When President Donald Trump attempted to characterize Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon, as radical anarchists and police action against them intensified, a group of women calling themselves the “wall of moms” emerged.
This distinctive line of yellow-clad women has subsequently been forming a protective wall between police and federal authorities and the young demonstrators, and inspired other women across the United States to follow suit.
As the protests in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grew dramatically over the past week, with protesters and police facing off on an almost nightly basis in front of the Israeli leader’s residence, a similar group of Israeli women – clad in yellow reflective vests – has become newly visible.
Like the Portland group, they are placing themselves as a buffer between police and protesters, and in front of the water cannons that authorities have been using to push demonstrators away from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.
Their message to the police is a defiant “Don’t touch our children.” To the young protesters, they are seeking to reassure them: “Don’t worry. Your mother is watching over you.”
The group was started by Ketty Bar, a 63-year-old artist and art curator who has been active in left-wing political protests over the years – most recently the demonstrations against Netanyahu known as the Black Flag movement.
Bar had been volunteering in support roles in the growing protest push, helping to organize buses from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for the protests. She said she had become increasingly disturbed as the treatment of peaceful protests on Balfour Street took a violent turn, with demonstrators claiming police violence, and decided it was time to step forward.
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“Something changed for me last week,” she said in a phone interview. “Something really seemed to break in the relationship between demonstrators and the police – it feels political, like we’re being treated like an enemy.
“And then the prime minister called us ‘spreaders of disease,’” Bar said. “I saw the young people, their desperation, their misery – feeling like they were lost and alone – and felt like we had to react as mothers.”
When she first created the WhatsApp group Mothers Against Violence, Bar said she was unaware of the parallels to what was happening in the United States. But almost immediately her daughter, who lives in Connecticut, told her, “Mom, you’re doing exactly what they’re doing in Portland!”
Bar addressed the young protesters directly in her group’s online manifesto. The mothers who accompanied them to kindergarten and tearfully sent them off to their army service know, she wrote, that “you’re neither anarchists nor vandals. You’re the salt of the earth. You’re the best of the youth who are flooding the streets in an uncompromising struggle for the democratic character of our one and only country. You’re doing what we have raised you to do: to be loyal citizens to your country and to your conscience.”
She encouraged them to “take to the streets, make your voice heard. No violence, no vandalism, but in a loud and clear voice. Against a corrupt prime minister. Against a chaotic government. Against police violence. Get out, flood the streets. We, your mothers, will be there with you.”
The mothers will stand at the protests in their yellow vests, she vowed, “so that everyone knows you’re our children. [We] will be there, in front of the police, to protect you while you defend democracy. … We will be there to keep your spirit steadfast,” it stated.
Bar formed the group last Wednesday, and overnight it filled to its capacity of 250 members. By the weekend, three additional WhatsApp groups had filled up, bringing the total number of members to 1,000.
Only a handful of the newborn group’s members made their debut at Thursday night’s protest, where “nobody knew what to make of us at first – they thought maybe we were some kind of official ushers,” Bar reported.
By Saturday night, though, there were more than 50 women at the Balfour protest wearing yellow vests. Bar’s vest labels her as “Karine’s Mom” and she holds a banner reading “Mom is watching over you.”
Bar said she noticed that the presence of Mothers Against Violence members changed the dynamic between police and protesters at points of conflict.
“There was a young man who was being held by police and crying. I stood there to comfort him. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, don’t cry, I’m here watching over you, I will help you however I can.” And the police officer holding him released him. I could tell we make a difference. The police can’t say anything to us, but you can tell they’re affected by the fact that we’re there – you see the look in the officers’ eyes. You know they understand you’re there as a mother, and that means something that’s hard to fight.”
Harnessing the power of motherhood for political protest is hardly a new phenomenon in Israel. One of the most effective grassroots efforts in Israel’s history was the Four Mothers movement, which was founded in 1997 in order to pressure the Israeli government to withdraw from its “security zone” in southern Lebanon.
The group, founded by four women in northern Israel, helped soften the image of the anti-war protests in Israel by emphasizing their identities as the worried Jewish mothers of soldiers, rather than angry activists, giving them the moral authority to stand up to the army and government. The group has been widely credited with sparking the change in public opinion that led to Israel’s sudden withdrawal in May 2000.
Ideally, Bar said, the women involved in this latest incarnation of maternal power might be able to find a way to publicly connect with the mothers of the young police officers as well, and “build a bridge of understanding” that could spark a similar shift in public sentiment.
“After all, a mother is a mother is a mother,” she said. “Our pain is the same. We’re not at war with each other; we’re on the same side. We all want a functioning government and a future for our kids.”
Bar fully expects the numbers in her new movement to grow as awareness of the group spreads.
Its existence, she said, is good for all sides of the protest movement. For the women participating, it gives them a greater sense of purpose at the protests. “It helps when you feel like you have a role to fill, and that you’re part of a group helping with a specific task. Suddenly, you feel like you have strength.”
She added that for the young demonstrators, it increases their sense of confidence during the nightly confrontations, knowing there are mothers who have their backs.
“The young people have been continually thanking us,” Bar said. “They say, ‘We need you, we’re glad you’re here.’”