One woman, one flag, 160 kilometers. It’s been a decade since Vicki Knafo, a resident of the small town of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert, set out on her march to Jerusalem on July 2, 2003. This was not a pilgrimage: Knafo walked the whole way to the government complex in the capital in order to protest the policies of the finance minister at the time – Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided to make cuts in the soft underbelly of Israeli society, in the allotments to the weaker sectors like single mothers.
Knafo, a divorced mother of three who was born in 1959, set out on her march and became a leader of the struggle against the economic cutbacks, which culminated in the erection of a tent camp of single mothers in Jerusalem. The women won the support of other activists who wanted to bring about change; some of them went on to become prominent social activists.
Netanyahu tried to depict Knafo and her fellow single mothers as parasites who live at the taxpayers’ expense, while in truth she and others were working women who were collapsing under the burden of trying to make ends meet.
As often happens in Israel, the matter was shunted aside because of a security incident. On August 19, 23 people, including seven children, were killed in a terror attack on a bus on its way to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Public attention, which until then had been focused on the social protest, was diverted and the protest started melting away.
Though she was a clear representative of the weaker groups in Israeli society – a woman, a Mizrahi (Jew of Middle Eastern descent), a single mother and a resident of the underprivileged periphery – Vicki Knafo was more than just another link in a chain of social struggles over the years. She also represented another chapter of an ongoing feminist struggle that dates back to the 1920s, when Zionist women were fighting for the right to vote.
Israel traditionally has been perceived as a relatively egalitarian society – thanks to the sheen of gender equality in kibbutzim and mandatory military service for women – but since the 1960s, Israeli feminist intellectuals and activists have worked to highlight the misogyny and sexism that are as endemic to Israel as they are anywhere else. With her spontaneous, straightforward campaign, Knafo played an instrumental role in popularizing these notions.
However, Knafo’s struggle did not bear the desired fruit. Differences of opinion emerged among the activists themselves – for example, as a study by Prof. Smadar Lavie has shown, when Israeli Arab women asked to join the tent camp in Jerusalem and were rejected. Knafo herself has returned to the headlines from time to time (she had her picture taken in the nude for a magazine and she starred in an ad for a supermarket chain).
The social protest that erupted in the summer of 2011 in Israel once again led many people to hope for a change. Among the 2011 activists were some who had participated in the 2003 protest, joined this time by many middle-class Israelis whose economic situation had been severely eroded over the years. This protest, too, was led by a woman – Daphni Leef – who, together with Knafo, embodies the multifaceted struggle for more compassionate economic policies and Israel’s ability to reconsider traditional socioeconomic and gender categories.
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