| Foyer| Dining Room| Living Room| Bedroom & Study| Di’s Lounge| Garden

At-Home with Gila Svirsky

8 July 2001
Subject: Some hardly extremist views


Since the June 8th vigils, the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace – and the views we hold – have had some significant media coverage. The following article appeared in Ma’ariv, Israel's second largest daily. Titled “The Pariahs,” the article conveys rather well the views of the member organizations (with several misquotes), although some of the variety among us may be missing.

Gila Svirsky

Translated from Ma’ariv, June 15, 2001

The Pariahs
Chen Kotas-Bar

Women of the Extreme Left Don’t Give in to Consensus

They get threats to their lives and the lives of their families, sexist curses, insults, and invective; some have been arrested by the police, but they don’t give up; not even at a time when the Israeli consensus condemns left-wingers and loses all empathy for Palestinians and those who still care about their suffering. Brutal terrorist attacks don’t deter them from believing in a just peace. Quite the opposite. Chen Kotas-Bar met with 11 women, aged 28 to 72, who dare think differently. One is a bereaved mother; one a bereaved sister; one an Arab; most were not born in Israel. Even though what they say infuriates patriotic Israel, no one doubts their right to say it.


Last Friday morning, several hundred women arrived at Paris Square in Jerusalem. Most are members of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, founded last November in the wake of the al-Aqsa Intifada, by ten women’s organizations that are active in promoting peace. They came from all corners of Israel – Jewish and Arab women – and they dressed in black, stood silently, and held signs with “End the Occupation” written in three languages as well as “We Refuse to be Enemies.”

On the week that marks 34 years to the Six Day War and eight months to the al-Aqsa Intifada, they came to raise the almost mute voice of the Israeli left, what they call “the voice of reason.”

Some have been demonstrating at intersections for over 20 years. The last few months have been particularly hard for them. They were arrested, their lives and the lives of their families were threatened, they struggled with difficult questions and the terrible despair and crisis of faith – on both sides.

“The word ‘left-winger’ has almost become a pejorative term in Israel,” says Molly Malekar, representing Women Engendering Peace. “On the other side as well: Palestinian women are practically no longer willing to cooperate. The progressive voices of reason were silenced, both here and there.”

“The Israeli public is currently so extremist,” says Gila Svirsky, a representative of Women in Black, “so racist, hot-headed, and angry that the left has practically been ejected from the realm of the legitimate. The ‘soft left’ has turned into the ‘soft right,’ and we remain a minority. I’m not even sure that the majority in Israel today wants peace.”

In anticipation of the demonstration, I talked with 11 women, representatives of each of the organizations that comprise the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace – Women in Black, Bat Shalom, Machsom Watch, Women Engendering Peace, Women and Mothers for Peace, Noga Feminist Magazine, Neled, New Profile, TANDI, and the Israeli branch of WILPF, as well as a representative of Women on Behalf of Women Political Prisoners – which is not a member of the Coalition, but took part in the demonstration.

What had been, until nine months ago, the “left” and the “peace camp” – the consensus of half the country at least – has now become almost illegitimate. Several days before the demonstration, the Israeli women were notified that the international movement of Women in Black, of which they are a part, is a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Some Israeli media, they say, did not want to publicize the nomination. “It isn’t the right time,” they were told. “Now’s the time for the nation to unite.”

“The moment there’s fighting in Israel,” says Molly Malekar, “we coalesce around the view that the whole world is against us, that they want to destroy us, and that’s the end of the left. Those who had defined themselves as left now jump ship. Everyone wants to ‘let the army win’ and not think about the price or what we had believed a moment earlier. The ‘I’ turns into the ‘we,’ and anyone who upsets the orgy of togetherness is considered a collaborator and enemy. Including the left. We’re now in the midst of the orgy of ‘the people of Israel,’ and many left-wingers who had held moderate views a few months ago are now gathered around the tribal campfire. Everyone wants to sit around the campfire and be brothers.”

The encounter with these women was not easy: Sometimes, I admit, it was even upsetting. Most of them, perhaps coincidentally, are not Israeli-born and don’t view the current Israeli reality as necessary and inevitable. Some are blunt, extremist, strong-minded, and at times rationalize with unbearable ease, in my opinion, the deeds of the other side. They make supreme efforts to dialogue with Palestinians, but generally avoid contact with settlers. They believe, broadly speaking, that the solution is a return to the 1967 border, total evacuation of the settlements, and Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and a state of Palestine, when established. Regarding the right of return, they are divided.

They are determined women, with deep social awareness, who want peace not just for enhanced security. They want a just peace, in a just and egalitarian society, which does not oppress its minorities – Arabs, women, Mizrahi Jews, or foreign workers.

The Israeli consensus has grown used to thinking differently. After long months of terrorism, fear, and a discourse of boiling blood and hatred, it’s hard to talk about peace or consider the needs of the other side. Nevertheless, one must admit that, at least in the short range, history has proven that the consensus, even among the extreme right, ultimately catches up to them – on issues such as talking with the PLO or leaving Lebanon. Therefore, they’re worth listening to, even if it’s hard to hear.

* * *

Women in Black

Women in Black (in which most of the women in the other peace organizations are members) was founded in January 1988, one month after the outbreak of the first Intifada, in an effort to raise a voice of peace and in the belief that the voices of women were not being heard. Over the years, the movement, which evolved informally and was named after the color worn by its members at the vigils, became international (in many cities throughout the world, Women in Black stand once a week in protest vigils against violence, not necessarily related to the Middle East).

Gila Svirsky joined Women in Black three weeks after its founding. Since then, she stands with her friends every Friday at intersections around Israel. In recent years, people have become indifferent towards them, until the al-Aqsa Intifada began. Svirsky, for example, was arrested three times since then. The first time was four months ago, when she demonstrated opposite the Ministry of Defense in Tel-Aviv. She and her friends lay down opposite the entrance to the Ministry of Defense, to illustrate what a closure was.

“I’m a citizen who usually obeys the law,” she says, “but I believe strongly in the need to end the injustice that is called occupation. I do it from purely Zionist motives, to save our country from the corruption of the occupation. I immigrated from the United States 35 years ago. I know what Zionism is all about. I live in Israel. I can even understand the settlers’ fear of being uprooted, but this doesn’t give them the right to settle in the territories, which don’t belong to us. Israeli settlement there is wrong. We have to get out of there.”

In recent months, Svirsky has been the brunt of harsh attacks and threats. “The moment that the left loses its legitimacy,” she says, “the threats begin. Someone called me up and said, ‘I’ll kill you, I’ll hurt your children.’ We’re an island of reason. People use us to vent their anger at the situation, and they make it legitimate to speak that way to us.

“After the terrorist bomb in the Dolphinarium, we went out and demonstrated, and someone said to me, ‘Traitor, how dare you demonstrate when everybody is in mourning?’ I said to him, ‘I demonstrate because I want to prevent the next bomb.’ I believe that violence only begets more violence. I also mourn the terrorist attacks, but when one happens, it only reinforces me in my beliefs. It’s clear to me that they are trying to kill us because we have been in their faces for 34 years.”

Q: What has happened to the left wing in recent months?

“We’re considered by some the radical left, but we’re the minority that remains on the left. I hope that all those who once called themselves left and now are confused or disappointed will return to the left. I eagerly await that. I see the shift to the right since the Intifada began. I also understand the difficulty. I know that the leader of the other side is vile, but I also know that this is who we have to make peace with. Our leader, Sharon, killed no fewer people than he did.”

Q: Still, Arafat has a record of being a terrorist.

“Sharon doesn’t have to draw a gun from his pocket and shoot someone before our eyes for him to have blood on his hands. Both Arafat and Sharon have blood on their hands. Both are unworthy leaders for our nation and theirs. Both nations deserve something better. And for there to be peace, we need a fundamental change in Israeli society. It’s not enough to divide up the land and Jerusalem. We must have social justice in Israel. We once had a well-ordered society, rational and moral. Today we are not a well-ordered society, we are not behaving rationally, and we are surely not moral. Where are reason and morality, when a small group of extremists, the settlers, dictates to me whether my child will be killed?”

* * *

Machsom Watch

Last October, when the al-Aqsa Intifada broke out, Adi Kuntsman, a student of sociology just finishing her M.A. degree, was in Hanover, Germany for a summer course. Kuntsman was fearful. “I was struck by the comparison of what was happening with us and what happened to German citizens during the period of the Holocaust,” she says. “Every time I met Germans of the older generation and they would learn that I’m from Israel, they would say, ‘I didn’t know.’ The similarity was frightening. Here in Israel, something inhumane is happening and we remain silent. We see films about World War II, and don’t understand how people continued their lives as usual, but here, too, life goes on.

“I have a friend in Ramallah who studied with me in Hanover. We returned together, but she couldn’t reach her home because of the closure. The house next door to hers was blown up while she was in Germany. Later on, her own home was also blown up. She can’t conduct her daily life anymore. Many Israelis say, ‘We didn’t know.’ Just what the Germans told me. They don’t want to know.”

Q: Are you comparing what is happening in Israel with Nazi Germany?

“We are not Germany, because we have not yet engaged in genocide. I’m also not saying that we are waging a Holocaust against the Palestinians, but I believe that we’re getting close. Even the South Africans didn’t imagine separate roads for the whites and blacks, but here we have roads for Jews and roads for Arabs, because we’re better than South Africa.”

When she returned to Israel, Kuntsman decided, together with Yehudit Keshet and Ronnee Jaeger, to set up Machsom [checkpoint] Watch – women human rights activists. Today, the organization has over 30 women, all of them Jewish. Ever since last February, representatives of Machsom Watch have been going out every day, morning and evening, to the checkpoints in the Jerusalem region – Bethlehem, Aram, abu Dis, and Qalandia. Their declared goal is “observation and documentation.” They write down and document what happens at the checkpoint.

“We object to the occupation, and the checkpoint is one manifestation of the occupation,” says Kuntsman. “This is not a demonstration. We’re not there to eliminate the checkpoint, but to safeguard the human rights that are violated there. Sometimes I see soldiers take the papers of Palestinians for examination and hold onto them for hours, instead of 20 minutes. In the pouring rain or blazing sun. There is a general dehumanization of Palestinians – their bodies are not considered bodies, their time is not respected.”

Q: How do the soldiers respond?

“Some tell us, ‘It’s good you’re here,’ and some enjoy immensely the power that the checkpoint gives them. They feel like kings out there. They shout at us, ‘B’Tselem, whores,’ because the only thing they know about human rights is B’Tselem [an Israeli human rights organization], or they unleash some irrelevant sexist remarks, like, ‘whores of Arafat,’ ‘ugly,’ or ‘fucking lesbians.’ They hate us.”

Kuntsman, 28, immigrated to Israel ten years ago from St. Petersburg. She is careful not to say she has made “aliya” [spiritual ascent] to Israel, but simply immigrated.

“I’m not a Zionist,” she says, “I’m an Israeli. I want to live here, but I’m ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed because I’m an occupier, even though I personally didn’t do anything. I’m an immigrant and I moved here, while Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Today, as a woman with well-formed opinions, I would not have moved here. It’s hard for me to look Palestinians in the eye. I see entire villages under siege, for the sake of some small settlements whose sewage runs into them. I feel guilty.”

Q: And is it hard to look into the eyes of the families of those killed in the Dolphinarium bombing?

“I feel pain about every Israeli murdered in a terrorist attack, and I certainly feel close to those [victims] who came from the former Soviet Union, but my pain is no less for the Palestinian victims and the situation in general. It bothers me when the father of a suicide bomber says that he wishes he had another 20 children like that one, but I am no less upset by an Israeli who demonstrates opposite the Dolphinarium after the terrorist attack and says that if he had explosives, he would blow up all the Arabs. As a citizen of Europe, with the history of Europe, it doesn’t make me feel good.

“My friends who are less to the left than I am call me up after every terrorist bomb. ‘Nu?’ they ask, ‘What do you say now?’ The victims on our side have faces, names. The Palestinian victims have no faces or families. Or the radio announces, ‘None of our forces were hurt,’ or ‘according to Palestinian sources, three children were killed.’ In my eyes, as a Jew, it’s unthinkable that we have gotten to this point.

“It’s true that I became socially active from my feminist activism, that I oppose all forms of oppression of any human being, but I also approach the Palestinian issue from my perspective as a Jew. I am part of the history of the Holocaust and the Jews of Europe. In my opinion, it’s inconceivable that we became occupiers, that Jews would carry out inhuman acts against another people.”

* * *

WILPF - Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Once a week, Aliya Strauss, 65, the chair of the Israeli branch of WILPF – the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – meets with a group of friends, having nothing to do with politics and leftist activity. They are a group of seven women, one of whom is an avowed right-winger, and all the rest are what is called today “the disappointed left.”

“They were in favor of the peace process as long as it didn’t hurt,” says Strauss. “When there was no price to pay, they would say, ‘Let there be peace.’ Today I hear them say, ‘Let the army win.’ I feel helpless. When I talk to them about the closure, the suffering, the starvation, they respond, ‘Starve them.’ I talked about the lack of water there, and they said, ‘So they won’t drink, let them die, what do I care?’ And these are women who used to say, ‘Great, let there be peace.’

“The left today is less legitimate. Today, when we stand at intersections and demonstrate, most of the reactions are curses. Not long ago, a young man, a settler, approached us and asked, ‘Doesn’t it hurt you that Jewish children are dying?’ I told him, ‘Certainly, but Palestinians are also being killed every day, and I cry for them all.’ And he responded, ‘From the Arabs, we have to kill as many as possible.’

“Today there’s hatred and distrust on both sides. Those on the left are talking to themselves, convincing the convinced. We’re not reaching new audiences.”

Q: And you yourself have no doubts, no reservations?

“Clearly the last few months were hard for me, too. There were moments of terrible despair, moments that I expressed doubts to myself, and I’m still asking myself questions about the refugees and the right of return. In my organization, too, we avoided this issue for years. Now we do ask ourselves. I agree that Israel must take responsibility for the problem of the refugees, but I still don’t know what the solution should be.”

“I know that an enormous change has taken place recently for my partner, and that I have to be much more frank with him. We conducted a false peace process with the Palestinians. We also lied to ourselves. Since Oslo, we closed our eyes to what was really happening in the territories.”

The international organization of WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) was founded in 1915 by a group of over 1,000 women who met in The Hague during World War I and demanded an end to the war. The Israeli branch, founded in 1984, has about 20 members who are active in promoting peace and ending globalization. The organization also has a branch in East Jerusalem – “Palestine,” as Strauss calls it.

She immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1958. “Right after the war, when we in the United States heard what had happened during the Holocaust, we were in shock,” she says. “People kept asking the Germans, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Many Germans responded, ‘We didn’t know’; and Poles said, ‘We didn’t know’; and I, as a child, asked how could people not see the evil around them. That did something to me, and I have kept that inside me to this day, as I work for a better world, for a more just society, and for integrity toward our neighbors.

“I never want to answer someone, ‘I didn’t know,’ because today I know and I’m angry and furious with people who ‘don’t know.’ When I speak to them about the starvation and thirst and suffering of the Palestinians, they don’t care and don’t want to know. They close themselves to it. For me, it burns inside. Hunger and thirst and suffering will never stop another person from putting on a belt full of explosives and blowing himself up together with 20 children.”

* * *

Bat Shalom

The father of Lily Traubman, 46, a member of Bat Shalom, was murdered in Chile two days after the military coup. She moved to Kibbutz Megiddo in Israel and lives there to this day. “My father,” she says, “was secular, and for us being a Jew meant being a humanist. It just could not be that a Jew would be a fascist. But it doesn’t seem to me that we are more humanistic than other places today. On the contrary, today people are on trial for crimes against humanity, and we ourselves commit them. The persecution of a civilian population is considered a crime against humanity, and so is the demolition of homes.”

Q: And what about the murder of a civilian population in a shopping mall or discotheque?

“That’s a crime. It’s not a crime against humanity.”

Bat Shalom was established eight years ago, following a conference in Brussels in which Israeli women from various peace movements and Palestinian women participated. The women reached agreement about a number of points, including two states for two nations, a return to the 1967 borders, evacuation of the settlements, and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. This was the basis on which Bat Shalom was founded.

The movement deals with human rights issues, runs dialogue groups between both peoples, and organizes demonstrations. Once a year, on Succoth, the movement builds a Peace Succah [tent]. Last October, they built the succah at the Megiddo junction, despite the situation. “There was anger on both sides,” says Traubman. “We were warned that two women from the right wing would come blow up our succah, but they never came. Some people cursed us, ‘I hope you die, that you wear black all your lives.’ Now, too, we get threats before every demonstration. I’m sure that the right wing doesn’t receive such threats before their demonstrations. The demonstrations of the left are considered less legitimate. Perhaps it’s because we’re the ‘mothers of the nation.’ It’s not easy to listen to our views.

“I remember that in October, when the first person from Umm al-Fahim was killed, we demonstrated at the Megiddo junction. Lots of media came because they thought there would be violence. But they never even glanced at us. A journalist that I know turned his back to me. The left demonstrates, but no one reports it. They erased us. Everyone moved to the right.”

Q: The left is being silenced?

“The left is being silenced and is silent itself. As a left-winger, I have a hard feeling of isolation ever since October. Large segments of the left have disappeared. After every terrorist act, they say to me, ‘You see, those are your Arabs.’ After the terrorist bombing in the Dolphinarium, somebody came up to me and said, ‘Look what you and your Palestinians are doing.’ As if I went and did the bombing myself or support terrorism. I didn’t sleep all night after that bomb.

“The problem is the limited understanding by Israelis of what democracy means. We live with the belief that we’re in a state of emergency, and fail to understand the role of an opposition, and what civil rights mean. We already have a state and we’re strong. We have to move on. I hear people say that ‘we’re fighting for the existence of the state of Israel.’ Enough already. The state is a fact. We’re talking about a whole system of values and beliefs that the time has come to change. The time has come to think with our heads and not through the sight of a gun.”

Q: Is there a difference in this between women and men?

“Of course. Right now, the people sitting down to make peace are the generals who speak a language of power and war. What does it mean to ‘fight for peace”? It’s absurd. Women understand the distress among the Palestinians. The status of women in Israel is directly related to the occupation. To win a serious role in politics, it’s enough that you were a general. Having been a school principal is not qualification enough. We’re a society that uses power against the weak – women and Arabs.

“But women are able to speak in a different language – one of compromise and understanding. Right now, most Israelis believe that Palestinians can’t be trusted, and most Palestinians think you can’t trust Jews. It’s as if two people are sitting back to back, and each one is talking to himself. The time has come to turn around and start talking to each other.”

* * *

Women Engendering the Peace

The hardest moments in recent months for Molly Malekar, 39, one of the founders of Women Engendering the Peace, a political-educational project founded two and a half years ago with funding from the Dutch government and scheduled to end this calendar year, were her conversations with Palestinian friends.

The project, which involves Jewish and Arab women [from Israel] and a parallel group of Palestinians [from the territories], tried to bring left-wing views to audiences that were not always reached – Mizrahi and Israeli Arab women, as well as Palestinian women from the refugee camps, in an effort to see peace in a social-cultural context.

“I spoke with Palestinians that I work with,” says Malekar, “and they felt that they don’t see themselves engaging in joint activity today in areas that are not political. They don’t want to cooperate in what they call ‘activity related to normalization.’ Oslo has become a pejorative term for them.”

Malekar was born in India and came to Israel in 1971. She sees a way of life in her political world. Her daughter, born during the period of the Oslo Accords, studies in a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem.

“People call me naïve,” she says. “The tribal feeling is that it’s not legitimate to be on the left today. People expect left-wingers like me to be constantly engaged in apologetics. Prior to the recent Intifada, this wasn’t true. Then, it flourished. I don’t deny that I am also asking hard questions today. Today, when I talk about peace, I’m talking more about political concessions and less about reconciliation. Once I used to talk about reconciliation. Today I know that Oslo was a sham. Our leadership did not translate the agreements into political action. The settlements expanded. I also know that some slogans on the left have to be re-examined. What does ‘end the occupation’ mean? In my opinion, the evacuation of settlements is clearly a necessity. On the other hand, the Palestinians also have a distance to go. If the Palestinians talk about recognizing the state of Israel, then full implementation of the right of return cannot take place. One contradicts the other.”

Q: What are the toughest words you hear when you demonstrate?

“When women stand on the street and express political views, they are always attacked sexually. There is also the popular claim that ‘you care more about Palestinians than Israelis.’ This is part of the problem on the left, which prevents us from recruiting more people... and that Jewish symbols have been co-opted by the right.

“In my opinion, we do not have to be apologetic. We can say that we have an [historical] connection with Hebron, but there’s a big difference between that and saying that we have to conquer it, as the settlers do.”

Q: Are you in contact with settlers?

“No, never. Just as I’m not in touch with fundamentalist Muslim groups, I’m not in touch with settlers. It’s the same thing in my opinion. The same ideological idea.”

* * *


Ednna Klugman, 71, born in Chile and one of the founders of NELED, says that 20 years ago, in 1977, when her son was killed as part of his army service, she stopped being a Zionist. “I decided then and there to end my Zionism entirely,” she says, “and to become radical left. The slogans of patriotism have no value for me, because no inch of land is worth one drop of blood of a human being. I’m a bereaved mother, and I know what that means. When I see the mothers of the girls who were killed in the Dolphinarium, I want to hug them and strengthen them, and tell them that now, more than ever, they must fight for peace and not sacrifice their children for something that’s not worth it. Nothing is worth the life of people.”

She founded NELED together with a group of women during the period of the first Intifada, when the general idea was “together we’ll give birth to [neled] peace.” The organization, which included Jewish and Arab women, including those from across the Green Line, was active for many years. Today, only one Arab woman from Tira remains in it.

Klugman is becoming blind as a result of an illness, but insists on standing at intersections and demonstrating almost every Friday. “We are not a democracy,” she says. “We are a democracy only for Jews in Israel. I say we must leave the territories, evacuate the settlements, end the occupation, and acknowledge our responsibility on principle for the problem of the refugees.”

Q: And if they want to exercise their right of return?

“I don’t believe that four million will come. Just like not all the Jews came from the Diaspora.”

The reactions to Klugman’s views have been harsh. “People say to me, ‘You care more about Arabs than Jews.’ I was harassed by phone. People say, ‘I hope all your family dies. If you have children, I hope they all die.’ And I, who already lost a son, cried a whole day.

“One settler said to me at an intersection, ‘I’m even willing to die if need be.’ I asked him, ‘How can you be so full of poison and hatred?’

“When we demonstrated in Ariel some time ago, about 50 armed settlers showed up to attack us. Afterwards, one of our women headed home, and they followed her and tried to run her off the road. I always try to explain my position, but people don’t want to hear. They say, ‘Ah, you don’t feel Jewish, you care only about them.’ They don’t even give you a chance to express your views.”

Q: The day after the terrorist bomb in the Dolphinarium, you were one of those demonstrating for peace. You didn’t start the demonstration with a minute of silence?

“Yes, we forgot. It was a mistake. We should have begun everything with a minute of silence.”

* * *

New Profile

“We changed from being a state that has an army to an army that has a state,” says Rela Mazali, 53, one of the founders of New Profile, a feminist organization in which men are also members and whose main activity is to “civil-ize” militaristic Israeli society. The organization, founded three years ago, also struggles for legal recognition of conscientious objection to army service.

“A cynical manipulation of our consciousness is underway,” says Mazali, “one which seeks to convince us that we are in danger, and thereby makes fear our primary motivation. We are driven by this fear, and therefore we are willing to sacrifice our children. What we need in Israel today is a deep-seated transformation of the assumption that we must live by the sword. The sense of existential threat is ingrained in our consciousness, although it is not clear at all what is meant by this existential threat to the state of Israel. Clearly the Palestinians are not an existential threat to Israel. Although the security of the individual has declined and civilians can be killed in the street, this should not be confused with an existential threat to the state.”

Q: So people should not enlist in the IDF and defend the country?

“In my opinion, people should not serve in the army at all today. Yes. Today it is immoral to participate actively in military service. People should be getting out and saying, ‘We refuse to cooperate with what the army is doing today.’ If there were dozens or hundreds of Eli Geva’s who did that – who would stop and say, ‘This I’m unwilling to do’ – it would have an impact on the decision-making.”

Mazali claims that people on the left view the occupation as something deeper than the issue of the territories, relating it to racism and militarism. The state of Israel, from her perspective, engages in discrimination and racism toward its minorities, who are not only Arabs.

“Quite a few Israelis considered themselves left until last October,” she says, “but their ‘left-ness’ was not authentic. All it amounted to was drawing a border between us and the Palestinians and saying, ‘Come on, let’s give back territories.’ That’s considered left in Israel, and can be summed up as, ‘Yalla, let’s get rid of the millions of Palestinians so we can breathe more easily.’ To me, these people, whose concern was their own security, were never ‘left.’ These people ignored the fact that within Israel, too, there are Palestinians, and that there is racism and discrimination within Israel, and not only toward Arabs.

“I knew from the first day of Oslo that it was not a peace process. I saw what was happening in the territories, how the situation there was going from bad to worse. I was surprised that the Intifada did not break out earlier. The people who called themselves ‘left’ and today are moaning, ‘oy vey, the sky has fallen, we’re so disappointed’, simply refused to see it. The problem is that the majority of Israelis are people like that and the settlers are setting the agenda.”

Q: You make a great effort to get to know Palestinians. What about dialogue with settlers, part of your own people?

“I have never made any effort to get to know settlers and talk to them. What do you mean, ‘part of my own people’? Who decides who is a people and what I belong to? I don’t easily agree to being put into a group, and certainly not together with settlers. There are Palestinians to whom I feel more connected than Jewish settlers.”

* * *

Mothers and Women for Peace

Right after Ehud Barak came to power, Michal Pundak, 43, one of the founders of Mothers and Women for Peace (formed four years ago after the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel ), packed away her protest signs, cleared them out of her car, and stored them in the loft. “I thought that the left had returned to power,” she says. “We fell asleep a little; Barak put us to sleep for a while. I didn’t believe that I’d have to go up to the loft so fast to bring down the signs again.

“The left today,” says Pundak, “is a small, narrow band at the margins of Israeli society. I’m practically regarded as a security risk to Israel. Statements like ‘Barak was willing to give them almost everything they wanted” reveal the trap of ignorance into which we all fell, including me. During the Barak administration, the number of settlements built and homes demolished increased dramatically, and yet we lived with the bluff that somebody here was making peace for us.

“This whole Intifada did not begin because Sharon entered the Temple Mount, but because of years of smokescreen. They brainwashed us in a way that even made inroads into the radical left. There are women who had once been active, and when I ask them to rejoin us, they say, ‘No, because we’re disappointed.’”

Q: And on the other side?

“Palestinian women with whom I try to renew dialogue say that this isn’t the right time, that we should wait for easier days, that right now they have no real reason for dialogue, that the situation is charged.”

Q: And in your opinion the situation is not charged?

“No. Even though I oppose Palestinian terrorism against civilians, across the Green Line it’s easier for me to understand. Even when it involves children, because I think that people who take risks by living across the Green Line are consciously endangering themselves. The children are the price that these parents are willing to pay. I get angry about incidents inside the Green Line, because they increase the anger and hatred among Jews, and block the option of dealing empathetically with the Palestinians, whose terrorism is actually justified. This is their War for Independence.”

Pundak is the mother of three, the oldest of whom is seventeen and a half and about to be drafted, and she herself is part of a bereaved family. Her brother was killed in the Yom Kippur War.

“A week ago at a demonstration,” she relates, “someone came over to me and said about the terrorism at the Dolphinarium, ‘It’s too bad those weren’t your children.’ It was terrible. I know what it means to mourn, I understand the heavy price of war, and I am coming from a place that knows the price, and knows that it’s not worth it. So many soldiers were killed in the Yom Kippur War, and in the end we returned the Sinai and got peace. Couldn’t we get to peace beforehand, before my brother was killed?”

Q: Your son is about to be drafted to the army. How do you feel?

“I try to leave his decisions to him. I recognize the right of every person to choose. However, I would not agree to any one of my family serving in the territories. If he decides to do that, it would be a very hard dilemma for me.”

Q: And would you be tolerant enough to accept it, if he decides to serve there?

“I’m not sure.”

One of Pundak’s good friends is Shella Shorshan, whose husband Doron was murdered at Kfar Darom [in Gaza], where they then lived. The women studied together at Bar-Ilan University. At the end of their studies, each student received a note with the name of another student. Pundak’s note carried the name of Shorshan, and she was supposed to bring her a gift. Michal debated with herself, and finally gave Shorshan an olive tree.

“Shella planted the tree at her home, in Kfar Darom,” relates Pundak, “and I said to her, ‘I want you to know that it’s not easy for me that I gave you a tree and you’re planting it here.’ I knew she would plant it there, but my love for her prevailed. I would be very happy if a Palestinian family would live under that tree some day, and Shella would go visit from time to time.”

* * *

Women on Behalf of Women Political Prisoners

On the most recent Holocaust Day, Hava Keller, 72, among the founders of Women on Behalf of Women Political Prisoners, was injured during a demonstration at a checkpoint in the territories. An Israeli soldier threw a gas grenade, and she was wounded on her leg. “The doctor in the hospital asked me, ‘What – on Holocaust Day you demonstrate on behalf of Palestinians?’ I told him, ‘On Holocaust Day, I’m not willing to put anyone into a ghetto.’”

Q: Are you comparing us to the Germans?

“Every violation of human rights is a human rights violation. I was born in Poland. Most of my family was killed in the Holocaust. We got out in time. We ran away early. I resent the comparison of us with Nazis, but I do feel that we are creating a ghetto in the territories. I hate ghettos, to this very day. I do not purchase German products. I am angry with the Germans who quietly acquiesced with what was happening, angry at the Germans who were not members of the SS, but did nothing [to stop it]. They agreed to horrible acts being committed in their name. I do not agree to anything being done in my name without me being aware of it.”

Women on Behalf of Women Political Prisoners was founded during the first Intifada, and has about ten Israeli members. It is not a member of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, though Keller is active in this organization, as well as in Women in Black. “This is my country,” she says, “and I care about what is happening here. People say, ‘You can’t believe them, Barak tried and they were not willing.’ If Barak had tried and Barak were on the left, then no left would remain in Israel. Barak is a right-winger in disguise. He offered the Palestinians a state that was not viable. Israel today does not want peace. It wants war.”

As opposed to most of her friends who hesitate, Keller also believes in the right of return for Palestinians. “First of all, we have to accept the principle of the right of return. We truly expelled them. I myself was present and took part in expelling Arabs from Beersheba. I stood there with a rifle while they climbed into the trucks. They didn’t resist. Had they, I would have shot them. What awful hypocrisy it would be for us to say that we have the right of return after 2,000 years, but they don’t after 50, when the key to their homes is still in their pockets?”

Q: You have no criticism of the other side? We’re the only guilty party?

“Naturally I have criticism. I believe that they are waging this war in a very illogical manner. The story of the Dolphinarium, for example, wrought terrible harm to them.”

Q: Harm? What about the fact that this was an act of inhumanity?

“Under conditions of conquest, nobody can think about how to be humanitarian. I don’t remember that we were terribly humane prior to the establishment of Israel.”

* * *

Noga Feminist Magazine

“The time has come for women to raise their voices,” says Miri Krasin, 45, born in Romania and an editor of Noga, an ideological feminist magazine founded to amplify the voice of women, and whose members are active in the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. Krasin herself has been a peace activist for 26 years. “We’re sick and tired of generals and the strategies of power. We view the silencing of the Palestinians as the silencing of women – the oppression of a political minority.”

Krasin is familiar with statements about the silent, disappointed left. “Who’s the disappointed left – Edna Shabtai? The story about the disappointed left began when the Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrated after eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada. What exactly are they disappointed about? ... This was a rhetoric of peace that was meaningless, even under Barak. I knew if there wouldn’t be peace based on genuine compromise and a willingness to concede territory and acknowledge what was done to the Palestinian people, that nothing would happen. Disappointment? I’m disappointed that the police shot Arabs. In the back.”

Q: There are also authentic left-wingers who were discouraged.

“Yes, many are in such despair that they really have no energy to act. The left today is not at the height of its activity. People are tired and afraid, the left could also get blown up, terrorism is random. But it’s also frightening to see the rabble-rousing of the right. It’s hard to watch. I look at people in the street and everyone looks crazed today. People are behaving as if there’s a national psychosis – they look depressed and yell about everything. It’s hard to figure out what’s despair and what’s a political attitude.”

* * *

TANDI: Movement of Democratic Women in Israel

Samira Khouri, 72, is one of the founders of TANDI: Movement of Democratic Women in Israel, the oldest Jewish-Arab women’s organization in Israel. Since 1949, this organizations has been active on behalf of the rights of women, children, and a just peace. Khouri is also active in other organizations, was a cofounder of Bat Shalom and others, and has won many prizes for activity on behalf of women, peace, and human rights.

“Even before the Six Day War,” she says, “women peace activists were regarded as traitors. I was a schoolteacher. I was fired in the 1950s because of my activity. They said, ‘Why are you getting mixed up with this?’”

Q: What drives you?

“I have a conscience. I want to change society, to have justice and peace.”

Khouri lives in Nazareth. During last October’s events, her two daughters were severely beaten by Jews during a demonstration. One even lost consciousness. “Those who beat my daughters were following orders,” she says, “It was terrible, a disgrace, after so many years of activity on behalf of peace, to see my daughters treated like that, but it didn’t change anything for me. It didn’t give me hate, only more anger at the government. It doesn’t matter what government is in power, there’s no difference between left and right. Barak did a lot, but he wouldn’t move on the issue of right of return. People are always talking about giving or not giving the right of return. You can’t give something that is someone’s by right.”

Q: One has to be realistic. What will we do about those who want to return to Jaffa?

“They won’t come back. They’ll get reparations.”

Q: You have no criticism of the Palestinians?

“No. I criticize only those who commit acts of terrorism inside Israel. These I condemn. These are done by desperate people, who don’t understand the first thing about politics. When the father of the terrorist from the Dolphinarium said that he would have wanted to have 20 children like that one, I spit. Really. Innocent people there just to dance. What are they guilty of? But with regard to the struggle in the territories, every such struggle is just.”

Q: Even injuring a five-month-old baby?

“It wasn’t intentional.”

Q: A sniper aimed directly at Shalhevet Pass, may she rest in peace.

“Perhaps. I don’t approve of the killing of small children, just as I don’t agree to the killing of Muhammad Dura and the Israeli snipers who aim to kill little girls.”

Among the Arabs, says Khouri, there’s disappointment with the left that has not done much since the events of October. “There are those who despair,” she says, “and ask me, ‘How do you work with Jews? Don’t you feel that they hate you?’ I say, ‘Maybe I sense some hatred, but one has to try.’ The Palestinians avoid it, they lost faith.”

For years, Khouri has taught Jewish and Arab women. “I know that the day is yet distant when there will be peace and social justice. When I lecture, I look at the young women sitting in front of me, and I see how hard it is for them. I always say, so they won’t despair, ‘Look at how old I am. Maybe you don’t think that we will have peace in our lifetimes, but I’m already 72, an old woman, and I am certain that there will be peace in my lifetime.’ I pray for everybody.”


At-Home with Gila Svirsky

Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
Resources and Links

© 2001 Gila Svirsky, Ma’ariv.

Messages for Joan? Problems with this site?
Please contact the WebMs.