Israel, Feminists and Peace

As polls predicted, in February Israeli voters, demoralized by the escalating violence in the West Bank and Gaza, elected the hawkish Ariel Sharon Prime Minister by a huge margin. Nevertheless, even as more and more Israelis were losing confidence in Arafat as a negotiating partner, grassroots peace efforts spearheaded by women continued. For example, after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution last October calling for the equal participation of women in all international negotiations, Israeli women took their cue. Alice Shalvi, founder of Israel Women’s Network, and others urged Israeli women to use the resolution to demand their inclusion in the peace talks, which have been men-only.

Meanwhile, as violence has erupted in the last months in the West Bank and Gaza and in areas of Israel considered more secure until now, Israeli women have not remained silent.

“We believe that in order to bring about genuine and lasting social changes, it is important that women fulfill central roles in this struggle. We feel that the struggle for peace includes the struggle for equality and partnership between all citizens: Jews and Arabs, women and men,” declared Bat Shalom, a grass-roots feminist group, in a recent position paper. Bat Shalom belongs to the umbrella group Coalition for a Just Peace, whose Other members include Women in Black and Mothers and Women for Peace.

These women activists have orchestrated several grassroots peace efforts in Israel — including a protest in Tel Aviv against road closings in the West Bank and Gaza attended by 500 women two days before the February 6 election — virtually unnoticed in the mainstream media, which have focused on large-scale male only diplomacy. “Could it have something to do with the fact that we are, after all, women?” peace activist Gila Svirsky asks.

• A joint Israeli-Palestinian rally took place on December 29 in Jerusalem, which Coalition member Svirsky reported on the list serve Bridges. “Women took the podium one by one, Palestinian and Israeli alternately,” wrote Svirsky, “to speak movingly and passionately of both the suffering as well as the determination to end the bloodshed between our peoples.” Four young woman, she said, climbed to the top of the wall, unfurling four banners that read: Shalom, Salaam, Peace, and End the Occupation in three languages.

• New Profile, which is made up largely of the mothers of Israeli soldiers, has been helping Israeli Arab women to organize food shipments to the West Bank. Residents there. New Profile reports, are facing food shortages.

• At the invitation of the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank village Hares, Rabbis for Human Rights organized a group of Israelis in November to help with the olive harvest. The impetus for their activism came from a 29-year-old Israeli woman, Neta Golan, living in Hares what she names a .show of support for the Palestinians.

“We need to push our society away from sexist militarism and towards peace, we need to nurture feminist women leaders,” wrote Leah Shakdiel, on the Israel Feminist Forum listserve one month before Israel’s elections. Shakdiel, who is Orthodox, was the first woman in Israel to serve on a religious council, in the town of Yerucham in the Negev.

But, Shakdiel admitted, the women’s movement in Israel has been more successful so far in “grassroots stuff, social and media impact, than in official politics.”