Israel: Now a global movement, Women in Black marks 20 years of fearless protest against tyrannies Print E-mail
Sunday Magazine January 20 2008


Two decades of protest and hope


As it moves into its third decade, Women In Black has progressed from its initial protest of Israeli occupation of Palestine.

I love Israel, but that does not give Israelis the right to go and settle in territories that don’t belong to us - Gila Svirsky
(Photograph Lieve Snellings, Women in Black, Belgium)

Long vigils: A protest that also marked the 20th anniversary of the pacifist group (AFP)

It was on a typical winter’s day in Jerusalem that I first met Gila Svirsky. It was a rainy chilly gloomy day, the second intifadah or Palestinian uprising had just broken out a few months ago, and the place was tense and foreboding. Though it was an extremely busy day for her, Gila still made time to pick me up from the old city. The old city of Jerusalem is where the great Israeli-Palestinian divide begins. Though the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic faiths converge here and the place is under Israeli rule, Jews from outside the old city are still hesitant to visit it. And when they do, like Gila did, they insist on meeting only near the Jaffa gate, the entrance to the Christian and Armenian quarters, even if the other gates are closer. And so over a delicious breakfast of humous and pitta bread accompanied by cardamom-laced kahwa at an old Syrian Christian restaurant in the Christian quarters of the old city of Jerusalem, I got to know Gila Svirsky, the public face of the Women In Black (WIB).

It began exactly 20 years ago, in December 1987, soon after the first Intifadah or Uprising broke out in the occupied Palestinian territories against Israel’s military occupation. A small group of Jewish women from Jerusalem like Dafna Amit, Mimi Ash, Ruth Cohen and Hagar Roublev ­ left-wing activists, a mix of professors, teachers, and women ­decided to launch a simple protest to express their belief in peace and demand that Israel end its occupation of Palestinian lands.

Determined stance
Once a week at the same location ­ Paris square in central Jerusalem and a major traffic intersection ­ they’d dress in black to symbolise the suffering and tragedy of both Israelis and Palestinians and raise their trademark “black hands” placard bearing a single line ‘End the Occupation’ written in Arabic, English and Hebrew. Grim and determined, they vowed to stand there till Israel gave them what they wanted. Their inspiration came from the “Black Sash Movement” of South Africa where white women fought apartheid and whose trademark had been the black sash each wore to express their disgust with the racist system.

Gila Svirsky, the current unofficial leader and head of the WIB, joined the movement in January 1988. Born and raised in an orthodox Jewish family in the U.S., Gila moved to Israel some 40 years ago. A grandmother at 61 (she hopes her grandsons will not serve in the Israeli army), she stands six feet tall and straight. Under a shock of white hair and glasses, her eyes twinkle and she explains, “I love Israel, but that does not give Israelis the right to go and settle in territories that don’t belong to us; our occupation of Palestinians is wrong. I protest against it to save our country from the corruption of the occupation.” Her sentiments are echoed by other members, though many like Maya Rosenfeld, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, or Ditta Bitterman, a Tel Aviv based architect, were born and brought up in Israel. The movement spread to other locations like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Nazareth. Soon, women were standing in 40 different locations throughout Israel.

Growing links
The vigils attracted Arab women ­ both Christian and Muslim ­ citizens of Israel too. Nabiola Espanioli and Khulood Badawi, two renowned Israeli Arab activists are some of the best known Arab members of the WIB.

Soon after, the Israeli women heard of “solidarity vigils” in Canada and the USA: women in black ­ both Jewish and Palestinian, carrying similar hand-shaped placards bearing slogans “Palestinian and Jewish women United” and “Two Peoples, Two States”.

The Women in Black began to flower in many European cities and, at the turn of the last decade, they took off with “a life of their own”, meaning that many of these groups now had nothing to do with the Israeli occupation but began taking up and protesting against local issues relevant to each individual group. In Italy, the WIB protested against Mafia violence; in Germany, they protested against neo-Nazism and xenophobia; and in Belgrade and Zagreb, they condemned the war, the mass rape of women and ethnic strife, setting an example of inter-ethnic cooperation among themselves. In London, the WIB protested against Operation Iraqi Freedom; now they protest the allied occupation of that country. Today the International Movement of the Women In Black forms an integral part of all global feminist and peace movement and studies. Feminists like Cynthia Cockburn and Haifa Zangana feel proud to be associated with it. But it is the Israeli Women in Black that claims matriarchal superiority.

At a vigil
When I accompanied Gila to the meeting on Friday, it was drizzling and cold. A group of sombre-faced women and men, all dressed in black stood keeping vigil, marking the 14th anniversary of the movement. Each held a black hand-shaped emblazoned with “End the Occupation”. A lone Palestinian woman had made it to the vigil and together with a Jewish woman held a banner that said “we refuse to be enemies”’ ­ a simple but potent resolve. Passers-by reacted. Some gave the group the thumbs-up sign; others abuse. Two motorists slowed down and silently held out a picture of Rehovam Zeevi, the Israel minister who had recently been shot dead by a Palestinian. The police stood guard, since the vigils haven’t always been smooth sailing ­ the women have often been threatened and sometimes assaulted, accused of being traitors. WIB members had also been arrested once when they lay down across from the entrance to the defence ministry to illustrate what a closure for Palestinians was like.

Arab women have been at the receiving end too. WIB has also forged relations with Palestinian women in the West Bank. Kawther Salam, a Palestinian journalist and resident of Hebron, one of the partners in the West Bank has been disdained as a “traitor and Jew lover” by many Palestinians. Ideological differences between the Israeli and Palestinian women have often surfaced too.

A few years later, after that winter’s Friday, I found myself back in Jerusalem. It was the August of the Gaza withdrawal and the weather was decidedly hot and sticky. And again on a Friday afternoon, this time a scorching one, I found groups of women dressed in black keep their weekly vigil there. Because of the Gaza withdrawal, opposed by most Jerusalemites, the mood in Jerusalem was resentful. There were more jeers than cheers. “Traitors, Arab lovers” were hurled more angrily at the WIB. Resolute, the women stood there, not forgetting or forsaking their tryst with destiny.

Recently the WIB completed 20 years of its existence and its Friday vigil on December 28, 2007 marked its 20th anniversary. Five hundred people participated, all talking and promising to not lose hope, and reaching out across the lines that divide. There is a hint of optimism as people in Israel are now more than ever aware that the occupation has to end and it has to end soon.

Rough journey
It has been a rough journey, but there have been some encouraging moments. There are solidarity movements in some 150 cities across the globe. The Israeli movement won the Aachen Peace Prize (1991) , the peace award of San Giovanni d’ Asso in Italy (1994), and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s Peacemaker Award” (2001). In 2001 the International Movement of Women in Black won the Millennium Peace Prize awarded by the UN Development Fund for Women. The Israeli and Serbian groups were also candidates for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

2008 sees the movement steps into its third decade. But as Gila, proud yet despondent, says, “I hope we don’t have to have these vigils for too long. I hope this occupation soon ends and there are two states ­ Israel and Palestine ­ existing side by side.’

Around the World - Act Together: Women Against Sanctions and War on Iraq. - Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. - Women in Black, Italy. - Women in Black, Australia. - Women in Black, Yugoslavia. - Women in Black, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Women in Black, Cambridge, U.K. - aims to empower women and girls throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and NIS and the Russian Federation and the West. - a justice project created by women of colour who oppose brutality, discrimination and acts of hate. - Grandmothers for Peace, a non-profit organisation, was formed in May of 1982 at the height of the Cold War. - supports community development and training that enables women to play leadership roles in their homes, communities, countries and the international arena. - Bat Shalom of the Jerusalem Link is a feminist centre for peace and social justice working with a Palestinian women’s centre to achieve peace.

For more info see