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Standing for Peace: Introduction 1996

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Women in Black Did Not

Mourn Meir Kahane

  

October 1990.  Jerusalem was a riot looking to happen, a clenched fist reaching for a jaw.  For a city with such a long and bloody history of interreligious bashing, Jerusalem was as tense as it gets.

 

The context for this tension was the “intifada”, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of lands claimed by both sides.  For almost two years the intifada had wreaked havoc in the Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem and the hinterland of the occupied territories, but somehow stayed clear of this tinderbox called Jerusalem.  The normally volatile citizens of Jerusalem had not yet found an excuse to jump into the fray, and that badly offended the sense of self of both sides:  Both were waiting to prove their mettle.

 

Saddam Hussein almost provided the casus belli for Jerusalem’s citizens by occupying Kuwait in the summer.  Palestinian support for Saddam did not play well among Israelis.  Particularly insulted were the liberal Jews, who felt betrayed by PLO support for a man who toyed out loud with the idea of dropping chemical warheads on Israeli cities.  Many liberal Jews who had been peace activists now cut off contacts with Palestinians, dialogue groups were slowly extinguished, and a famous newspaper article by one of the leaders of the camp advocating peace with the Palestinians declared “Now let them come looking for me”,[1] meaning that he was finished trying to be “nice” to Palestinians.

 

This was the context into which the violence finally erupted on October 8, 1990 in a riot at the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem, with a hailstorm of rocks thrown by Palestinians upon Israeli worshipers at the Western Wall.  The rock-throwing was their way to prevent a group of extremist Jews from reaching the mosques on the Temple Mount, holy to both religions.  Israeli police responded by firing into the crowd of rock-throwers, killing 18 Palestinians and injuring 150 others, a brutal over-reaction, to put it mildly.  Nobody took this lightly, and some Palestinians searched for a way to get even.  It came quickly.  Three Jews were stabbed to death in a quiet neighborhood of Jerusalem and two more in the north of Israel.  Then bombs seemed to be exploding everywhere, and inside this turmoil the racist Rabbi Kahane was murdered in New York.

 

Now the violence escalated.  Meir Kahane, a New York Jew who had fanned the flames of hatred between Jews and blacks and then transferred his racism to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, had been gunned down by a Palestinian, and Kahane’s thugs in Israel began a frenzy of revenge.  Stonings went in both directions, Jews bought and wielded guns, Arabs brandished knives, and you couldn’t go to the market in Jerusalem without worrying about who you were standing next to buying tomatoes.

 

Kahane’s body was flown back to Israel for the funeral, held in Jerusalem on a Wednesday.  It was an ugly day, in which teenagers twisted with Kahanist bigotry rampaged through the city looking for Arabs to harm.  Our Women in Black vigil on Fridays had long been under attack by Kahane’s thugs and we wondered how the violent death of Kahane would affect us.  In the past, several Women in Black had received death threats from Kahane’s people, and other peace activists had awakened at night to find the doors to their homes on fire.  Kahane had once dispatched his thugs to attack the vigil, which ended in a chaos of clubs and tear gas.  Seven of us were on Kahane’s “hit list”, addresses and telephone numbers made public for any eager goons to take advantage of.  How would the death of this hate‑filled man affect our lives?

 

The day after the funeral, Women in Black were asked to meet with the Jerusalem District Commissioner of Police, Rahamim Comfort.  Rahamim means “mercy” in Hebrew.  Mercy Comfort – not a bad name for a policeman.  Five of us went.  We were ushered into his office, and found him sitting officiously behind a large desk.  He waved us into seats opposite.

 

The Commissioner opened with a solemn tone:  “I am here to ask you not to hold a vigil tomorrow.  I’m not telling you not to demonstrate; that’s your right.  But I am telling you that tomorrow there is a greater chance of violence against you than on any other Friday.”

 

  He ticked off the “anniversaries” to be celebrated the next day by various extremists: one month to the Temple Mount slaughter; two weeks to the Jerusalem stabbings; the monthly celebration of the day on which the intifada began; and now the ritual mourning period for Kahane, which his supporters threatened to commemorate as seven days of violence against Arabs and “traitors” – Jewish peace advocates like us.  The Commissioner asked us for our own safety not to hold the vigil the next day, but to allow this one Friday to pass without it.  He said that he had reports of plots to attack us, and that he could not guarantee our safety.  It was not an encouraging picture that he drew.  “Just this once,” he pleaded.

 

I remember sitting there with the other women, all stalwarts of the vigil, but we hemmed and hawed.  This would not be easy to explain to a commissioner of police, but we had to try.

 

Anat Hoffman began.  She told the Commissioner that Women in Black is a collective with no formal leadership, and that we cannot make decisions on behalf of the group.  It sounded so simple when she said it, but it turned out to be a difficult concept for a police commissioner to grasp.  Yes, it’s a group with great commitment and organized activities, but no, we have no formal leadership.  We all pitched in and tried to explain.  He didn’t get it, and I knew we were feeding into his stereotype of weak, indecisive women, but nothing could be done.

 

Finally we abandoned the explanations and became assertive.  We told the commissioner that the police are supposed to protect those under attack, not let the streets be taken over by thugs.  I remember Haya Shalom telling him the analogy of women entitled to protection from rape, not told to stay off the streets.  Comfort is probably a very smart man, but he didn’t get it at all, and we finally gave up.  We promised to convey his words to our sister vigilers in Jerusalem, but we could not promise more.  He didn’t like our answers, but that was the best we could do.

 

I left the police station shaken by his words.  For three years on the vigil, I had a picture in my mind of someone driving by in a car and lobbing a hand grenade at us, just as a grenade had been thrown 7 years earlier at another peace demonstration in Jerusalem by a right wing Jewish extremist, killing one person and injuring many more.  And Women in Black had elicited far greater animosity than other peace groups, probably because we were women.  We met in the windy street outside the police station and made plans to activate the Women in Black phone network, calling as many women as could be reached that night.  We agreed to convey faithfully the words of the Commissioner, with all his ominous warnings, but to add that attendance at the vigil the next day was a personal decision that each woman had to make for herself.  We split up.  I felt a great weight in my heart as I left.  At home, I made the call that set off the phone network, and then spent the evening searching my thoughts.

 

At work the next day, I kept my eyes on the clock all morning, waiting for 1 p.m., for the vigil, as filled with foreboding as I had ever been.  At a quarter to one, I left my office dressed in black and walked down Ramban Street, looking over my shoulder the entire way.  When I reached Paris Square, our traditional vigil plaza, I saw that it was filled to the brim with Kahane supporters in yellow shirts with the clenched fist symbol, shouting and gesticulating at everything that looked vaguely black-and-a-woman that walked by.  I circled the plaza and headed for our alternative location nearby.  To my surprise, a small group of women was already gathered.  They looked grim.

 

We took “End the Occupation” signs and formed a line along the curb facing King George Street, a major artery in Jerusalem.  About thirty police officers had already gathered near us.  We women looked apprehensively at each other.  Ethel stood next to me and we told each other quietly and briefly that we were scared.  One of the women said that she had told her daughter not to come today.  Another said that we must not give up the streets to gangsters.  Another said out loud that she was terrified.  We all looked at each other.  I think we all agreed with her.

 

On a regular Friday, women would saunter in anywhere during the first half hour; we were “full” only for the second half of the vigil.  That Friday was different.  Within 15 minutes, we were not only full, we were many more women than ordinarily turn out.  Amazing!  All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  “What a group!” Ethel whispered to me, and it echoed what my own head was saying.  We had the usual curses and obscene gestures from passersby (“Whores!” “Go home to your kitchens!”), but the police kept Kahane’s thugs a block away.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity.

 

How did we get this way, I wondered?  How had we grown from ordinary teachers, social workers, secretaries, executives, and housewives into such brave women?  We had clearly taken more courage from this vigil than it was taking out of us in weariness.  What a group, I thought again.

 

There are many stories of the work and dedication of Jewish peace groups that formed in Israel during the years of the intifada.  Women in Black, however, has a special story.  It is not only one of courage under attack, but also one of sisterhood – despite political antagonisms – and perseverance: perseverance that became a symbol for all those who longed for peace in the Middle East – Palestinians, Israelis, and allies.  Thus, with due respect and admiration for all who devoted themselves to peace in the Middle East, it’s the story of Women in Black that I would like to tell in this book.

 


[1].Yossi Sarid, “Don’t Come Looking for Me”, Ha’aretz, August 17, 1990.

dafna_kaminer.jpg
Dafna Kaminer, Jerusalem vigil

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Marylene Schultz, Jerusalem vigil

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.