Midwives talk peace

Arab and Jewish midwifes find a common language

The original idea behind Midwives for Peace was that women had a special role to play in grassroots peace initiatives; ‘Pregnancy is the same wherever you are.’

By Judy Maltz , Haaretz, Sept. 12, 2014

BEIT JALA, West Bank – It’s been three months since this group of midwives last met, but considering the 50-day war in between, it seems more like ages.

Some have traveled far to get here, from kibbutzim near the Lebanese border and from the town of Jenin in the northern West Bank. A few are from Jerusalem (both the Jewish and Arab parts of the city), one comes from Tel Aviv and another from Ramallah. Situated just outside Bethlehem and a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem, Beit Jala is a convenient – and also relatively safe – meeting point for them all.

Typically, these gatherings are dedicated to shop talk – the usual debates about epidurals and episiotomies, natural childbirth and C-sections, breast vs. bottle, and home vs. hospital births. This time, they’ve decided to lift their usual ban on political discussions and focus on how they, as Israeli and Palestinian women, experienced the latest war in Gaza and what conclusions they’ve drawn.

Midwives for Peace, a grassroots non-profit that promotes dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian women, has been meeting every three months since it was first launched six years ago. But this week’s gathering had a different tone. “We’ve been through wars before, but none as big as this, and also, we know each other a lot better now – we’re friends already, which makes it even harder,” says Gomer (who asked that her full name not be published), the Israeli co-director of the group.

Suha (not her real name) is among the last to arrive for the meeting here at the Everest Hotel. Although she lives fairly close by, she had to take a few detours on the way to avoid the Israeli checkpoints, and that’s why she was delayed. “What happened to you? You seemed to have lost lots of weight,” remarks one of the Israeli midwives, after giving Suha a warm hug.

“I had a really bad summer,” responds the Palestinian, as she lights up a cigarette and joins the rest of her colleagues at the table. The last to arrive is Aisha, the Palestinian co-director, who’s brought along with her some gifts for the group – hand-made party favors. “My daughter has just gotten engaged,” she explains the occasion.

Only nine women are attending this session – significantly fewer than the usual group of 25. But considering that they’re here to share their personal feelings, as one midwife remarks, perhaps it’s better that the forum is more intimate. Some break into tears as they recall their experiences over the summer. Suha confides that she lost two friends in Gaza, healthcare practitioners she had trained who were killed in the war. The Israelis broach a subject until now considered taboo: their fears as mothers of sons serving in combat. One woman shares the pain she felt attending the funeral of someone she knew killed in the war.

“We felt is was necessary to talk about what happened over the summer, that we owed it to each other,” says Gomer.

Over lunch in the hotel, the atmosphere is a bit lighter. It’s time to catch up on what’s happening at work and at home since these women last met. They pass around smartphones to share updated photos of children and grandchildren. They’re even happy to swap some professional insider information, like which women scream loudest in childbirth.

“Jews of Persian origin by far,” says Barbara Ben-Ami, a midwife for many years at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem and today an independent home birth specialist. “Also the Moroccan women.”

Leslie Wolff, a former midwife at Bnai Zion hospital in Haifa, points out the main difference between Arab and Jewish women. “Arab women in labor scream: ‘I’m gonna die.’ Jewish women in labor scream: ‘Epidural.’”

Midwives for Peace is one of dozens of dialogue groups supported by the Interfaith Encounter Association. “The intention is to build peace bottom-up using interfaith encounters as the main vehicle,” explains its director Yehuda Stolov. “In this particular group, it’s not an interest in religious issues that brings the participants together, but rather, sharing a common vocation.”

The original idea behind Midwives for Peace, recalls Gomer, was that women, particularly those in this profession, had a special role to play in grassroots peace initiatives. “But for us, it was mostly about having an opportunity to meet the other side,” she says, “and we ended up becoming good friends.”

Hala, who wears a traditional hijab and black robe, has been practicing midwifery in Jenin for the past 22 years. Even though the trip takes her three hours each way, she’s been one of the regular participants, a member of the hardcore group, for the past six years. “What I found here is people who have a common language with me,” she notes. Although she does not want her full name published, Hala says her neighbors are aware that she’s active in this Israeli-Palestinian group.

Having a common vocation certainly creates a special bond among these women, notes Suha, but it’s the specific vocation that explains their common interest in promoting peace. “Our business is to bring life into the world,” she says.

Or as Aisha notes: “Pregnancy is the same wherever you are, and so are the concerns of all expectant mothers. Nobody wants to see their kids killed.”

Rachel, a midwife from central Israel, missed the two last meetings. With all her other work and family commitments, she acknowledges, sometimes it’s a drag to pull herself away for an entire day for these meetings. “But this time, because of the war, I felt it was important for me to come,” she says.

Leslie describes these encounters as “a drop in the bucket” considering all that needs to be done on the peace-making front. And no, Barbara adds, the participants didn’t come up with any solutions to the conflict during their two-hour venting session. “Still,” she says, “it made me realize how important it is that groups like this exist.”

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