Every Friday lunchtime, a group of elderly Israeli women stand quietly for an hour on a central Jerusalem junction holding small signs and banners. Although quiet, their presence provokes a lot of hostility. Their message? ‘Stop the Occupation’. They tell us they have been called many names from fellow Israeli citizens including ‘Nazi whores’, ‘whores of Arafat’,’ traitors’, as well as simply, ‘Christians’ even though they are almost all Jewish.
Women in Black vigils originated in Jerusalem in January 1988, in response to the beginning of the first Palestinian ‘Intifada’ or uprising against the Israeli occupation. The message ‘Stop the Occupation’ appeared on the image of a hand signaling ‘Stop’. At the peak of the anti-occupation movement, vigils were held in 30 places throughout Israel. Now the only regular vigils apart from Jerusalem are in Haifa and Tel Aviv.
These vigils have been copied throughout the world, sometimes protesting about the Israeli occupation, sometimes about other global or local issues. Recent visitors to the Jerusalem vigil were some of the regulars participants at the vigil held in Tucson, Arizona. As the Women in Black website puts it, ‘Women in Black’ generally means ‘a nonviolent demonstration of one or more people in which we hold signs in a public location to express our political views’. It doesn’t have to be just women and they don’t necessarily have to wear black though they feel this identifies them and increases the power of the message when they do.
Israeli activists at the Women in Black protest
Some of these vigils are held in the UK and the latest, launched in August this year, is in Leeds. Monthly vigils are being held there on the first Tuesday at lunchtime ‘to protest at Israel’s occupation of Palestine’.
One of the regulars at the Jerusalem vigil is Ruth who moved to Israel from London in 1952 as a young women. She was one of the first participants in the Jerusalem vigil 31 years ago. She had already been active in anti-occupation groups but she tells us she found they tended to become aggressive and feels this may have been due to the because of the presence of men. So she and others decided to form a women-only group and to demonstrate in a central location in West Jerusalem. At first there were a hundred people at the vigils and the abuse they received often focussed on their gender, for example, cars would stop and their drivers would tell the women to go home and give their children their lunch, or call them ‘sluts’ and other similar insults.
The group became less active after the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation were signed in the early nineties because they thought a path to peace, however rocky, had been established. But it wasn’t to be so they resumed the vigils.
Nomi has been taking part in the vigils nearly since the beginning. She tells us that the insults have become rather ‘less imaginative’ over the years, with the same ones repeating themselves. While we were there, a number of passersby asked what the Women in Black meant by an ‘occupation’. When told that it was the Israeli occupation of Palestine, some angrily told the women to read their bible. ‘Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews’ a few said. Nomi sighed as she told me that she is a Jew who grew up in Israel.
We asked Ruth and Nomi why younger women were not taking over the mantle of maintaining the weekly vigil. They told us that young women who want to be politically active prefer to be involved in direct action rather than ‘passive’ vigils.
There is a regular counterdemonstration of Israelis on the opposite corner from the Women in Black vigil. After some tensions in the past, the police told the Women in Black and the counterdemonstrators to stay on their separate sides of the road. A police car is usually present but when EAs were last present at the vigil, the police did not respond to a young boy who had been waving Israeli flags in the faces of the women. He finally spoke to the boy as the vigil was ending.