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  • Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist: A Life of Activism through Dialogue by Debbie Weissman
  • Mary Elizabeth Perry (bio)
Debbie Weissman
Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist: A Life of Activism through Dialogue
Jerusalem: KTAV–Urim Publications, 2017. 198 pp.

Debbie Weissman begins her memoir with the wry comment that despite her reservations about the World Council of Churches, she owes them “a great debt of gratitude” for inviting her in 1988 to participate in a week-long interfaith conference in Montreal. This meeting of women from all over the world became a “life-transforming experience” for her. There she met and interacted with women from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Sikh and Baha’i faiths, Native American Indian spiritual traditions and the Wiccan religion. When each woman was asked to introduce herself to the group, Weissman told the others that she was “a religious Zionist who believes that the best fulfillment of Zionism will come when there is a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.” Achieving peace, she writes, will involve “perhaps not recognition or acceptance, but at least an acknowledgement, of our different narratives.”

Two years later, at a convocation in South Korea on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation, Weissman participated in a group writing a statement committing themselves “to derive from the prophetic and liberating values of our traditions and faiths a way to fulfill the national aspirations of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples in peace with justice.” She compares this convocation with the attempts in Oslo to bring peace to this region, which seemed to consist “exclusively [of] secular Israeli men talking with Palestinian men.” Observing that women on two sides of a conflict “often find it easier to dialogue than do their male counterparts,” she suggests that “this is not necessarily due to some innate, essential difference. I believe it is a result of women themselves having been marginalized in society and thus being able to better communicate with each other.”

The daughter of two social workers who wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, Weissman also credits her parents for wanting her and her younger sister to have a solid education, both generally and in Hebrew and Judaism. From the age of nine, she writes, she was “a card-carrying Zionist,” and she joined Young Judea, the [End Page 174] largest Zionist youth movement in the United States. As a senior in high school, she was invited to serve as National President of Young Judea in the United States and to be a youth delegate to the World Zionist Congress.

Weissman traces her Jewish development, recalling that she began her university studies at Barnard as a “newly observant modern Orthodox Jew.” She spent her junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she learned more about the Bais Yaakov movement of Orthodox girls’ schools founded in Poland in 1917, which became the subject of her M.A. thesis in sociology at NYU. She notes that a major theme in her life, both academically and existentially, is “the potentially fruitful encounter—a process and not an event—between traditions and modernity.”

From 1980 to 1982, Weissman served in the Israel Defense Forces, with the rank of captain. She became an education officer, planning and running education programs for officers, NCOs and officers-in-training. Leading programs on science and technology, the role of women in Israeli society and several other subjects, she sought to raise questions that would make her students “think about things which they had taken for granted all their lives.”

After her two years of service, she rejoined Oz V’Shalom, the religious peace movement she had helped found in the 1970s. In 1982 this group joined with other like-minded people to form a new group, Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace, an allusion to Prov. 3:17, which says of the Torah that “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace”).

In 1985, Weissman participated in a series of dialogues with religious Zionists from Jerusalem and members of the religious peace movements. At the first meeting, she remarked to the only other woman participant that it seemed significant...


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pp. 174-176
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