For MERIP, I seem to specialize in writing remembrances of friends who have passed away. Ten years ago I wrote about Edward W. Said. Now I have to introduce Sheila Patricia Ryan (1945-2013) to a younger generation that might be unfamiliar with her contributions. On February 10, Sheila’s family and friends held a memorial ceremony at the New York Ethical Society to honor her as a mother, an anti-war activist, one of the first organizers of Palestine solidarity work in the United States and, finally, the director of Columbia Presbyterian’s special needs clinic, which provides support for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS. Sheila was an engaged mother of five wonderful children (Matthew, Daniel, Nathaniel, Joseph and Caitlin), and a partner to her husband, George Cavalletto. She cooked elaborate gourmet meals, of which I was a beneficiary. Sheila was indeed a woman for all seasons.
At her memorial I offered a few recollections. I suggested that one cannot make sense of people like Sheila if one reduces them to work affiliations. In 1990 Sheila co-authored a book with my colleague Don Will, Israel and South Africa: Legal Systems of Settler Dominance. Seven years later, this same person wrote a book chapter titled, “Mental Health Treatment of Children and Families Afflicted by Substance Abuse and HIV/AIDS.” How might we explain this? Sheila was a humanist who insisted on justice and equality for all. She worked for justice and self-determination for Palestinians, and simultaneously for social and health care justice, particularly in New York where she lived.
Sheila and George were pioneers. They wrote dispatches for Liberation News Service from Jordan, where they stayed for months in 1970-1971. They helped to educate many a reluctant leftist who might have preferred to avoid dealing with the Middle East, particularly the question of Palestine. Many on the left at the time saw Israeli kibbutzim as a socialist experiment, while ignoring Arabs and Palestinians or regarding them as hopelessly backward and reactionary. In 1975 Sheila helped to found the first US-based Palestine solidarity committee, which she led until 1982. She and a few dozen others would hold signs in support of Palestine during New York’s Israel day parade. Today, such committees abound at American universities. I suspect that most of today’s activists have not heard of Sheila, though she planted the seeds that are sprouting all over. But Sheila never engaged in solidarity without criticism.
In 1982, some of us helped to organize the Lebanon Emergency Committee, as a response to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon. The committee was coordinated out of New York, with Sheila playing a central role — and never taking credit. Volunteers pieced together informational documents and detailed dossiers on each prisoner held in the Israeli-run Ansar jail in southern Lebanon. As always, the central objective was to educate rather than preach to the converted. In between activities, Sheila wrote cogent articles for MERIP and the Journal of Palestine Studies, as well as another book, Palestine Is, But Not in Jordan. She was a contributing editor of MERIP from 1982 to 1994. Her writing was clear, concise and devoid of rhetorical pronouncements. She wanted to win hearts and minds.
Before devoting herself to those suffering from HIV/AIDS (from the 1990s to her last day), Sheila immersed herself in organizing for the campaign to prevent the deportation of the Los Angeles Eight, the seven Palestinians and one Kenyan arrested in 1987 for passing out “subversive” pro-Palestinian literature. After more than 20 years in the courts, in October 2007 the government finally dropped the case. I chaired the national Committee for Justice, to which she devoted much energy. In her modest way she simply asked to be given tangible tasks.
No task, large or small, was beyond Sheila Ryan. She helped to build the foundation of the growing awareness of the Palestinian cause among Americans. But the battle to change US policy toward the Middle East and Palestine is still long. Those who continue along this path are indebted to Sheila and should also be empowered by her example. In early January, the day before I left for a month-long trip to the Middle East, I spoke with Sheila. She had only weeks left before her illness claimed her life. She immediately asked me: “How is Amal [my wife]? How are the kids? When will you come to New York?” She was a genuine friend who cared. I was unable to respond to her last question, because as it turns out, I was unable to see her. I miss my friend, and on behalf of the MERIP collective I offer condolences to her family.