Hope keeps Israeli peacemaker going

Like a kid hoping in vain to get in one more at-bat before the summer sun sets on his pickup baseball game, nonviolence counselor Hagit Lifshitz wishes she could have worked with the settlers of Kiryat Arba for just a little longer.

But the sun always sets, and, in Lifshitz's case, the money dries up. Under the aegis of the Hebron CommUnity Project of the Fund for Peace, Lifshitz's group, Mifgash, counseled Jewish settlers while Palestinian-led groups worked with the inhabitants of nearby Hebron — until January 2000, when the parent organization couldn't muster $75,000 to keep the program running.

Further rubbing salt in the nonviolent coordinators' wounds was the eruption of the al-Aksa intifada, which uprooted any short-term hopes for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation — and, for that matter, nonviolence.

"I think that at least some of them — not all, of course — realize that if you really want to get to a solution in which everybody wins and not everybody loses, which is the current situation, unfortunately, you must consider other people's needs," said Lifshitz. She was referring to the settlers she worked with at Kiryat Arba, regarded by many as Israel's most right wing.

A Jerusalem police officer for 22 years with an expertise in nonviolent confrontational techniques, Lifshitz was recently invited to the United States to attend a retreat with the New York-based Peacemakers Community.

As part of her U.S. trip, she visited a Berkeley home earlier this spring to address past and potential donors to the Hebron CommUnity Project. Among other local organizations, audience members hailed from A Jewish Voice for Peace, the Bay Area Nonviolent Community, Kehilla Community Synagogue and Aquarian Minyan.

"I believe, of course, that politicians and those in the political arena should continue to try to find a solution, but also we have to deal with people-to-people connections and improve our ability to understand each other," said Lifshitz, who also works with battered Israeli women. "I believe that we should work very intensely toward nonviolent new ways. We should train nonviolence."

"Training nonviolence" was Lifshitz's job in Kiryat Arba. Dealing primarily with elementary school-age children, Lifshitz worked to quell a rash of fighting and vandalism she believed was a byproduct of living in one of the world's most tense and stressful environments.

While parents worried about snipers and mortar attacks — and, more than likely, brought those worries home with them — their children fought at school, shattered windows and destroyed property. With this additional layer of stress now added to the settlers' lives, enmity quickly arose between Kiryat Arba's parents and teachers.

"They invited me to talk with them and train them in dealing with issues and violence that they have in their schools," said Lifshitz. "During the training, many of them realized that there must be a kind of connection between the way of dealing with violence within their own community and the way it could or should be dealt with concerning the Palestinian issue."

Lifshitz's tantalizing hint of progress was squelched, however, when the project's yearly budget proved to be out of reach. Lynn Feinerman, the U.S. director and fund-raiser for the Hebron CommUnity Project of the Fund for Peace, is appalled that such a comparatively small amount of money couldn't be raised for a peace project when billions of U.S. military aid is sent to Israel every year.

In fact, for the price of one fighter jet, a project like Lifshitz's could be funded for more than 500 years.

"We were not able to raise a simple little $75,000 budget and continue work we were finding to be extremely successful. On the Palestinian side, the courses were extremely popular; there were people on the waiting lists," said Feinerman, who is a Bay Area filmmaker and storyteller. "There's always enough money to give another $60 billion to Israel for military equipment. But there was not enough to give $75,000 to end war with each other. That's a big, big problem, a huge problem."

Feinerman emphasized that the project is "not defunct, not in limbo — just in a holding pattern."

Lifshitz, for her part, is holding out for the possibility that she may be able to resume her work, and even progress further. But she hasn't picked up any signs that this is a realistic goal for any time in the near future.

"I must stay hopeful. This is the only way I can survive," she said. "But the situation is very worrying. It is very extreme and very difficult."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.