Susan Ryder has spent most of the past six years cooking, cleaning and pampering her two young sons. "I was not a political person," says the 36-year-old Wheaton resident.
Ryder underwent a conversion last month during a day-long panel at American University about the Lebanese crisis and now she's organizing a nationwide women's coalition for peace in the Middle East through the university's Center for Cooperative Global Development.
Ryder says she was "pretty quiet" at the meeting because she didn't feel terribly knowledgable about the conflict. By the end of the day, however, "something in me took over."
A Pakistani speaker, who said that women -- by virtue of their capacity for motherhood -- were best suited for working toward a peaceful solution to the Lebanese crisis, made a big impact on Ryder. She agreed to lead a women's organization through AU's Center for Cooperative Global Development.
Through Women For Peace In The Middle East (WPME), Ryder is attempting to set up discussions between Jewish and Arab women across the country so they can break through the stereotypes and fears they have about one another. The discussions would revolve not around politics, but around the many experiences they share as women. "Jewish and Arab backgrounds are about the closest you can get," she says.
Unifying the members of WPME are fasts, every Thursday, until the fighting officially ends and a final settlement has been signed. In about 150 phone calls, she has contacted individuals and groups in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.
Brought up in a traditional, conservative Jewish home in North Carolina, Ryder was raised to see Israel as "an ideal image," -- a view which she has changed largely because of the impact the Israeli bombings in Lebanon have had on her.
"It's a painful process to let go,"she says.
Her reaction to the Lebanese crisis, while perhaps more radical than most, occurs at a time when many American Jews are examining their unquestioned faith in Israel. Ryder believes she can be critical of the Israeli government, "but I don't feel that I am anti-Israel or anti-Begin."
Perhaps her examination began 12 years ago, she says, during a visit to Israel. She recalls coming away feeling significantly different than many of her friends.
"I experienced the frustration of the Moroccan Jews in Israel who are treated differently because of the color of their skin," she says. "This was not the ideal Israel I was led to believe in . . . It wasn't that unbreakable golden bubble anymore."
Her attempts to unify Jew and Arabs have not gone unchallenged by friends and acquaintances. A confrontation she had recently with a close family friend was "horrible," she said. On a visit to her son's violin teacher, she stopped talking to another parent rather than get into an argument about the Middle East.
The Holocaust, says Ryder, too often clouds the vision of Jews who say they support peace between Arabs and Israelis.
"The constant showings of the Holocaust on TV have not served anybody positively . . . ," says Ryder. "You can rehash till the end of time who was right and who was wrong in the 1940s, or you can just drop it. And you really can drop it."
The only hope for peace in the Middle East is for Jews and Arabs to stop living in the past and start talking to one another, she feels, adding that the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat showed it could be done.
Inspired by the representatives of the Arab Women's Council who fasted for five days in front of the White House earlier this month, Ryder fasted during the same time at home. The first WPME fast was the following day.
"In the course of one day, you get a little hungry. But it's the third day (in a row) when I might feel ill, tired or dizzy," said Ryder who drinks only water during her fasts.
Ryder said her husband, Bill, has encouraged her in her efforts although she added: "I don't know how much he'll support our phone bill."
Bill Ryder, though, sounded agreeable about his wife's organization: "It makes for some inconveniences at times, but it's well worth it."
Her sons, aged 3 and 5, are not always so understanding now that they often have to vie with the telephone for their mother's attention.
While it would appear that progress in Middle East negotiations has been made, Ryder says she will suspend the fasts and disband the organization only when Jews and Arabs recognize each other's right to exist.
"A ceasefire can happen today, the PLO can leave next week, but the sore that's been there for 30 years isn't going to heal in a week," she said.