When the second intifada broke out in 2000, Sarah Kreimer, a native Pittsburgher who had been living in Israel for about 20 years, said it felt as if the country was in flames. From her perspective, the success of the last several years of her work trying to foster connections between Israelis and Arabs was also going up in flames.
People who had previously been willing to work with one another no longer wanted to. They “just would not see each other,” she said.
In her own personal form of coping, Kreimer began to write — as she put it recently, “in a crisis of trying to understand what to do next.”
“We have not yet figured out how it is that we should be sharing this piece of land. I chose to do it by telling my story and the stories of so many people…who have done wonderful and brave things,” she said of the book that took her nearly a decade to complete.
Kreimer, who grew up in Point Breeze and attended Taylor Allderdice High School, returned to Pittsburgh on April 8 to share her book with members of Congregation Beth Shalom. She came as part of a tour with Beit Berl College, where she serves as the director of external relations and resource development. She reached out to Nancy Bernstein, a member of the Adult Education Committee at Beth Shalom about organizing an event in the city. Kreimer met her during Bernstein’s previous trips to Israel.
The event was a part of the Israel component of Derekh, a new programming venture at Beth Shalom.
Kreimer’s book, “Vision and Division in Israel,” follows her 40 years of activism in Israel, weaving her autobiography with the history of the country, including bombings and violent uprisings, a new economic venture, a battle with cancer and countless partnerships.
As Kreimer tells it, she moved to Israel with the intent of staying for only two years. She signed up to work with an organization called Interns for Peace that brings volunteers into Jewish and Arab towns to help create connections among citizens and promote collaboration. She and her colleagues had been successful at pairing schools in the neighboring Jewish and Arab towns for programs that allowed the students to work and play together.
They were in the midst of planning an end-of-the-year gathering when war with Lebanon broke out. Nearly every school in the Jewish town decided to cancel the program, except one. Students from that school still came together with their partners in the Arab town for a day of singing, acting, eating and celebrating.
“It was such a moving and meaningful event, and it was at that point, I said this is not magic…This is hard work and it doesn’t happen with everybody,” she said. “At that point, I decided to stay in Israel and continue working in this field.”
After a brief stint back in Pittsburgh, Kreimer returned to Israel to focus on improving workplace relations, industry opportunities and economic equality first through Interns for Peace and then through her own nonprofit, the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development. The Center, which she founded in 1987, operated under the idea that inequalities against Arab citizens would only harm Israel’s economy as a whole.
As the Center worked to create more collaboration within Israel, it also encouraged international partnerships to advance Israel’s economy. In 1994, it brought the first Jordanian business delegation to the country, a group from the textile industry, for a conference and a fashion show.
The experience, Kreimer said, made her realize just how close citizens from both countries lived.
“It would be as if there was a neighboring country on the other side of the Monongahela,” she explained. “You look at them your whole life and you’ve never been able to go there.”
The Center continued to build economic partnerships, hosting similar festivals for the technology, plastics and food industries.
Through working with so many people from the business world, who did not have a political agenda and were not appealing to the crowd, Kreimer began to develop the idea that Israeli and Arab citizens should think about the land they share as a “joint venture.”
The idea, she said, is that each citizen is a shareholder in the country and although there are majority and minority shareholders, the focus would be on opportunity, cooperation and the economy, rather than religion and democracy.
“It’s not, ‘Well, this one’s right and this one’s wrong and who’s going to win,’” Kreimer explained. “The win is creating an entire society that works well and serves the various needs of the shareholders. … Ultimately — if there is an ultimate — resolving the Palestinian conflict is part of having full partnership within Israel.”
Although Kreimer said her book has been well received since it was published last year, she acknowledges that many people don’t agree with her ideas.
“I’m really trying to get the people who don’t agree with me and who are willing to say, ‘Let me look at a different perspective,’” she said. “There are many, many initiatives that are going on, and investing in positive facts on the ground is a very important thing for American Jews to do — educating yourself, reading widely and looking at different aspects and different possibilities.”
And, she added, “coming to Israel to see.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at email@example.com.