'We're Part of This Society Too': In Israel, Arab Women Are Joining Jewish Activists in Fight for Peace

The message expounded by the Women Wage Peace movement is: We will not stop until there is a peace agreement

Yahaloma Zakut is a longtime supporter of Israel’s ruling Likud party and a self-described right-wing activist. She is also a key member of the steering committee of Women Wage Peace, a grass-roots movement that aims to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table.

When the movement got its start three years ago, Zakut fit the exact profile of recruits its founding members were after. A working-class mom of Mizrahi origin (i.e., with Mideast or North African roots) from small-town Israel, she defied the existing stereotypes of peace activists: She had never voted for a left-wing party, was not a member of the Ashkenazi elite and did not come from the big city.

Anti-war activism couldn’t have been further from her personal and political agenda. But then one day, several years ago, a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip crashed into Zakut's backyard in the Negev desert town of Ofakim. Miraculously, she and her family were spared, but the incident sparked a transformation, she says, in the way she perceived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli Women Wage Peace movement launches its two-and-a-half-week long “Journey to Peace,” which will encompass large swaths of the country, in the southern town of Sderot, Sept. 24, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“This can’t go on,” the 55-year-old former airplane electrician recalls telling herself at the time.

To be able to have an impact on decision-makers, the founders of Women Wage Peace understood they would need a critical mass of supporters. To achieve that, they knew they would have to appeal to women way outside their natural base: right-wing Israelis (think Zakut), religious Israelis, even settlers. To appeal to such a large and diverse base, they realized they would have to steer clear of controversy and focus on the issues almost all women could agree on.

The organization's message is this: We will not stop until there is a peace agreement. But how exactly this agreement will look – will it include, for example, an independent Palestinian state and the evacuation of settlements, or alternatively, a binational Jewish-Arab state? – these are questions for Israel’s elected leaders to decide, according to the mission statement of Women Wage Peace.

The group owes much of its success – it is by far the largest-growing peace movement in Israel in recent years – to this strategy of focusing its lobbying efforts on what it’s for rather than what it’s against. By avoiding discussion of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has succeeded where similar movements have failed in infiltrating segments of the population once considered to be a lost cause.

Special attention to language has been critical in this effort, maintains Zakut. “The word ‘occupation,’ for example, gets lots of people in this country riled up,” she notes. “So we don’t use it. Our movement is all about using language that unifies people – not language that divides them. I, for one, prefer talking about ‘human beings’ rather than ‘Jews and Arabs,’ and if it were up to me, we would use the word ‘hope’ rather than ‘peace.’”

Draped in an Israeli flag, Zakut was among hundreds of women attending Sunday’s opening ceremony of the latest Women Wage Peace mega event: a two-and-a-half-week-long “Journey to Peace” that will encompass large swaths of the country. It will culminate with a mass gathering at the Dead Sea of Jewish and Palestinian women, who will proceed from there to a vigil in Jerusalem on October 9 and 10.

Not coincidentally, the opening ceremony of "Journey to Peace" was held in Sderot, a town near the Gaza border that has been a frequent target of Hamas rocket attacks.

Four Mothers' inspiration

Women Wage Peace was launched in November 2014, a few months after Israel’s seven-week Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. The founding group numbered about 40 women, who held their first meeting in Tel Aviv, in the midst of the war.

“To all of us who took part in that meeting, it was clear that if we didn’t want these wars to keeping repeating themselves every few years, we need to form a mass movement, and that movement needed to be led by women,” recounts Hamutal Gouri, a Jerusalem-based social activist and the executive director of the Dafna Fund, which seeks to advance gender equality in Israel. Another key objective of Women Wage Peace is getting women seated at the negotiating table once peace talks begin.

Yahaloma Zakut, a steering committee member of the Israeli Women Wage Peace movement, at the launch of the group's "Journey to Peace" event, Sept. 24, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Women like herself, she concedes (“mid-50s, Jewish, Ashkenazi, from the big cities”), still account for the majority of the movement, “but less and less so these days.”

Women Wage Peace drew its inspiration from Four Mothers, an Israeli anti-war group established in the 1990s, credited in part for the Israeli pullout from Lebanon in 2000. Orna Shimoni, a leader of Four Mothers whose son was killed in Lebanon, believes Women Wage Peace faces a more daunting challenge.

“When Four Mothers was launched as a movement, there was virtually a wall-to-wall consensus in Israel that we needed to get out of Lebanon – and let’s not forget that, unlike the situation today in the West Bank, there were no settlements there that had to be evacuated,” notes Shimoni, today a member of Women Wage Peace.

“But even though everyone wanted to get out of Lebanon, you needed to have a prime minister with leadership capabilities who could make such a move. We needed to wait 18 years until Ehud Barak was elected for that to happen. Unlike the situation then, today we have neither a consensus about pulling out or a leader capable of making tough decisions,” she says.

At the same time, perhaps because Women Wage Peace is perceived more as a pro-peace than an anti-war movement, it draws less heat from right-wing Israelis than Four Mothers did. “When we activists in Four Mothers would stand in the streets holding signs, people would pass by in cars and curse us,” Shimoni recalls. “That hardly ever happens today with Women Wage Peace.”

At last count, the latter group had 26,000 members registered on its website. That's a huge jump from three years ago, but still a far cry from the critical mass many believe is required for Israeli political leaders to take serious note and listen.

“We haven’t yet managed to move the needle,” concedes Vivian Silver, a Canadian-born activist from Kibbutz Be’eri near the Gaza border. “That, I believe, would require not 26,000 and not even 30,000 women – but more like 500,000.”

Hamutal Gouri, a supporter of the Israeli Women Wage Peace movement, at the launch of the "Journey to Peace" event in Sderot, Sept. 24, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The official launch of the organization was a “Peace Train” that carried about 1,000 women from all across Israel to Sderot. Tammy Avigdor, a former high-tech executive from the central suburb of Kfar Sava, had never been engaged in political or social activism until she stepped aboard that train.

“Something about the 2014 war in Gaza made me feel completely helpless as a mother,” she explains. “So it felt very natural for me to take that train down to Sderot. I got on, and I haven’t gotten off since.”

Today, Avigdor sits with Zakut on the four-member steering committee of Women Wage Peace. “The significance of this movement is that we have brought a new voice to the conversation,” she says. “It’s a voice that unites rather than divides. And it doesn’t matter if you’re left or right – we’re all women and all mothers, and that’s what binds us together.”

Peace movements in Israel – for example, Peace Now, which was established 40 years ago – have naturally been associated with the left. Although the founding members of Women Wage Peace also came overwhelmingly from that side of the political spectrum, it was critical for them that their new movement not be labeled as such. Thus, after its first year of operation, the group decided to no longer accept donations from the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes progressive causes and is often associated with the left. Taking money from the NIF, Women Wage Peace's leaders feared, could drive away potential supporters from the new communities they sought to engage.

'Loud and clear' voice

Some left-leaning Women Wage Peace activists, though, are not completely comfortable with this attempt to be everything for everyone. “I totally get why they don’t want to be labeled yet another leftist organization,” says a member who asked that her name not be published, “but for me, it has become more important to have my voice heard loud and clear, so to be honest, I’m not as active as I used to be.”

Women Wage Peace always aspired to bring together Israeli Arabs and Jews – and Arab women are, indeed, well represented in the top leadership roles. The group's best-attended event thus far was the “March of Hope,” held last year also during the Jewish holiday season and attended by Liberia’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee. The two-and-a-half-week march ended with a mass rally at the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site near the West Bank town of Jericho. More than 4,000 women participated in that event, among them 1,000 Arab and Palestinian women from Israel and the West Bank. But that is far from their share among the organization's rank and file.

Anat Negev, a spokeswoman for Women Wage Peace, estimates that among the 26,000 registered members, “several hundred” are Arab women. “But their numbers are growing constantly,” she notes.

Ghadir Hani, a 40-year-old Muslim woman originally from the northern Jewish-Arab city of Acre, joined Women Wage Peace two years ago, and last month represented the organization at an international conference in Rimini, Italy.

“When people ask me why I, as an Arab woman in Israel, care about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, what I tell them in response is that when the rockets fall, they don’t distinguish between my home or the home of my Jewish neighbor,” she says.

Hani lives in the town of Hura in the Negev, where she runs a large sustainability project. She first became aware of Women Wage Peace when she attended a collective 50-day fast the group organized to mark the one-year anniversary of the war in Gaza.

“I saw all these women dressed in white sitting in this tent, and they simply looked like angels to me,” she recounts. “Then and there I joined up.”

Amal Abu Ramadan and her daughter Yafa were among a handful of Arab women attending the “Journey to Peace” launch in Sderot on Sunday. Seventeen-year-old Yafa was probably the youngest participant there. “My high school is closed on Sundays,” she explained. Her mother, who works as a teacher in their hometown of Jaffa, was also off that day.

Amal Abu Ramadan and her daughter Yafa We are part of this society, too,” says Amal,
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“We are part of this society, too,” said Amal, “and it is just as important for us that this conflict be resolved.”

If the success of Women Wage Peace is measured by its ability to get peace talks restarted, then it has obviously failed miserably. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer today than they were three years ago – and are maybe even further away – to resuming negotiations.

These women aren’t discouraged, though. It will take time, they say. Besides that, look at the many other ways we have already made our mark.

Among the accomplishments they like to tick off is the creation of a new caucus in the Knesset dedicated to women, peace and security. Movement activists have met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several senior government ministers. Knesset members from across the political spectrum regularly attend their events, which include parlor meetings around the country. And Women Wage Peace has succeeded in bringing on board some unlikely figures.

Take, for example, Hadassah Froman, the widow of Menachem Froman – a well-known settler rabbi who was active in interfaith dialogue – and her daughter-in-law Michal, who was stabbed in the stomach by a Palestinian terrorist while pregnant, but has resolved to engage actively in peacemaking. Or, for example, Adina Bar-Shalom, an ultra-Orthodox feminist educator whose late father, Ovadia Yosef, was a former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Shas party.

Yet it all pales next to the group's biggest accomplishment, insists Gouri. “After many years," she declares, "we have succeeded in bringing the words ‘peace’ and ‘hope’ back into the Israeli lexicon."