Sarai Aharoni on Feminist Peace Activism in Israel & the Diaspora
This is the first of a series of profiles of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli activists I will be writing based on interviews that I conducted with Aliza Becker for the American Jewish Peace Archive in May and June 2017. Through these profiles, I hope to open up a window for American Jewish activists working toward justice in Israel-Palestine onto the contemporary and historical local movements for justice and peace in the region, with a specific focus on Jewish Israelis.
In conducting these interviews and writing these profiles, I wrestled with the question of: why focus on Israelis, and what impact does this have in normalizing the occupation, painting a picture of two parallel “sides” rather than reflecting the reality of a brutal military occupation? In an American Jewish context in which Jewish Israelis are highly visible, and Palestinian stories are often invisible, why continue to tell Israeli stories?
Involvement in Israel is that it is often divided into those who want to “support Israel,” and those who feel a particular responsibility because of their complicity to act in solidarity with Palestinian activists. For those American Jews who operate with a framework of supporting Israel, I think it is important to open up the stories of political dissent, to realize that the discourse of supporting Israel translates to supporting the right wing, and to expose the hypocrisy of that rhetoric. For progressive American Jews in particular who wish to avoid Israelis and focus solely on Palestinian activism, my opinion is that, by virtue of our shared history, our shared Jewishness, the massive intertwining our own institutions, educational systems, etc., we will actually be more effective in working with Israeli leftists than in participating in anti-normalization — and a step to working together is building understanding through stories.
As I entered Isha L’Ishah: the Haifa Feminist Center on May 29, 2017, I was amazed at what I saw: an office larger and
fuller than any feminist activist space I had ever seen, with meeting rooms, therapy rooms, libraries and archives, all covered in Arabic, Hebrew and English posters celebrating feminism and denouncing the occupation. The Archives themselves had walls of boxes and files containing letters, flyers, photos and other artifacts from the women’s movements of the past several decades. We met in the library to interview Sarai Aharoni, a lecturer in Gender Studies at Ben Gurion University, who researches the impact of war on women and the role of women in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. She manages the Feminist Archives at the Center, in addition to being a longtime activist herself.
The daughter of an Iraqi father and Ashkenazi American mother, throughout her life Dr. Aharoni developed a unique perspective on the role of American Jews in the political situation in Israel-Palestine, and specifically within the feminist anti-occupation movement. In her interview she laid out her analysis of the relationship between feminism, peace activism, Israel, and the Diaspora, which I think is a must-read for American Jewish feminists involved in this issue.
Though she had been involved in progressive and feminist struggles for many years, Aharoni did not became involved with activism related to the conflict until 2000, with the beginning of the Second Intifada. She recalled, “I was already part of a group of women who self-identified as young feminists. Many of us moved as a group into anti-occupation activism. We joined the renewed vigils of Women in Black in Haifa as a group.”
Still, she explained, there was a gap in many of her feminist groups’ self-identity when it came to how their feminist activism related to the conflict. [pullquote] “Back then…the way the women’s movement was framing its work…was never related to the conflict.”
[/pullquote]Women felt a need strategically to keep their two political identities separate. “There was this strategic decision that when the feminist group Isha L’Ishah went to a protest with the anti-occupation Women in Black, they wore black. And when they went to a demonstration against domestic violence, they were Isha L’Isha. ‘We change our clothes, change our habitus, change our voices..Nobody will know we are both here and there.'”
Aharoni’s perspective on this strategic separation began to change when she attended a women’s development conference in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2002. She said, “I was doing a lot of work with women, victims of trafficking, and also doing peace work…[but] the conflict-related human rights discourses and women’s rights discourses didn’t seem to converge.” At the conference, Aharoni was inspired by the way women from other parts of the world connected these two discourses. “I heard women from Liberia and Guatemala who were doing political analysis of the way militarism and the wars were impacting negatively women’s rights and women’s status.” These women inspired Aharoni to work toward connecting feminist activism with anti-occupation activism back home.
Following this conference, Aharoni began to introduce a shift to the women’s movement in Israel. She used United
Nations Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security — which urges all UN peace and security efforts to have participation by women at every level of decision-making, and to protect women and girls from gender-based violence in times of conflict — as a way to bridge the feminist and peace discourse. The resolution ended up being a major organizing principle of joint Israeli-Palestinian women’s peace efforts.
Dr. Aharoni also spoke about the way that the history of American Jewish feminism inspired the strategic and ideological connection between women’s activism and peace activism. In the early days of the Israeli peace movement and women’s movement, American-born feminists were highly visible and influential in both. The values of free speech, democracy and equal civil rights were deeply rooted in their American framework, and helped make the connection between feminism and Palestinian rights.
However, Aharoni explained, at times American Jewish women damaged the efforts of local Israeli and Palestinian women through Western chauvinism and insensitivity.
“The American woman who comes as an enlightened Westerner, as a Jewess, Zionist, to the promised land, this whole narrative, to rescue the natives from whatever backwardness, violence, and ignorance it is experiencing, just to discover that either nobody really wants to listen, or that this type of intervention creates a lot of antagonism as a foreign intervention, and that there are lots of cultural misunderstandings, in terms of what do American Jewish women want. Then they leave.”
Aharoni spoke about how even the most involved American-born activists have the privilege to leave Israel-Palestine if they choose. “Americans in particular… have more mobility and …more resources.” For them and for Ashkenazi Israelis with access to European passports, “the viability of the state of Israel is not as central as it is for working class Mizrahim.”
Moreover, while they may have lended some helpful leadership and initiative, the perspectives of American Jewish feminists often didn’t translate to the Israeli and Palestinian contexts.
“A lot of the frames of analysis and the reference points and the justifications for peace activism that American women brought with them were very embedded in civil rights movements, the sense of what is democracy, the idea of justice, which would make sense in an American context. [It’s] also linked with a certain type of privilege. A privilege even to reflect, to think, to engage in questions that people here feel that the conflict always pushes aside.”
With respect to the present and the future of Israel-Diaspora feminist anti-occupation activism, Aharoni worries about the difficulty of developing a robust contemporary women’s movement in Israel in the absence of international connections by Israelis to other women’s movements. Aharoni had a chance to travel internationally for women’s conferences, but many Israeli feminists don’t have the same opportunities and feel academically isolated as a result of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. “The sense of alliance that American Jewish women had with Israeli feminists in the past, when they were very marginalized, was as a power that helped [the Israeli women’s movement]… I’m worried about whether younger women here, in Israel… [will] be able to do the same thing because they do not have contacts with the outside world.” For this reason, Aharoni believes young American Jewish feminists have a unique role. “The main contact for them would be with American Jewish women, because Israel is becoming very secluded due to BDS.”
However, Aharoni sees many difficulties in making those connections a reality, “because patterns of immigration to Israel have changed,” she explained, “and the progressive feminist liberal Americans are not coming, are not making aliyah. They come for a year, they come for two years, half a year, one week, but they don’t come to live here. They don’t come to stay here.”
American Jewish women are now playing a very different role than they have historically. “Ironically, if you go to the settlements, you will find American women of various ages who are leaders, who came to live here..on the extreme right. Maybe that says something about the way Jewish liberal feminist women in the U.S. can or can’t engage with what’s happening here.”
Aharoni summarized her views on the connection between the peace movement and the feminist movement in this way: “I am a very realist feminist and peace activist…I know empirically that conflict and war is one of the most violent enemies for women: [their] rights, their health, their well-being, their physical integrity, their access to education, their access to resources…War and conflict is something that feminists should work against, across all borders… I think that women should be very critical about war, and about militarism that sustains war…That’s where feminism meets peace activism. Feminists talk about violence, they talk about inequality, they talk about discrimination. They know how to talk about these things, and they are brave enough to talk about them. Raising your voice against the military or against war is just another step in being vocal.”
As American Jewish feminists, I think we can learn from Aharoni’s analysis of the history of this bond with Israeli feminists — both in how we might replicate the successes of the past, building international feminist solidarity, as well as in avoiding past mistakes. As an American Jewish anti-occupation movement as a whole, we can certainly learn from Aharoni the core ideological connections between peace work and feminism, the ways that they naturally lead to one another, and challenge ourselves to constantly engage in both.