Episode 16: Women Wage Peace (Transcript)

Episode 16: Women Wage Peace

[Drum banging, singing]

Nahanni Rous: That is the sound of women on the march.

Woman, singing: Lev echad l’shalom. And we start marching! Alb wahad la Salaam.

Nahanni: This fall, for the second year in a row, tens of thousands of Israeli women marched... through desert towns in the south of Israel, to the city streets of Jaffa, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, from the Mediterranean town of Faradis to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. For eleven days during the Jewish High Holidays they marched, clad in white with blue scarves and sashes. They are part of a growing movement called Women Wage Peace.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. We’re kicking off our new season with Women Wage Peace, an Israeli movement that’s bringing together women from across the political spectrum to demand a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Women have protested for peace in Israel before, but those movements were small and usually associated with the far Left. These women say their movement is different. Here’s Marie-Lyne Smadja, a core member of Women Wage Peace:

[Marie-Lynn Smadja speaking in Hebrew]

Marie-Lynn, translated: I think that peace does not belong to the Left, and security does not belong to the Right. Both Peace and Security belong to all of Israel, Jews and Arabs too.

Nahanni: Women Wage Peace is as intent on bridging divides within Israeli society as they are on making peace with the Palestinians. Veteran activist Vivian Silver.

Vivian Silver: That’s what Women Wage Peace has undertaken. To change the paradigm, to present ourselves as a movement that anyone can join.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: The movement’s twenty-four thousand women have given new life to an Israeli peace camp, which until recently had receded to the margins of Israeli politics. They emphasize the shared value of security, and they say only a political agreement with the Palestinians will provide it. They’re demanding the government negotiate a peace deal, and they want women to be part of the process. Their message is simple and it’s not new. What is new are the messengers. They’re not the usual suspects: the secular, urban, affluent Ashkenazi Left. Instead, the leaders of Women Wage Peace are secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, Arab, Jewish, Russian... they come from across the country and span the social and political spectrum. In this episode, you’ll hear some of the diverse voices from the movement, including Yahaloma Zekhut who proudly calls herself the first peace activist from the desert town of Ofakim. You'll meet the bereaved mother and veteran activist, Orna Shimoni, who fought for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. And you’ll meet Lily Weisberger, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace. But first, some context.

[Air raid siren]

Female newscaster 1: We heard a barrage of rockets being fired from here in Gaza and there has been a steady stream ever since. Israel has responded with airstrikes. One hit just near a mosque and killed a 10 year old boy. And Israel has...

[Ambulence, war sounds]

Nahanni: In the summer of 2014, war raged between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Female newscaster 2: Over 50 days, the Gaza strip was pummeled by Israeli airstrikes and shelling. Israel says it was targeting tunnels used by Palestinian militants and trying to stop them firing volleys of missiles at its towns and cities.

Female newscaster 1: The situation here, not looking good at all, talks have stalled, and the cycle of violence is starting again.

Female newscaster 2: The war left widespread destruction across Gaza, and some 2,200 Palestinians were killed. On the Israeli side, 73 were killed, mostly soldiers.

Nahanni: The 2014 war was the third war with Gaza in less than five years. Some people in Israel began cynically describing Israel’s approach to Hamas as mowing the grass.

Lily Weisberger: The darkness of the last war was so profound. The pain was so obvious.

Nahanni: That’s Lily Weisberger, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace. Lily’s son was a soldier deployed in Gaza during the war.

Lily: My son was fighting there and I felt despair, loneliness, hopelessness. I really actually couldn’t breathe. And I promised myself, those days I was in his room, waiting for him, and I promised that I won’t live in denial anymore. That those feelings of pain, they will be transformed into action.

Nahanni: Many thousands of women felt the same way, and began sharing their thoughts on social media. The women felt worn to the breaking point. Vivian Silver describes a sense of futility.

Vivian: This one just broke us. And not only broke those of us who lived on the border of the Gaza strip, it was breaking women all over the country whose sons, daughters, husbands, brothers were being called up to the war, realizing this was serious, they could die, and enough. Enough. If the past wars hadn’t brought a solution, why was this war going to be any different.

Nahanni: Meanwhile, lives were being wasted. Israeli women saw picture after picture of dead and wounded Palestinian children on TV. Israeli children were frightened, too. It was the first time Hamas missiles had reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and people in the South of Israel spent most of the war in their bomb shelters. When the war was over, a group of Israeli women organized a solidarity visit to Sderot, an Israeli town near the border with Gaza that has been hit by hundreds of rockets. A thousand women showed up. Vivian Silver was there.

Vivian Silver: Since I live in the south, we were on the receiving end of all of the thousand women who came down from all over the country. It was mind blowing. I have to say, none of us expected those kinds of numbers.

Nahanni: And that was the beginning of Women Wage Peace. Over the next two years, the movement grew. A core group of 40 women turned into several thousand. They held a hunger strike in front of the Prime Minister’s house, protested at the Ministry of Defense. They have held rallies in cities and small towns all across Israel, and have now collected 24-thousand signatures in support of their agenda. They’re savvy on social media and even have a theme song in Arabic, Hebrew, and English: Prayer of the Mothers, by Israeli singer Yael Deckelbaum.

[Prayer of the Mothers plays in English]

Nahanni: In the fall of 2016, the women staged their first large march. By Israeli standards, it was massive. 20-thousand Israeli women marched for two weeks throughout Israel. At the Dead Sea, a thousand Palestinian women joined them. Palestinian activist Huda Abu Arquob proclaimed in front of thousands of women: “You have a partner,” a response to the Israeli claim that there’s no one to work with on the other side.

Huda Abu Arquob: It’s women’s time to wage peace, through love, kindness, inclusivity, and mutual recognition. It’s time for us to be and act as free people. Yes, you have a partner! We are here now, united, as free women and men, to wage peace, not war. Are you with us?

Nahanni: Women Wage Peace works with Palestinian partners, but remains an Israeli movement. Its aim is to influence Israeli public opinion and put pressure on the Israeli government. The movement’s government relations committee has assigned 200 women to monitor each of Israel’s 120 Parliament members. They have also worked with two female politicians to establish a women’s peace and security caucus. Lily Weisberger says they have two demands.

Lily: One is we are demanding our leaders, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, to sit and to end the conflict. It’s your obligation to us.

Nahanni: The second demand is to include women in the negotiations. Nearly two decades ago, the Israeli government adopted a UN Security Council resolution that urged member nations to include women in all peace and security efforts. But it didn’t prompt much change.

Lily: Women should be sitting in the negotiation table. Because when women are sitting around the negotiation table, so agreements are reached, and they’re more sustainable. So that’s a fact.

Nahanni: Where else has it happened?

Lily: It happened in North Ireland, in Philippines, in Guatemala, and now in Colombia, too, so we are saying it must happen here, too.

Nahanni: Women Wage Peace draws lessons from other countries. They’ve held dozens of screenings of a documentary film about the women who successfully campaigned to end 15 years of civil war in Liberia. One of that movement’s leaders, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, joined the Women Wage Peace March in 2016. She told her Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, “If we can do it, you can too.”

Leymah Gbowee: Are you serious about hope? Are you serious about being the future of peace in your region? Because you have to get prepared. After this, it will be the tough times, to say, we want peace, we want justice, we want the respect of the rights of every human being. You can’t stop now. Stopping is never an option for you.

[Prayer of the Mothers plays in Arabic]

[Suzanne Abed El Kader speaking in Hebrew]

Suzanne, translated: My name is Suzanne Abed El Kader, from Taybe. I joined because I believe that we should have a dignified peace between the two peoples.

Nahanni: Suzanne is the movement’s main organizer for the Arab sector in Israel. She got involved after joining the March of Hope last year.

Suzanne, translated: Some people say, what’s the point? And I say, it’s so that we’ll have a future, a bright future. For our children and grandchildren in order to protect our children’s security. Sometimes a person has to give up certain things in life, so I am giving up my free time for peace. There are a lot of problems that only women can solve.

[Marie-Lynn Smadja speaking in Hebrew]

Marie-Lynn, translated: My name is Marie Lynn Smadja. I am among the founders of the movement.

Nahanni: Marie-Lynn was born in France to Tunisian parents.

Marie-Lynn, translated: I am a very strong Zionist. My son was in Gaza, my daughter was stationed at the Lebanon border. In our house, we place the security of the country at the top of the list of priorities. And the state of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. These are voices that you hear now in Women Wage Peace and they are very important. And these are voices that you didn’t always hear in the peace camp.

[Prayer of the Mothers plays in Hebrew]

Leora Hadar: I’m Leora Hadar from Alei Zahav, in the Shomron, in Samaria.

Nahanni: Leora is from a religious settlement in the West Bank, which she prefers to call Judea and Samaria. I asked her how she reconciles being part of this movement when a political agreement might require her to leave her home.

Leora: I live in Judea and Samaria. I believe that they are very very important parts of the Land of Israel. I believe that Jews have a right to live there just as much as Palestinians, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with Alei Zahav specifically. I hope that whatever happens, it will remain under a Jewish state. But we don’t know. We don’t know. I really believe that there’s no other way than dialogue and coexistence. We’re here to stay. The Palestinians are here to stay. There is no other way, we have to learn to talk. We have to learn to live with each other.

Nahanni: The specifics of the agreement, she says, are not the point right now. In order to build a broad consensus within Israeli society, Women Wage Peace has made the strategic decision to veer away from the thorny issues, at least for now. And, they’ve also agreed to steer clear of certain language. Here’s Lily Weisberger again.

Lily: I want to give you an example of the word occupation. We are not using the word occupation, and there is a reason. Because you know, words have energy, and the word occupation... I’m not saying what my personal opinion is about that. But I’m saying that there are women here in Israel, when they hear the word occupation, they feel blaming, shaming. So their hearts and minds are closed.

Nahanni: So using the word occupation, just as an example, do you lose some activists in Israeli society by not using that terminology?

Lily: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I believe so, and I do know personally friends of mine or some that at the beginning they really resist that... For me it’s important not to be stuck. We are stuck for so many years. Let’s think out of the box. Let’s open our hearts, find new path. And that’s what we are doing. New path. New language.

[Prayer of the Mothers plays in Hebrew]

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Nahanni: Yahaloma Zechut worked in the Israeli Army for 27 years as an airplane electrician. She proudly identifies as the first peace activist from the southern desert town of Ofakim, a community on the periphery, economically and geographically.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: Women Wage Peace came to Ofakim. That’s something that didn’t happen with other movements or organizations. The same with the center and left-wing political parties... they don’t come to our city because they don’t count us. They ask why we always vote right wing? It’s because they’re the only ones who know we’re here!

Nahanni: Yahaloma was already a community activist when she learned about Women Wage Peace. She’s the coordinator of the Resilience Center in Ofakim. She organizes leadership training, community service projects. In times of war, she ensures that residents have emotional support and social services. Yahaloma learned about Women Wage Peace because her friend cleans house for a member of the movement. That woman suggested they organize a meeting in Ofakim, and Yahaloma’s friend invited her to attend.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: I said: “No way, I’m not going to those leftists, I don’t want to hear anything they have to say.” She said, “For me, you’ll come.”

Nahanni: At that first gathering there were religious women, secular women, Russian and Mizrachi women... It was a group that reflected the diversity of Ofakim. Yahaloma says it wasn’t an easy meeting. There were cultural differences and political differences. For example, the women from the movement talked about Jewish settlements as part of the problem. Yahaloma views them as strengthening Israel. They were talking about peace with the Palestinians, but Yahaloma was still reeling from the trauma of the Gaza war... She thought they should be talking about peace amongst themselves first. She refused to meet with them again.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: But they kept calling. Finally, I agreed to hold a meeting in my house.

Nahanni: Seeing women taking part in a political discussion was inspiring to her, and she began to see that there was room for her perspective in the movement. Now, she’s on the Steering Committee.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: I see Women Wage Peace as a place that can bring my community one step up. With Women Wage Peace, we can create the Israeli discourse that first of all brings peace amongst us, finds our common language, and then makes peace with our neighbors, the Palestinians.

Nahanni: Women Wage Peace is a novelty in Ofakim. Not only does Ofakim lean heavily to the right, Yahaloma says it’s also traditional place, where most women are not politically active. There are also practical reasons: traveling to events all over Israel takes time and money, and women are juggling work, children, and limited budgets. Never the less, about 35 women from Ofakim participate, and Yahaloma aims to recruit more.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: I want it to be known that women in Ofakim are peace activists. That’s something that I am proud of, something that moves me.

Nahanni: Yahaloma describes being attacked for her political views from both sides of the spectrum: left and right.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: During the first Women Wage Peace meeting that I hosted, someone took me to the kitchen to tell me that I was a traitor, that I was inciting women to be Leftists. I know that it’s easy to point criticism at me. Even today people say many things about me, that I am getting money from Women Wage Peace, that I was sold.

[Yahaloma Zechut speaking in Hebrew]

Yahaloma, translated: But I don’t do it for myself. I’m doing it for my children and grandchildren, for the people I love.

Nahanni: At the end of this year’s Women Wage Peace march, Yahaloma spoke to the crowd of 30-thousand people gathered in Jerusalem’s Independence Park.

Yahaloma: Erev Tov Yerushalayim!

Nahanni: She read the movement’s manifest as the crowd chimed in with “Yes, it’s possible!”

Yahaloma: Anu, esarot elaphim...

Yahaloma, translated: We, tens of thousands of women… Jewish and Arab, secular and religious… from the center of the country and its periphery, from all parts of the political and social spectrum.. Are calling out together for peace among ourselves and with our neighbors.

Yahaloma: Ken, ze efshari.

[Instrumental version of the Prayer of the Mothers]

Nahanni: Yahaloma may be a new face in women’s peace activism, but Orna Shimoni is a household name. She’s well-known in Israel for opposing the Lebanon war, and for advocating for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Our next episode is all about Orna. she’ll talk about the transformation of grief into action, and what it’s like to be a woman trying to move the military establishment in Israel. Orna’s now a member of Women Wage Peace.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: I joined immediately because I thought it was right. But at first I drew back a little because they were too aimed in the direction of the Radical Left. They came here to Beit Eyal to talk to me, and I said, “I will join, I will sign, but I will be with you in a big way if it’s aimed center, right, left.”

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Nahanni: Now, the movement does include that diversity of perspectives. Orna thinks it’s strategically astute. In recent surveys as few as 10-percent of Israelis identify as left-wing politically. Instead, a majority consider themselves Centrist, with a large minority on the Right. Orna believes that only a right-wing Israeli government will be able to make a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians. The right, she says, would never trust a left-wing government to do it.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: In Women Wage Peace, we are calling for an agreement and not for the government falling, the opposite. We should give all the strength to this government to bring about an agreement.

Nahanni: In the 1990s, Orna was a prominent member of the Four Mothers Movement. This was a group of about 300 women who successfully pressured the Israeli government to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon. The Israeli army had been in southern Lebanon for almost two decades, occupying what it called a “security zone”. Orna’s son was killed there in combat. During the March of Hope last fall, Orna literally passed a torch to Women Wage Peace. She’s an inspiration to the younger generation of peace activists. Four Mothers succeeded in their mission, even though they were much smaller.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, tranlsated: Today, in Women Wage Peace, we don’t even resemble the Four Mothers. First of all, there are a lot of us. It’s an army! Four Mothers was a vanguard, and this is an army, an army of women. Tens of thousands! It’s real.

Nahanni: She says Women Wage Peace is also much better organized. There’s fundraising, support from abroad, committees, some of the women involved are in positions of power. But, she says, this fight is harder.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Four Mothers was a fight about which there was a national consensus. It was just necessary to get to the point where there was a Prime Minister with the courage to do it... to get out of Lebanon.

Nahanni: Peace with the Palestinians, relinquishing territory in the West Bank, it’s a more complicated problem.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Here, there is a dilemma. This is the Jewish people, Judaism, the Bible, our right to the Land of Israel. It will take time. Today, there is no consensus. You need to know that this will take time. So relax, patience, a lot of deep breathing. We need patience and staying power.

Nahanni: Orna quotes a Palestinian member of Women Wage Peace, who used a metaphor that’s been popularized in other places too... she said it’s like what the midwives tell you.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: She said, “Breathe and push.” As a woman in labor. “Breathe and push.” She said this to Women Wage Peace and I was delighted. It is exactly the right approach. Breathe and push. Patience. Breathe and push.

[Orna Shimoni speaking in Hebrew: linshom v’lidchof. Linshom v’lidchof. Savlanut.]

[Sounds from the march, singing]

Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes JWA staff Judith Rosenbaum and Rachel King. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard the Women Wage Peace anthem, Prayer of the Mothers, by Yael Deckelbaum. Thank you to Ned Lazarus for production help, and to Sarit Lisigorsky, Vered Goldstein, Joline Makhlouf Rukab, Revital Finkel, and Naomi Brodsky. Thanks also to Adina Loeb and Jeff Ernst.

Nahanni: Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and send your friends a link to your favorite episodes. You can also listen on iTunes and Stitcher, and if you do, please review us. It helps other people find the show. We’re looking for sponsors for Can We Talk?! If you like our podcast, please make a donation at jwa.org or contact us. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Please stay tuned for our next episode, a moving conversation with veteran activist Orna Shimoni.

[Prayer of the Mothers fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 16: Women Wage Peace (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 31, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-16-women-wage-peace/transcript>.


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