Anat Cohen could well be described as a poster girl for Women Wage Peace, an Israeli grassroots movement officially launched today. The 52-year-old mother of two lives in working-class Holon, where she runs a Pilates studio. More importantly, she does not vote for the left. In fact, she has always cast her ballot, she said, for Shas, the Orthodox Sephardic party.
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But that didn’t stop Cohen from joining hundreds of women aboard a train traveling south to the Gaza border town of Sderot, where they hoped to make their voices heard. Their message: Israel and the Palestinians must restart peace talks immediately, and this time around, women need to be sitting at the negotiating table.
“For me, a peace agreement is not a matter of right or left,” said Cohen, as the train reached its final destination and she joined the long line of women making their way by foot from the Sderot station to Sapir Academic College, where the kick-off event was held. “I’m convinced that a peace agreement, no matter what kind of agreement, is a good thing.”
According to the event organizers, roughly 1,000 women from around the country participated in the opening ceremony held on the lawn of the Sapir campus, among them about 700 who had traveled by train to Sderot. The ceremony on the lawn was followed by a panel discussion on the role of women in peace negotiations.
The first passengers boarded the train in the morning at the station in Nahariya, not far rom the Lebanese border. From there, it made its way down the Mediterranean coast, picking up women at numerous stops along they way. Another train running from east to west delivered a few hundred women to the main Tel Aviv station at about midday where, to the sounds of chanting and cheering, they joined passengers on the coastal line.
Among the participants were many veteran social activists; Neta Shemesh, for example, who has been involved in the Parents Circle Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, for many years. “I’m sick of wars,” she said, explaining why she had taken the day off of work at her crafts studio to make the trip down to Sderot.
Sitting across from her was Nitza Peleg, a nurse from Ramat Hasharon. The two women had grown up together on Kibbutz Shamir, but unlike Shemesh, Peleg has until now steered clear of political activism. “The last time I did anything like this,” she recalled, “is when I was a kid in Hashomer Hatzair (the left-wing Zionist youth movement).”
What made her board the train today? “I just felt that I couldn’t go on like this any longer,” she said. “This country is marching to a very dangerous place right now, and I started feeling that I couldn’t keep sitting and staying silent any more.”
Michal Shamir, a founding member of Women Wage Peace and director of the School of Art, Social Studies and Culture at Sapir, takes credit for the idea of the “peace train.” She said it was inspired by the many long hours she spends on train commuting from her home in the northern town of Binyamina to Sderot.
She is a longtime activist, though. “I grew up in a very political family,” she told Haaretz. “Both my parents lost their brothers in wars, and after the last war this summer, when I saw how little value was put on human life, I felt that something had to be done.”
Women Wage Peace, she insisted, is not targeting leftists, but rather, a movement that embraces women across the political spectrum, and includes Arabs and Jews, and religious and secular Israelis. Its objective, she added, was not to topple the government, but rather “to convince people that there is no alternative to a peace agreement.”
Liat Arbel, another movement activist who described herself as a “peacenik and feminist,” said that Women Wage Peace was determined to shatter a common conception about right and left. “The discourse about peace is not reserved for one political camp alone,” she said.
Although some young mothers with babies participated in the event, the crowd on the train was overwhelmingly middle-aged and older.
Imogene Friedman, who moved to Israel from Canada 15 years ago, was among those who boarded the train at its first stop in Nahariya. She described herself as not a very politically active person who wanted to check out the movement before deciding if it was for her. “I wanted to see what this organization was about and lend my support to what seems like a good cause,” said the retiree who previously worked at IBM in Haifa.
Shiri Levinas, a conflict resolution specialist and one of the movement founders, cited research that shows that negotiations are more successful when women are involved. “Fifty one percent of the population in this country cannot accept a situation where they have no political say,” she said.
The launch ceremony of Women Wage Peace coincided with the Sderot Conference on Society that takes place every year at Sapir and draws many political leaders and other dignitaries. “Make yourselves visible,” instructed Marie-Lyne Smadja, a new immigrant from France who is one of the movement’s founders. “Let them see that you’re here.”