A week ago, Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee arrived in Israel for a whirlwind two-day visit. She was invited to attend the grand finale of an event organized by Women Wage Peace, which had begun on October 4 with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who were slowly marching from the north of the country down to Jerusalem, where they planned to hand the Prime Minister a letter demanding an end to the conflict. Their inspiration was the women’s peace movement in Liberia that had brought down that country’s dictator in 2003. It was, therefore, in her capacity as a woman, a peace activist, and a Nobel laureate that Leymah was invited to attend this event and give the keynote addresses in a variety of settings on the final days of the march.
Leymah Gbowee is one of the program’s peace heroes. Her amazing story was recently highlighted in one of my blog posts where I described how one of our fifth grade students in Kenya creatively re-imagined the Liberian flag after learning about how the women of that country, led by Leymah, waged their own battle for peace. Joccoa’s work of art beautifully captured the essence of these women’s struggle – as well as their astounding triumph. As soon as I heard that Leymah was coming, I wondered if it wouldn’t be possible, somehow, to give her Joccoa’s flag – a small token acknowledging that the brave choices she made in the struggle for peace continue to have an impact today, so many years after the end of the Liberian civil war. But in the whirlwind of events filling up Leymah’s two-day visit, that possibility seemed unlikely (though we did make an effort to contact the organizers in advance, but they couldn’t promise us anything).
Still, we were hopeful, and on the day of the march, with a copy of Joccoa’s flag in hand, we headed down to the Dead Sea, where the first event of the day was being held. There we joined women from all over the country in what can only be described as a remarkable show of solidarity, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Israel for over twenty years. Like the women of Liberia, we were all dressed in white – a color that symbolizes both peace and unity. There were 4000 of us – women, men, children, Israelis, Palestinians, and even Jordanians (who had crossed the border to join in this extraordinary march), Jews, Muslims, Christians – people from all walks of life. Different as we were, we were united in our desire to bring the conflict in this region to an end, to make peace the reality of all our lives, no matter which side of the divide we happen to fall on.
Together, 4000 of us marched from the top of a deserted hill down to the Jordan River, walking on a narrow path that made its way right through an abandoned minefield. The symbolism was striking: here was peace, marching through the debris of war; here was vibrant life, cutting through desert waste, gathering around that age-old river that – almost impossibly – winds its way through the wilderness; life in death, hope in hopelessness – against all odds. And here was Leymah Gbowee, at the head of the march, supporting her Israeli and Palestinian sisters in a struggle she herself knows all too well. It was powerful, this message being conveyed by both the landscape and its people. It took one’s breath away.
Walking alongside these women, looking back to see the seemingly never-ending flow of people coming over the hill, is an experience I will not soon forget. But for me, the highlight was the moment we pushed through the crowd of journalists surrounding Leymah and introduced ourselves as the ones with the Peace Heroes Curriculum. Leymah knew about us, thanks to the resourcefulness of my friend and colleague, Susan, who had connected with her on Facebook before her arrival in Israel. As soon as she understood who we were, the change on Leymah’s face was remarkable. She lit up immediately, and, pushing all the journalists aside, pulled Susan into a warm embrace. It was then I stepped forward and presented Leymah with Joccoa’s flag, explaining to her the various symbolic elements pertaining to the Liberian women’s struggle for peace. Leymah listened attentively, and then, with a choked voice, she said: “Now you’re embarrassing me! I don’t like to cry in public,” after which she pulled me into a heartfelt embrace. Leymah was visibly touched – touched by a child she had never met, touched in the same way Joccoa had been touched by Leymah. And I couldn’t help thinking, as she held me tight, that what goes around comes around, often in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.
Sometimes, a distant and far off reality touches our own, and for a brief moment, life sparks in the overlapping of seemingly disconnected worlds. The beauty of such a moment is palpable, for it gives us the opportunity to experience with our own senses a truth we know in our minds but don’t always grasp with our hearts: that we are all, in the end, connected; that my life on this earth is entangled with yours, even when I cannot see the threads that bind us. From Liberia to Kenya to Israel and Palestine – for a second I glimpsed those thin threads in all their entwining glory. On that remarkable day down in the desert, I felt the connectedness tug at my own heartstrings. And I suspect that thousands more felt the same pull – in Israel, Palestine, and even as far away as Kenya.