A shuk of stories

Today is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, and I'd like to mark it not (only) by eating falafel but with something less tangible but ultimately more nourishing: considering stories. Sixty years is only half way to 120 - the mythical age Jews wish upon one another - but this "half life" contains within it so many dreams and visions, loves and losses, hopes and fears, connections and fractures, struggles that remain unresolved. So many stories - I picture them jostling for space in our communal narratives, elbowing each other like shoppers in a crowded shuk, each trying to push its way to the front, shouting over one another in an attempt to be heard. Some are louder, more insistent, more entitled, more likely to leave with the freshest, unbruised fruit, while others cannot be heard above the din, can't push their way to the front of the stalls, and may leave empty-handed.

Even if I populate this shuk with American Jewish women only, it's no less crowded or cacophonous. American Jewish women have played numerous and diverse roles in imagining and reimagining Israel, building it and challenging it.

Their stories are both familiar and new, I suspect. Take Henrietta Szold. The founder of Hadassah, she is arguably the most influential American Zionist in history - having created the largest Zionist organization in America, developed the infrastructure for medical and social services in Israel, and administered the mass immigration of children from Nazi Europe to Israel. But how many people know that Henrietta Szold supported the creation of a bi-national (Jewish and Arab) state? This significant and radical aspect of her Zionist vision is relayed too quietly, if at all.

Or Zipporah Porath, whose letters from Jerusalem in 1947-48 form the basis of the most recent edition of our educational resource, Go & Learn. A young American studying abroad in Jerusalem, she captures in a November 30, 1947 letter home a familiar account of celebrations in the street at the news that the United Nations approved the Partition Plan, thus creating a Jewish State. Her own life story - of abandoning her studies to join the underground Haganah - is perhaps more unexpected.

I think, too, of the feminists who have challenged Israeli society to strive towards its egalitarian ideals and have shaped its politics and social life. An early pioneer, Rosa Welt-Strauss, had been an active suffragist in the US before moving to Palestine in 1919. She quickly discovered that while women had been promised the vote in Palestine, this policy had not yet been implemented and faced major opposition from the ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi parties. As the head of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel, she organized in Palestine and internationally for equal rights for women (officially won in the Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1926) until her death in 1938.

Another American woman - Marcia Freedman - was also a powerful voice of feminist challenge to Israeli society, helping to found the modern women's movement in Israel. As both a grassroots activist and a member of Knesset (from 1973-77), she raised awareness about issues including domestic violence, breast cancer, sexual abuse, and prostitution, and helped create institutions and legislation to address these social problems. She was also a leader in the Israeli peace movement - a commitment she more recently expressed as the founding president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, an organization mobilizing Americans to work for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sometimes sharing stories cracks open our image of the world and allows a different vision to emerge. Gila Svirsky is a feminist peace activist in Jerusalem, and a co-founder of the Coalition of Women for Peace. But when she made aliyah in 1966, she was a religious, relatively right-wing Zionist. Over the years, influenced by political events and friends, she had drifted leftward, but meeting Palestinians and hearing their stories radically transformed her perspective. She has devoted the past 20 years to peace and human rights activism.

Sharing stories as a force for peace is the mission of Just Vision, an organization that works to publicize the stories of Israeli and Palestinian civilian peacemakers. Through a powerful documentary film (Encounter Point), the Online Network for Peace, and curricular materials, Just Vision strives to "create connection, understanding, empathy and hope - critical elements to the long-term implementation of or adherence to any diplomatic process."

Interestingly, Just Vision was founded by an American woman - Ronit Avni - and is run by an all-female staff. (So is Encounter, another non-profit devoted to the power of stories and personal relationships between Jews and Palestinians, founded by Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles.) As I've blogged about before, women have played and continue to play a leading role in the peace movement.

So many stories. I bring this particular few today with a wish for the healing that sharing stories can bring. And I ask of you: what stories about Israel have influenced your perspective? Which voices in the metaphorical shuk capture your ear? What accounts would you like to include in our communal narratives?

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Thank you Hannah,

I have long been deeply troubled and increasingly aghast at the oppression that Israel contiues to mete out against Palestinians.

I heartily agree that we need to hear the stories of Palestinian women,and men as well.

For those of you who may not agree with this perspective, and who focus on the terrorist attacks of the Palestinians, I beg of you to please open your minds and hearts.

I am well aware of the suicide bombings, the attacks on sedorot, the hijackings of the 70s and of the violence of hamas.

The crimes of Palestinians are well known, but not so the crimes of Israel, the massacre at Deir Yassin in 48 by Begin, the massacre by Sharon at Quibya, among many others.

How many people know about the 400 plus villages razed by Israel in 48, about how holocast victims, yet, built their new settlements upon the ruins of arab villages.

How can it be, that we who were ghettoized in Europe during the holocaust, have created the new ghetto of Gaza, the world's biggest open air prison? How many are aware that the designer of the Wall in Israel, also helped to design the Wall at he Mexican border?

Further, how many people know that the wall's real purpose is not security, but a way to contain and control Paleatinians, a way to steal their land, and keep them from moving about freely?

How many know that some settlers are burning down their olive groves, including some trees that are over 2000 years old?

I have seen signs about the one Israeli captive who Israel correctly wants freed, yet what of the 10,000 Palestinians being held captive by Israel, many with no charges made?

It seems to me that year after year, the crimes of Israel grow and grow and grow.

I am interested in joining with like minded Jewish women and others to bring about change.

I don't know how to break through the wall of denial in the mainstream Jewish community, and not just end up in screaming matches.

One thing is abundantly clear to me, and that is this: we cannot continue to allow our government to keep paying for the settlements, the bulldozers and the weopons that allow Israel to continue this madness.

Unless U.S. aid is contingent upon a truely equitable settlement of the conflict, and a real peace based upon justice, any efforts on Obama's part are meaningless and futile.

I would be interested in hearing from other women who feel the same outrage I do about this situation.

I cn be reached at ayndor@yahoo.com.

In peace and sisterhood,

Shifra Freewoman

I agree--we do need to hear a multitude of voices. No one is all of a piece; no group is all of piece. My mother used to say, "I'll shake you till your teeth rattle," and there have been times when I've wanted to do that to the leaders of most countries, and to those followers who can see only one side of all questions. There has been too much suffering, too much selfishness, too much hunger for power and not enough hunger for generosity. Let us at least try to listen to other voices so that our own voices can produce a richer harmony.

Thanks, Hannah, for adding these stories, which need to be part of the "shuk" of voices that we heed in our efforts to understand Israeli society and to create the possibility for peaceful co-existence in the Middle East.

Thank you for opening up a space here to consider a wider variety of Jewish women's perspectives on Israel than is usually considered by Jewish mainstream organizations. It is important to consider all kinds of Jewish voices, from Zionist to non-Zionist to anti-Zionist. There are many women, for example, in the leadership of the new anti-Zionist No Time To Celebrate campaign (notimetocelebrate.org).

But today's challenge is twofold. We need not only honor Jewish voices of dissent, but also Palestinian voices who have been silenced and ignored for far too long. Women like my friend Fatima Khaldi, who lives in a rural West Bank village and started the women's organization Women for Life and the girls' organization Flowers Against the Occupation to challenge Israel's military occupation and to work on girls' and women's empowerment within their own society. Women like my host mother in Dheisheh refugee camp, who wakes up every morning at 2 am to spend 4 hours traveling the 5 miles to Jerusalem to "illegally" earn a living for her family. Women like Olfat Mahmoud, founder of the Palestinian Women's Humanitarian Organization in Lebanon and inspiring role model for many. Women like my friend Shireen, who grew up in a West Bank Palestinian refugee camp and is now studying on a full scholarship in the U.S., planning to return to Palestine when she finishes and work to improve the situation for her people. And the many women in the Palestinian government, founders of NGOs, activists on the streets, and mothers and caretakers within their own homes.

Let us commit, in this 60th anniversary of Israel, the 60th anniversary of the Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic), to seek out Palestinian women's voices, honor their experiences, and work in solidarity with them.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "A shuk of stories." 8 May 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 29, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/shukstories>.