Keeping dissent alive

By EA Kate, Jerusalem.

Keeping alive the possibility of dissent, every Friday, Women in Black hold a silent vigil on a roundabout at the junction of five roads in West Jerusalem. They wear black clothing in mourning for all victims of the conflict, hence the name. They hold placards in the shape of a hand with the message saying ‘Stop the Occupation’ variously in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Women in Black was formed by Israeli women in Jerusalem in 1988 following the outbreak of the First (nonviolent) Intifada. They were responding to violations of human rights perpetrated by Israeli settlers and soldiers in occupied Palestine. By now it is a worldwide movement. Last Friday we stood alongside them from noon until 1pm as Ecumenical Accompaniers do each week.

At the Women in Black weekly demonstration in West Jerusalem [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

At the Women in Black weekly vigil in West Jerusalem [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

The vitriol which is poured out on these women is startling. Cars honk and drivers make obscene hand gestures and shout insults. There is always a counter-demonstration on the opposite pavement with people waving Israeli flags and singing nationalist songs. Sometimes people come up and shout in our faces. Sometimes they spit. The women remain still and silent.

Nomi said she has been coming here for 20 years. She told me that she does not buy anything from the West Bank because she does not want to support the illegal Israeli settlements as they are largely on stolen land. She worries that this may put Palestinians out of a job but does not want to contribute to the economy of the illegal settlements. She has also undertaken never to cross the Green Line (the armistice line between Israel and occupied Palestine). This is quite hard to achieve in Jerusalem because it is very often unclear where it is.

A woman passed me and said, “Thank you for what you are doing”. She said it sotto voce.

Another international beside me said that someone had said quietly to her, “I think what you are doing is really good. There are a lot of people in Israel who would agree with you but don’t dare to say it openly”.  Nomi remarked, “There were a lot of people in Germany who didn’t agree with Hitler but they didn’t dare speak out either”.

Moshe Weiss is a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. He is 85 and sits bent over behind his Zimmer frame holding two placards. I asked him why he comes here every week. He answered, “Because I don’t want to commit a holocaust on another people”.

Tamar who has been coming for 27 years says that she does it to keep alive the possibility of dissent. Ruth, in her eighties, comes round to collect money to fund the badges and publicity at the end of the vigil. She is one of the founder members. “Go home and tell your ‘f*****g’ governments to do something,” she says, before giggling and apologising for swearing.

Counter demonstration at Women in Black. Photo EAPPI.K.Cargin

The counter-demonstration at the Women in Black vigil [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

Judith, born and brought up in Tel Aviv and now living in Jerusalem, has been coming to this demonstration for about a year and a half.  I asked her the meaning of a sign held by a woman in the counter-demonstration. She told me it said, “Long may the people of Israel live in the land of Israel”. Judith turned to me and asked, “Does she think I don’t want that? I love Israel”. Judith sends her two young children to a mixed school for Palestinian and Israeli children. They are taught both in Arabic and Hebrew equally. She says it is expanding and that there are now two more schools opening up, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Haifa. “This is our future,” she says, “we seem to have lost the present”.

Dissent in Israel is becoming less and less possible. The women told me that many people who disagree with the present government are considering emigrating. Some with dual passports have already done so or left until things get better. The people who stay talk about being confused and divided.

Standing with these women I realise that I am fortunate not to understand the insults which are mostly in Hebrew. However, the Women in Black can. Admirably, they come here week after week, stand silently and take the abuse. Even after over 20 years, Tamar says it is upsetting.