Voices for peace find renewed purpose

Eschewing angry protests, grass-roots organizations in US try to bring calm to the Middle East.

Alison Pepper stands silently in the chill spring-evening air, holding up a sign in Hebrew that says: "Stop the Occupation!"

On this American Israeli's coat is a small ivory dove, etched with the female sign – the symbol of Bat Shalom, the Israeli women's peace movement.

Next to her at this quiet vigil in Union Square Park stands Adeeb Fadil, an American of Palestinian descent. His family – from Haifa – became refugees in 1948.

The two are friends, and their bond grew out of the crisis in their mutual, albeit disputed homeland. Most days now they're in constant contact on the Internet. They're members of the Arab Jewish Peace Group, one of dozens of such often overlooked grass-roots organizations across the country that have been galvanized by the wave of suicide bombings and the siege of Palestinian towns.

True, the renewed violence has hardened the views of many on each side of this seemingly intractable debate, filling the streets with angry flag-waving, fist-pounding protests over the weekend from New York to San Francisco. But they also have deepened the resolve of American Jews and Arabs committed to working together to find a peaceful solution.

"The people who've reached out to each other and see their common humanity are more profoundly committed than they've ever been," says Mr. Fadil. "Ultimate security, ultimate justice, and genuine peace will only work with us working together."

That is the premise the whole peace process is based upon. Yet Middle East peace activists often feel like voices in the wilderness, overshadowed by angry extremists on either side – and sometimes ostracized by their own communities for offering controversial, unwelcome opinions.

Yet they persevere and continue to reach out.

This quiet vigil in Union Square has been going on every Thursday evening since October. It was organized by Women in Black, a group of American-Jewish women opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories. During the winter, sometimes only a handful of people showed up. But last week, more than 100 women and men came out to lend their voices to the peace process.

Some are regulars like Marcia Bernstein, a retired social worker. She lost family in the Holocaust and feels responsible as an American Jew and taxpayer for what happens in Israel, which receives substantial financial aid from the US.

"I see what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians is in many ways very similar to what the Germans did to the Jews in Europe," she says. "It's shameful. It's just shameful."

Others like Yael Shtainer, an Israeli living New York, just happened by and felt compelled to join in. She went to Israel last year for the first time in a decade and was changed by what she saw. "Both powers need each other, and both of them are so blind," she says. "Both of them have to open their eyes, and to know the enemy is not outside ourselves. It's within."

Yet uptown in Times Square, where an estimated 2,000 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered Friday, the enemy was clear. The face of Ariel Sharon was held up on posters and labeled a butcher and terrorist.

Earlier in the day, at a press conference held by the Jewish Community Relations Council, it was Yasser Arafat who was labeled the enemy. New York Gov. George Pataki denounced him as a terrorist and called for new Palestinian leadership.

The ratcheting up of rhetoric on both sides clearly frustrates peace activists like Fadil and Ms. Pepper, yet they understand it. They also recognize that their approach – which they consider more compassionate and rational – is more difficult for their friends and family living in the Middle East to embrace.

Pepper says that, at this point, it's even hard to talk to many of her friends in Israel about her perspective. "But I can't criticize them. They're living right smack in the middle of it. They're afraid their kid is going to get bombed on the way to school or that on the way to go out and buy bread that they're going to die, because their city is under siege," she says. "I'm standing here in the comfort of New York City."

But she and Fadil are both convinced that as soon as people's fears – whether brought on by suicide bombers or Israeli tanks and guns – start to recede, a "high, high percentage" will come back to supporting the peace process. All they have to do is start talking.

"One of the irrationalities that frustrates me most is that people accept the notion that it's all right to negotiate and talk only as long as things are peaceful. But when somebody blows themselves up or engages in a military attack, you shouldn't be talking anymore," he says. "For God's sake, it's just the opposite."

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