02 July 2006

isha l'isha.

Although my first day of work started off a bit rough, due to some miscommunication about whether someone was to meet me at the hotel or not, I think I'm going to be quite happy at Isha L'Isha. Once I got in contact with Hedva, I managed to navigate the bus system and find the office by myself, which is always satisfying. Isha L'Isha (henceforth just Isha) is part of the Haifa Women's Coalition, a group of five feminist organizations that share offices in the same building. Our neighbors include a Palestinian feminist group, a Palestinian lesbian organization, a rape crisis center/hotline, and a domestic violence counseling group. I didn't get to meet a lot of them since Sunday is like our Monday, and fewer people come into work, apparently. Some things never change.

Hedva was busy planning a conference about women in peace negotiations that Isha is sponsoring in Jerusalem next week, so she only sat down with me for a few minutes to explain the structure and mission of Isha. It's run like a cooperative, with no hierarchy of leadership, and one person oversees each major project, with volunteers and other employees helping out across different projects. In some cases, if a project has the potential to become a long-term, permanent effort, they'll split it off into a separate non-profit in order to get more funding for it. For instance, I met a woman who turned her project into an organization that helps poor women compile their CV and practice interview skills so they can find jobs. While Israel in general is a very casual country, Isha is particularly laid back. I walked into work in a skirt and polo shirt afraid I'd be under-dressed, and instead found myself the most well dressed in the office. While the non-profit sector in the States is generally more laid back than the business world, people generally still wear shoes and business casual attire. Not so in Israel - Hedva was shoeless all day, Tamla was essentially wearing pajamas, and Ranin had on jeans and a camisole. It's nice to know they value the work they're doing more than status, but I think I'll keep my shoes on!

Isha's major projects at the moment include a lot of work implementing UN Resolution 1325, which deals with the status of women in conflict, refugee camps, reconstruction, and peace negotiations, as well as gender equality in peacekeeping missions and other UN staffing positions. 1325 reaches across a lot of areas, so it's a huge project to implement it worldwide in all of those areas. Isha is sponsoring a conference in Jerusalem next week about women in peace negotiations, and the keynote speaker is a woman from Sri Lanka who's done a lot of work with 1325 in LTTE-Sri Lankan government negotiations. I'm excited about meeting her and going back to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet representatives from other women's groups in the area. The work on 1325 and negotiations is based around the idea that women, as the individuals not fighting the wars but instead managing the communities and families back home, have a better idea of how to build a lasting peace and integrate combatants back into the social fabric. I think it's an interesting concept - it's a lot easier to see a fair solution when you don't have a stake in "winning." We've solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over dinner several times thus far this trip, and it always seems so simple to us as outsiders with no ties to the land.

In addition to 1325, Isha, led by a woman named Rita, is also working to combat human trafficking, especially the large numbers of Russian women being trafficked as sex workers in Israel. Rita recently won a big international award for her efforts - there's a picture of her with Hilary Clinton hanging on the wall above her desk. She's organizing a conference in August on the issue, which I'll help plan but sadly won't be able to attend. With issues like trafficking and peace negotiations, Isha is less grassroots local politics and much more international advocacy than I was expecting. Isha does hold weekly meetings for community women to talk about different issues, but even these meetings focus more on national or international politics. It's not quite the work I was expecting to be doing, but I'm not disappointed. It's also not the Jewish-Arab cooperative I was expecting, either. Isha is primarily Jewish women, but their work seems to go above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to worldwide efforts that also impact the peace negotiations in their own nation. They've defied everything I expected, but in the best way possible.

My first day of actual work was less than thrilling, but fortunately I'm no stranger to the cash-stricken non-profit sector. With the conference next week, Isha needs to send out its newsletter and conference announcement to the mailing list, so I spent the morning stuffing envelopes. However, I couldn't be too angry since the computer with the mailing address labels crashed, and Tamla and Hedva were handwriting addresses from the paper files. I was apologized to by everyone I met all day for the boring work I got on the first day, but also thanked profusely for how important it is. Tamla was working in the same room as I was, and she made the time fly. She's spastic and flighty, very blunt, talks to herself in Hebrew, and just generally hilarious. She's 57, and is the oldest woman in the office - in her words, she's "been a feminist since 1973, when feminism came to Haifa." She gave me a ride home from work, and on the drive, I also learned that she lives alone with no children ("by choice!"), is bisexual, but has been with women for the last 9 years, and men before that. She's very open about everything - she's like the crazy aunt in every family. She's fascinated by the fact that I have a pet hedgehog, which apparently is not a common sight around Israel (although there's one in the Haifa zoo).

While I may be a cultural odditity around the office, Erin and I are blending into Haifa splendidly. Everyone speaks Hebrew to us, and when we look confused, a lot of people will repeat themselves assuming we didn't hear, instead of realizing we're Americans and switching to English. It's refreshing to know I don't have "ignorant American" plastered across my face! In other news, I have internet access at work, so all of the pictures from Jerusalem and Haifa are finally posted.

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