Sisterhood across high barriers

by | Nov 6, 2015 | Book Reviews

An Improbable Friendship: The Remarkable Lives of Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil and Their 40-Year Mission to Build Understanding Between Their Peoples
Anthony David
Arcade Publishing, 2015
312 pages

As we observe the tide of rising rage and violence in Israel, especially against a backdrop of enmity going back more than a century, it’s difficult to imagine a close friendship between any Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. Yet that’s exactly what the first wife of General Moshe Dayan and a Palestinian woman who became part of Yasser Arafat’s extended family forged after the Six-Day War.

Ruth Dayan recruited Anthony David, a Jerusalem-based historian, to tell the story of her efforts and those of Raymonda Tawil to promote their vision of an Israel in which Jews and Arabs could live side-by-side in peace. The resulting narrative offers a riveting window not only into a cross-cultural relationship, but into the lives of Arabs and Jews in Israel before it was a state and into the machinations of Israeli and Palestinian leadership from the time Israel attained nationhood.

Separated by ethnicity as well as by generation—Dayan today is an energetic 98, Tawil in her mid-70s—the two women formed an alliance that was improbable, but also possibly inevitable. Both were born in pre-State Israel, into lives of privilege: Dayan’s parents were lawyers, and she spent much of her childhood in London; Tawil’s father was from an elite Arab Christian family with vast landholdings in northern Palestine. Each maintained nostalgia for the Palestine of her youth, and each grew up accustomed to meeting and forming friendships with people different from her. Both women married young and became mothers early on, but neither let the bonds of marriage, motherhood, or culture dictate their travels or activities; they were feminists, avowed or not, and usually ahead of their time.

Dayan and Tawil meet halfway through the narrative, in 1970, when Dayan brings toys to a children’s ward in the West Bank city of Nablus and Tawil, then a Nablus resident, challenges her because of Moshe Dayan’s perceived excesses in the West Bank since 1967. Dayan informs Tawil that when she married Moshe, he was a farmer, not a general, and that in any case, she doesn’t share his values. She then goes home to Tel Aviv, and when the general orders her to stop visiting Arabs, Ruth announces that she wants a divorce. For years, she had watched Moshe Dayan cheat on her, play mind games with their children, and live life in a way that was far from that of the selfless hero Jews worldwide adored. But while she never stopped loving her husband, she couldn’t stay married to a man who tried to keep her from living her own life.

Ruth Dayan became a frequent visitor to Raymonda Tawil’s salons in Nablus, which for many years attracted literati, journalists, peace activists, Jewish and Arab feminists, and everyone from Israeli generals to Palestinian mothers trying to get their children out of Israeli jails. In 1978, the two women planted a “peace forest” at Neve Shalom, the village in central Israel established as a place where Jews and Arabs would, and still do, live together in peace.

The second half of the book outlines Dayan’s worldwide travels on behalf of her business, Maskit, which she established in 1954; she put to work thousands of women in Third World areas creating textiles, clothing, and rugs. Meanwhile, Tawil walks a tightrope between her Palestinian nationalism and her longing for peace, especially after her youngest child marries the much-older Yasser Arafat. She is often in trouble with Israeli authorities before she places herself in self-imposed exile in Malta. Both women still decry the barriers that separate thoughtful, empathetic Arabs and Jews while extremists on each side speak for each group.

Which leads to a caveat: Readers who can’t countenance any criticism of Israeli policies concerning its Arab populations won’t like this book. David clearly portrays the Israeli presence in the West Bank as a military occupation (as does Ruth Dayan), and he describes a number of Palestinian writers and academics whom Israeli authorities killed as terrorists as anything but. As mentioned before, Moshe Dayan comes off badly, and David tends to present Israeli politicians and military leaders as sympathetic only when they show leniency and empathy to Palestinians —which some do.

As women of privilege, Dayan and Tawil could have lived lives detached from their peoples’ turmoil, with plenty of creature comforts and protection from harm. We tend to like our heroes born into modest circumstances, coming up from poverty to glory, but there’s something rather refreshing and inspiring about the story of two women who decided to use their access to people of power to improve the lot of thousands other than themselves and to try to bring about a more just and peaceful society.

—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill is rabbi of Tidewater Chavurah, the editor of The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom, and author of two other books.