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 The occupation is hurting us all
 Gila Svirsky, Israel
 June 9, 2002
 
Friends,

Yesterday I was particularly proud of being a member of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. The movement did what was right, and said what should have been said. Some 1,500 Israeli peace activists were enticed to hear a rather difficult message on a searing hot day—102 degrees F. (37°C)!

Yesterday's demonstration marking 35 years of occupation focused not on the bloodshed or the rights of the Palestinians—though these points were also made—but on the price paid inside Israel for a costly and internally destructive military occupation. In particular, the speakers, most social justice activists in Israel, pointed out that the Israeli peace movement, heavily Ashkenazi, had failed until now to address the other burning issues in Israeli society.

You are always asking 'Where are the Mizrahim in the peace movement'?" said Vered Madar, an activist in Achoti ["my sister"], which seeks to empower working women at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. "In fact, we have been asking, 'Where are the Ashkenazim in the social justice movement?'"

More than a demonstration The Coalition events began with a conference in early May examining the link between occupation and social justice issues. It went into full swing last week with a media campaign in every local newspaper in Israel as well as the national press, calling upon Israelis to notice the internal damage wrought by the absence of peace with the Palestinians. "The occupation is hurting us all," said the text, "draining billions of shekels from us, forcing cutbacks in social and educational programs." What's more, said these ads (and flyers and posters distributed in the thousands), the occupation inculcates the belief that "violence is the only way to solve problems", and "allows militarism to run rampant in our lives".

Yesterday began with buses and cars decorated with signs "End the Occupation" and "The Occupation is Hurting Us All" starting out in 4 locations throughout Israel, and slowing wending their way to Jerusalem, finally entering the city together. (The Haifa group claims honors for best decorated bus, but we are not judging ...) Those already at the demonstration site cheered as the buses drove right up to the speaker's stand and emptied their passengers. We filled the street opposite the Prime Minister's residence, and compelled the police to stop traffic there, although the commander threatened to "disperse us with force" if we did so. Most women came dressed as Women in Black, but it was a colorful crowd, with many posters left over from Jerusalem's first gay pride day, held the day before, and bearing provocative anti-occupation slogans such as "Free condoms, Free Palestine", "Transgender, not Transfer", and the simple "Dykes and Fags Against the Occupation". Bless Kvisa Shchora ["black laundry"] for their ever-imaginative and defiant resistance to the combined oppressions of occupation, social injustice, and homophobia.

Four of the planned speakers were women in their 20s, and all are grassroots activists—Nabeha Morkus, a veteran Palestinian activist from a village near Acre; Vered Madar, a young feminist-Mizrahi activist in Achoti; Ruth Elbilia, whose parents from Morocco were shunted to the slums of Beit Shean; Clarina Spitz, who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Jerusalem to immigrants from the Caucasus and recently finished the army; Daphna Strumza, a third year medical student and activist in Kvisa Shchora; and Yanna Zifferblatt, a Russian immigrant now here 6 years and a Haifa University student. "It's a shame," said Yanna, "that Russian immigrants from a totalitarian society fall into the arms of a militaristic society, reinforcing those values. And it's a shame that all Russian immigrants are assumed to be right-wingers."

The crowd included many internationals who had come to express solidarity, and were invited to speak—representatives from peace organizations in France, Belgium, Japan, and elsewhere. Perhaps most moving was a man from Algeria, who spoke in both French and Arabic, and compared the liberation movements in Algeria and Palestine.

The sounds of silence

The moderator, Edna Toledano Zaretzki, a Coalition activist from the north of Israel, made space for everyone. The feeling in the crowd was that this was a different kind of demonstration, one in which the people were speaking and saying what hurt them, and where we could work together on behalf of each other's needs. "We have had 35 years of occupation," said Vered, "but 54 years of neglecting the social issues within Israel." This was also the first demonstration in Israel where someone signed for the deaf throughout the program, which sends another important message, especially at a time when the deaf are striking for their rights in Israel.

The price of occupation within Israel was also cited in the closing moments, when a Coalition member noted that the Israeli government is demanding "democratic reform" of the Palestinian Authority, while our own democracy has been severely eroded. Three women, she said, turned down our offer to speak about how their jobs were in jeopardy because of their political views. They were afraid that appearing at this demonstration would lead to being fired from their jobs. And, last, a choir of Jewish and Palestinian children was scheduled to end the demonstration with peace songs in Hebrew and Arabic. The conductor, however, decided not to have them appear—not because they disagreed with the message, but because they feared a loss of government support. Meanwhile, the children of settlements have been bused to right-wing demonstrations in school groups and during school hours.

"Therefore, to end the rally about the price of occupation, we shall have the sounds of silence of the children's choir that will not be singing here today." It was a somber demonstration, but a meaningful and poignant one, and one that set several important precedents. Thank you to the four Knesset members who attended even though they knew they would not be asked to speak—Tamar Gozansky, Naomi Chazan, Anat Maor, and Roman Bronfman). And thank you to the women who stood on stage and shared a small part of what is in their hearts.

Gila Svirsky
Coalition of Women for a Just Peace

Gila Svirsky is a writer and human rights and peace activist.

P.S. See our website for photos of this and other solidarity events from around the world: Coalition of Women for Peace.