|Myriam Dagan Brenner of Givat Haviva
On the morning of June 22, we rendezvoused with Myriam Dagan Brenner at a noisy coffee-shop on the outskirts of Afula, near the moshav where she lives. Myriam is a lively, opinionated, and big-hearted coordinator at Givat Haviva (which I never got the chance to revisit this summer) with a busy schedule, so I was pleased that we could connect, even though I had hoped to see her in action during one of her programs for Arab and Jewish women. As it turned out, we talked for more than two hours in one of the most fascinating conversations of the entire trip.
“I never lived on a kibbutz,” Myriam told us, without regret, when I explained the focus of my research. “I don’t see it happening.”
She only moved to Israel from France in 1984 after marrying an Israeli man, who had to return to attend to his sick father. (“A very big Zionist reason for coming here!” she admitted with a laugh.) In 1989, after a serendipitous meeting with the coordinator of the Children Teaching Children program at Givat Haviva (which brings together Jewish and Arab high-school students), Myriam was invited to lead a few seminars at this educational institute founded by the Kibbutz Artzi movement. Over the past 21 years, she deepened her relationship with Givat Haviva and has helped to develop many of its outreach programs, including sessions that address gaps in Israeli society between Arabs and Jews, Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean) and Ashkenazi (Northern European) Jews, and new immigrants and Israeli-born sabras.
In 1994, after the assassination of P.M. Rabin, she started the Counselling for Peace Education Centre. In 1999, thanks to a $500,000 grant, she co-founded the Women in Communities program to help social workers to address women’s issues. (“It was like a fantasy,” she admitted of the sudden influx of money for their otherwise cash-strapped efforts. Later, she lamented that international groups who support confrontational actions like the Gaza Flotilla don’t seem as keen to fund the peace work being done at a place like Givat Haviva.)
She has strong views about how feminism can transform the still-traditional notions of family in her otherwise modern nation. She admits there is a paradox in Israel: It is a country where a student can enroll in gender studies in all universities, many colleges and even a few high schools, and yet women are still without a voice in most major political, social and economic decisions.
Why? Myriam cited three main reasons.
First, despite mandatory army service, women can’t serve in combat units and therefore can’t become part of the officers’ network that still underlies much of Israeli politics and business. “[Women] don’t have the status or the network that men can have in the army,” she explained.
A second issue is the traditional expectation, in both secular and especially religious families, Jewish and Muslim alike, that women will be responsible for taking care of the family—and that the family ought to be big. (“Two children is not a family” is a common saying.) Myriam called these gender expectations (man as the provider, woman as the nurturer) a “magic circle” that both men and women are caught within and can’t escape without a struggle.
Thirdly, the gender question, she argued, is especially important to The Conflict (as the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is known locally). “Women are not see as partners in thinking, talking, making a difference. There are no women involved in the peace talks,” she lamented, citing Hannah Ashrawi as an exception on the Palestinian side that proves the rule—Ashrawi is no longer a player. “The Jewish women think they can’t be part of it because they aren’t involved in the army issues. The Palestinian women think that the men are right so there is nothing to argue about. We [at Givat Haviva] think that women have the capacity to speak to each other and are much more mindful to have peace and quietness than men.”
“One of the problems we have in Jewish-Arab women’s groups, after they connect very strongly on the personal level—’We are all women, we are all mothers, we are all dealing with the same problems on the personal, family level, sometimes community level’—is that when we get to the conflict level, they adopt the male discourse of the conflict. When before they spoke about themselves, it was ‘I do, I feel, I think’, but when they get to conflict, they speak about ‘we’ and ‘you’. In Hebrew, it is like ‘you’ in French: ‘you’ that is singular and ‘you’ that is plural. We go from ‘me’ and ‘you’ on the personal level, to ‘we’ and ‘you’ on the collective level.” And from connection to disconnection.
She talked about the two competing historical narratives in the conflict—Jewish versus Palestinian—a concept we heard repeated several times on our trip. “The two narratives are very strongly opposed to each other,” said Myriam, at least when it comes to the “facts” of the conflict or even the recent flotilla incident. Both sides can’t see through the other’s eyes, even momentarily. They tell two completely different stories. “There is nothing you can say that convince them that there is something in the middle.”
At Givat Haviva, she tries to get the two sides to talk about feelings rather than argue over “facts”. “When you speak about facts you don’t get out of it,” she said. “But when you speak about the feelings—the feelings of fear and frustration—with feelings you can’t argue. If I am afraid, you can tell me 30 times there was nothing on the boat, but that doesn’t change my fear. You can’t argue that I feel differently. The fear doesn’t come from the flotilla; the fear comes from 100 years of conflict. The same thing for the Palestinians. The second thing, you can connect with the same feelings. You don’t agree about the facts. But we can connect about the feelings we have about the event or the conflict as a whole.”
She talked a little bit about the Four Mothers movement and how—in part because these activists leveraged the power of motherhood within traditional Israeli society—they managed, slowly and with great resistance, to alter the discourse about the army’s role in Lebanon and play a key role in the military withdrawal of 2000. Already, however, the role of this group of women (one of whom I met later in the trip) was being forgotten by the public or diminished in the media. “Most people would say about the Four Mothers, they didn’t have an impact, they weren’t relevant,” said Myriam.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think without them we would still be in Lebanon. I don’t have any doubt about it,” she replied. “But think of it: they were the four mothers. We had a significance to the struggle, not as citizens, not as women, but as mothers. It’s so much Israeli! As mothers you have legitimacy.” That’s why Myriam felt, despite the efforts of groups like the Women in Black, there couldn’t be an equivalent popular movement to change the debate about the Occupation. “It’s not a motherhood issue,” she said. “It’s a civic issue.”
I was struck by how Myriam could step back and take both an optimistic and a pessimistic view of the state of her nation and its ever-elusive prospect for peace.
“The full-half glass is that I started working at Givat Haviva at 1989, during the First Intifida. During that time, there was almost no talk in Israeli society of the possibility of a Palestinian state. Only the left-wing people were talking about two states for two people. If you look at the reality today, the majority of Israelis see the possibility of two states for two people. The agreement in Jewish Israeli society for a Palestinian state already exists. There is a problem with Jerusalem, there is a problem with the settlements. There are problems with the borders. But as an idea, the possibility that there will be a Palestinian state is in the mind of every Israeli. Even those who are against it, they know it will be happening. And somehow they accept it.
“In the Palestinian society, the fact that there will be an Israeli state is also accepted. Twenty years ago, it was not. There was a Palestinian discourse on the full Palestine and an Israeli discourse on a full Israel, from the Jordan to the sea—Palestine or Israel, one or the other. Today, I think it’s obvious and acceptable to both sides that there will be two states for two people… That’s a very, very big change. This is something that should be seen as very important. I would like to think that we, as Givat Haviva, were a part of this change.”
However, the glass often looks more empty than full these days, she admitted.
“On the other hand, almost nothing has changed. The ideas have changed, but on the ground almost nothing has changed. The relationships between Jews and Arabs are as tense as they’ve always been. … The political situation is very much depressing. It seems there is no other option. There is no political leader in Israel that you would like to be the prime minister. This I find very depressing. I personally am much more concerned by the religious movement. But I am not sure they are more significant than they were before. For many years, they have been running the politics and business in Israel. It’s much more frightening.”
In darker moments of the conflict, her family, who all have foreign passports, circles around a common question (“like a tradition,” she said) about whether they should emigrate. “With a foreign passport, I can go anywhere I want. I can go any place in Europe and work and have social security. We can put our things together tomorrow morning, get on a plane and go. On the one hand, it makes things easier, because we can say if things get worse we can go. On the other hand, it makes things worse, because everyday we have to decide: do we stay here when we don’t have to?”
During the height of the Second Intifada, amid terrorist attacks and bus bombings, Myriam said she was relieved, despite her desire to see them, that her three older children were living abroad. “But my youngest daughter was in Madrid during the train attack,” she recalled, “and I thought, ‘There is no safe place to be!’”
So what keeps her in Israel?
In part, she doesn’t want to abandon the fight so easily. “If people like us don’t stay in Israel, we give up on what is Israel. The right-wing will stay here, the ultra-orthodox will stay here.” It’s a refrain that we heard from other progressive voices in the country, although Myriam wasn’t 100% convinced.
“There is a joke in Hebrew,” she said, “that Moses had—how do you say?—a stutter, and when he said where should the Jewish people go, and it was to Canaan, but what he really said was ‘Ca-ca-ca…’ And he meant ‘Canada’!”
And then Myriam Dagan Brenner released one of her warm yet ironic laughs.