Jerri Bird, ‘dedicated’ activist for Middle East peace, dies at 86


Jerri Bird, an activist for Middle East peace, died Dec. 13 at her home in Washington. Pictured are, from left, Jerine "Jerri" Bird, her children, and her husband Eugene Bird, in Jerusalem in 1956. (Family Photo )
December 19, 2012

Jerri Bird spent three decades accompanying her husband on his Foreign Service assignments throughout the Middle East during the Cold War. They witnessed ethnic and religious tensions that often spiraled into extremist violence and lured generations into a cycle of terror, grief and the desire for retribution.

“An eye for an eye has turned into twelve for one or better,” she wrote to her parents in Oregon at the start of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. At the time, she and her husband were stationed in East Jerusalem.

Mrs. Bird, 86, died of peritoneal cancer Dec. 13 at her home in Washington. She was profoundly affected by her experiences in Israel, and she spent her final decades as an activist for Arab-Israeli reconciliation. In 1989, she started a nonprofit organization called Partners for Peace that expressed sympathy for the suffering of everyday Palestinians and had little use for militancy on any sides.

The group, which disbanded last year, was best known for its national speaking tour called “Women of Jerusalem: Three Women, Three Faiths, One Shared City.”

The speaking events featured a Jewish Israeli, a Muslim Palestinian and a Christian Palestinian. The women — a revolving number of them over the years — were strangers to one another but agreed that Jerusalem should be shared among the three faiths.

That view was in stark opposition to the Israeli government’s official position that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital” of Israel. Israel captured Jerusalem’s eastern half — viewed as a future capital of a Palestinian state — during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Appearing at synagogues, churches, community centers and universities across the country, the women attempted to present the common humanity of the three societies living in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“I wanted ordinary women to speak to ordinary people in America,” Mrs. Bird told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 1998. “I felt that the voices not being heard were the women, the human voices. I felt Americans would respond to it.”

One Christian participant, Marianne Albina, echoed sentiments often expressed by Muslims in Israel.

“Oh, my God, it isn’t easy being a Christian in the holy land,” she was quoted in a 1998 talk in Washington, describing how Israeli checkpoints required her children to wake at 5 a.m. to get to school at 8. “It’s hard to love my enemy.”

The Jewish speakers selected for the program tended to be dovish and critical of the hard-line Israeli policy. Writing in The Washington Post in 2002, columnist Mary McGrory reported that the women were given frosty receptions in communities dominated by Christian fundamentalists and that they were turned away by some synagogues.

In short, McGrory wrote, they confronted “the monolithic quality of U.S. sentiment on Israel.”

Mrs. Bird’s group also worked to publicize allegations of torture and mistreatment of Arab Americans detained by Israel.

Retired ambassador Philip C. Wilcox Jr., president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an organization that provided grants to Partners for Peace, called Mrs. Bird an “impassioned, eloquent and dedicated” activist who “pursued the cause of peace in a dignified but resolute way.”

Wilcox, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern Affairs, said, “For Americans to hear Jewish Israelis making common cause with Palestinians is something new and different and shows the complexity and variety of views in those two societies.”

Grace Said, who, like her late brother Edward W. Said, is an advocate in the United States of the cause of Palestinian independence, added, “That they were women gave another viewpoint, because we always see men talking, and the women talked very honestly and were not very upset. That was something new.”

Jerine Bettybea Newhouse was born Feb. 3, 1926, in Portland, Ore., and raised in Eugene, Ore.

She graduated from the University of Oregon in June 1948 and later that year married Eugene H. Bird, who became a Middle East specialist in the State Department. Besides Jerusalem, they lived at times in Beirut, Cairo and the Saudi Arabian cities of Jeddah and Riyadh.

Besides her husband, of Washington, survivors include four children, Christina Macaya of Camas, Wash., Kai Bird of Lima, Peru, Nancy Bird of Cordova, Alaska, and Shelly Bird of Alexandria; a sister; and six grandchildren.

Mrs. Bird’s death was confirmed by her son, Kai, an author who shared the Pulitzer Prize for “American Prometheus,” a 2005 biography of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

From 1989 to 1996, Mrs. Bird was an administrator at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in the District. She also was a member of the World Affairs Council.

In her activism, Mrs. Bird often confronted the argument that a Palestinian state would jeopardize Israel’s security needs.

“Israel is already the one of the most modern military forces in the Middle East, and this has not protected it against violence,” she wrote in a 2002 letter to the editor published by the New York Times. “Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians guarantee continued violent resistance. A viable, independent Palestinian state would be a step in the direction of two peoples in the same land living harmoniously. The only alternative is endless bloodshed.”