Paint it black

Left wing group reflects on the conflict it has been demonstrating against for the past 20 years.

naomi morag 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Vera Reider)
naomi morag 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Vera Reider)
At its strongest, the 20-year-old Women in Black boasted more than 100 protesters a week, but as with any long-term political activist movement, the group's membership figures reflect the ups and downs of the conflict it demonstrates against. At first glance, it appears to be a regular coffee and chitchat among some dear old friends, but on closer inspection, the bulging scrapbook brimming with newspaper clippings and the swift turn in the light conversation clearly indicates that these three women - Dafna Kaminer, Gila Svirski and Nora Bendarsky - have come here with much more serious business in mind. "We are the conscience of the Israeli people," states Kaminer, a petite grey-haired immigrant from Detroit, Michigan, in a plain and serious tone. "We remind people every week that there is an occupation and it still has not ended." The occupation she is referring to is Israel's "control" over Palestinian lands, the people are the citizens of Israel and the every week is pretty much every Friday for the past 20 years when Kaminer, along with hundreds of other women, has stood in Jerusalem's Paris Square holding a silent vigil as one of the notorious and highly criticized Women in Black. "I believe that our voice also speaks out to the Palestinian people; it shows them that there is hope and that there is a true partner on the Israeli side," joins in Svirski, also originally from the US, who joined Women in Black a few weeks after the initiative first started. "[The vigils] also send a message out to the international community that not everyone in Israel shares the same views as our prime minister." And Bendarsky, who made aliya from Argentina in the 1970s, adds: "There is something very important in having a constant message and being there every week. It makes us stronger." Stronger maybe, but none of the women really knows how to answer the question of whether Women in Black has succeeded or failed in its 20 years of activism. On the one hand, the focus of its ongoing demonstration - the conflict with the Palestinians - continues, but on the other, the movement they all helped to establish has flourished in the face of its critics, public opinion has softened to its cause and its tactics have even been adopted by thousands of non-Israeli women in hundreds of countries. Women, who for whatever reason, personal or national, regularly take to the streets in a silent vigil to protest violence, war and occupation. "I am happy to say I am a Zionist and love my country and that is why I am a women in black," says Svirski. "Different women have different responses and this is mine." "I AM SURPRISED that they are still around," comments Shifra Hoffman, founder of Victims of Arab Terror and one of the movement's harshest critics. "I was sure that after all the terror attacks they would not continue with their protest." "I think it is tragic that Jews don't feel the pain of other Jews," continues Hoffman, who held her own vigil opposite Women in Black during the early 1990s. "I believe that they don't want to admit they've been wrong about this all along. I mean, how can Jews actively undermine the Jewish state? We have enough enemies; we don't need women in black too." Another critic, Nadia Matar, co-chair of the Women for Israel's Tomorrow, says Women in Black is a fringe organization and "does not represent the views of the majority of the people in this country." "These are the ideas of the extreme left wing, of women who quite clearly work for the Arab cause," she says, adding that it is solely down to media attention that has made it appear as though Women in Black is a large and successful group. However, Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, former head of Bar-Ilan University's Political Studies Department and founder of its communications program, says that the group has been a peripheral success, mainly in "raising public consciousness of Israel's conquest in the territories." "They have added a moral argument to the situation here," he observes, adding that over the past 20 years there has been a significant shift in public opinion regarding Israel's place in the West Bank and Gaza and that Women in Black had a "slight influence" on that change. At the same time, continues Lehman-Wilzig, "their protests had little impact on changing government policy. In order for a protest to be really effective and influential, its tactics must raise media attention. Doing the same thing every week for a long period of time means that after a while the media is no longer interested." Rather, he says, "I believe that it is more a way of cleansing one's own conscience and giving people a non-aggressive way of crying out." WOMEN IN Black held its first Jerusalem vigil in January 1988, just weeks after the first intifada broke out. "When we first started, people did not really react to us, they were just surprised to see us standing there," recalls Kaminer, explaining that the forerunner of Women in Black was an early 1980s group called Dai Lakibush or End the Occupation. "The women of Dai Lakibush decided to break off and do something on their own when the first intifada broke out. The idea was simple. We were just to stand there with banners that read 'End the Occupation.'" Their methods - wearing all black and standing in a non-responsive silent protest - were also inspired by such groups as the Black Sash in South Africa and the Argentinean Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Black Sash started in the 1950s, but was active through to the 1990s. The women wore a black sash over their clothes. The Argentinean group, which wore white, was active in the 1970s-1980s. Svirski's recollections of the public's initial reaction to their protest are slightly different than Kaminer's. "I think we were threatening from the beginning," she says, highlighting that calling for an end to the occupation back then was a rather new and radical message. "It was also one of the first instances where women stood in public with a political message; the only other time women had stood together in public they were prostitutes." She says that during the movement's first few years, the criticisms it received were "focused on our gender and sexual notions." "They called us whores and other things that cannot be printed in the newspaper. But later on, people stopped focusing on the fact that we were women and more on our message." While that might have been a positive sign, the verbal criticism soon turned physical. "As well as people heckling us," recalls Kaminer, "some tried to tear down our signs." The women highlight one incident in which the girlfriend of a Kach supporter infiltrated the movement, joining the vigil for several weeks and then reporting back to her boyfriend on the group's activities. "She told them that we were having a meeting and they showed up and wrecked it," remembers Svirski. "Afterward, the boyfriend was quoted in the newspapers as saying that he'd found out about our meeting from his girlfriend, who had to 'suffer standing with us for several weeks.' "It was a period of intense violence against us. Kach and Kahane Chai were only two of the movements against us, but they were not the only ones. One group published a flyer calling for people to 'take care of the black widows.' Another group distributed to its members the names, addresses and phone numbers of eight of us. We were harassed, with one woman even having a hearse delivered to her house when, of course, she was still alive. I had someone call me telling me they knew where my children went to school and that they would come and get them." DESPITE THE threats at home and the constant catcalls when they were out on the streets, Svirski, Kaminer, Bendarsky and hundreds of other Jerusalem women continued with their weekly protest. "It is an easy way for women to show their opinions, to just stand on a street corner in silence [holding a sign]," points out Svirski, adding that it did not take long for other women around the country to set up similar protests. Women in Haifa and Tel Aviv, who had heard about the Jerusalem demonstrations, starting holding their own vigils, she says. Then, slowly, women in outlying areas joined in and by the end of the first year, a national conference was attended by more than 500 women. While at its strongest moments Women in Black could boast more than 100 protesters a week, as with any long-term political activist movement, the group's membership figures reflected the ups and downs of the conflict it was demonstrating against. Events such as the Gulf War in 1991 and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 saw many women turning away from the cause either because they no longer believed in the central message or because they had become apathetic. With the outbreak of the second intifada, some women decided that Women in Black's methods were not enough and left to join other women's groups, such as Machsom Watch or the Coalition of Women for Peace. Today, Kaminer, Svirksi and Bendarsky say that roughly 30 women join them on a regular basis. "Our message is not passé, it is still relevant," claims Svirski. "One of the most common responses to our activities these days is people asking: 'What occupation?' It's been 40 years now and many people here have been born into this situation; they don't even realize that Israel is an occupier." And she is adamant that their work through the years has been successful. "There has been a shift in public opinion. Today, two-thirds of Israelis believe that we have to get out of the West Bank. They realize that the Palestinians are partners for peace and that we have to talk to them whether we want to or not."