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off our backs: a women's newsjournal

Israeli Feminist Peace Activist Interviewed

Gila Svirsky is an Israeli feminist peace activist. carol anne douglas interviewed her by e-mail in early December.

oob: What kinds of actions are feminist peace activists taking?

Svirsky: I have read several letters from Palestinians that ask a very important question: Where is the voice of the Israeli peace camp? I know that enough can never be done until this occupation is over, but I would like to say that the women’s peace groups in Israel continue to speak out on behalf of a just peace.

Today, Women in Black in Jerusalem on December 8 were a case in point. We knew it would be a difficult vigil because just that morning, a woman settler, mother of six, had been shot to death in a car near her settlement just outside Hebron. The killing of Israelis is always an occasion for the right wing to seek scapegoats among the left, and that day was no exception. This was aggravated by the fact that the settlers decided to drive the funeral procession past the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem — one block away from Women in Black, and exactly during the vigil — between 1 and 2 p.m.

Just as we women gathered at the plaza, the settlers also appeared, many armed to the teeth — revolvers in their belts and rifles over their shoulders. They began by hurling verbal abuse — she was killed because of you, you orphaned the children, you are the murderers, didn’t the Holocaust teach you anything, and the popular “Kahane was right.” (Kahane was the racist rabbi who called the Arabs dogs and demanded their death or exile.) We knew enough not to answer them, but they could not abide the silence of our vigil combined with our signs — “Dismantle the settlements,” “End the occupation,” “Return to the ’67 borders,” and “Sharing Jerusalem.”

They began to grab our signs, rip them up, and push some women off the ledge. There were only three police at that time, and the settlers, now joined by the Kahanists, became uncontrollable. Some women were injured, but not seriously. More police arrived, and the fighting spilled over onto the streets at this busy intersection, as the police tried unsuccessfully to subdue the more violent ones. Most of the blows were exchanged between police and settlers/Kahanists.

They began to grab our signs, rip them up, and push some women off the ledge.

As the violence was peaking, the funeral procession was massing a block away, and we knew that we were like standing targets on the vigil plaza. We decided quickly among us that we would not leave, but that we would lower our signs before they passed us. Some women disagreed with this quick decision, but there was no opportunity for discussion as the cars approached and turned alongside the plaza. They would have to travel about 15 meters (45 feet) along the line of women, when we would be no more than 3 meters away from them. We stood in silence, without signs, but making a very clear statement as the leaders of the group drove by — Levinger [himself convicted of killing a Palestinian in Hebron, who served six months (only!) to pay his debt to society], Noam Arnon (the spokesman of the Hebron settlers, who got out of his car to tell the media that the presence of Women in Black was a “provocation”), and Geula Cohen (who was a member of a Jewish terrorist organization prior to 1948), as well as cars filled with weeping women and children. My heart grieved to see that.

The progress of the motorcade was constantly interrupted by settlers/Kahanists who jumped out to come to blows with the police who now formed a cordon separating us. It was clear that the police were taking the blows that were intended for us. And they kept this up until the last car finally passed out of sight making its way to the cemetery. Thank you, Jerusalem police.

I wonder how the media will frame it on this evening’s news. Allow me to preempt them: Today, as every Friday for the past 13 years, Women in Black throughout Israel maintained their vigil calling for an end to the occupation and a just peace with Palestine. The Jerusalem vigil of about 100 women stood quietly as a large crowd of armed settlers sought to threaten and intimidate them. It did not work.

Over the 13 years of vigils, there have been many attacks, through it’s not the norm. Some were ugly, some minor.

The Israeli government is trying to avoid the inevitable and the only just solution – end the occupation.

oob: Which Israeli feminist groups are working on peace? Are they the same groups that worked on peace in Lebanon?

Svirsky: First, a word about me: I am not affiliated with any one women’s peace org, but am the co-founder of a coalition of women’s peace organizations called “Coalition of Women for a Just Peace.” We combine nine different organizations. Maybe I’ll list them here for clarity.

  1. Women and Mothers for Peace – ; the regrouped “Four Mothers” movement which successfully advocated for ending the war in Lebanon;
  2. Bat Shalom – the Israeli side of an Israeli-Palestinian peace movement called The Jerusalem Link;
  3. Women in Black – now in seven vigils throughout Israel;
  4. WILPF – Israel chapter (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom);
  5. TANDI – Movement of Democratic Women for Israel (a mass movement of mostly Arab women in the north of Israel);
  6. New Profile – addressing issues of militarism and conscientious objection;
  7. Women for the Sanctity of Life – an Orthodox Jewish movement;
  8. Women on Behalf of Women Political Prisoners; and
  9. Women Engendering Peace – promoting a culture of peace in Israel.

The only ones of the above who call themselves feminists are #2, #6, and #9.

oob: How did you succeed in getting the troops out of Lebanon?

Svirsky: The Four Mothers movement, not a feminist organization, started with a nonfeminist message of “We are poor mothers who cry ourselves to sleep every night because our sons are fighting in a stupid war. We wouldn’t care if they fought the Palestinians, but this war makes no sense to us. Bring our boys home!” Over time, they sharpened the demand and said, “Within the framework of an overall peace with Syria and Lebanon, Israel should withdraw our troops from Lebanon.” Then they upped it to say, “Get the troops out now – peace or no peace!” So the strategy was first to win public support for the mother line, then to get increasingly more political. They used demonstrations and demanded meetings with the prime minister and the defense minister, with constant successful media manipulation.

oob: Are you working with Palestinian women? Israeli Arab women?

Svirsky: Since this intifada began, Palestinian women have declared a moratorium on relations with Israeli women. Therefore, for 2.5 months, there have been virtually no contacts. Yes, we work a lot with Israeli-Arab women.

oob: What do you think of what the Israeli government is doing? And what about the Palestinian uprising?

Svirsky: The Israeli government is trying to avoid the inevitable and the only just solution – end the occupation. As a result, it is overresponding to the Palestinian violence. The uprising is a natural reaction of a people under conquest for 30 years. I wish it weren’t violent. Both Barak and Arafat are acting like young men with too much testosterone. You’d think they’d know better by now.

oob: What do you think the resolution should be?

Svirsky: I’ll copy our principles, as they reflect my views:

  1. An end to the occupation.
  2. Establishment of the state of Palestine side by side with the state of Israel based on the 1967 borders.
  3. Recognition of Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states.
  4. Israel must recognize its responsibility for the results of the 1948 war, and find a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
  5. Opposition to the militarism that permeates Israeli society.
  6. Equality, inclusion and justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  7. Equal rights for women and for all residents of Israel.
  8. The full involvement of women in negotiations for peace.
  9. Social and economic justice for Israel’s citizens, and integration in the region.

oob: Is there any chance that women will be allowed to participate in the peace process?

Svirsky: Frankly – virtually nil. Delete the “virtually.”

oob: What are the chances that this desirable resolution should come about Aren’t Israelis likely to vote for Likud [a conservative party that is opposed to peace negotiations] in the upcoming elections?

Svirsky: Yes, Israelis are likely to vote for Netanyahu [who may be the Likud candidate] in the coming elections, but the desirable solution will ultimately come about – at least the part about ending the occupation – because it’s inevitable. It’s the only way to end the suffering on both sides. The level of anguish is unbearable, and we can’t keep it up forever.

oob: Are you able to work on other feminist projects now, or is the political situation so overwhelming that you can’t?

Svirsky: My personal feminist project has always been war and peace. Others who are involved with other kinds of feminist projects – equality issues, violence against women, etc. – continue to work on them.

oob: Are there other feminists who take a different position than the peace activists take, or are most feminists focused on peace?

Svirsky: Because of the political rifts in Israel between religious/nonreligious, left/right, territorial compromise/pro-settlements, etc., the largest part of the Israeli feminist movement has mostly not taken a stand about these divisive issues. It has pretty much kept to the issue of equality for women. The calculation was that if it took a stand about a controversial matter, it would alienate those who disagreed. So they sought solidarity around the women’s issues only.

Therefore the feminist movement never took a stand about peace. The fact that several feminist peace organizations exist has to do with feminists who did see a connection. But you will find women who call themselves feminists who are part of the occupation, too.

off our backs: the feminist newsjournal / january 2001 / pages 1, 15

© 2001 Off Our Backs and Gila Svirsky; reprinted by permission.