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Hilda Silverman (1939-2008)

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"I think he doesn't understand in his gut what it means for Jews to have been a victim people for so long, and the myriad complex ways this plays itself out in the present (including among so many of us who are peace/justice activists)."

Hilda wrote these words in an e-mail to me on March 2001, and for me they epitomize the bedrock of Jewishness underlying all her activism.  While others had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Hilda up close and personal, I relied on her written words.  And because being Jewish was at the core of Hilda's moral voice, her words were to me always powerful and inspiring.  I am among the many who will miss her.
Below is an obituary from the Boston Globe and a letter written by Hilda to the powers-that-be on the eve of Passover 2001.
As we say in Jewish tradition when someone wonderful dies, may her memory be a blessing.
Hilda Silverman. Picture from the Boston Globe

Hilda Silverman; activist sought peace for Israelis, Palestinians

In the most divisive matters, Hilda Silverman found what she believed was a moral course. From there she did not waver, even when her words and actions at times drew hate mail and death threats.

That was true during the past quarter century as she advocated for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"I am a Jew with a profound consciousness of Jewish victimization through history," she wrote in a 2002 opinion article for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But, for me, victim and victimizer, oppressor and oppressed are not mutually exclusive categories."

She denounced some of Israel's actions toward Palestinians, then stood firm as many Jews labeled such criticism as a betrayal.

"Hilda has been a central figure in the peace activist community," said Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "She was highly respected, greatly loved and admired, and consistently sought after as a resource, as a speaker, as a colleague, and a friend. . . . She cared profoundly about issues of social and political justice, and of course was deeply committed to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and finding a resolution that would allow both peoples to live in peace with each other in a state of their own."

Ms. Silverman, who had moved to Arlington a year and a half ago, died Monday in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, the city that had been her home for many years. She was 69 and been diagnosed with leukemia several weeks earlier, not long after recovering from treatment for lymphoma.

Two years ago, the Cambridge Peace Commission honored Ms. Silverman and other activists.

"Many found their way through the quagmire of Middle East politics thanks to Hilda's sure, focused, but always patient guidance," the organization said on its website. "Her tireless efforts in organizing, fund-raising for humanitarian aid and chastising her friends when we go astray, have made her one of the most respected, admired, loved members of our community (and, inevitably, reviled by some)."

Beginning by campaigning door-to-door for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign, Ms. Silverman devoted most of her time to activism. Her circle of friends and contacts grew to span states and nations. Her mailing list, friends and family say, was enormous.

"Hilda was a woman so filled with a drive for justice - justice on all issues," said Elaine Hagopian, professor emerita of sociology at Simmons College. "I know there are a number of people, I can't tell you how many, who feel that her mentoring changed their lives. It's amazing to me the number of people across this country, and in Israel and Palestine, who know Hilda, who worked with her, and who were overwhelmed by her powerful presence, without her realizing how much her voice impacted so many of us. She was a very humble person."

With a handful of peace activists, she met in 1987 with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a brief gathering in Tunisia that drew the lasting enmity of many Jews and praise from those who thought it was necessary for Jews and Palestinians to exchange ideas.

By then, Ms. Silverman was no stranger to controversy. When she was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Philadelphia in 1979, she filed a lawsuit against the city's use of public funds to build a large alter for Pope John Paul II's visit.

"The hate mail is unbelievable," she told The Washington Post that October. "We've had death threats. What Jesus himself would find if he were coming here is all of these people who say they love the pope, but who stand ready to attack the Jews."

David Silverman of New York City said that during her years as an activist, his mother "was just very verbal and very outspoken and usually on the unpopular side of the issue. . . . There weren't so many death threats, but there was a lot of hate mail directed at her."

Born in Cambridge, Hilda Bernstein grew up in Gloucester and went to Radcliffe College, graduating in 1960. She received a master's degree in education from Harvard two years later. She was married for a couple of years, divorcing while in graduate school.

Moved to Philadelphia for an internship, she was introduced by relatives to Paul Silverman, to whom she was married for several years. When they divorced in the early 1970s, she needed to find work.

"I think her first paid job was a Pennsylvania program for women and girl offenders," Jennifer Silverman of New York City said of her mother. And in that work, she said, her mother found a calling in activism.

In addition to her job a few years later with the ACLU, Ms. Silverman worked with several organizations during the next three decades, including Act on Conscience for Israel/Palestine and Visions of Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine.

She also served in several positions with the American Friends Service Committee. As part of that organization's Quaker Working Party, she traveled to Israel in 2002 and was among those who described their experiences in the book "When the Rain Returns: Toward Justice and Reconciliation in Palestine and Israel."

Returning to Massachusetts in the early 1990s for a two-year peace fellowship at Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute, she settled in Cambridge. From classrooms to living rooms she was a commanding figure.

"She filled a room with her presence," her daughter said. "She was really, really there - big movements, big gestures, a big voice. And she had a strong sense of honesty, which meant speaking the truth and speaking her mind."

Said Ms. Silverman's son: "If she saw something that she didn't think was right, she felt an obligation to speak out about it, and she did. I don't think she always perceived how widely her work was appreciated. My Mom didn't do what she did for glory, and she certainly didn't do it for money."

Roy, who was a friend of Ms. Silverman's for 22 years, called her "a model for all of us, really. She represented, to me at least, a standard and an example of what I would like to be, a person I would always emulate. I always felt very honored to be in her presence, to be her friend. Honored and humbled, really. I admired her enormously. To this day, in my own work when I'm confronting an issue or problem, I often think, 'What might Hilda do?' "

In addition to her son and daughter, Ms. Silverman leaves a brother, John Bernstein of Newark, Del.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on May 25 in Temple Beth-Shalom in Cambridge. 

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

April 7, 2001

To Colin Powell, Secretary of State; Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister; Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israeli Defense Minister; Colonel Dov Tzedaka, Civil Administration Commander; and Yaakov Orr, Coordinator of Activities in the Territories:

Practically every U.S. Jew I know is approaching Passover this year in despair and dismay over Israel’s recent and current treatment of the Palestinians. To demolish homes—in some instances for the third time—and to uproot trees that have been the source of family livelihoods for generations is to show such contempt for the humanity of ordinary Palestinian civilians that it almost defies comprehension. That the U.S. is providing de facto support for such despicable acts—in addition to the provision of massive military assistance-- implicates every U.S. taxpayer in activities that surely he or she would find abhorrent if carried out in our own country.

To make matters worse, the U.S. veto of a UNSC resolution that would have provided even the most minimal protection for Palestinians puts vulnerable people everywhere on notice that ours is not a country to be counted on for assistance in times of peril.

Until Israeli leaders and their U.S. supporters start to confront the Pharaoh within, there is no hope of quelling Palestinian rage; and the killings and the maimings on both sides will continue to mount inexorably while Israel destroys the very land it claims to love.

The future is in your hands. Please act in ways to honor life rather than to diminish and destroy it.


Hilda Bernstein Silverman

Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.  – Woody Allen