politicians.

In an act of sisterhood and civil disobedience, repeated seven times in the last year, they have invited Palestinian women and girls from the landlocked West Bank to come for a swim in the sea that many had never previously seen.

Shedding burqas and veils, and smuggled past checkpoints in their hosts’ cars, the visitors romped in the waves, shared a meal, smoked and danced with their new friends. Not only is the adventure frowned on by the men of their Muslim households. Their unauthorized presence is a violation of Israeli law.

The Jewish women call their group We Will Not Obey, and they have attracted the disapproving attention of authorities, though none has yet been prosecuted.

In his excellent Times article, Ethan Bronner, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, quoted one of the group’s members.

“For 44 years,” she said, “we have occupied another country. I don’t want to be an occupier. I am engaged in an illegal act of disobedience. I am not Rosa Parks, but I admire her because she had the courage to break a law that was not right.”