Nearly a decade after the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, over a decade after the end of apartheid in South Africa, and days into the latest effort at shuttle diplomacy in the decades long Arab-Israeli peace process, Vital Voices is convening a gathering of women from Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel to discuss their efforts to contribute directly to their countries’ peace and security. Whether as teachers, lawyers, mediators, or , the selected participants are women engaged in the work of peace in communities where the language of peace has not been spoken for decades.
What I have learned so far as a program officer at Vital Voices is that communication is our foundation. We are inspired by the voices of the world’s women leaders, and we invest in their capacity to elevate a dialogue of understanding and reconciliation in their communities, countries, and regions. This effort is most crucial for those women operating in an environment where the legacy of language is divisive.
I was reminded of the importance of language when I read in Tuesday’s Washington Post that Protestants in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government vetoed plans to introduce a law promoting Gaelic, a language with Irish origins. Northern Ireland’s Catholics aimed to promote the little-spoken language as a way to highlight their Irish identity in a community that is largely English speaking. Similarly, in Israel, language carries great significance as well. The two main languages – Hebrew and Arabic – are ancient tongues that not only represent a great deal more than one’s national identity because they are shared by the global community of Jews and Muslims who embrace Hebrew and Arabic respectively as the linguistic hallmarks of their faiths. Finally, in South Africa, language was a powerful element of both conflict and reconciliation. Indeed, the history of apartheid demonstrated the ability of a government to use power over language as a divisive tool, and also of the opposition to use it as a weapon of resistance.
And yet no linguistic tradition is static; languages evolve. Indeed, the beauty and power of language is that it is an undeniable force of both division and inclusion. In Northern Ireland, the promotion of Gaelic in the sensitive power-sharing government may assume a provocative posture, but in an integrated school in Derry a child may speak Gaelic to enlighten schoolmates about her family’s ancestry and their country’s shared history. In South Africa, the language of reconciliation not only permeated the political dialogue of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but the nation’s musical dialogue as well. Legendary and emerging artists use language to imbue South Africans with a sense of hope, community, and reconciliation. In Israel, one must note that the ancient words of the Torah and Koran are, arguably, blueprints for a peaceful coexistence. Far more Muslims and Jews look to religion for lessons of peace then for lessons of war. That commonality may be a remaining avenue towards reconciliation.
The program in Northern Ireland is an opportunity for all of us to learn about how we as individuals and members of larger communities contribute to the language of peace. We will speak about mistakes as well as triumphs, remember the challenges as well as the opportunities, and ultimately share insights and inspirations that will translate across languages, borders, and religions.