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.”