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Women in Black

5 - Be Fruitful and Multiply

 

Gila Svirsky

 

Within months, Women in Black vigils had spread from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv and Haifa, and within a year to the rest of the country, despite the fact that the media were stingy at best in their coverage of the movement.  In this chapter I would like to consider some of the variations in Women in Black, and highlight a few unique vigils.

Multiple Births

Women in Black vigils proliferated throughout 1988, 1989, and 1990, springing up in 39 different locations in Israel (see Appendix), virtually covering the length and narrow breadth of the country.  On any Friday during these three intense years, the average car or bus passenger would be confronted with the insistent message of End the Occupation at one point or another during his or her travels, especially if that travel led out of town.  Although the vigils were sometimes as small as 2-3 women or as large as 120 in Jerusalem (and more on special occasions), the effect was cumulative, persistent, and powerful.

Women in Black vigils spread by word of mouth, driven by the desire of women to do something and inspired by the example of those who were already on a vigil.  The vigil format was simple to emulate and made participation possible even for women who were distant from urban centers of activism.  This, indeed, was one of the most far-reaching contributions of Women in Black to the peace movement it enabled women everywhere to participate.  They didnt have to get to the big city, they didnt need personal political clout, they didnt have to distance themselves from family, and they could make a statement that would be seen and heard by everyone in their immediate vicinity.

There were several significant variations among the vigils throughout Israel.  For one thing, some vigils outside the three large cities, especially those in which kibbutz women predominated, allowed men to participate (Megiddo, Nahariya, Nahshon, Samar, and a few others).  Men were always a minority, however, deferring to the leadership of the women; only a few persevered throughout the years of the vigil; and none ever attended the Women in Black national conferences.  Other variations:  Some vigils displayed the Israeli flag, while others refused to; and Jerusalem limited itself to the End the Occupation slogan (until the Oslo peace process began), while other vigils added slogans of their choice.  The entire Women in Black movement eventually articulated its understanding (at the Harel conference in September 1989) that every vigil is autonomous and makes its own decisions.  And the Coalition of Women and Peace that had formed less than a year after the first vigil (in November 1988) helped smooth out some of the potential friction that could have come up in joint national actions.  In fact, this was the most viable coalition that emerged among the many peace organizations then functioning, another testimony to the distinctive norms of womens organizing.

Each vigil had its own character.  Jerusalem was the largest and most politically diverse vigil, views ranging from security-minded Laborites to radical left.  We avoided new slogans to avoid alienating one or another faction, which earned us the reputation of being politically timid.  Other vigils were smaller, more homogeneous, and more zealous.  Haifa and Tel-Aviv, for example, were composed primarily of women who were veterans of radical feminist circles and the radical left in general, and these two vigils bore aloft the more daring slogans.  The kibbutz-based vigils generally reflected kibbutz ideology fervently Zionist and patriotic although there were important individual exceptions.  For many kibbutz women, the vigil was their first and only political involvement.

National events were often initiated and organized by Jerusalem women, which frequently angered women in the other vigils, who felt that their views and needs were not sufficiently addressed in matters of concern to all the vigils.  While this was an ongoing source of friction, it did not diminish cooperation or participation in the movement as a whole.  This phenomenon was significantly different than in mixed-gender left-wing groups, some of which were riven by acrimony and rivalries.  The deep commitment of women to the vigil and lack of formal leadership gave participants a sense of ownership and enabled cooperation beyond the anger.

Almost all the vigils gradually assumed the feminist formats and structures previously described non-hierarchy, consensus-seeking decision-making, and non-violent responses to provocation.  No conscious attempt was made to spread this ideology from one vigil to another, but it made its way through the country based on the power of a good idea taking wing, combined with the influence of those active in the Women and Peace Coalition.  Indeed, many Women in Black (especially those outside the city) regard the vigil as their first positive encounter with feminism, and one of the elements that most bound them to the vigil.  Even women in a tempest of political organizing regarded the Women in Black vigil as their mainstay.  This was home, said Hanna Knaz of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, and many women would have agreed.[1]

Palestinian Women in Black

Approximately 17% of Israels citizens are Arab Muslim and Christian.  By definition and self-identity, these are Palestinians.  Some live in the mixed cities of Israel such as Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and Acre and others live in exclusively Arab towns and villages.  Unlike Israeli Jewish women who are divided about the peace issue, Israeli Arab women unanimously abhor the occupation and fervently yearn for an end to it.

Arab women who are citizens of Israel were staunch supporters of Women in Black.  Their participation was higher in vigils in the north of Israel Haifa, Acre, Gan Shmuel, Megiddo, Nahariya while Nazareth, an all-Arab city, was one of the first vigils to be established outside the three big cities (in early 1989).  Nabila Espanioly of the Haifa vigil has written about the political awakening of Israeli Arab women inspired by the intense involvement of their Palestinian sisters in the occupied territories and their Jewish sisters who struggled against the occupation inside Israel:

we Women in Black ask ourselves the same questions, but also others: how to find new ways of expressing our solidarity with the struggle of Palestinians in the occupied territories, how to persuade the government of Israel to negotiate with the PLO, how to help our brothers and sisters in the occupied territories, how to involve more women in our activities, and how to develop actions in keeping with our culture that would have an impact on the Arab street.[2]

Israeli Arab women, even more than Israeli Jewish women, were active in frameworks in addition to Women in Black in their struggle against the occupation:

Palestinian women in Israel have been working to collect food, clothing, blood and medicine for Palestinians living under curfew in the occupied territories...They have been going from house to house asking women and families to contribute to the Palestinian cause.  Israeli Palestinian women also staged large demonstrations in the cities of Nazareth and Um el-Fahem and the villages of Kufir Yassif, Kufir Kassem, and Kufir Kara.  There have been other activities as well.[3]

The Women in Black vigil was a setting of greater equality for Jewish and Palestinian women than most other areas of Israeli society.  Where the vigil was mixed, it was perceived as a Jewish-Arab activity, and efforts were made by both sides to achieve a better balance of power than existed elsewhere.  In many vigils, for example, signs and slogans were written in both Arabic and Hebrew.  Haifa, as always, led the way in heightening sensitivity to the multi-cultural membership and forging egalitarian structures.  We were not perfect, mistakes were made (I claim for myself the mistake of publishing the national newsletter in Hebrew and English, but not in Arabic), but many sincere attempts were made to share leadership and decision-making.

For some Jewish and Palestinian women (though not the veteran activists), the vigil was the first meaningful encounter with each other on a personal level, and it had a transformative effect.  In the next chapter Ill look at the role played by this encounter in radicalizing the Jewish women.  Here, Nabila suggests some of the ways that the Palestinians were affected by their encounters with Jewish women:

Many Palestinian women from Israel have become involved with Jewish activists in Israeli womens peace organizations and in feminist analyses of the effects of war and militarization on Israeli society.  The Palestinians in Israel who worked with these groups have adopted an increasingly feminist perspective on the Occupation and its effects.  The Palestinian women in Israel who have begun to criticize Israeli society, militarism, sexism and violence have begun, in turn, to see these phenomena more clearly in their own society and to speak out against discrimination and violence, especially domestic violence, and against sexual assaults of all kinds.[4]

The situation in Jerusalem was utterly different, however, as the Palestinians of this city were occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and seek to throw off the shackles of occupation.  Theirs is an uprising against a foreign power, not a cooperative coexistence with the rights and grievances of loyal citizens.  Thus, Palestinian citizens of Israel from the north were able to be full participants and share ownership of Women in Black, while Palestinians in the territories (including East Jerusalem) sought to end the occupation through the intifada and other means.  While there were two Palestinian women in the Jerusalem vigil, both were Israelis who had moved here from the north.

For Palestinian women, standing on the vigil meant moving outside the traditional womans sphere domestic affairs and this was difficult for those from traditional backgrounds.  An added burden was the exposure to sexual attacks (words and gestures) made by passersby.  Thus, it took an extra measure of courage and self-assertion for traditional Arab women to participate in the vigil.

Some passersby, when they discovered Arab women among us, would direct their racist wrath specifically at them.  In vigils at Gan Shmuel and Haifa, Jewish passersby threw stones at the Arab Women in Black.  In an incident at the mixed Jewish-Arab vigil in Nahariya, Judy Ben-Et from Kibbutz Beit HaEmek relates that counter-demonstrators began to shout death to Arabs.  When the Jewish women on the vigil went to the police station to complain, the police responded that they cant do anything about it.  If Arabs had shouted Death to Jews, said the women, you would figure something out, but the police refused to intervene.  It certainly wasnt easy for Arab women to be on the vigil, and accolades to those women who did so, with a special medal of honor to Nabeha Morkus of Kufir Yassif, an Israeli-Palestinian woman, who stood alone on the Acre vigil every week for a month when nobody else showed up.

Playing to the Crowds: Tel-Aviv

Soon after the intifada broke out in early December 1987, the Israeli government clamped down on journalistic reporting from the occupied territories.  But Israel is a small country and much of the army is comprised of civilians in reserve duty, so some testimonies of army brutality still managed to leak through, though not enough.

A group of women in Tel-Aviv, long-time activists in feminism and peace, sought to break through this silence.  By late December, these women were presenting a slide show every Thursday on the busy corner of Ben-Gurion and Dizengoff Streets, with scenes from the worst of the intifada that had been censored out of the Israeli media.  It was a gutsy activity, and they kept it up for about a month before the response on the street became too violent for them to continue.  By late January 1988, this group had heard about Women in Black in Jerusalem and they began their own vigil.  It was the second Women in Black vigil.

Participation in Tel-Aviv reached only 30-40 women at the height of the vigil (50 on special occasions), but the audience was extraordinarily large.  Tel-Aviv is the commercial center of Israel, and the women chose to stand at the busiest junction in town (where the main thoroughfares Namir and Petah Tiqva intersect).  Here, cars from 24 lanes of traffic (5 major arteries) wend their way in and out of the city.  Based on car counts conducted several times, Tel-Aviv women estimate conservatively that 20,000 people saw their vigil every Friday in the course of one hour.[5]

As with all the vigils, there were frequent acts of violence and harassment in Tel-Aviv.  Dita Bitterman, one of the original Tel-Aviv group, reported one bizarre incident:

Galit Mass-Ader, one of the Women in Black, noticed a boy [among the counter-demonstrators] bend over and start to cry.  She approached him and saw blood dripping from his mouth.  He didnt respond to her words and she started to arrange to have him taken to the hospital.  Just then a patrol car pulled up, and the boy called out to the police that Galit had hit him until he bled.  A brief police investigation turned up that he had brought some stage blood with him, held it in his mouth, and released the blood at the appropriate moment.[6]

Tel-Aviv women held signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, and never hesitated to advance the most radical slogans.  In addition to the already-daring Two states for two peoples and Negotiate with the PLO, Tel-Aviv women at one point held a bold sign calling for international surveillance of the occupied territories.

Tel-Aviv women invested great efforts in increasing their numbers placing ads in the newspaper, advertising at the university, and using phone lists borrowed from various political parties.  When the number of women at the vigil dropped to 20 and then single-digits after the Gulf War, the hard-core activists lettered their slogans on huge black cloth banners held up by poles at either end.  This made it possible for a dozen or fewer women to have a more substantial presence.

Many Tel-Aviv women were at the core of the early networking of Women in Black, and were instrumental in advancing the Women and Peace Coalition as a way to circumvent the more conservative policies of other Women in Black vigils.  Meetings were often held in Tel-Aviv, as the center between those north and south.  The common wisdom in the movement was that Jerusalem appealed to many more women because it never went beyond the lowest common denominator (end the occupation), while Tel-Aviv had fewer women, but was the vanguard of the movement.

Tel-Aviv has the unique distinction of being the one vigil that has never, not once, missed a week.  Even during the Gulf War, when no other Women in Black vigil in Israel met, even on the first day of the war, when SCUD missiles had fallen that morning in the Tel-Aviv area, five stalwart Women in Black showed up and held a vigil, their only acknowledgment of war being that they left 15 minutes early.  To this day, Tel-Aviv is one of three hardy vigils the others are Nahshon and Jerusalem that continues to stand.

Feminism Without Apology: Haifa

The Haifa vigil formed in March 1988, just two months after Jerusalem, and was the third one chronologically.  The Haifa vigil was a direct outgrowth of the Haifa womens movement, and midwifed into existence by feminists who met to plan International Womens Day in March 1988.  About 20 women established the first vigil, some 40-50 participated regularly at its height, and about 70 women were in the overall pool.  Half the early members were activists in the various feminist organizations of Haifa (the rape crisis center, the battered womens shelter, and the Isha LIsha feminist center), and the other half came from peace activist backgrounds.

The Haifa group faced particularly persistent harassment from right wing supporters and had to change the location of their vigil half a dozen times.  The original site was Beit HaKranot in the center of the lower city of Haifa, where they were completely exposed to pedestrians and at eye level with hostile car passengers:

The police claimed that they couldnt protect us properly there, and suggested we move to Egged [the central bus station].  But it was worse there, as drivers tried to run us over several times.  We moved to the Horev Center in the Carmel, but two weeks later, right wingers chased us all the way to the Isha LIsha Womens Center, shouting: PLO![7]

The police appeared only irregularly upon a phone call and often arrived after the disturbance was over.  In addition to the usual threats, pushing, shoving, Nabila also reported an incident where right wingers threatened them with knives.  When asked if the reaction of bystanders was more severe because theirs was a mixed Arab-Jewish vigil, Nabila responded:

I dont know.  Most of the time the reactions to us were the same as to Jewish women, and that made us, the Arab women, feel better.  The incident that especially shocked us was when bystanders called out to an old woman with us, who they could see had been through the Holocaust: Too bad the Nazis didnt finish you off.[8]

Old women participated in many of the vigils.  Hannah Safran, coordinator of the Isha LIsha feminist center and an activist in both peace and womens issues, notes that the presence of these old women was particularly powerful:

They conveyed courage, moral stature, and tenacity.  Standing next to an old woman was empowering.  One of the older women on the Haifa vigil (who has since died) fainted a couple of times perhaps due to the heat or her own frailty, but she continued to attend.  We were all moved by her presence.[9]

The Haifa vigil made no secret of its avowedly feminist orientation from the outset.  Women in Black in Haifa participated in the sending of several telegrams to Yitzhak Rabin, then Minister of Defense, with reference to situations of injustice that were related to women and children.  A telegram from January 11, 1989, signed by Women in Black in Haifa, Tel-Aviv, and Hadera stated:

We call upon you to ensure the immediate provision of sanitary napkins to the women political prisoners from the occupied territories.  We also demand an explanation as to why these women prisoners are not given humane conditions of imprisonment and appropriate medical treatment, meeting basic hygienic standards.

A telegram from January 9, 1989 signed by the Haifa and Tel-Aviv vigils stated:

We call upon you to immediately release Fatma Abu Bakra, in detention without trial in the Sharon Prison since November 23, 1986, and also to explain to the public why the state of Israel with your approval has incarcerated men, women, and children without trial.

More information about this case and instances of torture can be obtained from the Womens Organization for Women Political Prisoners, POB 31811, Tel-Aviv.

At a later date, these telegrams were issued in the name of several womens peace organizations, as coordinated by the Womens Movement for Peace (the early version of the womens peace coalition).  The following telegram, date illegible, must also be from late January or February 1989:

We appeal to you today after 22 years of occupation.  We demand that you immediately open all institutions of learning in the occupied territories and permit children and youth to return to their normal studies.  We call upon you to extend a hand of peace and coexistence to the Palestinian nation that dwells together with us in this land.

Women in Black, TANDI, HaGesher, Womens Organization for Women Political Prisoners, and the Womens Movement for Peace

In keeping with the Haifa tradition of tolerance for diversity, the vigil allowed for a multiplicity of slogans, although it balked at Negotiate with the PLO out of respect for those who still regarded the PLO as a terrorist organization.  Over time, however, even this slogan was appended, and eventually all the women accepted the notion.  The vigil lasted throughout the intifada and dispersed with the first Oslo agreement in September 1993.

Spreading Out to the Kibbutz

In Israel, there are about 260 kibbutzim [plural of kibbutz], which are basically small collective villages with typically several hundred members each.  Although the kibbutz, a product of socialist principles, has by and large a left wing constituency, the spread of Women in Black throughout the kibbutz movement was not organic.  Kibbutz Nahshon was the very first to hold its own vigil soon after Haifa women started theirs but Women in Black did not spread further to the kibbutz movement for another year, when several determined women took matters into their own hands.

Hanna Knaz was a former American who had moved to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel in 1965 and was the senior nurse there.  Like many others, Hanna, aged 42 at the outbreak of the intifada, was awakened by the violence to the horrors of what was taking place in the occupied territories.  She searched for something to do, heard about the vigils in the cities, and began taking the bus to either Tel-Aviv or Haifa every Friday to attend.  But a two-hour round trip for a one-hour vigil took its toll.  After a month of commuting, Hanna decided to organize a vigil beside her own kibbutz.

Hanna talked with some sympathetic women on Gan Shmuel, contacted a few women at neighboring kibbutzim, and in January 1989, a vigil was launched at the Kibbutz Gan Shmuel intersection, about 35 women in attendance.  Soon, Jewish and Arab women from neighboring towns and villages also showed up.

The Secretary of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel was suspicious of the vigil and initially refused Hanna permission to use the kibbutz bulletin board to post notices about its existence.  The format of the demonstration is not acceptable to us, black is a symbol of mourning, and we have not yet come to that, they noted.[10]  Twice Hanna posted notices on a tree, but someone made a point of tearing them down.

But Hanna and the other women persisted and soon there were vigils on two other kibbutzim Megiddo in the north (March 1989) and Samar in the far south (June 1989).  The vigils remained small, however, as kibbutz women harbored their own suspicions about them:  Who was behind Women in Black?  And was this black ritual a constructive way to be expressing criticism of government policies?

Hanna and the other kibbutz activists were looking for a way to break through to more kibbutzim, and they approached the Ideological Coordinator of their kibbutz movement,[11] asking him to express official support for the vigils.  The Coordinator, a high-ranking officer in the Israeli army reserves, was wary of the criticism implicit in the Women in Black vigils.  He asked that the kibbutz Women in Black sign a statement professing loyalty to the Zionist vision.  The women objected and demanded a meeting.

A heated confrontation took place in his Tel Aviv office attended by six kibbutz women: Miri Goren, Shoshi Horesh, Hanna Knaz, Avital Shapira, Lily Traubmann, and Vera Jordan.  After three-hours of deliberations, the women walked away victorious.  Without signing any statements or committing the vigils to any ideological position, the Coordinator issued a letter in May 1989 to all the kibbutzim in his movement encouraging the women to join a vigil:

Kibbutz members are invited to read the following statement by Women in Black and consider joining their activity.  Many will undoubtedly convince themselves that this is not suitable for them...Others might find it an opportunity to express their views in a practical and original manner.

Let us not merely batten the hatches to escape the storms blowing outside. [12]

More significantly, the Ideological Coordinator authorized use of kibbutz cars to attend the vigils (no other transportation was available to kibbutz women), and he agreed that the time Hanna spent organizing the vigils would be considered part of her regular work load for the kibbutz.  At the very same time that this letter reached the kibbutz secretariats, an article appeared in the kibbutz movement newspaper, in which the vigils then in existence were given very favorable coverage.[13]  These two events together increased participation dramatically among kibbutz women throughout the country.

Despite the seal of approval of the movement, reactions to Women in Black in individual kibbutzim ranged from active encouragement to hostility.  I would shoot them all, said one kibbutz member, perceiving our protest as treason.[14]  Although this reaction was unusually harsh, many kibbutz members were angered by our vigil. Peace Now was perceived as the peace organization of choice for the kibbutz movement, and other initiatives were regarded as disloyal.  While the letter from the ideological boss made a dent in this attitude, it did not sweep away all resistance.

But the main aggression, as always, came from the cars that drove by the vigil.  It was a constant source of tension, says Hanna.  I kept waiting for some one to take out his Uzi and mow down the row of us.

Protest in the Desert: Samar and Eilat

The desert in the south of Israel is hot all year and brutal in the long summer that begins when spring sets into the north.  Temperatures at midday during the vigil hour of 1-2 p.m. can easily reach 105-110, more in a heat wave.

It was thus quite remarkable when Ilene Moskowitz and Deganit Itamari, two members of Kibbutz Samar, heard about the vigils taking place in the north through the kibbutz movement newspaper, and decided to launch their own.  There were no other options for political involvement, explained Ilene, other than driving north for four or five hours.[15]  The decision to begin was taken in June 1989, and they managed to recruit about 30 participants (men and women) to the first vigils from Samar, nearby Kibbutz Yotvata, and the city of Eilat.  It could not have been easy to stand on the shimmering black ribbon of desert highway wearing black in the heat of the day, but the vigil persisted for three years.

Eilat soon spun off on its own vigil, organized by Haya Earon and Doreen Levy.  Here, too, about 30 women stood in the desert sun at midday, choosing the busy intersection that leads to the hotels of this resort town.  The Eilat vigil ran for only two years, ending because of the impossible heat.  For a while, the group had suffered harassment from the local police who didnt want political waves in their tourist-based economy, but the Association for Civil Rights in Israel helped establish their right to demonstrate.

The Prison Vigil: Megiddo

Megiddo is the name of one tiny area of Israel with a packed history that goes back 5,000 years.  A nearby archeological tell bears evidence of its rich past.  Part of the Christian tradition associated with Megiddo is that this is the site of the impending Armageddon between the forces of good and evil.  Appropriately or not, one of the large prisons of Israel is located at the Megiddo junction, where many Palestinians convicted of intifada-related crimes were (and are) incarcerated, as well as Jews and Arabs convicted of non-political crimes.  The Megiddo junction, a heavily traveled intersection, is also the site of one of the first kibbutz vigils (March 31, 1989), started by women from nearby kibbutzim.

Lily Traubmann, a member of Kibbutz Megiddo, relates the story of the first time that she and other women dressed in black and held their first vigil at the Megiddo junction:

We were 14 women and we stood silently by the side of the road holding signs that simply said End the Occupation.  Many cars and trucks drove by, but everything was quiet and law-abiding.  Then, about 15 minutes before the vigil was over, several police vehicles pulled up beside us.  Policemen emerged and, without warning, grabbed us and began to drag us toward the police van.  We were not trying to resist arrest, and they were being aggressive for no reason.  They dragged us over to the van and pushed us in.  The rest of us were taken to the police station of the nearby small town of Afula, finger-printed, interrogated, and kept in detention.  We asked them what the charge was, and they told us illegal assembly, even though we knew that fewer than 50 people on a silent vigil did not require a permit.  But the police either didnt know or didnt care.  We demanded the right to make phone calls to our families and lawyers, but were not permitted calls for several hours.  One of us was a single mother and expecting her two small children to return home soon, so we asked the police to release just her, but they wouldnt.  Another woman was a diabetic and would soon be needing insulin, but they also refused to release her.  Finally, they allowed us to make one phone call each.  Some of us called our families, who called the other families, and others used their phone call to get through to Jumas [Haim Oron, a Member of Knesset who is also from a kibbutz].  Jumas called up the Minister of Police, who got word to the chief of the Afula police station.  Finally we were released.  Later, through Jumas, we filed a formal complaint against the police.  After some investigation, the senior officer who organized our arrest was given a formal reprimand.  Soon after that, he was promoted. [16]

Lily says that after this incident, the police stopped harassing Women in Black at the Megiddo junction, and even showed up to protect them upon special request, but a regular patrol was never assigned to the vigil, even though it was a frequent target of attack. 

The Megiddo vigil was a very special one in many respects.  First, the vigil was held right outside the prison.  Friday was visiting day and also release day for prisoners who had completed their sentence, and many Palestinian families would gather outside the prison waiting to see their loved ones.  Some Palestinians at these family gatherings, after eying the vigil suspiciously for some time, would end up walking over to join it.  That was on the plus side.

The minus side was more common, however, and these were the attacks on the vigil.  Megiddo, only 4 miles away from the border with the West Bank, was one of the main transfer stations on Fridays for Israeli soldiers who had served in the territories and were on furlough for the weekend.  The army would arrange for their transport to Megiddo, from where they would catch buses to all points inside Israel.  Upon arriving in Megiddo, the sight of the vigil would incense some of them.  On several occasions, angry soldiers would draw their weapons, cock them, and aim them at the women.  Not all soldiers were happy about their role in maintaining the occupation, but others were infuriated by the vigil, interpreting it as an attack on them, after they had endangered their lives on our behalf by quelling riots in the territories.

Few Jewish guards from the prison felt sympathy for the vigil, and some of them also threatened the women with their weapons.  In addition to the individual hot-heads, there were the usual contingents of Kach and other political groups.  It also didnt help that the women of this vigil chose not to fly the Israeli flag.

The Megiddo vigil attracted many Arab women to join them, as Megiddo is located in a mixed Jewish-Arab region of Israel.  The Israeli Arab women were a good bridge of language and culture to the Palestinian women from the territories who did not know Hebrew, and who looked on in curiosity at the vigil as they waited outside the prison.

Megiddo junction is on one of the main routes for Palestinian laborers from the territories who would leave Israel on Friday to return to the West Bank for the short one-day weekend.  Driving by the vigil, many of them flashed an encouraging smile or V sign and these were a relief, interspersed among the curses and other gestures.

Megiddo Women in Black also developed a special relationship with women from Jenin, the closest Palestinian town in the West Bank, about 10 miles away.  It began with a group of men from Jenin inviting the Women in Black to visit them, and soon the Israeli women asked to meet with the Palestinian women, and then a regular series of visits and activities was arranged.  We were not politically savvy, city women, says Lily.  We were from the kibbutz and they were from a small Palestinian town, all of us provincials.  We had a common language in many ways.

At first the meetings were for conversation, for hearing descriptions of life under the occupation, for meeting in homes, exchanging family experiences.  Then there were visits to their places of work kindergartens, hairdressers, offices, schools.  At the next stage, small acts of kindness and generosity were exchanged the kibbutz women collecting toys and games for the pre-school programs in Jenin, the Jenin women preparing special delicacies to host their Israeli friends.  Joint activities were held, including a series of discussion groups under the joint moderation of one Israeli and one Palestinian woman.

One day during a friendly visit to Jenin, Israeli soldiers suddenly appeared and began to arrest the women, who did not know that a curfew had been declared and they were supposed to have remained indoors.  It was very useful, recalls Lily. For the first time we really understood the meaning of not being in control of your own life, of the army exercising its power arbitrarily and unpredictably.  When the Women in Black explained that they were Israeli, the soldiers left them alone and tried to arrest the Palestinian women, but the Israeli women refused to allow the arrest of the Palestinians, and spent the next few hours defending them and trying to get them safely back home.  We went home that night better informed and more deeply committed than ever to ending the occupation, says Lily.

I asked Lily what remained with her after five years of intense experiences as a Woman in Black.  It was great, was her first response, and then she gave me the list:

      (a) It was the first time I had ever worked in a group of women only, something that I had avoided in the past.  Today, my job is to advance womens issues on the kibbutz, working out of the movement headquarters in Tel-Aviv.  So I have obviously changed a lot on this score.

      (b) Since moving to Israel from Chile, I had not been politically involved at all.  Through Women in Black, I met Palestinian women on a one-to-one basis for the first time, I became active politically, and my views shifted from a more liberal to a more radical position.

      And (c) Women in Black was an emotional base for me, a place where I felt I belonged, a kind of support group.  I shared many important values and experiences with these women, at a time that I felt alienated from much of Israeli society.  Women in Black was home.

Cucumbers for Peace: Nahshon

Finally, from Kibbutz Nahshon, about 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem, a story of a crate of cucumbers.

Nahshon was the very first kibbutz vigil, started in March 1988 when kibbutz member Tal Ben-Yitzhak hung up a notice and ten women showed up.  Women then started coming from surrounding kibbutzim and nearby Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, the only egalitarian Arab-Jewish village in Israel.  The Nahshon vigil also regularly had a few men in it.  As of this writing, Nahshon continues to hold regular vigils.

Although I could tell endless stories from each of the vigils held in Israel, I will end with this story from Nahshon.

One day during the vigil, an Arab truck from Hebron stopped near the Nahshon vigil.  A young boy walked toward the women carrying a crate of cucumbers, set it down near the vigil, and returned to the truck that drove off.  Inside the crate, in addition to the bushel of cukes, was a letter in Arabic.  It read:

To the people I love but dont know, in the name of Allah the compassionate and the beloved, dear brothers and sisters,

                   

My blessings and expressions of respect to you.  Despite all the repression, humiliation, and deprivation under which I live as a Palestinian, despite what the sons of our people here and abroad have had to face for tens of years, and despite the tragic things to which I am witness daily on my route from Hebron to Gaza when I saw you the first time at the junction of the roads, I sensed to the depths of my heart that there are brothers and sisters among the children of the Israeli people who are struggling for the humanitarian principles of this modern age.  There is no doubt that together we will triumph in the end, with Gods help...

                   

I dont know which of the hardships that we have to overcome every day to tell you about.  I will tell you briefly: Our life has turned into hellfire and there is no one to put it out.  I am sure that your activity contributes much toward preventing us from feeling in despair that all is lost...

                   

Friends, I would like to say to you with full faith that we can withstand this painful situation for many years, with patience and with hope, if this is our fate.  But since it is destined that the Palestinian people will live with you on the face of this land it is the obligation of all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, to dedicate our efforts to co-existence and peace that will unite us in love, cooperation, and building a future for the generations to come.

                   

I send you these cucumbers to express my feelings of respect and appreciation.  I sent them with my young son so that this ten-year old would know that not all Israelis are border guards, soldiers, police, or tax collectors.  The Israelis have suffered much in the past, as we as a people are suffering today.  And you have sacrificed, as we are sacrificing.  You too have a right to security, peace, and a life of freedom and honor, free of fear and sadness.  The Chinese proverb says that every trip begins with one small step.  I deeply appreciate your courageous steps that  will bring us all, with Gods help, to the shores of love and peace.  May God watch over you and give you long lives. [17]

*** *** ***

 

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[1] - Personal interview, April 8, 1996.

[2] - Nabila Espanioly, Palestinian Women in Israel Respond to the Intifada, in Barbara Swirski and Marilyn P. Safir (eds.), Calling the Equality Bluff: Women in Israel, New York: Pergamon Press, 1991, pp. 152-161.

[3] - Ibid.

[4] - Nabila Espanioly, Palestinian Women in Israel: Identity in Light of the Occupation, in Women and the Israeli Occupation: The Politics of Change, Tamar Mayer (ed.), London and New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 106-120.

[5] - This was based on car counts conducted by the women during several vigils, multiplied by an estimated average of 2 passengers per car.  While there may have been fewer passengers per car, this was offset by the many buses that passed, each of which was also counted as having an average of two passengers.  From an interview with Tel-Aviv vigilers Dita Bitterman, Debby Lerman, and Rachel Ostrowitz, May 2, 1996.

[6] - Nahman Gilboa, Everything Is Always a Coincidence, Al HaMishmar, September 7, 1990 [Hebrew].

[7] - Ibid.

[8] - Ibid

[9] - Personal interview, together with Nabila Espanioly, April 22, 1996.

[10] - Goga Coogan, Yom Shishi At Yodaat, Al HaMishmar, May 19, 1989 [Hebrew].

[11] - Kibbutzim are grouped into three major movements which reflect both the level of religiosity and the political views of the members.  The most left-leaning of the movements, Kibbutz Ha-Artzi, unites approximately 80 kibbutzim, and this is the movement from which most of the kibbutzim that held vigils were drawn, including Gan Shmuel.  Individual women in the Takam movement also participated in vigils, but the activity was never formally supported by their movement.

[12] - Letter from Danny Gal, dated May 16, 1989, in the files of the Kibbutz Ha-Artzi movement.

[13] - Goga Coogan, Yom Shishi At Yodaat.

[14] - Ibid.

[15] - Personal communication, February 1996.

[16] - Personal interview, March 31, 1996.  All subsequent quotes from Lily in this chapter are taken from this interview.

[17] - Maxine Kaufman Nunn (ed.), Creative Resistance: Anecdotes of Nonviolent Action by Israel-Based Groups, Jerusalem: Alternative Information Center, July 1993.

 

 

 

 

 

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