Saskia Keeley & Israeli & Palestinian Photography Students

Israeli and Palestinian Women Build Peace Using Photography to See the “Other”

Penny S. Tee Article

I hope you are staying safe, wearing masks, washing your hands, and not feeling too isolated. I know for me it feels like we are living in a Twilight Zone episode and I did not like watching those back then, let alone living in one. There is something that does not feel quite real about our existences now-a-days. Does it feel real to you?

And there’s too much negativity―politics, Gaza Rockets, incendiary explosive balloons, Oy.

I asked myself, where could I find some Peace? I decided I had to do something that would put a smile on my face, and hopefully yours as well. I chose to write about a terrific program at my favorite Peacemakers, Roots/Shorashim/Judur. They are also in my book, “BLASTED from COMPLACENCY: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.”

It’s an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians at the grassroots level. By the simple act of meeting, speaking and truly listening to each other, many for the first time in their lives despite the proximity of where they live, they begin to realize what they’ve always been taught or believed is wrong―the “Other” is not a monster. They are human, with the same desires to live safely without fear.

Roots is located in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank between Jerusalem and Hebron. Some facts that may surprise you are that the participants are religious, Israeli settlers and local Palestinian families on land dedicated by the Abu Awwad family to create a better future for both peoples at the Merkaz Kerama Center (The Dignity Center―Merkaz means Center in Hebrew and Kerama means Dignity) Surprised?

Within their programming they have several innovative programs, one of which is a women’s Peace initiative that has Israeli and Palestinian women take photographs of each other and it is  creative, Be-U-tiful and women-centered―arenas that make the corners of my mouth turn upward. Before you correct me, I know how to spell beautiful―the point of emphasis is that being You, is the factor that produces the beauty.

Years before, I was disappointed to learn that women entrenched in orthodox environments do not often have the same opportunities for such activities as men do. These religious women often have exceptionally large families, who better to be role models for the next generations?

The women’s Peace initiative that I was speaking about is a photography workshop that is run by Saskia Keeley, a Swiss, Protestant, professional photojournalist and documentarian living in New York for the past thirty years. My favorite description of Saskia is that she is a Peace activist.

She had initially met Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger on a bus in Jaipur, India as they were traveling to an agents of social change workshop convention that each had been invited to―their meeting was bashert (divinely pre-ordained, or meant to be).

Saskia is the driving force behind these photo workshops for women and has developed and led them now for four consecutive years. The Roots program would have celebrated five years in 2020 if COVID had not interfered. Hopefully, next year they will be able to schedule classes.

The program has been so successful that an exhibition of the photographs taken by the Israeli and Palestinian women called “Mutuality,” was held at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

The goals of the workshop are to:

  • Build trust
  • Enable “enemies” to meet on a personal level
  • Allow for a greater exposure to the other side’s experience of the conflict
  • Be the little steps along the way toward humanizing and understanding one another just a little bit more
  • Open the door for the possibility of peace and a deeper understanding of the “other”1

Each year, Saskia travels to Israel for a few weeks to teach photography to Israeli and Palestinian women and sometimes girls as well. But what she is really doing is helping each see the Others’ humanity through the lens of a camera―working on Peace captured one moment at a time.

In only four classes, over two weeks, you can see profound changes as the participants discover the “Other” and learn―even about themselves. An added bonus is that the women are told to keep the camera and take it home with them for the duration of the workshop. They are instructed to take photos of their lives documenting their personal narratives, revealing personal details and capturing unguarded moments with their loved ones.

During class Saskia has the women take pictures of each other’s faces. As they learn different photographic techniques, they confront for the first time the “enemy’s” humanity. When you look deep into another person’s eyes, you can see that we are all people—a mother, a wife, a sister. These women do not speak each others’ language. Enforced by their daily experiences, each is often raised to hate the other. In their compartmentalized environments there usually is no opportunity for interaction between the two groups, especially in a congenial atmosphere. This is a unique encounter that challenges them to be open to new possibilities.

By looking through the eyes of those we might feel separated from, participants discover both interconnectivity and empathy. The workshops are about supporting the engagement of each in the process of recognizing parallel lives and narratives. The acknowledgment that comes from those shared moments can help create a new feeling of shared belonging.2

Seeing their enemy up close and personal for the first time, they engage at an undeniably clear vantage point, causing them to challenge their own preconceived notions of what an Israeli or Palestinian is.

In Saskia’s workshops, the cameras create a human bridge. Her workshops break down barriers and foster contact as women take portraits of each other in exploratory, and then often intimate ways.3

Every time I have had the opportunity to learn from Saskia, I have been impressed with her heart.  From dedicating her time, to raising the funds for the high-quality cameras that are used for her workshops, Saskia has continuously challenged herself to learn, and then has taught others. She discovered her calling along the way, and doors opened. This is a synchronicity we share.

While I had previously known about this shining example of compassion, I recently was able to learn more of the details about her workshops and wanted to share them with you.

Saskia sees her role as a facilitator for the photo workshops. She is quick to point out that she provides photo instructions, not life advice. She calls them the “accompagnateur” workshops which means to accompany, to support, to be on a journey with, in French. As you may know, I sign off all my articles inviting readers to Join Me on My Journey… perhaps this is another reason why I feel so connected to her and her path―we are kindred spirits.

Before her work with Roots, she explains that her career was to document NGOs and their inspiring missions. When she met Rabbi Hanan on the bus that day, she had no idea that she would be building an inspiring program of her own. And using a photography workshop in a country where just speaking to one another can be dangerous and the photos are proof of the interactions…that’s chutzpah (audacity)!

Again, I had to smile (another connection between us). She, too, explained as I have many times, that prior to her meeting Rabbi Hanan or in my case, to our surprising bomb shelter-filled Israeli adventure in 2014 that my book, “BLASTED from COMPLACENCY: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel,” is about, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a small blip on either of our personal radar screens.

My transformative event may have been more dramatic, but her discussion with Rabbi Hanan was equally important in pivoting her life down a new tributary to follow. While Rabbi Hanan enthusiastically encouraged Saskia to help with bringing women into his Peace work and expand his heart-felt project to bring Israeli and Palestinians together to work on Peace, I’m confident that he was much gentler than the Palestinian missiles Iron Dome was exploding above our heads that led to my transformation : )

In Israel, life is vastly different than in the United States and can be far more intense. You may not realize that for these women, attending these photo workshops can not only be psychologically challenging, but dangerous.

For many of these ladies it can be the first time they have ever spent any time with the “Other.” They don’t speak the same language (usually one speaks Hebrew and English or Arabic) and are raised to hate because the “Other” has taken from them, whether that is the feeling of safety, land, property or even a loved one.

They may wonder how they will be able to communicate. They can be terrorized by their own thoughts. Who are these women that are showing up? Is it a ruse and will we be blown up? Is this another Israeli ploy to demean us? Afterwards, will we be ostracized or worse by our family or neighbors for having attended this class? Will it be worth the risk?

As you can see, attending these sessions takes far more thought and bravery in Israel-Palestine than it would at our local adult-ed classes in the United States.

The fourteen attendees are broken up into seven dyads―one Palestinian and one Israeli each. It is important that both groups are even, so that neither side feels overwhelmed or underrepresented. The participants are different not only because half are Palestinian and half are Israeli, they are distinct in other ways as well.

The Israelis are mostly educated, professionals, have jobs, and are independent coming and going to Merkaz Kerama in their own cars. They all speak English, which helps understanding Saskia’s instructions and they do not need translators.

Most of the Palestinian women are homemakers raising children. They have few prospects for jobs and Roots must arrange transportation to and from the workshops. Their English is poor so Roots must also hire a coordinator and translator.

I noticed in the photos that as humans, many of the participants’ similarities were pronounced―the same height, matching curly hair, similar facial features and Saskia verified they even had the same outgoing personalities.

However, one difference was that the Israelis did not wear make up.

In sharp contrast, the Palestinians wore make up with dark eyebrows and heavy layers of mascara and eye liner. Their striking eyes seemed to jump out of the photo wanting to be seen and noticed. Perhaps it was a less subtle representation of the needs of their people crying out to not be ignored.

This photo is one of my favorites. Not only is this Palestinian woman’s eyes beautiful, but if you look carefully, just

Palestinian Woman Reflecting Her Israeli Partner in Her Eyes

Palestinian Woman Reflecting Her Israeli Partner in Her Eyes

like the photo workshop encourages the participants to figuratively try to see through the “Other’s” eyes, you can literally see her partner taking the picture of her in the reflection in her eyes. Perhaps not planned, but outstanding nonetheless!

Many of the participants, especially the Palestinians, have never held a camera and must be taught how to hold it and bring the camera to one’s eye―technical learning and teaching is required. I presume it takes significant amounts of patience to have the skills of a photojournalist and be able to convey the nuances to capture quality photographs to novices. By looking at the results, it is apparent both teacher and students have successfully bridged the gap.

Yet with all these differences, Saskia reported that she has seen “truly inspiring connections and transformations.” The participants slowly find ways to communicate. Trust is built gradually, and you can see the comfort and collaboration building with each class. Saskia said, “It’s an opportunity for these women to meet, to dialogue and to see each other as human beings with human rights to be respected.” I imagined the gentle breeze of an unapologetic Peace flows through the sessions.

The classes are a unique blend of Peace and photo techniques training. I was excited to learn about the four sessions and how the students’ development grew.

As a teacher, Saskia described her challenge was to accept that her students brought their narratives, experience, and their trauma into her classroom. She had to determine how these polarities could be bridged while preserving dignity, respect, and mutual rights. She said, “It really begins by trusting in the sincerity of intention of each participant.” The participants must recognize the worth of the students even without understanding the “Others” cultural fundamental values. With this understanding we “begin this process of recognition and humanization.”

The first gathering is an ice breaker. The beginning of the first session was predictable. They were instructed to sit in a circle, and each of the “sides” chose to sit together―Palestinians here, Israelis there. They were asked with the help of the translator to introduce themselves, provide a short background and why they came to the workshop. Saskia said sitting together for the first time is considered a big bold step but by the end of the class the group has already evolved. Working in pairs has become feasible.

Moving on with instructions, Saskia begins with a simple tutorial of straightforward tips and attention to mindfulness so that the group will be able to take better pictures. I noted the tender spirituality woven in with the directions. Using images from previous Roots workshops, she illustrates what makes a good photo and composition. She said, “The workshops are really about engaging each of the participants in parallel narratives, and for the first time the women have a real sense and perception of the other. That may bring a comparison and appraisal of their own reality versus someone else’s that may look quite different.”

Given the neighborhood, the workshops have faced numerous obstacles, not least of which are times when participants show up not understanding that you will have images of you taking close personal photos with those your neighbors feel are their enemies. A stew of settlers and Palestinians is a rare mixture. Their husbands would not be pleased, and some drop out.

The participants risk being ostracized by their neighbors and communities and seen as collaborating with the enemy. There are many Palestinian factions engaged in the anti-normalization movement that require no interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. What causes these women to engage despite the risk? Beyond the new skills and  female bonding, I suspect the allure of a potential for a Peace-filled future for their families is an irresistible experiment worth trying.

The insistence on anti-normalization is no joke. When a Palestinian couple had the audacity to invite three settlers to their wedding it was videotaped, and the recording went viral. The consequences were instant, and the Palestinian Authority fired the father of the groom. All the Palestinian women signed up for the workshop pulled out because they too were afraid of the repercussions if they were to join an activity that involved Israelis. What is happening on the ground is always relevant. Events like the “March of Return” and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem also impacted participation and fears for safety.

I was amazed at the ability and devotion of the coordinators who often have “saved” the workshop and are able to get replacements quickly. At times Roots activists have put their reputations and perhaps lives in danger to support moving forward toward that elusive flickering flame of Peace. May they be blessed.

Introducing us to the power of the camera, Saskia quoted Dorothea Lange who said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

In each of the four sessions, the women took portraits of each other. As the women focused on capturing a good shot of their companion, trust was building. They found that they did not need to use language to communicate.

The center had enough area where they could find some privacy to become more comfortable with the assignment, techniques new to them, and to get to know each other. The women enjoyed taking a few pictures at a time, looking at them on the camera’s LCD monitor, and sharing them with each other. The close physical proximity would build trust, connection, collaboration and soon smiles and laughter would follow.

While these relationships were growing, Saskia would go to each pair, giving them tips and encouragement. She also watched for how the communication was progressing.

One example of a woman who struggled was none other than the rabbi’s wife, Ayala. According to Saskia, she would have won the award for being the most reluctant to participate out of all four years. With a smile on Saskia’s face, she confided in us that she wondered what Rabbi Hanan had done to get her to participate.

During Saskia’s perusal of the dyads, she noticed that Ayala was extremely far away from her partner. So, Saskia asked her in English (her partner only spoke Arabic) why she was not working with her partner? Ayala said, “It’s too difficult, it’s overwhelming. I can’t do this.” Consistent with her desire not to push yet be supportive, Saskia suggested that she could at least stand next to her partner and take a photo of whatever might be of interest on the property. It worked.

By the next session, Ayala came running to Saskia asking for tips on how to best photograph Jamila’s (not her real name) beautiful blue eyes. It had taken one session for the discomfort to go away and from that moment on Ayala was engaged with the other participants and genuinely enjoying the sessions. Ayala liked the series so much that although it is unusual, she signed up again the second year.

Each class builds on the one before it in terms of technical content as well as strengthening comfort with the participants. In the second session they have spent more time with each other, and natural bonds are forming spontaneously amongst the participants. They are allowed if they prefer, to choose their own dyads as long as there is a Palestinian and Israeli in each.

In the second and third sessions, the women chose one of the photos that they have taken at home and Saskia prints them out. As they sit in a circle, the woman shows her photo and explains what it represents as the entire class listens (the interpreter translates for the Palestinian women). Saskia calls this “empathy in action.”

Israeli Jewish girl wrapped in her scarf hijab-style

Israeli Jewish girl wrapped in her scarf hijab-style

One of the photos that Saskia showed us caused me to tear up. A young Israeli mother had taken two photos of her daughter. One was of her daughter with her scarf wrapped in a traditional orthodox Jewish Israeli settler style. In the other photo, she had taken the scarf and wrapped it in the hijab manner demonstrating a loving step toward Peace. Amen.

By the fourth class, Saskia asks them to try to combine creativity and the various photo shooting techniques that they have learned throughout the classes and to be mindful of controlling light and composition. Through the years, students have tried extremely hard to replicate the features of what Saskia has taught are “great photos” and it has moved her deeply. They also have spent more time together and can focus on this newly created intimacy and trust, closely observing their partners to capture and honor their subject’s individuality.

Another couple had become so close and comfortable with each other that they both unexpectedly took off their head scarves for the rest of the day.

In another image an Israeli and Palestinian were kneeling on the ground facing each other with their hands pressed on the dirt. Their opposing hands were intertwined between each other’s spread open fingers. A reflection of the two peoples so closely locked together, solidly identifying with the same precious land.

Their home assignments were no less striking.

Israeli Grandpa holding grandson

Israeli Grandpa holding grandson

This Israeli boy sleeping on his grandfather’s lap―it is precious.

Palestinian woman sending love to her village

Palestinian woman sending love to her village

A Palestinian woman sending love to her village.

An Israeli woman took a picture of soldiers enjoying some drinks and snacks at the Pinat Chama, a refreshment

Soldiers at Pina Chama, a refreshment station

Soldiers at Pina Chama, a refreshment station

station for soldiers and police serving in Gush Etzion. It was built in 2001 in memory of two residents who were murdered by terrorists on the road―Dr Shmuel Gillis of Karmei Tsur and Tzachi Sasson of Rosh Tsurim. It is run by volunteers with donations.4 These images would not be easy for either Israelis or Palestinians to see and Saskia commented that it would not have been possible to share in the first session.

Some photos were religious. An Israeli woman had taken a picture of her nephew’s bar mitzvah at the Western wall. He was wrapping tefillin on his arm and you could see him surrounded by men also wrapping tefillin.Havdalah

Havdalah

Another Israeli woman had taken a photo of Havdalah, the ceremony at the end of Shabbat with her husband and young grandson. The room is dark except for the large flame flickering from the braided candle.

Where Grandma Sits

Where Grandma Sits

There was one picture that was funny and yet made me sad and confused at the same time. The Palestinian photographer’s father is in the foreground and Grandma is in the background. Two years before, the Palestinian woman who took the picture had spray painted against the white wall above where her grandma was sitting in blue Arabic, “Grandma,” with an arrow pointing down toward where she always sits. That made me laugh, although now that I think about it as I type this while sitting on “my” favorite part of the couch, I better not show this to my son before a sign and arrow may appear for mom : )

On the other walls are Arabic words that have been crossed off with an x.  What made me sad was my visceral reaction to the casual spray painting of words which often have been used as attacks throughout history against Jews and others. Swastikas and vile words came into my mind.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing, but I was aware immediately of its impact on me. The intentional use of spray paint within their personal surroundings confused me. In my mind, spray paint is used as a weapon. Although I’ve asked, so far I haven’t found why the Palestinian woman would be using spray paint in her own home. Do you know why? If you understand, please email me. I always appreciate the opportunities I’ve found to learn as I write. It’s a perk of my experience.

Finally, if you are curious what participants think about the workshop, here is what some had to say:

Palestinian woman: Every meeting I had with the Israelis; I didn’t want to end. Because I feel we have the same traditions, and the same lives.

Israeli woman: I’ve lived here in the area for eight years. And this is the first time that I’m meeting some of my neighbors. The places are so close, where you live and where we live, but sometimes it feels very far away, you know? Especially when there are walls or fences. It’s nice to meet here without any walls or fences.

Palestinian woman: We always have this idea that we are afraid of the other side, the Israelis. And the Israelis have a similar idea―that if she is a Palestinian, maybe she is a terrorist.

Israeli woman: I think we are very much the same. We have the same worries. We worry for the same things and we want the same happiness. And I think women can change the way of thinking.

I sure hope so―I believe women and their natural emphasis on relationships gives them instinctive skills that will help move the Peace process forward. So once again, talking about these incredible Peacemakers makes me very happy. After being down about what’s happening in the world and now up, it sounds a bit bi-polar, but thankfully I’m not : ) I think most people are struggling with life during 2020.

The participants give me hope and Saskia, Rabbi Hanan and all the others involved with Roots/Shorashim/Judur make me proud to know them and grateful for their efforts. Saskia has no illusions that a photo workshop will solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But I know for sure, it is a step, and probably many steps, in the right direction.

May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

 Endnote

1 “West Bank: Roots,” SaskiaKeeley.com, December 8, 2019 https://www.saskiakeeley.com/workshops-blog/west-bank-roots

2 “A Journey of Peace,” Roots/Shorashim/Judur Event documentation, August 2, 2020

3 “A Journey of Peace,” Roots/Shorashim/Judur Event documentation, August 2, 2020

4 “Pinat Chama,” Fandom, May 17, 2005 https://efrat.fandom.com/wiki/Pina_Chama

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