Three women -- a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim -- ended a seven-city tour here last week. They had sought sympathy for peace and the Palestinians. Except for in Portland, Ore., they did not get a warm welcome. A number of synagogues wouldn't have them. Partners for Peace, their sponsor, booked them into three stops in Texas, including several hotbeds of Christian fundamentalism, where their credentials to speak for Israel were vehemently questioned. In California, frosty silence greeted their calls for an end to the settlements in the occupied territories.
Muna Shikaki, a recent college graduate of 22, is a Muslim and program assistant for a children's defense organization. She goes about in ruined cities where children were killed. She keeps tabs on the 250 children between the ages of 14 and 18 who have been jailed for throwing stones at jeeps. She says they are beaten.
Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker, is engaged in a lifelong search for justice for Palestinians. She says the fierce fundamentalists who hold that the land of Judea and Samaria belongs entirely to the Israelis are misreading Scripture and bringing nothing but the prospect of another lifetime of bloodshed and heartbreak.
Adi Dagan, a Jew and a museum guide from East Jerusalem, makes it her business to stand at a military checkpoint and try to reason with Israeli soldiers who are keeping Palestinians from going to work, school or the hospital. She is outraged by the treatment they get.
All three were surprised to find that Israeli papers print much fuller accounts of Israeli wrongs and Palestinian reprisals than those here. Peace groups there flourish and stage nonviolent protests. A large majority, there as well as here, favors separate states for Israel and Palestine. This sentiment is not reflected in the surveys of the present election campaign. The yearning for peace does not show up at all.
The present prime minister, Ariel Sharon, whom George Bush alone calls "a man of peace," beat his challenger, Binyamin Netanyahu -- dismissed by the visiting women as "a junior Sharon." Sharon will now face the Labor Party contender, Amram Mitzna, in a general election in January. He promises elimination of the settlements and negotiations, if necessary, with Yasser Arafat.
Having been in this country for several weeks, they no longer look to George W. Bush for help. They have been told that more members of Congress are speaking out against Bush's resolute indifference to the mayhem while he plans to fight a war. They know that no senators raised the issue in the recent campaign. They tell their Arab friends that the suicide bombings cost their cause dearly; to Americans they point out that the bombings decrease when there seems to be a glimmer of hope for negotiation.
The monolithic quality of U.S. sentiment on Israel was explained to the women by their host, Michael Brown, executive director of Partners for Peace. He told the story of Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York. When her husband was president, she advocated statehood for Palestine and kissed Arafat's wife at a public meeting. But Senate candidate Clinton scurried to Israel to make nice with Sharon. Josh Ruebner, co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, observes with some bitterness that Clinton held a news conference with hard-liners who called for ethnic cleansing. "They called it by another name -- 'transfer' -- but that's what they had in mind."
Ruebner contends that the large numbers favoring compromise peace that pollster John Zogby found among American Jews and Arabs are matched in the Middle East. He says that American Jewish leaders are too conservative to connect with this powerful sentiment.
The Jerusalem trio, pressed for a reason to hope, cited the example of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, a 200-member organization that went to the olive groves and helped Palestinians harvest olives, shielding them from the gun-toting farmers and Israeli soldiers who usually harass them.
The rabbi came to Baltimore to speak at a synagogue the day before Thanksgiving. He is Pennsylvania-born and brushes off death threats. "We're proud of the harvest, and we try to help people at checkpoints," he said. "A child died at a checkpoint delay, but we were able to save another. It's terrible that babies should be killed because we're trying to stop suicide bombers from coming in."
Bush I adviser Brent Scowcroft urged Bush II, in an op-ed, to turn his attention to the Arab-Israeli tragedy. It seems unlikely.
A voice for Middle East reason, that of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, once Bush's special envoy to the Mideast, has fallen silent lately. It is a loss; he said of Saddam Hussein, "He's not Adolf Hitler; he's not Stalin. He's Tony Soprano."
We need such bluntness in discussions of the war between Israel and Palestine.