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Standing for Peace: Chapter 10 1996

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Beyond Oslo, Beyond Rabin

 

And now we come to the reaction of the Women in Black movement to the beginning of the peace process with the Palestinians...and then the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

 

The first half of 1993 had been more than discouraging.  It began with the expulsion from Israel in December (1992) of 415 members of Hamas, now trying to survive the hard winter in the mountains of Lebanon.  March was a particularly bloody month, with 15 Israelis, most of them civilians, killed by Palestinians from the occupied territories in revenge for the expulsions.  In late March, in an effort to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, the government imposed a “closure” on the Palestinian residents of the territories, cutting off entry into Israel and travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The closure brought great hardship to the Palestinian population in the territories: over 100,000 employed inside Israel lost their income[1], doctors and patients were cut off from medical centers, teachers and students could not reach educational institutions, and the flow of consumer goods including food and medicines was severely curtailed.  This closure was eventually eased, but never fully rescinded, and is periodically reinstated, sometimes in an effort to prevent terrorism and other times as a form of collective punishment for acts of terrorism.

 

July was another bad month, with a massive Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in retaliation for the shelling of northern Israeli towns by Hizballah forces there.  This invasion forced the mass evacuation of the civilian population in the area, creating a new wave of refugees, at least temporarily.  Meretz, the party that had gained seats on a platform of “peace and civil rights”, was now part of the coalition government, and failed to speak out clearly throughout this period – indeed, it voted for the mass expulsions and went along with other human rights violations.  Peace Now also did not respond to these events, with its “subservience to security arguments and its determination to remain within the national consensus in Israel”[2].

 

The women’s peace movement expressed its condemnation of these events in the vigils, but the voice of the vigils was ignored by the media.  Perhaps the only clear protests sounded at the time were that of Gush Shalom, a more progressive voice that tried to pick up the slack of Peace Now, and various human rights organizations[3].  Set into this discouraging context, the announcement on August 29, 1993 was electrifying:  Representatives of the Israeli government had been secretly meeting in Oslo with representatives of the PLO, and both sides were now prepared to embark upon a peace process that would end the occupation.  This was a stunning volte-face for the Israeli government, which had for years denounced the PLO as a terrorist organization with whom it would never negotiate.

 

Peace activists seem to be natural optimists – perhaps that’s a prerequisite for the endeavor – which is the only way I can explain our instant willingness to believe that peace had just befallen us.  I remember the initial incredulity, the calling of friends for confirmation, the search for media corroboration, and, within hours, our embracing of the magical announcement: mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel.  It was extraordinary.  The message clearly  conveyed that peace was in the offing, was at last being discussed.  “Come let us reason together.”  We were so eager to believe it was about to happen!

 

The day the news broke, a Sunday, I happened to be participating in a get-together with Palestinian residents of Nablus who had been invited to Jerusalem, just as they had hosted Jews from Jerusalem in Nablus several months earlier.  All this was part of the wonderful work carried on by the Palestinian/Israeli Dialogue Group (of which some Women in Black were organizers on the Israeli side).  When the Nablus families got off the buses, we greeted each other excitedly, knowing that something important was taking place and joyous to be able to celebrate it together.  A joint Israeli-Palestinian peace march had been planned for a quiet neighborhood of Jerusalem, but the mood of the march now turned from protest to celebration.  We walked through the narrow back streets of Jerusalem holding aloft a banner in Hebrew and Arabic saying “We want peace”, and we felt the rising expectations of a common dream, maybe, hopefully, about to come true.  We were several hundred who ate dinner together, and when we parted at the buses later that evening, we embraced as if we had known each other for decades.  I remember feeling that we were at the dawn of an end to the suffering.

 

Each day that week brought more news and rumors of progress toward peace and, with each passing day, the word “PLO” lost some of its diabolical connotations.  It amazed me that public opinion could shift so quickly about this despised organization, a testimony to the power of the establishment to bestow legitimacy.  “You make peace with your enemies, not your friends” became the slogan of choice to rationalize the change.  Perhaps it should have been hard to believe, but we believed it.  Four days later, Jerusalem Women in Black met at the home of  Judy Blanc to discuss what this meant in terms of the vigil.  It must have been a festive evening, because I remember having pretzels and lemonade, not the ascetic lack of refreshments at all previous meetings.  And the decision of the 20 women who met?  Hold the vigil this Friday, by all means, but  –finally, finally – add a new slogan: “Yes to Peace”.

 

Anat Hoffman arranged for the white sashes with the “Yes to Peace” writ large across them, and the vigil that Friday was the largest we had had in a very long time.  There’s a beautiful picture of Hagar from that vigil, standing tall and strong, a smile of quiet pride on her lips, with the “End the Occupation” sign in Arabic in her hand and a “Yes to Peace” banner in Hebrew draped across her front.  There was a celebratory mood at that vigil, and many women turned up who had not appeared in quite a while.  They wanted to share the celebration together with those with whom they had worked so hard for peace, and it was good to be together again.  Not all women were party to the joy, however.  Some were more skeptical of the peace treaty that was not yet written; they felt that this was not a farewell vigil, but rather the beginning of the final lap.  And the Nitzotz women, always a group apart, were not about to wear “Yes to Peace” banners when it looked to them as if Arafat, no hero of theirs, was about to sell out the Palestinian people.  But the mood of most of the women was euphoric.

 

On September 13, 1993, many of us could not hold back the tears of joy and relief as we watched the media broadcasts of the Declaration of Principles between our two nations being signed on the White House lawn in Washington...and the moving moment when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin extended his hand, first tentatively, toward Chairman Yasser Arafat, and then each grasped the other firmly and shook hands.  That first handshake, with more determination than warmth, was the first of many, and enthusiasm eventually caught up with conviction.

 

This seemed to be a clear sign.  In the following weeks, Women in Black in Jerusalem met several times to debate the continuation of the vigil.  We had somewhat sobered up from our first elated expectations.  All of us understood that the peace process would not lead to an immediate end to either the occupation or to human rights abuses.  We all knew that events in the coming months might prompt us to return to the vigil.  But a vote to continue, most of us believed, would convey the wrong message to the public – one of rejection of the peace process, rather than support for it.  And besides, in recent weeks, attendance at the vigil had dramatically dropped, despite our extra message of “Yes to Peace”.  The Nitzotz women had stopped coming altogether, unwilling to support the peace that was shaping up.  Thus, on October 20, 1993, Jerusalem Women in Black voted to end the weekly vigil.  It was not easy.  In the words of Ruth Cohen, “I doubt whether a single one of the women who have stood on the vigil for the past five-and-a-half years did not feel a sense of emptiness and regret on Friday, October 22nd, at one o’clock....”[4]

 

In the following weeks, the vigils ended in most locations in Israel following meetings and discussions.  Only Tel-Aviv and Kibbutz Nahshon felt it was important to continue to stand, and they never skipped a beat.  “We had not yet completed our job; the occupation is not over,” explained Yaffa Gavish, a veteran Tel-Aviv Woman in Black who continues to stand on the weekly vigil together with other determined women[5].  Jerusalem Women in Black met several times to talk about what alternative formats for action might be, but nothing captured the imagination of the group.  One idea was to hold a celebration at the border on the day of evacuation of Gaza and Jericho.  We earned the right to celebrate, we all told each other.  The plan never materialized, however, as the evacuation was constantly delayed when one or another conflict was raised between the two sides, and then the army prevented a civilian presence anywhere near the border.  Well, Women in Black had more expertise in looking grim than in partying, anyway.

 

Supporters from abroad wrote and asked us for guidance about their own solidarity vigils:  “We have been following your courageous example for four years in Berkeley with our weekly vigils each Friday...Now, in light of the promising steps toward peace taken by both our peoples, we are re-examining our need to vigil and would like to make contact with you now to ask how you intend to proceed....”[6]  As the weeks lengthened, however, disturbing thoughts began to set in about the Oslo agreement.  Its implementation became subject to delay after delay, and doubts began to fester about the sincerity of the sides.  First the deadline for the start of withdrawal was constantly pushed up, then the army was calling it redeployment rather than evacuation, and anyway the terms of this first stage were far less promising than a true peace.  Women in Black throughout Israel, past and present, made a commitment to each other: to resume the vigil if the peace process did not move forward.  In Ruth’s quiet, strong words:  “If the current attempt to find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not measure up to expectations, we will, one by one, resume our weekly stand against the occupation.  We hoped that would not be necessary.”[7]

 

But it did appear necessary after one delay too many, and Women in Black called an ad hoc vigil for December 10, 1993 to express our concerns.  Over 100 Women in Black turned out from all over the country.  This was an opportunity to express solidarity with the peace process, condemn the acts of terrorism by both Palestinian and Israeli  extremists, demand an immediate start of withdrawal, and call for more generous terms of peace for the Palestinians.  The message was far more complex than “End the Occupation”, and faithfully conveyed our beliefs.  Nitzotz was by now too far afield of these views to ever show up again, and they focused their attention elsewhere.

 

Throughout this period, the women of Tel-Aviv and Kibbutz Nahshon continued their vigils.  These vigils have the distinction of being absolutely the most steadfast of them all, carrying on long after the starts-and-stops of Jerusalem, and unabated as of this writing.  The fifteen women from Tel-Aviv and three from Kibbutz Nahshon vow to carry on every week until the occupation is truly over.  After the Oslo accord, Tel-Aviv added new signs to its growing variety of slogans, and these now made reference to the niggardly terms of the new agreement: “5% released prisoners plus 5% returned territories equals 5% peace.”  And one tired Tel-Aviv vigiler added her own: “Give them a state and let us go home”.  Miri Goren at the Kibbutz Nahshon vigil says that the vigil was intended “to encourage a deeper peace process”, bringing the occupation fully to an end.  The hour of their vigil was switched to 2 p.m. rather than 1 p.m. so that the Women in Black would be seen by Palestinians who drove past at that hour on their way home to Gaza from the special Friday prayers at the Jerusalem al-Aqsa Mosque.  The women at this vigil also began to hold aloft two flags – of Israel and of a future Palestinian state – despite the hostility that this evokes from some passing motorists.[8]

 

One of the most telling signs of the dissipation of Women in Black was the conference held by us and the Women in Peace Coalition at the end of December 1993.  Although important issues were raised about how to turn stumbling gestures into a real peace, only 50 women showed up from all over Israel to attend the conference, held at Kibbutz Harel.  Nevertheless, the conference ended with a small but determined vigil of Women in Black on the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

 

Start and Stop Vigilingִ

 

The signing of the first Oslo Agreement spelled the end of most of the Women in Black vigils, but many of us in Jerusalem could not let go for another two years.  Most women stopped coming, but some of us kept plugging during the first two years of the peace process, though no more than a handful were ever in attendance.  Having now broken the taboo against new signs, we added to our slogans “Dismantle the Settlements”,  “Jerusalem – Two Capitals for Two States”, “Lift the Closure”, and “Release All Women Political Prisoners.”  Some of this was initiated by the newly created Bat Shalom organization, which sought to capture the spirit and dedication of the Women in Black movement and divert it into new channels, but most of the women at these last vigils were the die-hard Women in Black.  A sign of the times was a confused “Salute to Women in Black” sponsored by four leftist women Members of Knesset (Naomi Chazan, Yael Dayan, Tamar Gozansky, and Anat Maor) who saw fit to honor Women in Black for our role in advancing peace.  Held in January 1994 in one of the Knesset meeting rooms, the M.K.s reframed it as a 6th birthday party when those attending surprised the distinguished hostesses by explaining that some vigils had not yet thrown in the towel.  Women in Black were a hard audience to play to.

 

We were down to an all-time low of eight in the Jerusalem vigil on February 4, 1994 when a decision was again taken to stop standing.  But it was good to keep the vigil on a small flame, as there always seemed to be an unfortunate reason to pull out the black clothes and recall the women to the vigil plaza.

 

The first and most terrible reason came on Friday, February 25, 1994, when word reached the public that someone named Baruch Goldstein, a Kach fanatic, had used his submachine gun to massacre Muslims as they kneeled in prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.  There were initial media reports of 50-60 Arabs killed (the final count stood at 29 dead, perhaps a hundred more wounded), and most Israelis were stunned and horrified.  There was no need to get on the phone and inform anybody.  Well before 1 p.m., a crowd of Women in Black was already gathered at the vigil plaza, no signs, allowing our black clothes to speak the shock, grief, and mourning that no words could convey.  But we were not alone on the vigil that afternoon.  Spontaneously, men and women flocked to the vigils all over Israel, standing together in grief and shock at this heinous crime.  In Jerusalem, we were perhaps 500 sharing the sense of despair, trying to convey something of our feelings to the Palestinians, to other Jews, to the world.

 

The Israeli government set up a judicial commission of inquiry to study the circumstances of the tragedy.  Although the commission condemned the act in no uncertain terms, it hedged the question of circumstances.  The Israeli army had been responsible for security in Hebron, and the Chief of Staff at the time (Ehud Barak, later prime minister of Israel) testified to the commission that the killing had happened “like lightning on a clear day”.  This was grossly disingenuous.  You had to be an ostrich with your head in the sand (or have a reputation to protect) not to see the storm clouds gathering.  A B’Tselem report documenting the ongoing lack of enforcement of the law on Israeli settlers more accurately conveys my own feelings about the matter.   “Goldstein’s deed,” concluded the report, “cannot be perceived as the act of a single person estranged from his environment.  It was the bitter fruit of long years of faulty acts and failures to act [on the part of the Israeli authorities].”[9]

 

The massacre in Hebron cast a terrible pall over the entire fabric of relations between Israel and the PLO, and many called for a halt in the peace negotiations.  This was only one of the wrenches thrown into the peace process; repeated acts of terrorism by Palestinian extremists against civilian populations in Israel were certainly another.  Indeed, there was a dramatic rise in the number of civilians killed and injured on both sides after the signing of the Oslo accords by those who rejected the peace process.  As a result, alternating currents of hope and despair have become endemic to the peace camp throughout the years of the peace process.

 

On May 4, 1994, the “Oslo-1” pact was formally signed in Cairo, Chairman Arafat theatrically refusing to sign the maps at the ceremony until further modifications were made.  Well, what’s bad for peace was good for vigil maintenance.  By mid-1994, we were 15-30 women who turned out on an irregular basis in Jerusalem.  We were a determined group, but tiny, and international recognition was more than a bit embarrassing.  Just at this time, of course, the city of San Giovanni d’Asso in Italy decided to award its annual peace prize to Israeli and Palestinian women peace activists.  Rawda Jamil Basir representing Palestinian women and Yvonne Deutsch representing Women in Black packed off to Italy for the ceremony and discovered to their amazement that previous prize recipients included Mikhail Gorbachev, Perez de Cuellar, Desmond Tutu, and Sonja Licht, a pacifist from Serbia.  Also surprising was the prize itself – the rare Italian mushroom for which this city is famous.  Rawda and Yvonne negotiated territorial compromise over the mushroom and, in a wise Solomonic decision, they ended up leaving it intact with Italian peace activist Luisa Morgantini.

 

The years 1994 and 1995 were marred by a vicious tug of war between the forces for and against peace on both sides.  One jubilant interlude was the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, signed on October 26, 1994.  This treaty was wholly within Israeli consensus, even among the right, and a peace that could be celebrated by all.

 

But peace with the Palestinians was harder:  It meant giving away territories occupied by Israel, and the messianic settlers would hear nothing of that.  Conversely, the Palestinian rejectionist forces would hear nothing of the existence of an Israeli state on former Palestinian land.  Thus an unholy alliance was forged between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian Hamas on the common altar of resistance to the peace process, though both groups would have vehemently denied any shared goals or interests.  Simultaneously, both groups stepped up their assault on peace.  The settlers took to massive acts of civil disobedience – blocking traffic inside Israel, squatting on new settlement sites in the occupied territories, and illegal construction on them.  And the Hamas invented a more horrifying concept of protest: suicide bombers.  Young men, religious Muslims, were recruited to carry bags filled with 30-40 pounds of TNT and set them off in areas crowded with Israelis  buses, bus stops, markets, etc.  The forces for peace must have been doing something right to get so many rejectionists to behave in such a desperate manner.

 

“The Vision and the Strategies”ִ

 

In parallel with the incidents for and against peace throughout 1994, the vigil was on-again-off-again, now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t, and when you did see us, we were clearly in diminished numbers.  It was at this time that Women in Black in Israel decided to hold an international conference.  Some Women in Black faulted the organizers for holding a conference just when the vigil had faded and when the peace process was looking less like peace and more like a new form of subjugation, but many of us felt the time was right.  The idea was not only to celebrate the achievements of Women in Black in Israel and throughout the world, but especially to think about new strategies and how to deepen our impact.

 

The conference was held at the end of December 1994.  Perhaps the most significant part of that meeting was hearing the inspiring stories told by over 300 activist women from 23 countries, from Australia to Zambia, alphabetically speaking.  We called the conference “Women, War and Peace: The Vision and the Strategies”, and we learned what other activists had been doing   not prime ministers and parliament members but other grassroots women like us to advance peace all over the world.

 

As a way to acknowledge some of the incredible work of these women and to get their stories out to others, Women in Black in Israel decided to award a Women in Black Peace Prize.  This was also a tacit acknowledgement that the Israeli movement of Women in Black had the stature to be awarding prizes to others ְ– an assumption that not everyone accepted at first.  As for the recipients, it was very hard to choose among the many worthy groups, but the prize was finally awarded to three groups of organizations.  I quote from the text of their prize certificates as a way of providing a tiny peephole into the extraordinary work of these groups:

 

(a) The Jerusalem Center for Womenִ, which is the Palestinian arm of the joint Israeli-Palestinian organization, the Jerusalem Link:  “The Women in Black Peace Prize is awarded to the Jerusalem Center for Women in East Jerusalem for their courage in maintaining dialogue with like-minded Israeli women despite the continuing occupation and oppression.  In their struggle for peace, equality and self-determination for the Palestinian people, they set an example in their community.  And in their willingness to work together with Israeli women, rather than give in to the tendency to demonize the enemy, they rise above the pain and anger of the political conflict.  We honor these Palestinian women for their strength in adversity and for their abiding faith in peace.

 

(b) The Visiting Difficult Places Projectִ, a joint enterprise of the Women’s House in Torino, the Center for Documentation in Bologna, and the Italian Women’s Association for Peace:  “In the Visiting Difficult Places Project, Italian women travel to troubled corners of the globe, such as the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East.  The women bring a vision of peace through their gestures of solidarity, their humanitarian programs, and their empowerment of the local women.  This is the story of bridging nationalist differences through a feminist perspective, and we in the Middle East have greatly benefited from their presence.  We honor these Italian women for reaching beyond their own lives and working to relieve the pain and suffering of others.”

 

(c) And three groups of organizations in former Yugoslavia:

 

Women in Black, Belgrade: “These brave women have maintained their opposition to the militaristic policies of their own government, facing hostility and danger, to keep alive an anti-war opposition in Serbia.  We honor these women for their courage to speak out and to maintain solidarity with the women of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, making it clear to them that they have allies and friends among the Serbs, keeping hope alive in this war-torn region.”

 

The Women’s Lobbyִ, a coalition of The Autonomous Women’s House, “ִThe Center for Women War Victimsִ, and The Anti-War Campaign:  “Each of these groups has worked with courage and skill under very trying circumstances.  We wish to honor each of these groups, and we do so together, just as they have banded together to oppose the war in this region, and to assist the victims of that war – the women raped, the families separated, the homes destroyed.  We commend you for your efforts and for your courage.”

 

Medica, the Woman’s Therapy Center for Traumatized Womenִ in Zenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina:  “The women of Bosnia-Herzegovina have suffered unimaginable horrors from the war in this region, and the hearts of all of us go out to them.  In the face of that violence, some of these women have found the strength to come together to help tend their wounds, physical and emotional, to provide sustenance in the face of trauma, to seek the wellsprings of tenderness inside the pain.  We pay tribute to your strength, we honor your bravery, and we pledge our solidarity with you to end these crimes against humanity, and against women in particular.”

 

The award ceremony carried more than tears and inspiring stories – it was also a moment to feel the power of this worldwide movement of women who forge an example of nonviolence, of standing up to aggression, of saying NO to all forms of violence, and YES to a world of peace and moral courage.

 

The original plan was to end the conference with a mass vigil in which participants from all over the world would wear black and carry signs deploring the violence in their part of the world, but current events overtook us, as usual.  These were the days when a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories just outside of Jerusalem was seizing land from the adjoining Palestinian village of al-Khadr in an attempt to annex more territory before a peace treaty would take it away.  Violent confrontations with the army were taking place.  The conference participants, in the spirit of Women in Black, resolved to replace our planned closing ceremony with a vigil as near to the confrontation site as possible.  At noon, we set off in chartered buses and cars.  The soldiers stopped us at the roadblocks and refused us entry.  No problem, we said, and disembarked right there.  We formed a long line of women along the side of the road, all dressed in black and carrying signs “End the Occupation”, “Dismantle the Settlements”, “End Human Rights Abuses”, and each of us carrying an olive branch as well.

 

The intersection was chaotic, jammed with trucks, cars, buses, and a kaleidoscope of settlers, Palestinians, and soldiers.  Everyone saw us at the side of the road, everyone had something to say, for better and for worse, and everyone got an olive branch in response.  “Traitors!” shouted the settlers, which earned them an olive branch.  “I support Hamas,” Said one Palestinian bus driver, which earned him another.  It all seemed so ludicrously naive, foolish, and even childish.  “Thank you,” mumbled one Palestinian laborer as he walked past us on his way back into the territories.  That made a difference.  The soldiers tried to persuade us to leave, but we held our ground.  A group of Kach fanatics tried to intimidate us, but we were not intimidatible.  We stayed put and delivered our message, 300 women from all over the world, that the violence must end.  Finally, several women from different countries and religions climbed up the wall along the road and, facing the tumult, delivered a prayer for peace.  It was hard to hear the words of the prayers, spoken in foreign languages amid the din of the motor vehicles and the people, but the message was clear.  One of the soldiers looking on in curiosity finally called toward us:  “God can’t hear you; He needs more volume!”  The women responded as one: “She hears fine!”

 

It was a good way to end a conference of women grassroots activists for peace.

 

Rabin Assassinatedִ

 

Inspired by the examples of women from other countries, Jerusalem women returned to the regular vigil in early 1995.  Now we chose to stand along the heavily trafficked  “seam” of the city, the line separating Jewish from Arab Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the Old City.   Although this site exposed us to a variety of bystanders, both Palestinian and Jewish, our numbers had severely diminished.  We were only 10-15 women at a time, sometimes fewer, always more signs than women to hold them.

 

With the impending signature on the second part of the peace process, the so-called Oslo-2, the volume of the anti-peace forces now took on new and disturbing dimensions.  The agreement, signed on September 28, 1995, called for the imminent evacuation by Israeli troops of all the major Palestinian towns in the territories, an eventuality that gripped the settlers with terror.  Their vision of a “greater Israel” was about to be evacuated to smithereens.  Now some of the right wing protest took on the character of incitement against government leaders and encouragement of insurrection.  Several Orthodox rabbis took the lead here, issuing religious edicts that forbade soldiers from obeying orders to evacuate occupied territory and calling Rabin and Peres “traitors”.  One rabbi even placed a Kabbalist curse on Rabin, commanding the “angels of destruction to kill him”.  Another tried to attack him at a public rally.  And there was always Kach, outlawed since the murderous rampage of Baruch Goldstein, and Eyal, its new and more sinister offshoot, who took vows to carry out bloody acts of revenge and treachery.

 

Perhaps the greatest legitimacy given to these groups was the mass rally against the Oslo-2 agreement held in early October by the Likud party.  Thousands demonstrated, several carrying effigies of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, many in the crowd chanting “Rabin is a traitor”.  The level of hatred was intense, and it exploded at 11:14 p.m. on Saturday night, November 4, 1995, at a Peace Now rally in Tel-Aviv.  Rabin was shot by Yigal Amir, a 27-year old religious law student, who wanted, in his words, “to paralyze the alleged peace process”.

 

This was another shot heard round the world, but most acutely so in Israel.  It had a powerful effect on us all, Rabin lovers, Rabin haters, and all those in between.  We Israelis have always argued vociferously, even violently, with each other, but the idea of killing the prime minister seemed to unleash some deep forces of chaos and horror that no one was willing to admit existed inside us.  It was said that no political assassination of a Jew by a Jew had ever taken place in Israel, a gross mis-statement that ignored the 36 political killings carried out in Palestine/Israel in the century between 1880 and 1997.[10]     It was said that “Jews don’t kill Jews”, a ridiculous and racist remark that also ignored gangland murders and killings of wives and girlfriends by their men “friends”.  But many Israelis responded viscerally to these myths, however incorrect.  And there was the more accurate and deep-seated realization of a national loss of innocence, of having moved into the world of shooting each other, of having moved away from the concept of a simple quarrel within the family.

 

The impact of all these complex feelings had a profound effect on the street.  The assassination was compared to that of John F. Kennedy, and Rabin gained by the glow of comparison.  The media fed the new Rabin image – “Mr. Integrity”, a “Hebrew Renaissance Man”, “Intense Inner Strength”, and, simply, “My Hero”.[11]  These are but a few headlines of the outpouring of grief transformed into admiration.  The myth was further enhanced by the western world’s investment in maintaining the peace process, and their subsequent role in feeding that image.  A funeral was held in which the most powerful leaders of the world came to eulogize the “man of peace”.

 

It worked.  All the earlier memories of Rabin’s “break their bones” period were forgotten, or qualified as “warrior turned peacemaker”, and Rabin came off as the new Jewish martyr, equal in weight to all the Muslim martyrs who had given their lives to prevent a reconciliation.  Many of us appreciated the side of Rabin that came to realize that force did not solve the conflict, and were grateful that he changed his political views.  But it would be too much to say that we deeply admired his attitude toward peace, still fired by a tough macho anima even after his change of heart.

 

But who am I to quibble over Rabin’s memory when the aftermath of his murder seemed so positive?  In the days following the assassination, we witnessed a sudden, intense delegitimization of the anti-peace forces.  They were on the run for the first time in recollection.  It was no longer acceptable to talk publicly about being against the Oslo accords.  And it was perfectly safe – yes, safe! – to wear a peace button publicly or to place a peace sticker on your car, without fear that your nose or your side mirrors would get smashed.  Those of us active in the peace camp no longer felt outlawed, stigmatized, or despised for our political views; indeed, we were downright praised for them.  The return to legitimacy had begun after the election of Rabin, but gained ten-fold after his assassination.  We hadn’t even realized how marginalized we had been made to feel until peace became “in”.  Some of this took extremes – demonizing religious people in general and settlers in particular – but the pendulum finally swung into a more stable, moderate position:  The peace process won support from a small but significant majority of Israelis, thanks to the aura of Rabin after his assassination.  It seemed as if the final chapter of an 8-year struggle had drawn to a close.

 

But life, of course, is never that simple.  What remains in Israel from the legacy of the assassination is a vague, general support for reconciliation with the Palestinians.  But 1996 conferred an election victory on Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition to the Oslo peace process.  Although even Netanyahu has to pay lip-service to negotiating with the Palestinians for peace, some of his coalition partners (and even some fellow party leaders) veto the very idea of territorial compromise.  As of this writing, the vision of peace still dangles beyond our reach, and three tiny groups of hardy women continue to stand on a regular vigil. 

 

But the memory of Women in Black lives on in the hearts of many women throughout Israel, who stand ready to don black garb and return to the streets to take a stand against war, violence, and occupation whenever that point of view needs to be underscored.



[1] Although the average Palestinian from the territories who worked in Israel during the intifada – most in construction or agriculture – earned no more than $5,000 a year, it was much better than he would have earned locally – an annual per capita income of $2,400 in Gaza.  Gaza had no economic infrastructure at all – no single plant employed more than 15 workers – and it was almost as bad in the West Bank.  Neither the Likud nor the Labor governments had done anything to develop the local Palestinian economic infrastructure during the 26 years of occupation.  During closure, unemployment sometimes reached an astonishing 60-70%, plumbing new depths of poverty, unrest, and anger.  Periodic closures of the territories continue to play havoc with the population in the occupied territories.

 

[2] Simona Sharoni, “Search for a New Feminist Discourse”.

 

[3] The main Israeli human rights organizations speaking out at the time were the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, Moked - Center for the Defense of the Individual, Physicians for Human Rights, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Workers Hot Line.

 

[4] Ruth Cohen, “Women in Black Step Down”, Challenge, No. 22, (Vol. 4, No. 6) Nov.-Dec., 1993.

 

[5] In an interview I conducted on April 8, 1996.

 

[6] Personal correspondence, Judith Berlowitz, Berkeley, California, U.S.A., undated, but late 1993.

 

[7] Ruth Cohen, “Women in Black Step Down”.

 

[8] In an interview I conducted on April 2, 1996.

 

[9] B’Tselem, Law Enforcement Vis-ְa-vis Israeli Civilians in the Occupied Territoriesִ, p. 127.

 

[10] Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “The Assassination of Rabin in the Historical Context of Political Murder by Jews”, 1997, unpublished manuscript.

 

[11] Yoram Peri, “The Rabin Myth and the Media: Reconstruction of the Collective Israeli Identity”, 1997, unpublished manuscript.

 

haifas_vigil_yair_gil.jpg
Haifa vigil. Photo: Yair Gil

1996 Gila Svirsky, Standing for Peace: A History of Women in Black in Israel available on www.gilasvirsky.com.  Please cite this full reference if you quote passages from the book.