Liza [Elizabeth Tsurkov, who is being held by a militia in Iraq] and [her sister] Emma, like us, grew up hearing prison stories and about the legacy of fighting repression in the name of what was right. Our father was a Zionist, while Liza’s parents, Arkady and Ira Tsurkov, were Marxists. But they all advocated a more democratic state, drawing international attention to the Soviet Union’s blatant abuse of its citizens.
Most important, they all knew — and paid for — the risks they took. Years of imprisonment didn’t rid them of their certainty or break their spirit.
Our families came together often over the following years. As we grew up, Liza and I played, talked and sometimes fought.
“I was born first, on Nov. 6, so I’m older than you,” I told her heatedly one day, when we were both 10. “So I should set the rules for how we play.”
“I was born on Nov. 11 — it’s not that much later,” she answered reasonably. “And besides, why should age make a difference? Why should you get to tell other people what to do?”
Even then, Liza’s calm logic made me feel young and immature. She lived her whole life with that deep sense of fairness. Later, as her personal politics shifted to the left, her opinions carried her far away from mainstream Israeli sensibilities and, frankly, far away from mine. We disagreed often about a variety of topics, like the political parties we supported and the best way to bring peace to the Middle East. But even when we disagreed — as kids or as adults — I always knew that her opinion was an honest one, free from posturing, self-interest and pride.
Liza believed from early adulthood that caring about the citizens of Israel also meant caring about the rights of Palestinians in Israel. Later, she turned her attention both professionally and personally to our Arab neighbors in their fight for freedom during the Arab Spring. But she didn’t want to merely view them vis-à-vis their relationship with Israel; she believed that the right thing to do was to try to understand our neighbors from inside their own societies, the way they experienced and understood themselves.
She became fluent in Arabic, and she visited many countries most Israelis will never enter. She traveled to Syria to research political factions and wrote about their experience of the civil war for international audiences. She networked with dissidents and freedom fighters and advocated women’s rights and more international aid.
Liza went to Iraq for similar reasons. She intended to research the way Iraqis, and women in particular, were living after ISIS and in the shadow of sectarianism — not, as some online critics have said, to spy for the Israeli government. In a region where the coverage is often male-centric and shaped by the narratives of military groups and political factions, Liza wanted to hear from regular people to better understand the challenges they face. [Continue reading…]