Women waging peace

A grass-roots women’s organization is hoping to change the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Women Wage Peace movement (photo credit: ORIT REICH,ORIT HAZON MENDEL,ORIT PNINI)
Women Wage Peace movement
 FOR 50 days during last summer’s oppressive heat hundreds of women from across the country camped outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, in 25- or 50-hour shifts to take part in a communal fast.
The symbolic demonstration was staged on the anniversary of the July 2014 Gaza war, in which there were 50 days of near constant rocket fire between Israel and Gaza. It was organized by Women Wage Peace ‒ a grass-roots organization established two years ago in response to the feeling of profound despair over that most recent war.
The demonstration, representing the 50 days of the war, was called “Tzom Eitan” – a wordplay on the official name of the Israeli military operation, “Tzuk Eitan” (“Protective Edge” in English, literally “strong cliff”), with the word for “fast” replacing the word for “cliff.” The message was to implore Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Thousands of people visited the demonstrators’ tent, including politicians from all parties, foreign diplomats, peace activists, settlers and the occasional hostile passersby who shouted predictable curses.
While generating considerable publicity in the local and foreign media at the time, the demonstration was thought by many to be a passing protest display; the women had made a statement, and that would be the end of it.
In the last year, however, the movement has gained momentum attracting to its ranks thousands of women, including many from backgrounds and viewpoints often different than the original cadre of Ashkenazi academics. The movement has remained steadfastly non-political, with one single demand: to reach a political agreement – any agreement – that will end the violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The 2014 Gaza war seems to have mobilized many Israeli women, recalls Michal Barak, director of the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity, and one of the group’s founding members.
“No one in Israel foresaw the war, it was totally unexpected.
We felt dragged into war, and then dragged into invasion,” she says. “Sons of my friends and friends of my children were fighting in Gaza. It was an unimaginable fright – people close to me went to funerals. In a small country, it is hard to avoid funerals in wartime. And in Gaza – 2,200 Palestinians killed, a quarter of the population became homeless and turned into refugees – again!” During the war Barak found herself drawn to circles of women getting together to share their feelings. “Women signify an alternative,” she says.
A clear inspiration for Women Wage Peace, Barak says, was the women’s protest movement of the late 1990s, Four Mothers, which managed to influence Israeli public opinion about bringing about a withdrawal from southern Lebanon. “Not only because they did ultimately succeed, but also because it shows that when women persist, are willing to be assertive and put aside their differences and do not let go until the end, they can succeed,” she states.
The name of the group, “Women Wage Peace” ‒ which is simply “Women Make Peace – Nashim Osot Shalom” in Hebrew – was taken from the poem “Wage Peace” by the American Judyth Hill, written after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Why specifically a women’s movement? “Women really are different,” explains psychotherapist Ariella Ginigar. “There’s a history of women effecting a change in areas in far worse shape than we are, in levels of violence we can’t imagine, and they managed to change things.”
Ginigar points to examples of the women’s protest movements in Northern Ireland, where Catholic and Protestant women rallied together in the 1970s and again in the 1990s to effect a peace agreement. More recently, Muslim and Christian women in Liberia joined forces in a two-year civil disobedience campaign that eventually led to ending the horrific civil war there. It also contributed to the reconstruction of Liberia, including a transition into a functioning democracy headed by Africa’s first democratically elected woman president.
The Liberian women’s extraordinary struggle for peace is the subject of an intense documentary film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” one in a series of documentaries about women throughout the world who have brought a peaceful conclusion to bitter, brutal conflicts.
Women Wage Peace has been screening the film around Israel for the past year, mainly in parlor meetings, as a recruiting tool.
The screenings often provoke discussions of the efficacy of political action by women, though the film’s graphic depiction of the brutality of the Liberian civil war doesn’t always strike a resonant chord with local women.
“At first, I thought this film doesn’t speak to me, that this has no connection with my reality,” says Yahaloma Zechut, a social activist in the southern town of Ofakim. “I admire the women in Liberia, their determination, their leadership ‒ to do something so resourceful, when you don’t know what the result will be, against horrible violence, that is something that speaks to me.”
In addition to the screenings, WWP has organized dozens of events around the country in the past year – marches, meetings, information booths on campuses and vigils at major crossroads on Fridays of women holding blue and white signs with the slogans “We Demand a Political Solution” and “Stop the Next War.”
With the goal of influencing public consciousness – “to change the discourse from fear to hope” as their website states ‒ the movement is planning a mass “March of Hope” and vigil for the Succot holiday in October to urge the sides to return to peace negotiations.
Organizers say they’re expecting tens of thousands of participants, including Palestinian women and parallel marches in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and North America.
A new video, released online, shows archive clips of famous marches in history: the 1930 Salt March in India led by Gandhi, the 1965 civil rights march in the US led by Martin Luther King Jr., the 1989 East German protest, and the 2003 women’s demonstration in Liberia. The video fades into clips of recent WWP marches in Israel, with a call to join the October event.
Inspired by those dramatic marches of the past, the planned October March of Hope has an ambitious itinerary, beginning with a 15- day trek by Israeli Jewish and Arab women who will walk from Israeli’s northern border with Lebanon to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam/ Oasis of Peace outside of Jerusalem for a ceremony with the 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, one of the leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace campaign.
At the same time, there are planned marches in the Gaza border area, the Island of Peace in the Jordan Valley, an area shared with Jordan, Ashkelon and Ofakim, whose mayor will be leading a local parallel demonstration.
The key event will begin October 19 with a six-kilometer march from the Allenby Crossing near Jericho to Qasr el- Yahud on the western bank of the Jordan River not far from the Dead Sea. The lowest sacred site in the world, Qasr el-Yahud is, according to tradition, the site of the baptism of Jesus, the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, and where Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven.
The decision regarding where the march could take place was made together with Palestinian women leaders, since Qasr el-Yahud is in Area “C” in the West Bank under full Israeli control, which means everyone can access the location.
It will then continue to Jerusalem, where marchers from around the country will meet, finally proceeding to the residences of the president and prime minister.
In addition to Gbowee, organizers are hoping other international women leaders for peace will join the many women from Europe and North America who intend to participate.
Much of the funding needed to run the activities has already been raised from donors in Israel and abroad. Women Wage Peace, in partnership with the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace and the Israeli women lawyers’ organization “Itach-Maaki,” also has received funding from the EU for a training program for peace activism. It was Palestinian social activist Huda Abuarquob who first suggested the idea of the march during an EU supported strategic planning session held earlier this year at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. “We were talking about the women in Liberia. I was inspired by the movie and was thinking about the famous marches of the past. We’ve never done this kind of march before, and not as women,” says Abuarquob, the regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.
Abuarquob, who lives in Hebron, has been helping organize the Palestinian women’s march. “It might not lead to anything at the end of the day,” she admits, “but it’s a sort of demonstration of the will of Palestinian women. It’s benign, actually. All we’re doing is asking the leaders to try to end the conflict.
We’re not talking about grand plans, onestate or two-state solutions.We’re just letting the leaders know there are enough constituents among the people who are fed up with the status quo.”
DURING THE many events and meetings that have been taking place in the last year, Abuarquob is often the first Palestinian whom Israeli Jewish women have met. These meetings, she says, are both rewarding and challenging.
“It’s sometimes difficult to cut through the thick layers of the old narratives and fears.
But the moment you remove the hot-button words, it changes the dynamic of the dialogue.
I love these meetings; the transformation that takes place is very powerful.”
“Dialogue is my form of resistance,” she is fond of saying.
WWP activists are very well aware that mobilizing women from very different social strata and beliefs is an uphill struggle ‒ how do you direct a diverse group of women for a single purpose? One of the movement’s principles is to say what they are for, not what they are against, thus the term “occupation” is scrupulously avoided. But for many women, the mere use of the word “shalom” (“peace”) is suspect because “peace” has become a derogatory word for many – as a term used by “leftists.”
Activist Kadia Moses recalls speaking to a group of religious women about Women Wage Peace. They bristled at the word “shalom,” but seemed to change their attitudes when she reminded them that they pray for peace five times a day. “I asked them, ‘Why should leftists hijack that word?’” “It was difficult at first, and is still difficult to speak to women with whom I have nothing in common,” admits Zechut, an Israeli army veteran and political leader in Ofakim, a more ethnically, economically and religiously diverse community than the women who launched WWP.
“THE DIFFICULTY is that I speak in a different language. The word ‘occupation’ is very hard for me to hear or accept, I can’t agree with this. Women I know can’t come to terms with the words ‘concessions’ or ‘compromise.’ They say ‘expulsion’ and not ‘evacuation’ from Gush Katif.” Zechut is the main mover in a series of WWP women-to women dialogues called “Israeli Salad,” which attract increasing numbers of women from all over the country to each meeting.
These encounters, which include Arab, Russian immigrant and religious women, have changed her profoundly she says. “My friends in Ofakim also changed after these meetings. What we have in common is beyond Left-Right, Arab-Jew ‒ the connection is the real one. All we’re asking our leaders is just to listen. The aim for us all is to bring about peace. The question is how.”
Some members of WWP have initiated dialogues with Israeli women in West Bank settlements.
Hamutal Gouri, executive director of the Dafna Fund and an organizational consultant, concedes the challenge of reaching out to women for whom the word “shalom” is negative ‒ how do you make a peace movement inclusive? “This is the everyday hard work we do, going around the country meeting women from all walks of society. We met with the group Women of the Temple and talked about what peace and security means to them. We know these words are very charged, but the planned march is the march of hope – regardless of political affiliation. Everyone needs hope and agency, the opportunity and the ability to act and be part of something bigger,” says Gouri.
The attempt at inclusiveness of women with all political stances, and the refusal to even mention the word “occupation” has turned off many longtime leftist activists who find the message too “parve.” In an op-ed on the +972 website last year, Shoshana London Sappir relates being dismayed by WWP demonstrators, describing the movement as apolitical, or even engaging with members of extreme right-wing groups.
“In an attempt to appeal to the broadest audience possible, they refused to take a stand on any of the core issues that define the struggle for peace as I understand it, and which is what drove me to join them: social justice, human rights, occupation, racism, equality, democracy. The most they would commit to was demanding the government ‘return to negotiations,’” Sappir wrote.
Vivian Silver, a prize-winning peace and feminist activist, comments that “for me, all these years of ‘leftist’ activism hasn’t achieved anything. If anything has a chance, it’s going to be a movement that speaks a different language. Our agenda is to reach an agreement. This means bringing together women from all sectors and beliefs.”
Donna Kirshbaum, a Reconstructionist rabbi who has been active in fund-raising for the movement, believes the group is going about things the right way.
“The first thing we have to do is rekindle hope,” she says. “We will certainly continue with the fieldwork that we’ve been doing these past two years, but in order to recapture the hearts of those who have given in to despair, it’s going to take a big event where we hope the eyes of the world will be on us,” she continues.
Artist Lilian Weisberger calls what has been happening as “a sort of revolution, among thousands of women throughout the country. We’ve had enough of blaming and shaming,” she says. “The moment we speak the same language, and stop labeling each other, we can work together.”
Describing her own chilling fear while her son was fighting in the recent war in Gaza, Weisberger recalls, “I suddenly felt that him being there is also my responsibility, that if I don’t do all I can to stop these cycles of violence, I’m neglecting my responsibility as a mother. I swore to stop living in denial and decided to transform my despair into action.
We all seem to have been in a sort of catatonic despair, but this movement is bringing back hope.”
Meanwhile, the planned March of Hope is attracting more and more participants.
“Many of the women we’ve talked to had given up and felt there was nothing practical,” says Ginigar, whose sons, like many of the organizers, are in top combat units in the army. “But when there is something actually concrete to do, it’s appealing, and maybe we’ve found a combination that can attract more people. It’s really taking off.”
Members of WWP are already planning strategies for actions after the march, including targeted demands for the Knesset to enact, including the establishment of a government office of Peace and Reconciliation and the significant integration of women in all relevant governmental bodies and negotiation teams, as mandated by the UN Security Council.
“Our goal,” explains Kirshbaum, “is not about naming the solution at this point. No one can do that. So we have to have an incredible amount of flexibility and a willingness to compromise. The only way to create that and build that into the culture is to broaden the diversity of the people who have a stake in the outcome, so they can claim that stake.”