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Women in Black

11 - Impact: A Completely Biased View

Gila Svirsky


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, its the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)

These words from Margaret Mead have been facing me across my desk for many years and have often given me heart when change seemed hopeless. Women in Black as a movement seems to have been sustained by this thought, or by one like it. But how did the change actually come about, and what role did Women in Black play in making it happen?

Making Peace an Option

What turned the situation around from trying to clobber each other into submission to negotiating peace?

I believe there was a constellation of factors as follows: The Palestinians in the territories, crushed under the burden of the occupation, began their popular uprising, the intifada. The violence of the intifada woke up the Israeli people to the evils of the occupation. Not only did it send a message of Palestinian suffering, it also brought suffering into the homes of the Israelis. Since, with several exceptions, army service is compulsory for all Israeli Jewish young men and women (and not such young men in reserve duty), almost every household began to feel the effects of the violence death, injury, or the terror of being killed or injured. Simultaneously, the Israeli peace movement began to flourish, motivated both by (a) a sincere desire to end the repression of another people; and (b) a desire to stop the violence turned against us. The years of intifada created an intolerable situation inside Israel, and the Israeli government was searching for a way to end it. Force had proven ineffectual. Meanwhile, the peace movement was continuously battering the government and the public with its message that holding on to the territories was a liability and that the PLO was an acceptable partner for negotiations. It fomented discontent with the status quo and the Greater Israel policy, and created a climate of legitimacy for compromise with the PLO.

A separate factor that made peace possible was change among the Palestinians that resulted from the Gulf War, in my opinion. Arafat took the side of Saddam Hussein, who lost the war, and as a result Arafat lost considerable financial support from the wealthy Arab Gulf states who had rallied against Saddam. Arafat was about to lose power to his rivals within the PLO when Rabin won the election in Israel and offered him a way out make peace. Rabin and Peres knew that Arafat was in a vulnerable position and they could strike a good bargain with him at this moment. Arafat had no choice. Either he makes peace, hoping to mobilize support for this from the Palestinians and the wealthy Gulf states or he loses his power base. By then, the Palestinians had had their fill of intifada. Arafat chose peace.

What was the role of the peace movement? It legitimized the options out of the quandry, options that previously had been unpalatable to Israelis: It said that compromise was a reasonable alternative. It said that Arafat was no hero, but he was the one to negotiate with. It said that a Palestinian state is a viable option. In short, the peace movement guaranteed support to the government for entering into negotiations with Arafat. It was, thus, one critical component in a constellation of factors.

Impact Wears Many Faces

The Women in Black vigil was one current in the tidal wave of 74 peace organizations that mobilized Israelis to demand peace. Singers sang peace songs, writers wrote books, lobbyists leaned on Knesset members, organizations documented human rights violations, some soldiers refused to serve in the territories, and lots of the rest of us went to demonstrations, marches, teach-ins, civil disobedience actions, and vigils, week after week after bloody week. All of us together made the difference. All the protest work during this period contributed to creating the public climate that made possible the choice of peace by the politicians and countered the message of a Greater Israel that had dominated the Israeli agenda until then.

In the discouraging old days, before Oslo became a concept not just a city, it was easy to disparage the effect that any of us was having. But now with the hindsight of the peace process in motion, we can be more realistic about our impact and can ask ourselves, more usefully, what was the contribution that each group made to the wave of protest. Specifically, what was the unique contribution of Women in Black to creating the climate for peace? I think the place to begin is with the woman herself.

Impact: Personal Transformation

Some of the founding Women in Black were already highly political animals who had been involved in organizing for years. For most of us, however, donning black and standing on the vigil brought about a profound personal transformation. You could not stand on this intense vigil for six, seven, or eight weeks not to mention six, seven, or eight years without being significantly altered. In what ways?

First, standing on the vigil politicized women who had not previously been politically involved. Reactions to our vigil (by bystanders, friends or family) made it incumbent upon us to have a more informed response ready for them. Now we were educating ourselves about the issues, reading about and discussing them, attending political lectures, giving political activity a higher priority in our lives than activities that had previously consumed our attention and devotion. Second, participation in the vigil radicalized our thinking. It made us more critical of the comfortable views of the liberal camp, more skeptical of official positions, leading us to shift our votes from the centrist Labor Party to the liberal Meretz, or from liberal Meretz to progressive Hadash. Discussions among ourselves and communication with women peace activists from other countries raised our consciousness to more progressive solutions, leading us to eschew military and violent solutions to political problems, to adopt a more human rights perspective, and to repudiate the glorification of the army, one of Israels holiest cows. And, third, participating in the vigil was a tremendously empowering experience. A woman who continued to stand through the anger and fear we evoked, through the bitter cold and broiling sun, through the seeming hopelessness of change had to have honed the strength inside her. It increased a sense of determination, of belief in self, of powerfulness.

Related to these changes was the increased appreciation for feminist formats and values cooperative decision-making, power-sharing, support for the weaker links in social networks. Not every woman on the vigil would agree to the label feminist, but all were persuaded by the feminist process and moved closer to a feminist perspective.

Once you have several thousand women feeling politicized, radicalized, and empowered, it is not surprising to find them having an effect on others. The following categories suggest some audiences where the impact of Women in Black was and was not absorbed:

Impact: Immediate Circles

Inevitably, women who are more politicized and more radicalized will have an impact on their immediate environment away from the vigil, and so we did. Women as mothers, teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, secretaries, librarians all the many audiences we encountered in our personal lives were exposed to our thinking. We, the great army of nurturers, now served up politics with your dinner. My two daughters became Women in Black. Some of our mothers started coming to the vigil. Our schoolchildren were captive listeners to our message of ending political violence (couched within more neutral material). The ripple effect of our presence, thousands of secret agents who refused to sit still for inhumanity and violence, could be felt in ever-widening circles.

Impact: Jewish Constituents in Israel

Although there was a flowering of peace organizations in Israel following the outbreak of the intifada, this subsided as the initial shock of the violence wore off and burnout took its toll. Throughout the period of the Likud government and even more so during the Labor government, the right wing dominated the streets posters, stickers, flyers, buttons, demonstration, marches. You could barely find a major intersection in the main cities without a few right wing activists holding aloft their favorite slogans. Throughout this period, Women in Black was the only group that made a consistent effort to counter the pro-occupation barrage, to keep the message of peace out on the streets. Peace Now held rallies, some with very large turnouts, but these were few and far between. Women in Black were the most persistently visible of campaigners. [1] We did not let the public slip into inattention. Their constant presence is a clear and unavoidable reminder of the issues at stake. [2] We were there to remind other Israelis who were discouraged by the visibility of the right wing that the voices for peace had not been silenced.

Peace groups also had dynamic effects upon each other. The radical groups kept nipping at the heels of the more centrist organizations, pushing them to keep up, to assume more daring postures, to take greater risks. Women in Black was itself urged into more courageous positions by the seasoned radicals of the Women and Peace Coalition, and by reactions to us from the authorities and outsiders. Yet Peace Nows reputation for moderation stood it in excellent stead. When the PLO (in December 1988 at a conference in Algeria) declared its renunciation of terrorism and, implicitly, its acceptance of a Jewish state beside the Palestinian state-in-the-making, Peace Now was free to espouse the positions of negotiating with the PLO and two states for two peoples. Peace Nows approval now gave the seal of kashruth to these former taboos, and won over many more mainstream supporters than the radical groups ever could.

One bizarre offspring of Women in Black that must be mentioned is the Women in Green movement. At some point during the intifada when the nationalist right was dominating the streets, a group of extremist right wing women became the focus of considerable media attention. Dubbed Women in Green by the media in reference to their green hats and frank allusion to us, these women hardly resembled Women in Black in other ways. They espoused a religiously fundamentalist vision of Israel and pursued it by staging unruly demonstrations against peace, occasionally ending in arrests on charges of disturbing the peace or violating police orders, and once for squatting on Palestinian land. Not surprisingly, most members of Women in Green deny any connection to feminism, though they are not beyond a cynical use of feminist slogans to achieve the desired effect: This junta [the Labor government] is raping the Jewish people. [3] Thus, Women in Black begat a rebellious daughter-movement to counter our effect.

A more natural and friendly successor to Women in Black is the organization Bat Shalom, which opened its doors in March 1994 in an effort to devise new strategies for the womens peace movement in Israel. We can only wish them success. Bat Shalom is further evidence that women realize the crucial role that they can play in advocating for peace.

Impact: International

Long before the Madrid peace conference and very long before the current peace negotiations, Palestinian and Israeli women were taking part in international conferences for peace the peace tent at the Nairobi Womens Conference in 1985 was the first I know about, but perhaps there were earlier meetings. Detailed peace treaties were hammered out between Israeli and Palestinian women in Jerusalem, Brussels, New York, Italy, Malta, and Geneva years before the men figured out how to do it in Oslo. True, these women did not have the weighty burdens of office to consider, but the question still arises, why were enemy women sitting together to negotiate years before the men?

First, it should be said that during the years of the intifada, this was not the work of the vigil, but of the larger Women and Peace Coalition. In this body, the more radical women set the tone. This included the organizations TANDI, WILPF, Shani, and the Womens Organization for Women Political Prisoners, as well as the more radical women among Women in Black from Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and several kibbutzim. It was the Coalition that maintained contacts with the European organizations of women for peace, signed international peace agreements with the Palestinians, held aloft slogans that were light-years ahead of End the Occupation, and staged demonstrations that left more moderate women, sometimes literally, gasping for air: With the first joint Palestinian-Israeli womens march in December 1989 in which both groups were tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers and police the movement secured its place in the avant-garde of the Left. [4] Virtually all members of the Women and Peace Coalition were also Women in Black, and it often suited the drama of the occasion to dress in black for these events, which also partially explained the more radical image earned by women on the vigil.

The internationalist feminist approach of these women made it possible and quite natural to reach across borders and even across so-called enemy lines. This was not a womans natural predilection for peacemaking, but the ideological commitment of women to a vision of international peace. It did not come from instinct, but from socializing and educating each other over the years. Being outside establishment politics was an asset in taking a more critical perspective of them.

Whether through the Coalition or directly, the links of Women in Black with womens peace organizations around the world were a two-way street of support and sustenance. We drew inspiration from each other. Women in Black gained prestige as its name spread; it became a model for the international womens movement for peace.[5] And the international womens movement for peace become a model for us:

Belonging to the circles of feminist women throughout the world who struggle against violence and who work to promote a political-cultural alternative which will include the experience of women gives me the strength to continue in work that is often perceived as hopeless. [6]

The impact of our activity in Israel was amplified by the dozens of Women in Black vigils that formed all over the world, some in solidarity with our cause and others taking a stand about their local issues. From the brochure of the Asian Womens Human Rights Council based in Manila:

We are the Women in Black a movement that has inspired groups of women in different parts of the world to stand in their own towns and cities, at street corners, in market squares and other public places for one hour every week dressed in black silently protesting the many forms of violence which are increasingly becoming intrinsic to our everyday realities in our different cultures and communities. [7]

And one more testimony to our impact from an international source:

It is clear that there is a particular power to this quite simple gesture. Just the intensity of response that it can provoke to say nothing of the way it has spread among women internationally, or the effect it can have on participants is enough of an indication of that. Probably the effectiveness of any symbolic protest action depends on the extent to which it can shake our traditional mental categories. The Women in Black phenomenon does that...these Women in Black were standing, blatantly, in the middle of the public world visible, unavoidable, inescapably political. [8]

Impact: Palestinians

One of the important audiences for Women in Black was Palestinians. It was important for them to know that there are Israelis with whom a real peace can be made. This was as important for the Palestinian trucker who delivered a crate of cucumbers to the Nahshon vigil so his son could learn that not all Israelis are border guards, soldiers, police, or tax collectors as it was for Arab political leaders. President Mubarak of Egypt and Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokesperson of the PLO, have both mentioned Women in Black in the context of taking heart from the peace camp in Israel. It was important for us to tell the Palestinians, to tell Arabs in general, and to tell the world at large that not all Israelis support the occupation policies of the Israeli government, and that some of us also yearn for a just peace.

Impact: Passersby

And finally, the angry passersby. Here, of course, we had no impact at all. I have no illusions that there was a single person who disagreed with us who became convinced of our views by seeing us stand there. They were not our target audience. We did not stand on the vigil to convince Likud voters to vote Labor, nor in the hopes of convincing Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to forfeit his vision of a Greater Israel. These were obviously impossible tasks.

What we did attempt to do was create a constant sound of peace, a soprano continuo demanding reconciliation. We encouraged and gave voice to the growing body of Israelis who had enough of war and suffering. We were the voice of the silent public who would rather sit at home than be on the streets holding up signs. We represented the Israelis who wanted peace, but were too well-mannered (or tired or constrained by jobs or family) to raise their own voice. Our silent protest served as their voice, demanding peace on behalf of us all.

During the vigil days, I attended a bar-mitzva in Jerusalem of religious friends. I sat at a table with people I did not know, everyone wearing a yarmulke and making blessings on the wine and halla. I warned myself not to talk politics, when suddenly one man said to me, I recognize you youre at the Women in Black vigil on Fridays. All eyes turned to me. People have been beaten up for less. Yes, I said, willing to change the topic. Well, he smiled at me, I think you women are the conscience of Jerusalem. So much for stereotypes of religious people and so much for a sense of despair about going unnoticed.

Women in Black were the conscience of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv and Kibbutz Nahshon and the 36 other places in Israel where we stood. We were not Cassandras, wailing our prophecies of doom to an inattentive public. We were heard, though it wasnt always pleasant for those listening. Week in and week out, year in and year out, Women in Black did not allow the Israeli public to forget the occupation and its brutal consequences. And ultimately, the impact was felt through all these ripples, our personal and our public lives, pulsing through Israeli society and the world at large.

Peace. Peace?

And, finally, the question of peace. If you walk through the streets of modern post-Oslo Israel, particularly through the streets of Jerusalem, that beautiful but cursed town seething with intensity and suffering, you will see a variety of stickers on the cars. Bumper stickers are where the silent majority and the silent minority express themselves best. During the days of the intifada, the only stickers extant were Greater Israel, Hebron Forever, The Nation is with the Golan, and the like. Peace stickers were rare, as their presence would invite a passing political adversary to slash the tires, fold the wipers, or simply key the paint job. Not anymore. Today, you can gauge the climate that favors peace by a long line of blue squares, sun clouds passing through a clear blue sky, with one word only on them: Peace. A beautiful production of the Peace Now movement. And there are stickers saying Yes to Peace, No to Violence, a sad allusion to the many terrorist incidents that continue to plague both Israelis and Palestinians by extremist forces. I saw a picture of Rabin on one sticker: In his death, he left us a legacy of peace. I wish a legacy of peace one even deeper than Rabins really were on the doorstep: not a state of non-belligerence, but a peace that fuses the concepts of shared land, shared destiny, and shared struggle for a better life. But we still seem to be some way off from this. Having elected Benjamin Netanyahu may delay the vision even more, but his election was not a sign that public opinion turned against peace; Netanyahu felt the need to espouse a peace platform in order to win election, though he has played to his anti-peace partners in the coalition in a way that bodes no good.

The conflict in the Middle East is rooted in conflicting claims to the same territory by two nations, but it is fueled by the many parties who have an interest in keeping the enmity alive. In Israel and the Arab countries, these parties include religious fundamentalists, right-wing politicians who feed off the fear, reactionary policies by liberal politicians, the military establishments, and the international arms industry. Some of these parties foment violence deliberately, but others dont even realize that their actions in the interests of security and peace of mind foster the kind of fear that leads to aggression, but it is inevitable. Developing, testing, and carrying a big stick is an invitation to get hit.

I wish I could end this story by saying And now there is peace and we are living happily ever after, but I cannot. No matter when I stop this story, it will not have an unequivocally happy ending. A true reconciliation of hearts and minds is still distant from the Middle East, battered and scarred by years of hostility. Open borders and a new Middle East will not come about in my lifetime. As an optimist, I am hoping that it will come about in my childrens lifetimes, but as a realist, I think that they will continue to suffer from the fallout of a century of ill-will between two otherwise wonderful nations. Now in their twenties, my daughters have already lived through (though not all their friends have made it) the Scuds of Saddam, the bus-bombs of Hamas, and, as I finish this writing, katyushas of the Hizbulla exploding on the kibbutz where my younger daughter now lives. And my Palestinian friends have also lived through much suffering.

The price of war and violence is fierce and often irreversible. I can only pray that my daughters and all our children have absorbed the lessons of hope, the will to persist, and a sense of the power of committed citizens. Efforts to make peace can exact a very high price, but their rewards are immeasurable.

*** *** ***


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[1] - Eric Silver, What Now for Peace Now?, The Jerusalem Report, March 7, 1991.

[2] - Carl Schrag, Staking a Claim for Peace: Grassroots Peace Movements in Israel, Israel Scene, April/May 1990.

[3] - Quoted by Margo Lipschitz Sugarman, Janine Zacharia, and Daniel Grynberg in A Chronology of Hate, The Jerusalem Report, November 30, 1995.

[4] - Shira Katz, New Agendas of the Womens Movement for Peace: To Be or How To Be?, Challenge, May-June 1995, No. 31.

[5] - Ibid.

[6] - Yvonne Deutsch, And Peace Shall Multiply Like Mushrooms, unpublished essay.

[7] - .Asian Womens Human Rights Council, Women in Black: A Gathering of Spirit.

[8] - Maggie Helwig, Wearing Black for the Enemy, Peace News, November 1993.




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