“The Secret”: An Improbable Friendship: The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and Their 40-Year Peace Mission
By Anthony David
When Ruth Dayan phoned me up and promised to share a secret with me, I was teaching at Al Quds University in the occupied West Bank. Why would the wife of Moshe Dayan, the conqueror of Palestine, want to tell me a secret? I pondered the question during the hour bus ride from Jerusalem down to Tel Aviv.
Ruth’s apartment building is one in a line of nearly identical blocks in a middle-class, shrub-lined neighborhood. By the time I climbed three flights of stairs, the door to her apartment, decorated with a ceramic nameplate written in Hebrew and Arabic, was already open. “Hi, I’m Ruth,” she said. Her thick gray hair piled up tight into a bun, with escaped strands drooping down in wisps around her face, which was shot through with wrinkles but still preserved a striking beauty. Her eyes were a Mediterranean blue turning almost purple around the edges.
Seconds later I was inside Ruth’s world. The first thing I noticed was a book clutched in her hand. It was The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University. “Take a look at this!” Ruth waved the volume at me and skipped around the living room like a dervish or a child with her favorite toy. “I just picked this up yesterday and read through the night. I knew it all along. They are the real ancient Jews, not us!” Sand argues that the ancient Jews were never packed off en masse by the Romans but stayed put as farmers and over time converted to Islam. The Palestinians are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites.
“Don’t you see? They Are Us! That’s the reason I don’t believe in borders. Why shouldn’t we all live together without this nonsense about a Jewish state?” According to Sand’s logic, the chances are greater that one of my students from Dahaisha refugee camp is a descendant of ancient Hebrews than the members of the great Dayan dynasty. I stood mesmerized watching a woman commonly called Israel’s “Queen Mother,” the widow of Dayan and sister-in-law of former Israeli President Ezer Weizmann, repeat over and over, “they Are Us!”
At first I thought that Sand’s theory was Ruth’s promised secret until the phone rang and Raymonda Tawil was on the other line.
From research on a previous book, I knew quite a lot about Raymonda Tawil, whose extensive family lands were expropriated by the Israeli state after the 1948 war, and who emerged as a militant journalist in the 1970s and 80s for using a tape recorder she dubbed her “Kalashnikov” to interview ex-prisoners, grieving mothers, and dissident Israeli officers. You can imagine Vanessa Redgrave or Jane Fonda playing her part in a movie. In her glory days she was the most prominent feminist among the militants, a woman whose rebellious sparks not only attracted people but got others building bombs – she was eventually run out of the West Bank when someone, either an Israeli or a Palestinian, attached a bomb under her Opel sedan. This was before Ryamonda’s daughter Suha married the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But why would the widow of Dayan be talking to Arafat’s mother-in-law?
Ruth must have been reading my mind. After ending her phone call with Raymonda, she turned to me and nodded. Sure enough, her friendship with Raymonda was the secret.
Over the coming three years, there were countless other surprises in store for me about these two remarkable women and their forty-year friendship. They met for the first time in 1970. Both were in a Nablus hospital ward visiting Palestinian children wounded during an IDF raid, conducted by General Dayan, in pursuit of Arafat. Aghast at what she had seen, Ruth returned home that evening and asked for a divorce.
During the 1970s and early 80s, the two women were partners in the peace movement. The sight of the ex-wife of Dayan together with the feminist firebrand Raymonda raised plenty of eyebrows among Israelis and Palestinians alike. In Israel, many leftist Israelis ended up in prison for meeting with Palestinian activists; Palestinian radicals, such as Abu Nidal, were known to gun down Palestinians who dared sit down with Israelis, much less join in a chorus of “We shall overcome.”
Undeterred, Ruth and Raymonda took the risky step of trying to end the state of war between the Israeli government and the PLO. In New York, in 1978, Ruth met a PLO official who, on behalf of Arafat, handed her a peace offer to deliver to her brother-in-law, Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman, still a Likud Party hawk. This was the first time such a formal offer was ever made by a PLO leader to an Israeli. Ruth conveyed the message back to Weizman.
In 1985, Raymonda left for exile in France – the message behind the car bomb was unmistakable. From Paris, she and Ruth facilitated a secret dialogue between Weizman and Arafat. In 1990, under a different Israeli government, Weizman and Arafat finally spoke over the phone about a peace deal. This, too, was a first: no Israeli minister had even spoken directly to the head of the PLO. Weizman lost his job over this, but as president of Israel three years later he was determined to change attitudes.
And there was no greater supporter of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo agreement. At one point, Weizman followed his sister-in-law’s sage advice by inviting the former archenemy to the presidential mansion. “Look,” he said to Arafat over a pot of tea, “You fought me, and I fought you, but I think it is time to sit down and talk.”
The Oslo agreement was a cold peace, with the combatant never outside the scope of the other’s rifle. In anything, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank expanded massively, pushing Palestinians into walled-off Bantustans. But the deepest secret of Ruth and Raymonda’s improbable friendship is this, that with empathy and common sense, the seemingly insolvable Middle-Eastern conflict can have an end.
Book Title: An Improbable Friendship: The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and Their 40-Year Peace Mission
Author: Anthony David
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Release Date: September 15, 2015