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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Shwanesh Maniov

Shwanesh Maniov immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with her family when she was seven years old. While majoring in Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she became involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. As the coordinator for the Israeli foundation Children of Abraham, she organized and participated in exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians that focused on religion, culture, and history. Shwanesh was a facilitator for Palestinian and Israeli teenagers engaged in daily dialogue at the Seeds of Peace summer camp in the United States in 2004.

  • Please tell me about your background and how you first got involved in peace work.

    I was born in a village in Ethiopia. There were no cars and no electricity. It was a normal village. I was raised Jewish. There was no such thing as secular or religious in Ethiopia. There was only religious, period. If you were secular, you weren't Jewish. My parents always wanted to immigrate to Israel. It was something dreamlike, something no one knew about. Maybe others who grew up in cities and had access to communications knew something about Israel. But we only knew that there were no other peoples there because it belonged to the Jews; here was a temple and a river of milk and a river of honey; all you had to do there was religious work. All I knew about was Jerusalem, I wasn't told about terms such as nationality or religion. Those weren't terms my parents used in their kind of Zionism. There was only Jerusalem and life among Jews. At the end of 1983 my parents heard that there was a way to go to Israel. So we went to Sudan, and arrived after two weeks of walking. I was 7 years old and my two younger sisters were one and three years old. My parents left the village in the middle of the night because the Jews weren't allowed to leave the village, at least not my parents. The Jews were blacksmiths and potters. The Christians didn't do those jobs. My parents did, so we had to escape in the middle of the night. We walked for two weeks along with other Jewish families. On the way, there were robbers. When we got to Sudan we lived in a refugee camp. It was 1984 and there was the great famine in Africa.1 Many Ethiopians, not only Jews, left Ethiopia and went to Sudan. There were many people in the refugee camps. My family also lived in the refugee camp. There was death and sickness; I saw a lot of people die throughout my life because they didn't have anything to eat, or because of diseases that don't exist here. We stayed in Sudan for a year because there wasn't any organized aliyah to Israel; it was only by sea and it was for very few. At the end of '84 there was the big operation. I came during this operation, obviously by plane, my first ever, and to Israel! I came with my married sister and my parents only came to join me in Israel a year later. I started school, and of course everything was new to me: a teacher, school. After the army I traveled a bit in the States and lived in New York for a little while. It influenced me because I was exposed to new things again. I was in the States with a million black people, and I disappeared. For people who saw me on the street, I wasn't a Jew. It was very important for me that I be seen as a Jew. It's something I never dealt with in Israel because here everyone knew I was an Ethiopian Jew. I came back to Israel and studied at the university, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies and African Studies at the Hebrew University. At university I made friends with Arabs, with Druze; I met new people that I never had contact with before. I mean, in Sudan I had met Arabs, but in Sudan they're Africans, not enemies like they are here. My parents weren't educated in a school, they're illiterate, they don't know how to read or write. All the information I got was at school. I didn't have anyone at home to comment on what I was learning, to say it wasn't true, to provide another perspective. What I learned at school was what I knew. For example, according to my history teacher, there was no Jewish contribution to the conflict. There were the riots of 1929, and wars, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, but it was always the other side that started it. There was never a neutral perspective or one that showed what we had done. Based on the history I learned at school, I never knew we invaded this land. I went to a religious school. Also, my parents were Zionists and they weren't familiar with this business of being conquerors. They would just say, 'It's our right to be here.' They don't have the insights I developed over time. At university I became more aware of facts that I hadn't been aware of until then. I had to educate myself, and university educated me. I can say that just from those courses things changed in me and I started to read and research more. If you're exposed to knowledge, when you learn new things about the conflict, you think about questions like "Did we conquer them, or not?" It doesn't mean the other side will change their minds, but they will see an effort being made for peace and to change things. They will have access to the same ideas, and we'll have access to theirs. But I think that part of the change that occurred in me is because of who I am. I can't see myself as Ethiopian because I can barely speak the language. I don't have my parents' culture - I don't have anything in common with Ethiopia. But sometimes it's hard for me to regard myself as Israeli because sometimes I do behave like an Ethiopian culturally - yes, I'm very quiet and yes, I'm patient and I don't scream-- and sometimes society sees me as such right away. I float between worlds. It's easier for me to understand the other, the stranger, whoever feels alienated, because I sometimes feel alienated by society. It's not really logical, but that's how I got started.

    • 1According the US Library of Congress, famine in 1984-85 forced "more than 300,000 [Ethiopians] into Sudan." See: http://countrystudies.us/ethiopia/46.htm.

  • Please tell me about your work at Children of Abraham.

    After the university I started working at Children of Abraham.1 It's a foundation that works towards educating people from academia - teachers, principals, writers and journalists, who meet for study groups. Over the past years it was done with the cooperation of Alma College, a college of History and Hebrew Culture, and Al-Zaharawi organization in Kufr Kara,2 which deals with Muslim culture and history. So Children of Abraham, Al-Zaharawi and Alma College built a yearlong or sometimes half-year educational program, in which intellectuals study, for example, Rambam -3 Jewish philosophy. And then you learn which ideas Rambam took from the Muslims and which ideas the Muslims took from Rambam. Things like that are interesting because when you talk about Jewish philosophy you think you're dealing with pure Jewish Philosophy and nothing else. And it's not true-- there are many things that are external to Judaism that come from the region.

    • 1Founded in 1996, Children of Abraham is a non-profit association dedicated to furthering inter-cultural and inter-religious educational activities between Arabs and Jews.
    • 2A Palestinian town in Israel, in the "triangle," an area of many Palestinian towns in the north of Israel.
    • 3The acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides (1135-1204), a Jewish philosopher and physician who wrote the Mishnah Torah, the code of Jewish laws, as well as many other commentaries. See: http://www.jewfaq.org/sages.htm#Rambam

  • What is the focus of the Children of Abraham meetings?

    Philosophy, religion, culture, even more modern things, like modern writing. It's less about politics, and more about cultural understanding. That's one aspect; the second is organizing joint trips and tours. Israeli guides take Palestinian groups to Jaffa, for example. Then the guide can tell them about the Jewish immigration and the immigration of European Jews to Jaffa. A Palestinian who takes an Israeli group to Jaffa can tell about what happened during the war, his whole family having to leave Jaffa. It's very interesting because each side gets some insight into the other side's issues. Before I started working for the organization, they organized trips. They brought Palestinians to visit Israel and Israelis went to Ramallah, Hebron, and Bethlehem, in a kind of rotation. I organized the events, so I had to be at the office more. But for example, I went on a trip that I organized to Nazareth and Shfaram with Children of Abraham. Something in the Arab families' hospitality reminded me very much of my parents. It's very close, culturally speaking. Now I live in Tel-Aviv and I'm completely Israeli, totally, I have nothing to do with Ethiopian culture. But when I visit my parents then I'm Ethiopian! I stand when my father enters, bring him water, everything. And when I visited a family in Shfaram suddenly I realized I was acting as though I was in my parents' home. It's a feeling I never felt before. When I visit friends here, Israelis, their parents are never from similar cultures to my parents'. It hit me mostly because I know that most people in the [Ethiopian] community are very right-wing, and you'll find that they always vote Likud. My father, I tell him, "Dad, vote Labor because they're good for education and immigration." So he says to me, "No way! I vote Likud." So I ask him, "But why? Why? It's not good for us." So he says, "When Shamir was in the government he brought me to Israel." That's his perception! I have to thank Shamir, that's my father's motive! It's very strange that many Ethiopians are very right-wing. It's difficult finding left-wing people among them or people who understand the conflict or understand the other side. They're very religious and Zionist, and it's hard for them to accept that part of this country belongs to somebody else.

  • What does your family say about your work?

    They don't say anything as long as I'm working. My parents always let me do what I wanted, let me make my own decisions. At some point they understood that they lack the tools to help me here. They pretty much didn't pressure me, didn't tell me what to do. So I went to the army, and then I said, "I'm going to university," so fine, education is good. But they didn't say, "Study economics because you'll find a job after." It's not something that they could give me practical information about, only support. And they've supported me, always, no matter what I did.

  • What's important to you for your family to know about the conflict, about your work for peace?

    I focus on the humanitarian aspect, of them and us being human beings. That's what I believe, not only in relation to the conflict - that everybody has needs, and a real desire for peace. That's part of what I tell them. It's easier for me to talk about it with my sisters, or Ethiopian immigrants in general, because I can compare it to the community's situation in Israel; they feel there is racism, and I always say to them, "But aren't you racist too? If you say such and such about the Arabs it's the same thing." And they say, "No way! I'm not an Arab." I try to make them understand that we're all human beings, and everybody has their opinions, for better or for worse. Nobody can tell me that I'm worth any less. I talk to my sisters about things like that. When I was at Seeds of Peace facilitating, I had an important experience while we watched a movie about South Africa. I'm sitting there during the film saying to myself, "Wow, how can they call the blacks 'terrorists' on the news? They wanted their freedom, they want to live on their lands, why should they be called terrorists?" Suddenly I was against this strong government, in this case it was white, and it didn't seem right. And then we watched Jenin, Jenin1 half an hour later, and suddenly I was on the powerful side, the Israeli side, trampling the other. And I call people 'terrorists.' Suddenly I was experiencing thoughts like, what right do I have coming to Israel, immigrating to Israel, living in Tel Aviv without any fear? I wasn't born here; my parents weren't born in Israel! What right do I have? Who gave it to me? I never thought about these things before! I never questioned my right to the land. But watching the film about South Africa raised moral questions inside me. Maybe tomorrow I'll go and see something else, an event or something, and I'll open up even more to seeing new things.

    • 1A film about the Israeli incursion into the Jenin Refugee Camp See: http://www.jeninjenin.org/film.htm. Israeli forces re-conquered Jenin in what they refer to as "Operation Defensive Shield" in April 2002. According to the Oslo Peace Process, Jenin was part of Area A, the part of the Occupied Territories the Palestinian National Authority held jurisdiction over. The Israeli military justified the invasion as a defensive measure. Allegations of a massacre in Jenin are still being debated. According to the UN Secretary-General's report, a Jenin hospital received 52 Palestinians who died in Jenin during the operation. Israel's military gave the same estimate for the total number of deaths. The UN report found that "more than 2,800 refugee housing units were damaged and 878 homes were demolished or destroyed. This left more than 17,000 people homeless or in need of repairs." "Illegal Israeli actions in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory" See Report of the UN Secretary-General http://www.un.org/peace/jenin/; See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenin.

  • How did you start working at Seeds of Peace?

    I contacted Seeds of Peace through a friend who knew someone who worked there. I also saw what they were doing when I was at university. I was interested in working as a facilitator. During the summer camp at Seeds of Peace I did get personally involved in the group. Even though I didn't talk and didn't express my opinions, I did undergo a process. I shared a room with Manal for two months. She's from Nablus. It was the first time I slept in the same room with a Palestinian! I was overcoming fears that I didn't know existed. I got over them very quickly. I could talk to her openly about what I thought and ask her questions. So Seeds of Peace really helped me.

  • Could you give some examples of experiences, how you learned all these things?

    First of all, again, everything I know is from my experience in Israeli society. There are things that helped me later when I wanted to understand myself in relation to the conflict. I live in a country like many countries, where racism exists, people judge you according to what they see at first glance without trying to get to know you personally. I've always had to deal with it and say, "This is me, Shwanesh, standing in front of you." They were always talking to me as you Ethiopians. These are things that have always bothered me. That's why when I went to the army or the university I always made friends with people. I think this way I could transfer a lot of information, talking to people and letting them meet the Ethiopian community firsthand without all the prejudices. At the university I had friends with whom I sat and talked on a personal level. They are still my friends. Or I would ask Manal about things that bothered me, the stupidest questions you could think of, but things that were important for me to hear from her. I told her about my experiences in Israeli society, about the prejudices, the discrimination in society, about feeling estranged like I do sometimes, about wanting to join and not being let in. She said, "I never imagined I'd meet an Israeli I identify with! I feel we share the same struggle, maybe not the struggle itself, but the same principles that I want to change." She told me that she felt we had something in common, and that she is struggling to be recognized, and I'm also struggling because I'm very attached to this place, my friends are here, I grew up here, I want to be part of society; that's what I want and nothing more. And she felt like that's part of what she wants: to be recognized and to have rights. Not to hear, "you're an Arab," you're marked. To be recognized as Manal, not some terrorist.

  • Did you see the kids go through any sort of process?

    I think that many Israelis don't cope with information coming from the other side; they don't know about soldiers and house demolitions. Even though in the past few years there's been a change in the media in Israel. At the age of 14-15 you don't think about what the other side is going through and suddenly they had to deal with information that didn't correspond to what they knew. For example, information about what is going on in the Territories, at the checkpoints. Many Palestinians tell me about how the soldiers abuse, spit, shoot, threaten, leave elderly men and women waiting in the sun. These are things that are very hard for Israelis to hear because they're unaware of it. All their information comes from the media. And suddenly someone who's been through it comes and tells them about it. They think, "It can't be true that my soldiers did this because my brother is in the army," or "My father." They're kids, and someone they know, someone from their family serves in the army. It's very difficult. They have to think about the information and knowledge they get at home, from the media, the Foreign Ministry. They start thinking, "Which information does what, what did I know before and what is important?" My goal isn't to find what's true and what's not true. I think my goal is to question things. When you question things you go and look them up. I think that if you question the information you receive, then you'll try to get as close as possible to the truth, or to what's closest to reality.

  • Did you see any small successes at Seeds of Peace summer camp?

    Yes, I think I did. I saw friendships. At first I saw kids, Palestinians and Jews, starting to bond. We had one evening meeting when the kids were supposed to tell personal stories about a certain event in the intifada that influenced them directly. One of the Palestinians told a story about how his friends were killed. Fifteen kids cried. Fifteen kids sat and cried. Especially during the personal stories, suddenly you forget yourself. We tell the kids that if they have questions then they can only be about the event, not about who's not right, who did what, who started it, who did what first; only questions like "how did you feel, where were you." That way they can focus more on the person in front of them. We had an Israeli girl who talked about a bombing that affected her, and a Palestinian who talked about something that happened in his family and affected him. And both of them were alike in what they said, which was "I don't want this to happen! I don't want this to happen! I want for us to live in peace." They made each other humane. They talked about personal aspirations and not national ones. At the beginning of the session it was like the beginning of a war - whether it's the Israelis who were instructed by the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Education, or the Palestinians. From what I understand they tell them, "Okay, you're going to Seeds of Peace summer camp, and you're representing Israel." Then they ram information down their throats. You see the influence, especially during a meeting where you're trying to talk about feelings. Coming 'overly informed' is confusing because suddenly you can't tell your own thoughts apart from what the government says.

  • What do you think your work contributes to advancing peace?

    First of all it's providing information about the other side, breaking the walls that have been built, especially for a person like me who lives in Tel Aviv. I don't feel the conflict, I really don't. The last time there was a bombing here was a few months ago in the Carmel Market.1 There was a bombing; then it was over. I live in Tel Aviv; I don't get up in the morning and go to a checkpoint. I think it really helps Israelis understand the situation when they can listen to stories about life, about civilians, not soldiers, not politicians, simple people who work and provide for their families or go to school. It get them [the Israeli children] out of their reality and helps to expose them to another reality - that of the Palestinian kids. I think that contributes a lot to being aware of things you weren't aware of. I think it's very important to be aware of things you don't see in your daily life here in Tel-Aviv or elsewhere. I think its useful because I think that a lot of Israelis live in a protected bubble and the Palestinians are exposed to what happens, say at the checkpoints, and to bombings. They're exposed to things that threaten their lives on a daily basis. I don't feel threatened. This conflict isn't a threat to me. I'm not afraid to get up in the morning and go out. So this kind of work challenges my reality, breaks my bubble.

    • 1Acronym for Israel Defense Forces, the State of Israel's military.

  • Do you have fears concerning the conflict, or your life here?

    I used to live in Jerusalem and there were situations in which I was afraid because it was a period with a lot of bombings. There were times when I would be sitting on the bus and suspect that somebody was a terrorist. I couldn't move. I couldn't move or get off or tell the driver, because I was frozen with fear. I used to live by the market in Jerusalem and there were many bombings there. I escaped being at quite a few bombings. If you live in downtown Jerusalem, it's likely that you would have been there 5 minutes earlier or that you were supposed to have been right there. It happened to me in Jerusalem, but it all changed since I moved to Tel Aviv. I don't feel that fear at all, nothing. In Jerusalem I was afraid.

  • Your perception of the region has changed since you emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel. Do you think Jews have a right to be here?

    I can only speak for myself as an individual, I emigrated from Ethiopia. It was my parents' dream, and mine, too. I think that for me and for the Ethiopian community, immigration was driven by Zionist beliefs; it was a religious-messianic immigration, grounded in the belief that we belong to this place, to Jerusalem - the only term we used was Jerusalem. It was our dream and it was driven by the ideological belief that there is a place for the Jews. I do believe that the Jews belong here, but that belief and that right doesn't allow us, as human beings, to ignore the rights of others. I'm not negating my right to be here, and I'm allowed to question things along the way. I think that if you ask the questions, at some point in life you'll find the answer that will fulfill you as a person - whether it be living in Israel or living abroad because you feel as though you don't belong here. You ask questions and receive an answer that suits you, as an individual.

  • Which questions should the community be asked, or ask itself?

    The community must first of all understand that not everything can be taken for granted. Things aren't always as they appear; there are other things. They should be asking themselves about what existed here before, what took place here, what is taking place now, and weighing facts in humanist terms and not in terms of faith. I think that the community believes that it's our right, and that's the last word. There are questions that need to be contemplated: if the Palestinians lived here, why do I have rights while they do not? What gives me the right to come here in 1985 and receive full rights as a citizen unquestionably?

  • Members of the Ethiopian community in Israel are usually absent from peace work. How do you think this community could be reached?

    The media doesn't expose them to other ideologies, such as the ideology of the left wing, which tends to question more, or to understand other perspectives. For the elderly population, who doesn't speak Hebrew, the only option is the news on the radio in Amharic, and it tends to be right-wing. They aren't exposed much to the questions I think they need to be addressing. I think that like any other community here, they can be reached through joint activities, information, and meetings. I think my father would be very enthusiastic about a visit. He would be touched by a visit with a Palestinian family because there are many similar elements in both cultures. For example, respect for parental figures, relations between parents and children, the paternal figure, issues such as engagements, arranged marriages, community status. These are things that my family relates to because they come from a similar background. I think that meetings could be successful.

  • What do you think your father's response would be to such a proposal?

    First of all, he does have contact with the Bedouin down south because he buys sheep there. Before the intifada in 1987 he visited Gaza. I don't suppose he'd react by saying "I don't want to do that because of my ideology." It's different from people who grew up here and hear different ideas and endless information and then decide what their opinion is. I think that if my parents have an opinion then it's not based on being against Arabs or against having dialogue. Their opinions are formed by the information available to them, which encourages negativity [towards the other]. Had they been exposed to information promoting tolerance and understanding and encouraging listening, then they probably would develop the same opinions and attitudes. The television airs a picture of negativity and that's what they see.

  • What do you hope to see here in the future?

    If people were a little bit smarter they would understand that it would really be better if there were peace. The economy would be good, I would feel safer, they would feel safer. It's simple. Sometimes I really don't understand why people fight. I hope that someday people understand that you have no control over your life. What's important is to enjoy today, the minutes of the 70 years you've got, a very short period compared with all the time in the world. I hope that someday people will understand that. Religion is involved, and to me religion is a very negative thing; it makes people think emotionally and not rationally. When you're dealing with an emotional issue, it's very difficult to influence a person or change his or her beliefs because they come from the heart and not from rational thoughts. The war here is very religious.

  • What does peace mean to you?

    Peace is respecting the other side, seeing them as I see myself. But peace in general for me is being able to wake up and decide to go to the beach in Gaza just because I feel like it. Just like I can drive from Germany to Italy by car without any fear, without any checkpoints. I want to go to Syria. That's the peace I envision.

  • What will it take to achieve peace here?

    I think in terms of the two peoples here, it's learning to yield and not hold on to things that are unrealistic. I think that staying in the Territories is unrealistic for Israel. I don't think that Palestinians who believe the Jews have no rights to Israel are realistic either. I think the process should be interpersonal. Hate often comes from ignorance - I'm afraid of what I don't know, when I don't know the other side I'm afraid, and I build a wall. I think that if you break the wall then peace can be achieved, much more authentically than a politician signing a peace treaty. I think that if the ice is broken between the people, between Israelis and Palestinians then it will be much more real.

  • Which international audience do you think is the most influential here and what would you want to tell them?

    The Americans; I'd tell them to stop worrying about their own interests here. Instead of investing in weapons, invest in peace and bringing people together. Instead of investing in the security of one place, invest in bringing people closer together, in joint projects, a common market, a joint economy, something that will connect me with someone in Ramallah. If they invested in creating connections between people it could change so much. I think that the Arab states often use the Arab-Israeli conflict for their own political motives that exist within their countries, say Egypt, Jordan or Syria. Instead of dealing with their internal problems they look to the easiest external source to blame, Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians. I'm critical of Americans for getting overly involved in other countries' affairs and always trying to affect people; whether it's installing a democracy in Iran or in Iraq. I think that the Europeans have a lot of power to influence Israel and the Palestinians too and they don't use it. They sit on the fence and wait for somebody else to do it. I think they could do a lot, like introduce a neutral position so that we feel like we're all alone. When Israel feels it's on its own or when the Palestinians feel they're alone they will deal with the situation.

  • You spoke about problems you see in the way peace organizations do outreach. Can you say more about that?

    The organizations are not making the effort to go beyond the usual circles. It's easier to work with the same circle of left-wing activists, peace activists who go from one activity to the next. It was like that where I worked; it was very difficult to break this pattern. Other organizations I have spoken with about this say they have the same problem. I don't think there's an effort being made to reach poor neighborhoods like my parents' neighborhood in Ashkelon. Most of the organizations operate in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, maybe in the North, Haifa and Beer Sheva with the Bedouin population. They aren't in Ashdod.

  • How do you think you can contribute to solving this problem?

    I can't. Only the organizations can - a large organization that has the funds and the means to go and invest. I have constructive criticism for the organizations, such as the Peres Center for Peace and Peace Now. I think they do very important political work, but the work they do shouldn't be political. The activities should be on the grassroots level, and the people who need to be convinced live in Ashkelon, Ashdod, lots of other cities, where, correct me if I'm wrong, there aren't any left-wing peace activities. End.