In war-weary Israel, a teacher is helping Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens become emissaries of hope—and rekindling Mariane Pearl’s optimism about the Middle East.
One-woman catalyst for peace: Angelica Edna Calo Livne
While researching this column for Glamour, I read these words penned by a woman in northern Israel. “What if there were more than one truth?” she wrote in her book, A Yes, a Beginning, a Hope. “What if we embraced our many truths and found our common ground?” The author was not a politician but a schoolteacher who promotes understanding across religious and ethnic boundaries. Her suggestions for ways to heal wounds between warring neighbors drew me back to Israel.
Angelica Edna Calo Livne, a 52-year-old Italian-Jewish immigrant, is a force of nature, an impassioned woman with black curls and sparkling eyes. Born in the library of a hospital in Rome because the delivery rooms were filled, she was named Angelica for her Italian grandmother and Edna for a pioneering Israeli woman her mother read about in the makeshift maternity ward. Edna, as she is known here, now lives in Kibbutz Sasa in Upper Galilee, a communal settlement of 80 Jewish families set in a bucolic landscape of apple orchards and grapevines. For working in the kibbutz’s fields or in its factory, which makes protective gear like bulletproof vests and plates for armored vehicles, Sasa’s inhabitants receive food and shelter.
Surrounding Sasa are small villages where Christians, Arabs and Druze (members of a non-Muslim Arabic religion) live—an intriguing scene for those of us who see our world as a global village. The diverse communities are separated by little land but by great gaps of understanding fed by ancestral conflicts. Two miles from Sasa is Israel’s volatile border with Lebanon. Just 18 months ago, bombs fell from the heavens during the four-week war between Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli army. “You would see missiles fly across the sky,” says Edna. “The war made me fight even harder for peace.”
In 2000 Edna was asked by a charity group to escort 50 Israeli children who’d been wounded in terrorist attacks to Italy for therapy. Moria, 15, had been eating pizza with friends in a town near Jerusalem when a suicide bomb exploded. Just before fainting, Moria—a flutist, guitarist and dancer—had said, “Where is my arm?” When asked whether she hated the man who killed her friends and crippled her, she replied, “No. If I hate, I can’t live.” In those children, Edna witnessed quiet, heroic strength. “From then on,” she says, “I knew I couldn’t go on without trying to bring us all together.”
Two years later, Edna, who has a master’s degree in arts education, started the Arcobaleno-Rainbow Theater. Under her guidance, young Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians perform plays that explore the rifts splitting their people. They simulate war and pray for peace. Some might hold the Koran, others the Torah or the New Testament—but they all feel the same fear. “With theater,” Edna says, “you have to be open, listen and reckon what people have in common.”
During the theater’s first year, terror strikes killed people all over the country. “I felt like a drop of hope flowing against the current of war,” she recalls. She also faced funding shortages. One day Edna sat at her dining table and scolded her God. Moments later, the phone rang. It was a man announcing that the theater had won a monetary award from the Vatican for promoting peace through education. “Are you an angel?” Edna asked the caller. “No,” he said. “I’m a priest.” That money helped Edna keep the theater going; it’s now thriving and tours both Israel and Italy. Her work has even gained international recognition, including Italy’s Assisi Peace Prize in 2004 and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination one year later.
“For me, one of the beautiful things about being Jewish,” Edna says, “is about rebirth—the capacity to start over when all has been destroyed.” But there is also the pain, made tangible when Edna takes me to the kibbutz art gallery to meet Varda Yatom, a renowned sculptor whose work can be unbearable to look at. In one piece, some tormented characters vomit flames, while others are doubled over in pain wearing gas masks or display their faces frozen in horror. “I sculpt the fear of the Israeli people,” Varda says. Later I learn that on the day she finished that sculpture, one of her five sons almost lost his eye in a skirmish with Hezbollah. With two of Edna’s own four sons already in the army (military service is compulsory here), Edna is pragmatic about the contradictions in her life. “People say I’m naive to push for peace,” she says. “But you can’t be naive when you have to send your sons to the front line.”
Cooking an Italian dinner one night, Edna puts too much food on the table, just as it should be. As the sauce simmers, she whistles like a truck driver to call her husband, Yehuda. (“He’s my dearest supporter and my wailing wall,” she says, grinning.) When we sit down at the table, she commands, “You eat. I talk and you eat!” My new friend is not only a Jewish mother but an Italian one, and her children include all fellow warriors for peace. Right now, that means me. I stop writing and eat the lasagna.
Another night, at the theater’s weekly rehearsal, 32 young actors exchange high fives, hug and warm up as Edna plays an Arabic rap song. Donning expressionless white masks, the kids start in on Beresheet (In the Beginning), a play that dramatically interprets the region’s conflicts. At first, the actors separate into two clashing groups, but their aggression ebbs away until finally the opponents touch and entwine. Only then are the masks removed—all but two, “because some people are unreachable,” Edna explains. The first actor to slowly reveal himself is Moussa, a 21-year-old Christian Arab. “We not only take off our masks as Arabs or Jews,” he tells me. “The most difficult thing is to take off the mask and be yourself.”
It required a lot of courage for young Muslim actors such as 17-year-old Nidaa to remove their metaphoric masks. Nidaa, an Israeli Arab, faces resentment from members of her community for participating in plays with Jews. During her five years acting for the theater, Nidaa has often performed in an adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. “Before, I didn’t even know who Anne Frank was,” Nidaa says. Then she read the book in Arabic and was given a tough role, the Nazi soldier who seizes Anne Frank from her refuge. “It was very difficult, but it taught me so much about the human condition,” she says. During the war last year, missiles fell near Nidaa’s home. Stuck there, she e-mailed her theater friends, “I miss you very much. Thinking of us helps me through this difficult time.” Her mother, Balkis, a Rainbow Theater supporter, says that during the war her heart bled twice, “for the people of Israel and for my Muslim brothers.”
Despite continuing tension in the region, the theater is helping to loosen long-held grudges. Sharif, a young Arab actor, told Edna how he and his friends had been sparring with local Jewish boys. “There was gang warfare,” Sharif said to her. “Then one day, one of the Jewish kids came to our play. I went up to him and said, ‘Friend, remember me?’ We made a sulha, which means reconciliation” in both Arabic and Hebrew. Of the truce, Edna proudly says, “It was an outbreak of peace, real peace.”
At a Sasa disco on a Saturday night, I see that Edna is right—there is more than one truth here. Girls wearing midriff-baring tops and skinny jeans sway to a Shakira tune as guys sit watching them, drinking beer. One almost forgets that the disco doubles as a bomb shelter. The kibbutz kids dance their worries away, but in the morning some are leaving for the army. Yotam, 22, Edna’s second son, must report to the Lebanese border. “It’s nerve-wracking,” he tells me. Though Yotam’s eyes sparkle like his mother’s, he is tense. Watching him pack candy and a poetry book into his military bag, I think of Edna, who must balance her optimism with the realities of being a mother in a perilous land.
In 1994 Shimon Peres closed his Nobel speech by saying, “We have reached the age where dialogue is the only option for our world.” Maybe now we’ve reached an age when peace talks should be led by ordinary citizens: people like Edna, who do not believe in religious or ethnic labels but in humanity’s ability to learn, care—and change.