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Women in Black

2. The Coming of Age of Women in Black

Gila Svirsky



The first time I heard of Women in Black was in early January 1988. My friend Miri told me that she had heard of a group of women who were demonstrating on Friday at a nearby square with signs to stop the occupation. She said that she was planning to join them and invited me to come. I turned her down. When she returned from the demonstration that day, she told me that although only about 15 women had come, it felt right to her to be standing together with a group of women in protest of the occupation. She said that this had been the third time the group had demonstrated, and that they regarded themselves as a vigil and were planning to stand every week for one hour. She asked if I wanted to go the following week and I said that Id think about it.

The news was terrible all week. My sense of helplessness grew, and by the following Friday, my need to do something was acute. I told Miri that Id join her. She suggested that I wear black clothes, as that was part of the gimmick the women used to draw attention to themselves and their messagethe black symbolizing mourning for the victims of the violence. I laughedgimmicks are not for meand went dressed in my civvies. When I reached the small group of women, I was immediately sorry that I had not come dressed in black. They were standing on a low wall surrounding a plaza in the middle of a busy intersection in Jerusalem, facing the busy traffic that circles this plaza. Standing on the wall raised the women 3-4 feet off the ground. This small group, looking serious and austere in their black garb, created an impression of conscience. I regretted my colorful clothes. Wearing black would indeed have been a small enough sacrifice for the strong image these women projected.

I said hello to two women I knew and looked around for a sign to hold. There were no spare signs. Off to one side I saw red-headed Alva, Miekas classmate, lettering a sign with a felt-tip pen. I asked to help and together we neatly printed, Stop the violence, all of you, and took it and stepped up on the wall. I looked around at the traffic circling us and the few pedestrians who walked by. I tried to catch the looks on their faces. What were they thinking? Did they agree or disagree with the sentiments on our signs? How could anyone oppose efforts to end violence?, I thought to myself innocently at this early stage.

There was no clear response yet from the passersby. Yes, they were definitely startled by our presence, but not taking us seriously. Perhaps it was that combinationnoticing but not really caringthat got my goat. What did that indifference mean? Miri thought it might have to do with their feeling that we were only women demonstrating. Nothing to get into a lather about. I think thats what initially got to me, made me want to come again, and the following week I did come, this time dressed in black.

Many, probably most of us felt uncomfortable about wearing black and standing on a wall proclaiming our political point of view. Hella Yaniv describes how she felt at the early vigils:

I was invited by one of the organizers to the first vigil. [] I remember my desire to participate and my embarrassment about the style of action. The idea of appearing in black embarrassed me. I clearly remember how difficult it was for me to put on black clothes and go. [] To my shame, I could not overcome my fear and join the second vigil. But the following week, it was already held in Paris Square, and from then on I was a regular participant. [] But there is something scary about standing in the middle of the street, exposed to the entire community; everyone can see who you are and what you stand for. Until then, I used to participate only sporadically in political activities that took place in a closed group of people who think like me, or where I was protected by many other demonstrators, as in Peace Now. There was never such direct contact with the world, with the public. The contact with Women in Black is much more direct, much more exposed.[1]

But as uncomfortable as many of us felt, the vigil was slowly growing. By the fifth week, we were about 30 women, almost all of us dressed in black. I looked around and took considerable pride in standing there. So did the other womenthat was clear. On the other hand, it was remarkable that no one had really noticed us yet: The group had been on the vigil for a month already, but no one really cared. The media didnt think it was worth reporting, passersby did just thatpassed us byand even the cars just drove on, their drivers mildly glad to have something to observe other than the red light. Women have always been useful for looking at!

Over the next few weeks, we gradually increased our numbers and began to unify our message. In the first few months, we would customize our message to the events of the week, reacting against the specific acts of aggression and violence that took place. Gradually, realizing that the occupation was the source of most if not all of this violence, we dropped the variety of signs and remained with the one message that was clear and succinctStop the Occupationthe stylized black hands on a wooden stick.

Although about 30-40 women now stood at every vigil, this meant that about 50-60 were participating, but did not show up every week. The Israeli media had still not yet taken notice of us whatsoever, although the great many other protests and demonstrationsmixed male-female groupswere given considerable media attention at the time.

Apart from the more politically savvy founders, most of us didnt care about the lack of media attentionin those days it didnt seem important to usas we felt thoroughly driven by some inner impulse of what we should be doing. We had no strategy, no tactics, and only a few of us made an effort to recruit others[2]. Some women joined us after having been invited by friends, others saw us from a car or bus window, got out, and joined the group. We were beginning to take pride in the fact that our group was slowly growing.

About two months into the vigil, a few passersby did begin to take notice. I think the look of strong women is what got to them. A few men walking by began to call out their thoughts, most of these inspired less by our politics than by our gender. Whores, they began. What made them think of us as whores, I wondered. Our look of strength? Our standing there independent of men? Our black clothing? Or was whore just a way for some men to thrust women into roles that were more familiar and controllable? Some of them were definitely unnerved at the sight of 30 women, all dressed in black, taking ourselves seriously, holding signs that relate to political issues, and meeting verbal provocations with a stony silence. Women and politics? The very combination must have been frightening for some.


By the fourth or fifth month, we were a regular vigil of 50 or so women, and this was beginning to look impressive. Vigils had also begun in Tel-Aviv and Haifa, which added a sense of power to us all. Many onlookers who disagreed with our politics now did take the time to stop and express their sentiments, many in violent terms. Some of this was scary, and some of it was beginning to feel empowering. Listening to those curses, feeling the fear, but not being intimidated to stop had a powerful effect. We were beginning to develop our own self-confidence from standing on this vigil. The worry was still there, but it also began to be mixed with an intermittent sense of defiance. And the more virulent the opposition to us became, the more we realized that our message was getting across.

Motorists were also beginning to respond, shouting their angry words through the windows as they paused for the traffic light. But where were the drivers or pedestrians who agreed with our views? We began to notice that those who agreed with us were refined, understated, nay, downright mute about their support. These were the years of right wing domination in Israeli political life, when left wing sentiments were not safely expressed out loud in public[3]. Most passersby who supported the positions of Women in Black made do with a little V sign of their fingers, or sometimes a thumbs-up. None of them shouted, Right on!, Saintly virgins! (countering the other appellation), or a simple Hurrah! Finally, someone came up with the idea of holding a sign that said (in Hebrew): End the occupation honk twice to elicit some audible support for our position.

Being a tall woman, I often ended up holding that sign, and I would take up a position on the corner before the motorists reached the red light, hoping that they would not be shy about honking so long as their cars were still in motion. I became very enthusiastic about that sign and my role in eliciting a few supportive car honks, and I held it high, my arms stretched to the limits, ignoring the ache they felt from 60 minutes in this position. At the time, I regarded it as a major contribution to the morale of the group. And cars did honk their agreement, once in a while, and it was something of a consolation to hear that we were not entirely alone. Unfortunately, we soon learned that honking without good reason is against the law, and police officers who were not enchanted by our point of view threatened to ticket cars who expressed their politics through their car horns, so we put the sign away.

More and more women began to join us. It was not rare that a woman would drive by and notice us, mull it over as she sat in traffic, then drive back, park, and join us on the vigil plaza. Or get off a bus and walk over to join the group. One regular vigiler was a woman brought there in her wheelchair by a man, who lifted her in the chair up to the vigil plaza, waited nearby for the hour to pass, and then lifted her down and wheeled her away afterwards. I dont know this womans name, but I was glad every time I saw her.

The more we stood and the larger we grew, the more seriously we took ourselves. One of the founders, Hagar, took upon herself the role of master sergeant, enforcing discipline of all sorts. She would make a round of the group several times during the vigil and let us hear her rebukes: Stop talking, this isnt a tea party; Tell your boyfriend to stand behind you, hes blocking the view of you; Buy yourself a pure black shirt that doesnt have that design in the corneror wear it inside out; and the perennial Youre late.

Many, probably most of us were intimidated by Hagar, with her strong presence and her sharp tongue that would slam hecklers, policemen, and latecomers to the vigil with equal ferocity. In many ways, Hagar became the symbol of the vigil for us, and although disagreements with her would crop up for many of us, she always had our unflinching respect.

By now, Maya Bluhm and Chaya White Bloom had made hands for us in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and then in Russian, in honor of the mass wave of Russian immigrants to Israel during that period. And the flimsy cardboard was replaced by corrugated board hands that held up better in rain, snow, and hail, and then other women joined in replacing worn signs.

As we looked back on our first year of Women in Black, we could count vigils in three cities of Israel. The largest was in Jerusalem, where 80 women or so turned out every week and the circle of women now wrapped entirely around the plaza. And although we had begun to notice the wide range of political views among usfrom moderate to radical to off-the-mapwe were slowly building up a sense of loyalty toward the vigil, both because of solidarity with each other in our common cause, but also because we began to close ranks against those hostile to us.

Reaching Maturity

As we approached the first anniversary of Women in Black, the women began to discuss how to commemorate it and on which date. Should we observe the anniversary of the intifada itself (December 9th) or the anniversary of the first actual Women in Black vigil (January 8th)? We held a meeting two weeks before the intifadas birthday to discuss the question. About 30 women were there, and the key issue was: Do we commemorate ourselves or the intifada?

After much discussion, we finally decided to hold the mass event one week after the anniversary of the intifada, so that we would be making a statement that associated us with the terrible situation in the territories, but we also would not be celebrating the holiday of the Palestinians. We talked about how to bring lots of women to the rally and we set ourselves the goal of 365 womenone for every day of the intifada so far. This was a formidable challenge for our little vigil that had not exceeded 100 women even once so far.

We divided up tasks: Anat Hoffman was to prepare funeral announcements that women would holda black-bordered notice that would say Justice is Dead, R.I.P. Hella Yaniv would prepare a flyer in Hebrew explaining who Women in Black are, and I would translate it into English. These flyers would be handed out to bystanders. Several women volunteered to make extra hands for all the vigilers, and others volunteered to call up the media and encourage them to come.

Just as we were about to break up the meeting, Yvonne Deutsch mentioned that the First International Jewish Feminist Conference would be meeting in Jerusalem next week. This would be a large international event320 leading feminist leadersco-sponsored by three major Jewish organizations[4], and scheduled to end on a Thursday night. The morning of the next dayour regular vigil daya supplementary conference to address the issues of the intifada was being planned by a group of Israeli Women in Black, with the intention of attracting to it as many women from abroad as possible. The peace conference would end with a mass march from its location (in the Reform Movement headquarters not far from the vigil) to Women in Black, where they would join us. Yvonne suggested that we change the planned date of our celebration from one week after the intifada anniversary to one week before it, to take advantage of this extra contingent of women, and we all agreed at once.

This meant, of course, that the present meeting was only one week away from the event itselfnot much time to organize by any standardsbut everyone was thoroughly motivated. Anat prepared 100 copies of Justice is Dead, R.I.P.figuring every third woman could hold one. Others did the press releases. The hands were cut and lettered. And a group of women under Hella even prepared a petition addressed to then Prime Minister Shamir calling for an end to the bloodshed and the occupation, and the initiation of peace talks. A group of women also took on the task of being vigil monitors with identifying armbands. The monitors would be in charge of maintaining orderkeeping the sidewalk clear, preventing disturbances, and handing out the flyers that had been prepared. Everything was ready. Would 365 women show up?

The planned Friday, December 2, 1988, was a beautiful sunny day and the mornings conference was ground-breaking. Entitled A Call for Peace: Feminists Respond to the Occupation, it was the first all-woman conference in Israel dedicated to addressing the issue of war in general, and specifically the first to look at the effects of the Israeli occupation upon the lives of women, Israeli and Palestinian. Attending were Jewish and Palestinian Women in Black from vigils throughout Israel and progressive Jewish women from all over the world. One very practical significant achievement of this conference was the formation of the Coalition for Women and Peace, representing all the womens peace organizations in Israel.

After the conference, I went quickly to the square and arrived well before the appointed hour. Twenty women were already there. More women soon arrived, and by 1 oclock, the vigil plaza was entirely encircled, about 100 women. I had never seen so many women so early. At that point, women began to arrive in twos and threes and joined us on the wall. By 1:10, we had to form a second line of women below the first, encircling the plaza entirely twice! There must have been 200 by then. Then at 1:15, two parades of women dressed in black arrived from the direction of the conference, marching on either side of wide Agron Avenue. We could see them as they approached from a distance, walking proud and strong until they reached our intersection, standing at the traffic light like proud daughters of Lysistrata, then crossing the street en masse for everyone to see. I recall feeling so moved by the sight of them that tears came to my eyes.

There were Women in Black from the vigils in Tel-Aviv and Haifa, and women from the Arab city of Nazareth, and many visitors from abroad, including Bella Abzug (New Yorks famous feminist-politician), Rene Epelbaum (one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina), Letty Cottin Pogrebin (editor of Ms. Magazine and later active in American-Israeli peace work), Marcia Freedman (a former Knesset member now living in San Francisco), Phyllis Chesler (renowned American feminist author and psychologist), and Elizabeth Holtzman (former member of Congress from New York), as well as many more women well-known in feminist and peace circles. It was terrific to see them there, marching together and then joining us.

By then, we were a sea of women. Some joined the group on the plaza wall, but there was no room for everybody. But our wonderful monitors had planned in advance what to do in the event of a spillover. They sent the first group to fill up the Terra Sancta corner of the intersection. The second group was directed to the United Synagogue corner. The third filled up the Supersol corner. And the fourth, the Kings Hotel corner. They were all jam-packed! We couldnt believe the sight of itevery single corner and the entire plaza covered with Women in Black, each holding a hand, and every three-four women, a Justice is Dead, R.I.P. notice. We even filled up the space in front of the nearby Discount Bank with friends of Women in Blackfor men who wanted to cheer us on or women who did not come in black, but wanted to identify with us. The only non-Woman in Black allowed through by the monitors was Avi Butavia, one of our male supporters, who walked around handing out to the women little napkins with dried fruit and nuts in them.

There was a real sense of mission and seriousness about this vigil. Not much laughing or talking. Most of us were awed by what was happening around us. Then one woman went to each of the corners and counted. We were close to 500 women, a true and accurate count. Everyone cheered when she announced the tally.

There were media filming and cameras flashing, and passersby getting printed flyers, and dogs barked, and there was an air of victory. Standing there between my daughter and her friend, I thought how elated I felt. I also wondered what would happen at 2 p.m. Would we all just break up? I did not want to leave. I just felt wonderful standing there.

What did happen at 2 p.m.? Another surprise. Nabila Espanioly, a Palestinian Woman in Black from Haifa who was standing on the vigil wall, began to sing, We Shall Overcome, and everyone took up the singing. We sang in English and in Hebrew and then we sang in Arabic, and suddenly I realized how many Palestinian women were among us. We sang all the verses and when we finished, we sang them all over again. One man came by to shout at us while we were singing, and he became quite violent. Sue Katz, a black-belt in tae-kwan-do, together with another woman, walked over to him and hauled him off. Our singing drowned out his shouting. And many of us put our arms around each other, and swayed back and forth while we sang. What a feeling!

When it was over, about 2:30, it was hard to go home. So much had been felt, so strongly. Everyone turned around and hugged each other and some women cried, and nobody wanted it to end. No police had ever arrived and by then we were crowding the sidewalk and nobody could move in any direction. Finally the monitors began to direct us to move in one direction, because the area had become impossibly jammed. I joined Hella and a few others to deliver the petitionwith over 400 names on itto Prime Minister Shamir at his nearby home, but we were not allowed in to meet with him, for some inexplicable reason. (We delivered it to his assistant the following Sunday at his office.) By then, we were beginning to float back to earth from our feeling of elation, and could handle more practical matters like going home.

That night, lo and behold, the Israel television station gave us serious coverage on the news, showing the full range of the demonstration, and explaining what it was all about. And several papers covered itnot many, but this was the first media coverage that we had inside Israel. It was a milestone.

From this mass event, one year after our modest vigil had begun, we maintained our numbers of about 100 women every Friday at the Jerusalem vigil, rain or shine. Avi kept bringing nuts and dried fruit. Everyone felt part of a special sisterhood. The occupation was not yet over, but we felt that if anyone could stop it, we were it. And we did our best to be disciplinedto come in full uniform (pure black) and be silent. We were taking ourselves very seriously. And, yes, we were beginning to feel powerful!

* * *


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[1] Neri Livne, Seeing Black, Hadashot, September 7, 1990 [Hebrew].

[2] Most early recruiting was done by the original women from Dai LaKibush and activists in ShaniIsraeli Women Against the Occupation. Activists from the Tel-Aviv and Haifa vigils also tried to recruit. Telephone calls were the early method of choice.

[3] I felt this on my own skin on one occasion. In May 1989, I happened to be downtown in Jerusalem when a Palestinian terrorist stabbed to death three elderly Israelis and wounded several others. I stood among a crowd of bystanders and watched as ambulances took away the victims, when someone in the crowd began to shout Death to Arabs, and the chant was taken up by others. I listened, horrified. Suddenly, the TV camera that had been focused on the ambulances swung toward us, and the shouters raised the volume of their demand. In one fleeting moment, I saw the camera would be on me, and I knew I had to say something different. Jews have also killed Arabs, I shouted into the lens. Given time, I could have thought of something more intelligent to say, but those were the only words that came to mind right then. As the camera passed, I got a series of knee-kicks into my backside and then from the front. The crowd let me know what they thought of Arab lovers, until I was finally extricated by a policeman who had allowed the reaction to mount before he intervened.

[4] The conference, co-sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress, and the Israel Womens Network, was the brunt of considerable anger among women peace activists, as the agenda gave short shrift to the issues of the occupation and intifada, although the theme of the conference was Identifying ProblemsFinding Solutions. The background for this is well analyzed by Letty Cottin Pogrebin in Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991, pp. 312-328.



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