Hope At the End of a String, by E.J. Tivona, Ph.D.


balloonsHope At the End of a String

By E.J. Tivona, Ph.D.

I’m driving my buddy David’s van filled end to end with helium balloons, making my way through the streets of Denver, and questioning the wisdom of my plan to park in the midst of a hostile confrontation between Jewish supporters of Israel and Palestinian Arab sympathizers. What in the world was I thinking when I cooked up this crazy plan? It all seemed so simple in the beginning.

Shift back to the early months of 2003, when I began picking up threads on the Internet that a local version of the bedlam running non-stop in the Middle East was about to play right outside the steps of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver, Colorado.

The stage was set for the evening of Monday, May 12, 2003. The location was this modest conservative synagogue on a quiet block in a Denver residential neighborhood.   The familiar script called for Colorado Jews and Palestinian supporters to confront each other — complete with hatred and the threats of violence that typically bring the media running.

The protagonists were poised for a showdown, incited by the Colorado Coalition for Middle East Peace (CCMEP) and Action Israel (AI) in the run up to the May 12th drama. Each of these groups benefits from a long-standing reputation as fervent advocates for its own side: CCMEP as a militant Palestinian solidarity organization, and AI as an equally militant voice for the state of Israel. Both organizations had issued URGENT ACTION ALERTS via the Internet to their respective constituents.  Each side called for partisan sympathizers to wear T-shirts and carry posters and flags advocating their position, to chant inflammatory rhetoric and sing nationalistic songs; all this heat and noise either in protest or support of the Advocating for Israel panel discussion that would begin inside the synagogue at 7:30 that evening. The scheduled event was co-sponsored by the Denver Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee/AIPAC, but the spontaneous performance unfolding outside Rodef Shalom promised to be far more emotional and richly colorful than expected— perfect fodder for the media.

I followed the dueling e-mails from the comfort of my home office as all of this was taking shape, and I thought long and hard about my affiliation with a small Jewish peace group called Colorado Jews for a Just Peace (CJJP). CJJP is a vocal proponent of a two-state solution in the Middle East, and stands firmly by the idea that neither extreme position – an expansion of Israeli occupation of land to create a “Greater Israel,” or the violent overthrow of the existing Israeli state to create an all-Arab Palestine – holds promise for an end to regional violence in the foreseeable future. The only hope for both sides is a negotiated settlement of hostilities and the establishment of two states – Israel and Palestine – existing side by side: a position that is articulated in painstaking detail in numerous unofficial peace settlements such as the Geneva Accord. But it is one thing to advocate this position among friends gathered in a relaxing living room around veggie lasagna and a couple bottles of Chianti; taking this position to the street is quite another matter.

First of all, although steadfast in our advocacy for peaceful negotiation, members of CJJP were small in number. Second of all, we were objects of suspicion on pretty much every front. Mainstream Jewish organizations assumed we were anti-Israel and consequently labeled us self-hating Jews. Local Palestinian solidarity organizations were generally suspicious of any Jew who appeared to take issue with Israeli government policy … this was totally outside their realm of experience. And peace activists of all stripes thought we were just very, very confused.

Never one to be daunted by being part of a tiny minority, I began to strategize how best to intervene in the middle of all this implacable mistrust and hatred, not just hypothetically but in reality, on the day of the scheduled demonstration, in order to get the message of peaceful co-existence heard above all the noise.

Operative word here: ABOVE. Once again turning to the inexhaustible Internet, I found the perfect image – a map of Israel flanked on either side by the Israeli and Palestinian flags. With some judicious editing I added the phrase “What if you didn’t have to choose sides?” Also through the magic of cyberspace, I found a website advertising custom balloon orders delivered in one day. They happily accepted my digitally transferred image and voila I had a hundred balloons on my doorstep that very week. Although I never did rally the full support of CJJP for this effort, I did have a couple compatriots. Vicki, for one, took the initiative to run copies of a flyer displaying our image along with a long list of local, national and international organizations that shared the viewpoints we were advocating. I raced down to my local Party America and got a small helium tank. Cheryl agreed to join us.  In less than a week we were preparing to play the clowns in this spontaneous street theatre.

Never mind that there were only three of us. We were headed for the demonstration in David’s van with fifty inflated helium balloons and fists full of flyers that asked simply, “What if You Didn’t Have to Choose Sides?” Although I began all this with great resolve, as the decisive moment grew near, I was beset by anxiety. It dawned on me that we were about to wade into a crowd of agitated adversaries, many of whom, on both sides, were friends and acquaintances of mine. Truly, what was I thinking?

What then is the real irony of this story? As we emerged from the van, struggling with the tangled balloon strings, people on both sides of the street kept demanding to know who we represented – who did we speak for?  And although our flyers listed numerous organizations, we clearly came as individuals, representing only ourselves.  Few official demonstrators would believe us – many claimed we had hidden agendas either on behalf of the Palestinian people or on behalf of the state of Israel.  Ugly shouts ricocheted from one side of the street to the other “Hitler should have finished the job!” from the Palestinian side. “Death to Arab criminals!” from the Israeli side. It might have been almost comical if it hadn’t been so tragic to see the three of us, with our plea for a peace and a two-state solution, get tossed off the sidewalk on the Jewish side of the street, only to be shouted down on the Palestinian side. But the three of us remained steadfast, clutching the fragile strings of our peace message, trying to engage one person, then another, in some kind of meaningful dialogue.

And then, much to our surprise, the power of simple listening began to prevail.  Slowly, a person or two (from one side of the street or the other) wanted to talk, wanted to be heard, wanted to explain how impossible it was to trust the other side and why.  And the more they talked, the more one or two others came to listen and to take part. Small side conversations across the divide sprouted up here and there, under the shelter of white, green and blue balloons.

• A respected Rabbi agreed that conditions on the West Bank were deplorable and acknowledged the extreme hardship caused by the collapsing economy.

• A Palestinian man understood the terror that anti-Semitism evokes in the Jewish psyche, a scar stamped indelibly by the Holocaust.

• People on BOTH sides denounced acts of terrorism, recognizing the need for both a viable Palestinian state and security for a viable Israel.

• And beyond that, a beaming Hispanic police officer took our flyer and looked at me in wonder and amazement.  He declared, “I didn’t get it at first, but you’re trying to be neutral … like ‘Switzerland!'”

In the end, he allowed the three of us to stand in the middle of the street, and to release the balloons as we nodded “salaam” to one side and “shalom” to the other.

Who is to say exactly what we accomplished that day? We did attract the attention of the media: the Intermountain Jewish News, the Boulder Daily Camera, and Rocky Mountain News reporters who were on the scene – all of whom, by the way, also wanted to know who we represented. (For a brief moment, we considered calling ourselves “Short Women for Peace” because at a whopping 5’4” I towered over my companions, Vicki and Cheryl.) Despite our stature-challenged physiques, we all agreed that for one day maybe we did make a difference.

Four years later, the membership of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, stood at over 25,000 American Jews, AND Brit Tzedek’s successor, J-street, a political home the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans, swelled to hundreds of thousands in five years. Back then, when we were clutching those tenuous balloon strings, the “final status” principles of the Geneva Accord were making headlines throughout Europe and the U.S., AND Ariel Sharon (Sharon, mind you!) orchestrated a withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza, AND Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), as the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, was attempting to disarm breakaway extremist organizations among his people.

Are any of these developments something we could have anticipated? Did our small stand on one day in May of 2003 in Denver, Colorado have anything to do with these momentous developments? Certainly, I can’t report a direct line of causality; nevertheless, about a year after the “short women” carried messages on helium balloons in Denver, I was again surfing through my daily flood of e-mail. One headline in particular caught my eye. The subject line read “10,000 Kites taking Israelis, Palestinians to a higher place.”

Enthusiastically I read the story of an international project inspired by a small Palestinian boy flying a kite amidst the rubble of his war-torn neighborhood in Kalkiya. This innocent scene captured the imagination of Israeli artist Adi Yekutieli and Palestinian artist George Nostas, and in August, 2004 they took their dream –10,000 kites being held aloft by Israelis and Palestinians together as expressions of their dreams for the future – to grassroots organizations throughout Israel and Palestine. The idea caught on quickly, with more than 80 Israeli, Israeli Arab, and Palestinian communities and organizations signing on in support. Adi also contacted family and friends in the U.S. for their support, among them the West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now. The response was overwhelming, and plans were soon made to raise money to help Israelis and Palestinians fly 10,000 kites and for local communities to make and fly kites in solidarity.

The target date for this confluence of worldwide energy passed on May 20th, 2005 when thousands of individuals – religious and secular, adults and children, Israelis and Palestinians, and citizens all over the world – sent thousands of kites soaring into the skies. Each kite was personally decorated with words and images depicting the dreams and hopes, the fears and fantasies of participants. 10,000 kites dancing across the separation barrier, each one a poignant symbol of possibility: possibility of dialogue, of reconciliation, of understanding the other, of peace.

In the words of Israeli artist, Adi Yekutieli,

“Let’s imagine ourselves in a plane flying over our troubled land. It doesn’t take long to fly across the country. It’s spring, and the country is in bloom. There is a wonderful aroma in the air, from the orange trees, and from the wildflowers, the scent of freshness. Now imagine yourself seeing all this exquisiteness from above. And then before you a beautiful sight emerges: painted dreams, 10,000 or more, rising up to the sky on colorful kites. Remember that at the end of every kite there is a person. Next to him are standing 10, 20, 50 more people who are flying kites with him. In 200 different places all over the country there are more people doing the exact same thing: flying their dream. Living their dream for only just a moment.”

Perhaps the muse that gives rise to 10,000 kites or just half-a-hundred helium balloons embodies wisdom that escapes hard-line fundamentalists and seasoned politicians. Perhaps the noise of ceaseless argument and gunfire, of constant war and self-righteousness, has rendered them deaf to the millions who are simply trying to get on with life, safe somewhere out of harms way. The wind is the perfect vehicle to carry these whispers — urging us to stop taking sides and start building a common future — above the chaos and clatter. This is the language of balloons and kites, subtle yet powerful symbols to help people rise above old thinking and barriers, and get beyond stereotypes, fear, and ignorance. Perhaps the flight of balloons and kites will become the new rituals that break through the myth of us and “the other,” so that together, “we are becoming always better, always more human in changing times.” (Libby and Len Traubman, founders of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.)


About Elissa Tivona, Writing for Peace Board Member:

Elissa Tivona, board memberDr. Tivona is a non-tenured faculty member at Colorado State University in International Education, a Development Consultant for Tiyospaye Winyan Maka, and a freelance writer. She was awarded her interdisciplinary doctorate in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies in 2008 from CSU, where she served with faculty and students to establish a Peace and Reconciliation Studies Minor for undergraduates and Certificate program for graduate students. She appears in Susan Skog’s book, Peace in Our Lifetime, and is widely recognized for her work as co-coordinator of the 2002 Perspectives on Peacemaking Conference in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing has been featured in both academic and popular media. Dr. Tivona was honored with the Peace Ambassador Award, conferred annually at the local Hour for Peace celebration. Ms. Tivona lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado with her husband and two children.

Learn more about Elissa Tivona and her work here.

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