3. On the edge

Another fragment from my travels for Our Way to Fight, this one a souvenir of Jerusalem:

Standing single-file along the concrete edge of Paris Square, we’re surrounded by car-born throngs impatient to get home for Shabbat eve. Some honk their horns, hard to say whether at us or the clotted traffic in downtown West Jerusalem. A driver shouts, definitely at us, in Hebrew. I ask Dafna Kaminer, “What did he say?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she replies, with a dismissive wave of the hand. From the angry face I saw in the car, clearly it wasn’t a compliment. Doesn’t it bother her? Dafna shrugs. After protesting here every Friday afternoon for 23 years, being called whores and traitors, spat on and assaulted, by now the Women in Black are somewhat inured to random shouts from passing vehicles.

In December 1987, after two decades under Israeli military occupation, Palestinians – mostly young – rose up in the First Intifada. Intifada translates as awakening or shaking off. Children and young men confronted the soldiers, threw stones and then Molotov cocktails at the tanks. As the intifada spread, more and more Palestinians went on strike, refused to pay taxes, boycotted Israeli goods. The government of Yitzhak Shamir and the Israeli military responded with overwhelming force. By the time the uprising was crushed, more than 1,000 Palestinians had been killed, an estimated 23-26,000 children injured, and more than 100,000 Palestinians arrested.

Shortly after the intifada erupted, several Israeli women, including Dafna Kaminer, organized a vigil at Paris Square. The location is highly visible, and a short walk from the prime minister’s heavily guarded residence. Standing in silence, the women held up placards: Stop the occupation!

Soon many more women and a few men joined them; vigils sprang up in other cities, towns and at road junctions across Israel. Inspired by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, and the anti-apartheid Black Sash movement in South Africa, participants wore black, for a coherent look and as a gesture of mourning for victims of the occupation. Nashim BeShahor, they called themselves, Women in Black. Through more than two decades of protest, their banners and placards have continued to call out: End the occupation!

Over the years, more than 150 WIB groups have emerged in 24 countries to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other forms of state violence, to identify links between militarism, sexism, racism and homophobia, and to foster the idea that a safer world for women would be a saner world for all.

While we talk, Dafna hands me a placard to hold aloft, Hebrew on one side, English on the other: End the siege! This more recent demand challenges another tentacle of the occupation, the vicious blockade imposed on the Gaza ghetto before and since Israel’s ruinous 2008-09 military assault.  

Born in 1931 in Detroit, Michigan, Dafna Kaminer emigrated to Israel at age 20, in year three of the new state. Already a member of the progressive Hashomer Hatza’ir (the Young Guardians) youth movement, she joined a kibbutz and the Communist Party, which she describes as “the only party at the time that tried to protect the rights of Palestinians.”

Ignoring for a moment the fact that the new state planted itself where other people lived, I can imagine that building it must have been a profoundly stirring experience for the immigrants. “Not so much,” says Dafna. “It was a huge adjustment after growing up in the US – for example, a lot of things here were still rationed. We also had to work hard to fit into the new society, which was dominated very much by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. Plus I really wasn’t interested in building a state, that wasn’t how I understood our role as Jews.” She left the kibbutz after three years, and the Israeli Communist Party in 1969, both due to political differences.

Behind the splashing fountain, several policemen chat among themselves, looking rather bored. “Are they here to monitor your dangerous activities?” I ask. Dafna smiles. “Officially they’re here to protect us. In fact we have been attacked in the past, I mean physically, by right-wingers. Usually it’s Kahane people.”

In the late 1970s to early 80s, American-Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defence League and the Kach party. Although the party was banned in Israel as “racist” and “undemocratic,” and the United States still lists the Jewish Defence League as a terrorist organization, Kahane’s ideas are currently enjoying a resurgence in Israel. They include annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and removal of Arabs from the resulting “Greater Israel.”

After the attacks, the Women in Black moved their vigils to a less vulnerable site down the street. But they were also less visible there, so eventually they returned to Paris Square, where they are a familiar Friday landmark. About twenty people showed up today, mostly women, more than half of them over 50, I’d guess. I accompanied an Israeli friend who wanted to come because, she said, “I have to do something. Also there should be some younger women here.” She’s in her early 40s.

Aside from me, there is one other man attending the vigil today, a young ecumenical accompanier from Norway. A program of the World Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme brings international volunteers to offer a “protective presence” to vulnerable communities. The Norwegian is living for three months in the besieged West Bank village of Yanoun. Accompaniers also monitor and report human rights abuses, then campaign in their home countries for an end to the occupation and a just, peaceful resolution to the conflict.

We’re standing in mid-afternoon sun, in end-of-summer heat. Even in a light, airy shirt and pants, I’m wilting, sweat drips off my nose. By contrast, though Dafna Kaminer is dressed in black – hat, t-shirt, pants, all black – she looks cool and composed. “Aren’t you hot?” I ask. “This isn’t hot,” she replies. “I don’t know which I find more taxing, summer or winter, when you might have to stand for a couple of hours in a cold rain. But either way it’s nothing, less than nothing compared to what Palestinians endure.”

In Israel, some Women in Black have built vital connections with Palestinian women in the occupied territories. They also organize international campaigns to end the occupation. But these Friday vigils, the steady protest, remain their primary focus. Though I admire the discipline that draws them to Paris Square week after week, year after year, still it strikes me that things are even worse now than when they started the vigils in 1988 – certainly worse for Palestinians, and arguably for many Israelis too. I have to ask: “Why do you keep doing this?”

“It’s true, things are very bad,” says Dafna, “but that is exactly why I think it’s even more important for us to be out here now. So many Israelis ignore what’s happening. I can’t do that. I’m not naïve, I don’t believe I can change the world. Probably I can’t even change Israel much. But I do have to speak out, to protest the crimes my country is committing. As long as we are out here, at least some people can see that there is opposition.”

She watches cars stream by. How many drivers notice? After a moment she adds, “I’m so afraid for my children and grandchildren.” She has three children and eight grandchildren. In 2004, her oldest grandson Matan and four other young Israeli men were jailed for refusing conscription to the army.

“What is it that you fear?” I ask Dafna. It seems a naïve question, but a vital one, I think, in a time when fear has been engineered so effectively into a weapon of mass destruction.

So much time passes, I wonder if she heard my question over the drone of traffic. But then she says, quietly, “I can’t bear that they should have to live in such a terrible society as this one is becoming.”

Today’s protest is finished. The police depart, placards are stacked, the banner folded, and we join the tide of people heading off to the comfort and safety of home.

But next Friday, Dafna Kaminer and other Women in Black will be here again, standing on the edge.

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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2 Responses to 3. On the edge

  1. Judy Burwell says:

    On those days when I think, “oh, what’s the use”, I turn to these stories for a much needed kick in the butt.

  2. mywaytofight says:

    Good point. And I’m sure the people who shared their stories are glad to oblige with a timely poke. When I asked Palestinians and Israelis how they deal with despair, often they replied that it was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

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