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Women in Black

9 - Foreign Supporters and International Vigils

Gila Svirsky


Solidarity Vigils

During those seemingly hopeless years, coming to the vigil every week became an act that required tremendous reserves of conviction. Some of this could be explained by loyalty to the dwindling numbers of women still on the vigil, but most stemmed from the fundamental belief that staying home meant not speaking out against the occupation.

Speaking out against the occupation did not endear Women in Black to those outside the peace movement, of course, but it also never won us strategic alliances with the mainstream Peace Now. The more progressive mixed-gender peace movements Dai LaKibush, Year 21, and Yesh Gvul usually coordinated their schedules so as not to clash with the vigil, and often helped in other ways,[1] but Peace Now often scheduled against us. Most of this was not intentional we were, after all, among the most loyal participants of Peace Now rallies but rather stemmed from a general lack of taking us seriously. This stung. Surely it was gender-based, absorbed from a society that does not give women the time of day on issues having to do with war and peace. In one unfortunate instance during a Women in Black vigil back-to-back with a Peace Now demonstration, the Peace Now organizers refused to let us use their megaphone on the grounds that the batteries were dead, yet the batteries miraculously revived when their demonstration commenced.[2] But through the darkest and most discouraging years of the vigil, there was one source of unremitting encouragement for our work in Israel supporters from other countries.

Two or three months after the first Women in Black vigil in Israel, we began to hear of solidarity vigils in other countries: women dressed in black who carried signs shaped like the stylized hands we used in Israel that bore similar slogans. Initial reports came from Canada and the United States, and these later spread to Europe and Australia.

Some of these early solidarity vigils of Women in Black were composed of Jewish and Palestinian women. The first San Francisco vigil was one such group, and they carried signs saying Palestinian and Jewish Women United in addition to the slogans End the Occupation and 2 Peoples, 2 States. (One of the members of this group was Marcia Freedman, former Israeli Knesset Member, and ongoing fighter for progressive issues.)

But most of these early Women in Black vigils in North America were composed of Jewish women. Soon, we began to receive newsletters from a North American coalition of these vigils called the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO). This coalition was founded in New York city in April 1988 just four months after our first vigil in Israel in solidarity with Women in Black and other Israeli and Palestinian women's groups working for peace. The emphasis here was on Jewish, meaning we're still loyal Jews, but we want to end the occupation. The JWCEO newsletter carried a full description of our vigils and conferences in Israel, as well as news of peace activities throughout North America. It called upon the North American Jewish community to publicly support Israelis working for peace, and particularly to show solidarity with the Women in Black vigils in Israel.

The JWCEO newsletter from October 1990 also carried the names and addresses of 26 affiliate groups and organizations, from Seattle to New Haven, all Jewish women's peace activity focused on ending the occupation. Some called themselves Women in Black (in Berkeley, Boston, Boulder, Palo Alto, and Syracuse, to name a few) and held a regular vigil, though not weekly in all places. And others assumed different names, formats, and strategies: Jews for a Just Peace in Toronto, Hannah Arendt Lesbian Peace Patrol in Minneapolis, and Ithaca Jewish Women to End the Occupation. The Coordinating Committee of these diverse groups was composed of Amy Beth, Linda Eber, Rita Falbel, Judy Helfand, Clare Kinberg, Irena Klepfisz, Beth Martin, Grace Paley, and Susan Sherman, all well-respected figures among North American Jewish women activists for peace and social justice. I look forward to someday reading the history of this movement and how the North American public (Jewish and non-Jewish) responded to them (whores of George Shultz?).[3]

JWCEO was in close contact with many Israeli Women in Black, and information was shared and networked. Visits went in both directions, and sometimes Women in Black and other Israeli peace organizations also received donations to help with specific projects. But beyond the material help, these groups provided a much needed source of emotional nourishment to us. I'll never forget the amazement and pride I felt the first time I looked at a JWCEO newsletter and saw pictures of Women in Black vigils in a host of North American cities. Until that moment, I had never quite appreciated the fact that our vigil was not an isolated Israeli phenomenon, but even admired and emulated. And in a remarkable expression of international sisterhood, over 24 organizations held solidarity vigils in various locations in Europe, North and South America to celebrate International Women's Day in March 1990. This was an initiative of several Women in Black in Jerusalem.

Simultaneously, Women in Black began to flower in many large European cities, with slightly different emphases in each location. Some vigils were primarily Jewish, while in other cities (Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Melbourne, Sydney, etc.), the groups were also mixed Jewish and Palestinian. These latter vigils had to struggle to dialogue and find a common language, as they sought a way to express their common belief in peace and coexistence in the Middle East.

At some point in the proliferation of Women in Black vigils in other countries, an unfortunate phenomenon developed: the appearance of groups who were motivated by anti-Israeli attitudes that might also be linked with anti-Semitism. This is both the paranoia and the well-founded fear of every Jew: that criticism of Israel will awaken the slumbering anti-Semitic beast in some people. This is a source of much anxiety about being critical of Israel to outsiders [= non-Jews]. Once in a while, a media report would come to our attention of a vigil in some distant location in which the already grave sins of Israel were expanded into deeds of mass murder on the scale of Nazi Germany. It was hard to dissociate Women in Black in Israel from these negative phenomena when they arose, but there was nothing we could do to prevent them. And we could not let them stop us from expressing our own criticism, which was about real sins and came from a place of caring deeply about Israel.

A Life of Their Own

At some point, Women in Black vigils took off with a life of their own. They were now forming in a variety of countries, and many of these had nothing to do with the Israeli occupation. In Italy, Women in Black vigils took place in 80 locations during the Gulf War period to protest a range of issues, from the Israeli occupation to the violence of the Mafia and other organized crime. Italian Women in Black were the first in Europe, and helped spread the phenomenon to other countries, in addition to their ongoing support for the movement in Israel. In Germany, the original protest of Women in Black seems to have been against the sale of chemicals by German firms to the Iraqi regime. After the war, German Women in Black broadened their mandate to protest a variety of social ills: neo-Nazism, xenophobia, racism against migrant workers, nuclear arms, and other issues, through vigils in Munich, Cologne, Berlin, Wiesbaden, and elsewhere. Women in Black in Belgrade and Zagreb set out to stop the war, end the mass rape of women, and eliminate ethnic strife. These women in the former Yugoslavian republics set a stunning example of interethnic cooperation among themselves that could only be an inspiration to their countrywomen and men.

Women in Black then took off in Asia, first in India and then in the Philippines. It began with women in the city of Bangalore who protested the razing of a mosque in Ayodhya, which became a metaphor for violent Hindu nationalism, and the communal conflicts that spread as a result. Indian Women in Black hold a weekly vigil that calls for an end to the ill treatment of women by religious fundamentalists. These women from the Asian Women's Human Rights Council are fully aware of the many forms of violence that this vigil has been used to protest:

We are the Women in Black...Everywhere women are breaking the silence, women are naming the violence. Women making public the many forms of personal violence against women wife battering, female circumcision, pornography, sexual assault, rape, dowry burning. Everywhere, women, unmasking the many horrific faces of more public legitimate forms of violence state repression, communalism, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, wars...Violence in the name of development, in the name of reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, and the feminization of poverty.[4]

In the early years, most of these vigils had some sense of the existence of each other, some understanding that they were part of a worldwide movement of women seeking to end war and violence. In the newsletter written in Israel that went out to readers in 19 countries, we tried to strengthen this bond, encouraging women to describe their work in far-flung corners of the globe. But over the years, vigils sprang up all over the world, and soon the origins and herstory of the movement were forgotten. One Israeli woman reported a visit to San Francisco in which she stumbled across a Women in Black vigil protesting the neglect of the homeless in their city. (This was the second generation of Women in Black, after the first Jewish-Palestinian group had folded.) I'm from Women in Black in Jerusalem, she told them excitedly, perhaps hoping for a little matriarchal respect. They had never heard of us.

Today, Women in Black vigils exist in many parts of the world. Australian women hold Thursdays in Black, organized by university feminist organizations to protest domestic violence. One Australian parliament member wears black on Thursdays to express solidarity with the movement. The American Friends Service Committee in Connecticut and Massachusetts has organized a campaign to Wear Black on Monday for Peace. Thursdays are also Black in Seattle, Washington, where a vigil seeks to send positive thoughts to anyone caught in armed conflict, including those living in violence-ridden neighborhoods.

There is no complete listing of Women in Black vigils throughout the world, but I do want to mention the ones that I have heard about, or who were in touch with us through the newsletter, 52 all told. Some of these had long-standing vigils some still exist and others had brief bursts of vigiling, then continued in other formats. [This list is long outdated! For a more up-to-date listing of contemporary vigils. GS 2006] They include:

Aachen, Germany

Albany, New York, U.S.

Albi, France

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.

Bangalore, India

Bangkok, Thailand

Belgrade, Serbia

Berkeley, California, U.S.

Berlin, Germany

Bologna, Italy

Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

Boulder, Colorado, U.S.

Brattleboro, Vermont, U.S.

Brussels, Belgium

Burlington, Vermont, U.S.

Cologne, Germany

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Dallas, Texas, U.S.

Eugene, Oregon, U.S.

Ithaca, New York, U.S.

London, U.K.

Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.

Manila, Philippines

Melbourne, Australia

Milan, Italy


Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.

Montpelier, Vermont, U.S.

Munich, Germany

New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.

New Paltz, New York, U.S.

New York, New York, U.S.

Nuremberg, Germany

Palo Alto, California, U.S.

Pancevo, Serbia

Philadelphia, PA, U.S.

Rome, Italy

St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.

San Francisco, California, U.S.

Seattle, Washington, U.S.

Sophia, Bulgaria

Sydney, Australia

Syracuse, New York, U.S.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Turin, Italy

Venice, California, U.S.

Venice, Italy

Verona, Italy

Washington, D.C., U.S.

Wiesbaden, Germany

Zagreb, Croatia

Zurich, Switzerland

In short, there have been Women in Black from Aachen to Zurich, and there may be more. Women in Black has turned into a movement of groups of women in many countries who hold vigils to protest violence in their part of the world: war, inter-ethnic conflict, militarism, the arms industry, racism, neo-Nazism, violence against women, violence in the neighborhoods, etc. Each vigil is autonomous, setting its own policy and guidelines, though in all the vigils the women dress in black, symbolizing the tragedy of the victims of violence. What unites us all is our commitment to a world free of violence.

Thus, it was not at all surprising that on September 4, 1995 in Huairou, China, about 45 minutes outside of Beijing, over 3,000 women from different parts of the world gathered in the evening for a mass vigil, the culmination of a day devoted to analysis of peace and militarism in the world. This gathering of peace activists was one of the most moving events of the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, according to many participants of this mass conference that brought together 40,000 women activists from all parts of the world. At the vigil in China, the women carried banners, placards, and posters in a babel of languages, as well as lamps from their own cultures lanterns, diyas, lamperas, shammas, and candles. The evening lit up with their hopes and their words, demanding an end to violence and aggression wherever it exists.

It was a Women in Black vigil, one of thousands that has been held in cities throughout the world, from Taipei to Dallas, and many points of Europe and Asia in between. This was now an international movement, and inspiring a new generation of women.

An International Sisterhood for Peace

The founding mothers of Women in Black in Jerusalem all political veterans knew of the grand history of women's peace movements internationally, but most of the rest of us were unaware of this before we began our vigil. At some point during our growing politicization and raised awareness, we gradually came to realize that Women in Black was part of a sisterhood that was generations old and scattered far and wide. And then we realized that Women in Black were not only a source of inspiration for women's peace work all over the world, but that we were one link in the chain of this proud history.

The most obvious foremother of Women in Black is the Black Sash movement of South Africa.[5] These are white women who fought apartheid in their country, just as we were Jews fighting the occupation by our own government. As their name suggests, the trademark of these women was the black sash that they wore over their clothes to signal their protest at the racist system. And, not surprisingly, they, like us, were mostly the white middle class, who were not the most obvious victims of the injustice (although we are all, one way or another, the victims of all acts of injustice).

But the Black Sash movement was only one among many. We also learned of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who protest the brutal political killings and kidnappings; the Greenham Common Women in England against nuclear warfare; the anti-war work of the Italian Women's Association for Peace and the much heralded Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; the Mothers of Soldiers Committee in Russia, to bring the boys home from Chechnya; and the five organizations, besides Women in Black, that sprang from the horrors in the former Yugoslavia the Autonomous Women's House, the Center for Women War Victims, the Anti-War Campaign, Women Against the War, and the Movement of Sarajevo Women. I am typical of the hundreds of Israeli Women in Black who knew nothing of these organizations until our own involvement and education by the veteran women peace activists in Israel. This is another debt that we acknowledge to them, with deep appreciation. And learning of the existence of this movement for peace by women only strengthened our own resolve and empowered us.

A conference held in Paris in April 1994 called Mothers in Struggle[6] paid tribute to some of these organizations, and Women in Black was one of many groups there. At our own international women's peace conference in Jerusalem in late 1994, there were representatives of women's peace organizations from 23 countries.

This great sisterhood of organizations is today a formidable network of support and assistance to one another. Perhaps this is best expressed by the Belgrade Women in Black in their New Year's message (December 1993) to the international women's peace movement:

We declare: Women's solidarity does not recognize borders. Women's solidarity is a reality and not an empty word. Solidarity of the women's and peace movement in Europe and elsewhere has helped us overcome moments of deepest despair.

Thanks to this solidarity we manage to help women and other victims of war. The network of women's solidarity against the war and the creation of numerous support groups fills us with the most sincere tenderness.

Women in Black in London and elsewhere returned to the vigil as an act of solidarity with Women in Black in Belgrade and other women's peace movements in the former Yugoslavia, just as they had stood in solidarity with us in Israel during the early years of the intifada.

It is far beyond my expertise to discuss the international movement of women for peace, but I feel privileged that my activism as a Woman in Black brought me in touch with a small corner of that powerful global experience.

Foreign Aid...of All Sorts

Support to Women in Black in Israel came not just from the solidarity vigils and international movement, but also from individuals abroad who made contact with us over the years. As word spread about the existence of Women in Black in Israel, supporters often flocked around our vigil and expressed their support for our work, and women from the vigil were often invited to present to visiting groups or even to fly out to conferences abroad. This also helped us realize that our actions had more significance than the ongoing difficulty of maintaining the vigil. People from abroad almost never failed to make us feel better about what we were doing.

One delegation from the University of Michigan's Ecumenical Campus Center (on May 15, 1992) presented us with certificates inscribed in gothic lettering:

To Women in Black: We salute you for your physical presence and your commitment to justice in this place. We salute you for your determination to stand for peace no matter what the weather, no matter what the public reaction. We salute you for courage to act on your belief that justice must prevail in a world where there is so much inhumanity between peoples. We join our spirits with yours in committing ourselves and others, as together we work for truth, justice and peace in the world.

Messages like that helped us carry on.

In Jerusalem, Dafna Kaminer began a guest book of our Women in Black vigil, and we had names and addresses there of visitors from every country in Europe and North America, and many from the Far East as well. A number of celebrities from abroad came to be photographed against the stark backdrop of the vigil or to participate in it, including Renee Epelbaum, one of the founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, and Margarita Papandreou, the ex-wife of the former Prime Minister of Greece. Margarita came to the Jerusalem vigil in June 1992 and stuck out the hour on a broiling hot day. Founder of Women for Mutual Security - an international organization against war, militarism, exploitation, discrimination, and crimes against humanity Margarita became an ardent and ongoing supporter of ours. Mike Wallace also came and filmed a clip for his American TV program Sixty Minutes. All these guests carried a message, overt or latent, of admiration. At home <sigh> we didn't get no respect.

Having now expressed all that gratitude, there is also room to point out the exceptions. Just as some Women in Black vigils outside of Israel used the occupation as an opportunity to express virulent anti-Semitic sentiments, so too some visitors to the vigil raised questions in our minds about who was supporting us and why.

One hot summer day in August 1991, for example, a group of young Danes came to the Women in Black vigil in Jerusalem. I struck up a conversation with one and asked if they were part of an organization in Denmark. She replied that they were a group that makes trips to difficult regions and often come to Palestine. The word Palestine surprised me, but I assumed that she referred to the territories occupied by Israel. And where is Palestine? I asked, just to make sure. Right here, she said, sweeping her arm across the landscape where we were standing. But this is part of new Jerusalem, I said, and the Arabs don't even want this area in a peace settlement. Which Arabs? she asked. The PLO, for example, I said, don't claim this area. The PLO is a weak, compromising organization, she said, and we do not support it.

After this conversation, I began to worry about the left in the world. It would be depressing for me to discover that people whom I believed to be allies of our cause ultimately disagree with the existence of a Jewish state. I had a very hard few days after this conversation.

I wasn't the only one who had uncomfortable experiences with some of our guests. Yifat Susskind, a regular Jerusalem Women in Black, expressed her discomfort about standing on the vigil with a German woman who had tourist mentality activism. An excerpt from Yifat's description:

Standing quietly in the row of women, ... I was joined by a smiling, middle-aged German who took her place next to me. In thickly-accented English, she explained that this was her first time at Women in Black. Her visiting church group was spending the afternoon in the Old City, but she had chosen instead to seek out the vigil that she had read about at home, and stand with us against the Occupation...

That's great, I commented as she described the group's disarmament campaign. And what kind of work does your church do against the neo-Nazi movement in Germany?...

The woman smiled vacantly. She shifted her Hebrew placard reading End the Occupation from one hand to the other. After a long silence, she stated rather blandly, We're all quite shocked.

Well, yes, I said, ignoring the obvious question of why anyone would be shocked by fascists in Germany, but what is your group doing to oppose them? My question, sounding slightly desperate the second time around, hung in the air between us as she mechanically began ticking off various right-wing rationales for the recent upsurge in violence: too many immigrants, problems of reunification, economic hardship, etc., etc.

I listened in anger. Did she really believe that this tired rhetoric justified racist violence? Did she simply have no consciousness of who she was talking to or why we were demonstrating? I began to wonder why someone who chose to explain fascism rather than oppose it would want to stand at Women in Black. I recalled something she had said as we first began the vigil: It's so nice to stand with this big group of women....

Political solidarity is not based on gender; it is based on politics. I value international support from feminists. But this support becomes politically bankrupt when it takes the form of tourist-mentality activism in which women are indignant about far-away injustices, but complacent about painful political realities at home. I have no desire to stand against oppression in Israel with a German woman who does not recognize her responsibility for (and to) her own people. Without her active opposition to German fascism, there can be no sisterhood between us...The foundation of real international solidarity is our commitment to the common principles, and our activism to prevent racist violence in every context.[7]

Well, the visitors were as diverse as we ourselves were, and I suppose we could not have expected to agree with them all. But some, especially the delegations led by Italian peace activists Elisabetta Donini, Rafaella Lamberti and Luisa Morgantini came en masse, thickened our vigil, attended our conferences, and understood that we loved our country enough to be critical of it. And it was guests like these who made it much easier to put up with the contempt or disinterest of some fellow Israelis.

*** *** ***


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[1] Yesh Gvul was an organization of peace-loving men (and some women supporters) who defied the overwhelming Israeli consensus in support of the army and refused to do army service in the occupied territories.  This organization was shunned even by the liberal camp, while Women in Black were divided in our views.  During one extended period, Yesh Gvul held a demonstration at Paris Square every Friday prior to our vigil as a way to hold the square for us against the encroachments of right wing groups.

[2] The demonstrations that day were in protest of the expansion of Efrat, one of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in late 1994, early 1995.  Participants in the Women in Black vigil included about 100 women peace activists from abroad who were attending the Women in Black International Conference in Jerusalem in December 1994.

[3] Some information can be garnered from Jewish Women's Call for Peace: A Handbook for Jewish Women on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, edited by Rita Falbel, Irena Klepfisz, and Donna Nevel, Firebrand Books, Ithaca, New York, 1990.

[4] Asian Women's Human Rights Council, Women in Black: A Gathering of Spirit, AWHRC, P. O. Box 190, 1099 Manila, Philippines.

[5] See Kathryn Spink, Black Sash, London: Methuen, 1991.

[6] Allow me to note respectfully that many women who are not mothers are part of the struggle.

[7] Yifat Susskind, Tourist Mentality Activism, Women in Black National Newsletter, Winter 1992-93, No. 4.




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