It is easy to fall into despair, pain, and anger these days. For the past year we’ve been isolated, challenged and sometimes scared for our lives with the spread of the Corona virus. Life as we knew it before was totally disrupted and every time we thought we were creating a sort of routine, there were new instructions to follow. Lockdowns, screen time instead of face time, as well as disrupted activities. Then came the vaccine, and the big debate: is it safe? is it safe not to take it? fake news, and sane news. And just when we were all starting to feel that the clouds were parting, so we could again go out and meet people, swim in the pool, and walk on the streets (with masks), the sky became streaked with rocket fire. Sirens in the streets of places that we thought were out of reach of war. Missiles flying in numbers that were not seen before, and people running into shelters that often were used to store junk, and were not prepared. Many children and families, living in places without safe shelters, huddled together in the stairwell. Ambulance sirens blared, miraculously there were not so many injured and dead. But the 5-year-old boy who was injured, and we all hoped would survive, died, and with him died so many other children in Gaza from the heavy bombardments that came as retaliation for the missiles. Such is the toll of war.
The earth is scarred. The earth was burning. The hotheads, bigots, and intolerant nationalists and criminals took to the streets and set fire to coexistence and mutual respect. Civic unrest, great fear, pain and despair of what will be when Arab and Jewish students go back to the university classes, when neighbors have to continue living next to each other, filled us with trepidation. When I go back to shop in my favorite fruit and vegetable market, workers and shoppers, Jews and Arabs will be checking out the freshness of the produce together. There was always some mistrust and hatred in segments of the population, simmering underground. Prejudice exists when people on both sides do not bother to familiarize themselves with each other’s culture. When the majority allows feelings of neglect to simmer, allows criminal gangs to spread violence on the streets, and does not engage the population in creating solutions, it is inevitable for an earthquake to occur. Synagogues were burned, Muslim cemeteries desecrated, restaurants of both Arabs and Jews firebombed, and cars set on fire. Shots were aimed at each other and even a lynching was attempted on an innocent Arab driver who happened to find himself surrounded by a Jewish mob of young people venting their anger and fear about the rockets overhead.
I came to this land in 1944 as a small child who had already experienced traumatic events. I grew up with wars and hostility, but I also experienced kindness and expressions of solidarity. I learned that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Every situation has at least 2 sides. I learned that underneath anger and violence there is always pain and shame. I live in a town which is a center for the entire region. It is populated by many different types of Jews, and by Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouin, and others. There are always some who mistrust. There are some who are more or less educated, professionals, and manual workers of all stripes. In my profession, for the past 25 years, I have provided therapy and supervision to one and all, and have earned their respect since I truly respect them. In fact, a large number of the therapists I supervise are members of the Arab population. Dedicated people, responsible therapists whom I respect and love. None of them stopped seeing me, and we all felt the pain. Preconceived notions no longer exist when you actually bother to listen. You learn that just like yourself, your neighbor has merits and faults.
Then a miracle happened. I received an invitation from one of my supervisees to join a Zoom prayer meeting of Arab and Jewish women. Very short notice, so it called for action. I used my WhatsApp lists, and sent the invitation to friends and colleagues. My heart sang when I entered the space and saw 350 women joining a song in both Arabic and Hebrew composed and performed by one of the participants. A poem was read in Arabic, another in Hebrew – the hearts of women were heard speaking. The voices were of trust and compassion despite the pain. The common bond of sharing life and death. The understanding and desire to support each other and work together for a better future. For a future of hope, of togetherness, and elimination of violence.
It all happened because one woman felt frustrated, helpless, and moved to tears, after a meeting of Women for Peace. She was moved to action, and decided she could no longer be passive. She felt privileged, educated, white, Jewish, not really connected or familiar with Arab women. She approached a friend, who approached an Arab colleague, and the ball started rolling. A wise feminist Arab mother, who recruited her Anthroposophic teacher daughter and her Biochemist post-doctoral daughter, and a physician. From the Jewish side, the art therapist who was the initiator of the group, a Chinese Medicine practitioner, a high-tech worker, and a composer and singer completed the core group of organizers. The silent voice recruited for the meeting was a sign language interpreter. It turns out that both Hebrew and Arabic have the same sign language. It is interesting to note that our hard of hearing are the ones who understand each other perfectly well. In less than 3 days it all came together. That is what happens when women feel the threat to their families and their communities. When women, who are both givers of life and the ones who suffer the losses and the violence, understand that together they have the power to overcome strife and mistrust.
Shelly Taylor of UCLA offers an utterly new understanding of how human beings (especially women) evolved to handle challenges. Simply put, in the face of a dangerous stressor, a group of humans can band together and support each other. Rather than running from an attacker or trying to fight it individually, it’s possible to join forces and metaphorically circle the wagons, and face the problem as a group. Taylor called it the “tend-and-befriend” behavior, explicitly named to mirror fight-or-flight, and just as the fight-or-flight mechanism has its own hormone to trigger it, the tend-and befriend behavior, too, has a hormone underlying it – oxytocin, a hormone that has become something of a chemical celebrity in the new millennium. It is called the “love” drug, and is also released when we cuddle each other, and when women give birth. It increases trust, empathy, and generosity, and also promotes social bonding. This is exactly what I felt was happening. There was song, there was poetry, there was an expression of hope, and there was individual silent prayer allowing each one in the group to have her own space and desire. It was an expression of a common feeling of empathy and love.
This was an inspirational start. We will use it like a pebble that is thrown into the water to create larger and larger ripples. We will create larger and larger groups that will put out the flames, and nurture the delicate new growth of peace, tolerance and hope, which are starting to sprout on broken stumps and branches.