‘The Way to Peace Requires Reconciliation’: The Ms. Q&A With Artist Tamara Gayer

“We desperately need the world to help us get to the table instead of contributing to the noise.”

Thousands of Israelis demand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation and the immediate release of Israeli hostages from Hamas captivity on June 15, 2024, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Anti-government protests have taken place almost weekly in the past eight months, amid frustration with the Netanyahu government and its failure to secure the release of the remaining 120 Israeli and foreign hostages kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7. (David Silverman / Getty Images)

Albert Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” This maxim guides Israeli-American visual artist Tamara Gayer in her work to promote peace between Israel and Palestine.  

Gayer actively works to build U.S. financial support and raise funds for two anti-war organizations, Standing Together and A Land for All. Both groups champion coexistence and believe that peace, with equality, safety and economic opportunities for everyone in the region, is not only possible but is inevitable.  

“The work of these groups is grounded in the lived experiences of people in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel,” Gayer told Ms. “Within these organizations, there is a constant dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, with deep thinking on how to make peace a reality. Unfortunately, there are no roadmaps, but members know that solutions are possible.”

Gayer spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader as the war entered its eighth month.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy.

Eleanor J. Bader: You were born in the U.S. but your family relocated to Israel in 1971 when you were a toddler. What was Israel like in the 1970s and 80s?

Tamara Gayer: During the 1970s, Israel was socialist, and the idea that the government should provide material support to people was ingrained. Still, it was a developing country. We went back and forth to the U.S., so I spoke both English and Hebrew. But for a Jewish kid in the 1970s, Jerusalem felt like a wonderland. We lived in East Jerusalem on the border of two Arab villages. It was not unusual to see Palestinian kids herding their goats through our neighborhood. Yes, there was periodic violence, but Jews and Palestinians were not alien to one another. 

My mother has been a lifelong activist and we had Palestinian acquaintances. For example, after my American grandparents bought our family a car, we took it to a Palestinian mechanic. The car was a lemon and it constantly needed repairs. When the mechanic’s daughter got married, they borrowed our vehicle. For our family, that kind of interaction was not uncommon. 

It was also not uncommon for us to take family trips to the occupied territories. We’d visit Bethlehem, Jericho or local monasteries. It was all so new that we didn’t grasp the whole picture. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, many of my pop culture touchstones were about peace. The 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt inspired pop culture. The Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s statement that Israelis and Palestinians would be unable to sustain tensions in perpetuity was accepted by many as truth. 

Two other events had a tremendous impact on me. The first was the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, which took place in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982. More than 3,500 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli-backed Lebanese Phlangists; on the day it happened, my junior high school let us leave early to attend a huge demonstration. 

The second event took place when I was in high school in 1984. My best friend’s stepfather, Alex Levac, a photojournalist, took photos of a bus hijacking [by four armed Arab guerillas from the Gaza Strip that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Irit Portuguez]. It went viral and disproved the reported account of what had happened [regarding the involvement of two members of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service]. It rocked the country. 

These things were defining moments for me.

Bader: Was your experience anomalous, or was it common for Jews and Palestinians to live and work in the same communities? 

Gayer: There are different levels of coexistence and familiarity depending on where you live.

Mixed cities—cities in Israel that have large Palestinian populations—are places that include Palestinians who managed to stay in their homes and communities after 1948, are the most sustained examples.

Haifa, one of the best-known mixed cities, is a bastion of left-wing politics. For residents of these places, coexistence is achieved through relationships and neighborhood politics.

Bader: You work with Standing Together and A Land for All. Tell me about their work.  

Gayer: Standing Together rallies people to fight for peace and equity, and A Land for All is an organization creating a reimagined two-state solution. 

Standing Together, which was formed about 10 years ago, hopes to reinvigorate Israel’s left wing and mobilize Palestinian and Jewish citizens living within Israel’s 1948 borders. Its goal is to build enough political will to counter the Israeli government’s shift to the right.

A Land for All, which is newer, is a grassroots framework re-envisioning a two-state solution. Although the organization has only been around for a couple of years, its plan started a decade ago through conversations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, within Israel and from the diaspora.

The groups agree that the only way forward is through promoting the mutual interests of Palestinians and Israelis. They understand that resolution needs to be based on justice and reconciliation. 

These groups are growing. 

Bader: What are their long-term and short-term goals?

Gayer: In October, Standing Together jumped into action, expanding its neighborhood watches—which are made up of Jews and Palestinians—to protect Palestinian residents from racism and police retaliation, while simultaneously visiting the families of Israeli hostages taken captive by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Recently, when Israeli extremists kept aid from getting through to Gaza, they formed humanitarian guard groups to get the food, water and medicine in. They’ve also recruited people to remove hateful anti-Palestinian stickers and graffiti from walls and promoted an intersectional politic that understands that things like increasing the minimum wage cannot be divorced from ending war and aggression.

These groups have been well received, not just in the Middle East, but in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world. A thirst for policies and organizations that do not pit the needs of Palestinians against those of Israelis, and vice versa, fills a deep need.

I also want to highlight something else. The work of these groups is grounded in the lived experiences of people in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Within these organizations, there is a constant dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, with deep thinking on how to make peace a reality. Unfortunately, there are no roadmaps, but members know that solutions are possible. 

Long-term, the goal is to give both people a right to self-definition. Everyone recognizes—on an emotional, philosophical, political and religious level—that no one is going anywhere, and we are not going to uproot the desire for a homeland in either population, so we need to create a place where both peoples can live with equity and security. The way to peace requires reconciliation, but we have a lot of work to do to get there.  

As re-imagined by A Land for All, a two-state solution will put an end to settlements that are illegal under current Israeli law and recognize the right of return for Palestinians who were displaced in 1948. This is a small land, and resources will need to be managed collectively—including Jerusalem. The economy will need to be planned to eliminate economic disparities. Palestine can’t be super poor and Israel super rich if we want peace. 

A thirst for policies and organizations that do not pit the needs of Palestinians against those of Israelis, and vice versa, fills a deep need.

Tamara Gayer
Palestinian children play on the site of a destroyed building in the central Gaza Strip on June 15, 2024. (Eyad Baba / AFP via Getty Images)

Bader: Gaza looks like it has been completely decimated. Do you foresee the Strip being redeveloped?

Gayer: For Gazans, this is their home—and there is a feeling, shared by Jews and Palestinians, that they belong to the homeland. This is not negotiable. 

Bader: Have A Land for All and Standing Together made headway in convincing most Israelis that peace is possible, despite Hamas? 

Gayer: We’re on the ground floor of this and know that there is a segment of the Israeli population [and Palestinian population, as well] that will likely never support a resolution. But our organizing efforts are rooted in thoughtful, directed, practical politics and because their agenda, strategies and tactics are based on lived experiences. They’ve gained traction. 

American Jews often have different ideas about Israel than Israeli Jews. Before Oct. 7, 60 percent of Israel’s population was opposed to, and protesting against, Netanyahu. For the most part, the American Jewish community ignored that Israelis were begging for their support to help oust him.

Similarly, the families of the hostages have been overwhelmingly clear that the only way to secure their loved ones’ release is to stop the war. This is true regardless of where the families are on the political spectrum. They realize how horrible and terrifying this war has been for Gazans and they want it to stop. For many U.S. Jews, the call to “bring the hostages home” is not necessarily a call to negotiate. Again, this is in stark contrast to what Israelis [in a recent poll] and the families of the hostages are saying.

Bader: Have women played a prominent role in the peace movement?

Gayer: Since October, groups like Women Wage Peace (WWP) have received much-deserved recognition. WWP provides an opportunity for women to meet and work together. And they are not alone. 

Two additional examples are Tomorrow’s Women, which trains young Palestinian and Jewish women to work in partnership as future leaders, and the joint Jewish Bedouin organization aptly named Have You Seen The Horizon Lately

Standing Together and A Land for All are led by powerful women whose experience and vision are fueling activism. Most domestic responsibilities still fall on women’s shoulders, nonetheless, they’re crafting innovative peace and social justice solutions to get us out of a pattern we’ve been stuck in for decades. 

Bader: What can we in the United States do to further peace between Israel and Palestine?

Gayer: This has been the worst period for Palestinians and Israelis since 1948, and we can’t stop talking to people about it. Americans can raise money for Standing Together and A Land for All, attend or organize peace demonstrations and teach-ins and pressure the U.S. to stop financing Israel’s brutality, and recognize and support the multitude of joint efforts on the ground.

But when all is said and done, peace won’t come from on high. It is made by people who once saw themselves as enemies. Peace will come when everyone comes to the table to negotiate an agreement. We desperately need the world to help us get to the table instead of contributing to the noise. 

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .