Working her own road map

The Mideast was new territory for Mary-Lou Leiser Smith before her first trip to the Holy Land. Now, it’s the center of her heart’s work.

Reminders of that surround her. Books about peace and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sit on a side table in a living room furnished with antiques. A map of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank is propped up nearby. Smith’s T-shirt bears the words for “peace” in Hebrew, English and Arabic. She wears dove earrings and a lapel pin of the Palestinian and Israeli flags.

mary-lou leiser smith

BORN: Dec. 2, 1945, Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a German father and American mother.

FAMILY: Husband: Brooks de Wetter-Smith; children: Christina Goldoni of London, Darrell Smith of Milwaukee; siblings: Peter Dirk Leiser of Durham, Richard Kimball Leiser of Philadelphia.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in history from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.; master’s degree in education from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La.

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION: Attends Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church.

MILITARY SERVICE: “I would be a conscientious objector.”

CAREER: Taught elementary school in Lexington, Mass., and English as a Second Language in the Triangle and abroad; consultant to a publishing company on ESL materials; founder and coordinator of Coalition for Peace with Justice.

QUOTE: “The world is a beautiful place for us to share and not to spend time creating dissension.”

Smith is the founder of the Coalition for Peace with Justice, a Triangle-based organization with the goal of Israeli withdrawal from lands the Jewish state gained in its 1967 war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

She knows that some people will criticize her as being biased in favor of the Palestinians, but she believes the occupation of those lands is responsible for a host of injustices.

“When you talk about the injustices taking place,” she says, “it hasn’t been a balanced situation at all. Right now … Palestinians don’t have human rights.”

Smith acknowledges that there are times, such as last week, when it’s hard to remain optimistic.

But she says the resurgence of violence — Israeli attacks on the militant group Hamas, a suicide bombing by a Palestinian in Jerusalem — is no surprise.

The problem with the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace, Smith says, is that it addresses the problem of violence without addressing the root causes.

“I don’t excuse the bombers any more than I’d excuse the actions of the Israeli military,” she says. “I consider them both terrorist.”

Before her first trip in 1995, Smith knew she wanted to do more than visit biblical sites. She wanted to connect with people living in the Holy Land. She has done so, and transformed her own life.

Smith, 57, says she has always had a global perspective. She was born to an American mother and a German father who went to Brazil for a honeymoon and stayed more than 40 years. Smith attended international schools in Sao Paulo until she moved to the United States for college.

Though long interested in peace education and social justice, her activism emerged more recently, at a time when she had fewer family responsibilities.

Her first trip included visits to Efrat, a settlement south of Bethlehem, and the nearby Deheishe refugee camp. She was struck by the disparity between Efrat’s tidy homes, irrigated gardens and amenities and the poverty of the camp.

On that visit, she also saw a settler with a gun, standing by his Mercedes on the road outside the camp. He had just shot into the camp, Smith says, because some Palestinian children had thrown stones at his car.

“I was quite, quite surprised. I mean, daily, with impressions there,” Smith says. “My experience of seeing things and learning things made me decide other people need to be exposed to this.”

To do that, Smith led a group of 15 people to Israel and the West Bank in 1996. But fund-raising took so much time that she decided it would be more effective to bring the stories of Palestinians and Israelis to the United States.

Smith, a former teacher, has recruited people from diverse backgrounds into the coalition. There are members of her church, Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist in Chapel Hill, as well as Muslims, Jews and other Christians. Their activities include bringing in speakers, holding prayer vigils, fostering dialogue between people on different sides of the divide and raising money for human rights and peace groups.

She also has made four more trips, including a six-month stay. These days, Smith is preparing for a conference in November at UNC-Chapel Hill — one focus will be the role of U.S. aid in the conflict. On Saturday, she was part of an enthusiastic group at Raleigh-Durham International Airport greeting peace activist Brian Avery on his return to the United States.

A Chapel Hill High School graduate, Avery was wounded in the West Bank town of Jenin in April. Avery’s group, the International Solidarity Movement, said he was hit by Israeli machine-gun fire during a curfew.

Of course, feelings can run high with anything having to do with the Israelis and Palestinians. So members of the coalition set aside some of the thornier issues, such as whether Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to Israel as part of a peace settlement. Meanwhile, they focus on what they agree on — that the United States should end aid to Israel unless it withdraws from the lands won in 1967.

Guided by faith

Smith draws much of her inspiration from her Baptist faith, but she says she’s more concerned with the faith’s orientation than with religious institutions. She grew up in an interdenominational setting, married in the Episcopal Church, first visited the Holy Land with a Methodist minister and chose her church in part because of its support of the civil rights movement, she says.

“I really experience the living God through relationships with people,” she says.

Smith’s friends say she’s a tireless worker who always has a hand in any number of projects. Several of those friends nominated Smith for the Human Rights Coalition of North Carolina’s annual award. Smith was selected as last year’s recipient.

Rajaie Qubain, a Palestinian-American who lives in Raleigh, was part of a dialogue group that Smith started. Qubain says he wanted the chance to interact with Jews and to try to understand where they were coming from.

“It was always difficult. People of like minds are not of exact minds, and I can’t even say we were of like minds,” Qubain says.

The meetings could be infuriating and the group has since dissolved, but Qubain says Smith helped keep the group going with her accepting manner.

“She’s a calming individual,” he says. “She’s concerned about speaking to different people’s concerns.”

Matthew Noah Smith of Carrboro is a member of Jews for a Just Peace-North Carolina, an organization that grew out of the dialogue group. He says Smith is admirable for her willingness to address suspicion between the groups.

“How many organizations can boast of having Jews, Christians, Muslims all together talking about these problems?” he says. “She’s really reached out to people.”

Smith says she draws strength from the resilience she sees in the people she has worked with abroad — the Israeli and Palestinian teachers whose students are trying to keep in touch through the Internet, and children in Bethlehem who still draw pictures expressing their desire for peace.

“Working on the ground, the grass roots level,” she says, “does give an enormous amount of hope.”

Staff writer Ann S. Kim can be reached at 932-2014 or