Braving a persistent Jerusalem drizzle, some 3,000 women from across Israel circled the Knesset on Wednesday to demand that peace take center stage in the next government ahead of elections on March 17.
Rallied by Women Wage Peace, a grassroots organization created last August, the women — wearing turquoise ribbons and carrying signs reading “choosing a diplomatic agreement” — chanted “It’s reality, not a dream, women make peace.” They joined hands as they sang “A Song For Peace,” the tune that slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin hummed on stage at a peace rally in Tel Aviv moments before his assassination in November 1995.
Yael Elad, head of the group’s media team, said Women Wage Peace was formed in the wake of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza by two prominent lawyers, Irit Tamir and Michal Barak, who felt that “women cannot just sit at home, complain, and hope for the best, without actively doing something to change the situation.”
“It’s time for us to be part of the dialogue that revolves around security and peace,” Elad told The Times of Israel. “We sense that women disappear from the public space when you look at TV panels or listen to radio shows. This place is reserved for generals or politicians, but never for women. This has to change. Women are half of the population; we raise the kids who eventually get sent to fight wars or protect the country. We should be there to say something about the outcome.”
Since the summer, the group has proliferated through parlor meetings and social media. Though only recognized officially as a nonprofit on the day of the rally and still with no bank account, Women Wage Peace now boasts 7,000 registered members and over 10,000 supporters on Facebook.
Elad hopes that number will eventually mushroom to 700,000.
“We must become a powerful electoral voice,” Elad, the chief financial officer of a Tel Aviv venture capital firm, said, emphasizing that the group has no intention of evolving into a political party. “We disagree on many things but agree on the necessity of a peace agreement for the future of Israel.”
Rihab Abdul Halim, an education entrepreneur and lecturer from the Arab village of Manshiyat Zabda in the Jezreel Valley, said she joined the movement’s steering committee out of deep conviction in the power of women to foster reconciliation.
“Like Mother Teresa said, peace starts at home,” Abdul Halim told The Times of Israel. “As women, our role is to educate for tolerance and the acceptance of the other. Why do we want peace? Because we hurt most during war.”
Recruiting Arab women for a peace movement is more difficult than recruiting Jewish women, Abdul Halim admitted sadly.
“I understand them. We, Arab women, don’t see ourselves as decision-makers. We feel we have no influence. Influence rests with the government, which is Jewish. Nevertheless, when I hold parlor meetings, I see the women change their minds.”
Abdul Halim was particularly moved by the connections forged between Arab and Jewish volunteers since the organization was created.
“I describe this connection like a woman standing on the side of a lake and throwing in a pebble, representing our vision. The stone creates water circles that grow wider and wider. Similarly, this movement created circles of humanity between women. We exchange knowledge and culture, empowering each other. The influence is not just in the domain of peace, but in society more broadly.”
Tova Levy-Furman, a retired diplomat, said Women Wage Peace was reminiscent of her activity in Four Mothers, a women’s group formed in 1997 to demand an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, a move eventually carried out by prime minister Ehud Barak in May 2000.
‘The outlook of women is conciliatory; it’s constructive rather than destructive,’ said Ambassador Tova Levy-Furman
“It was a pleasure working with Four Mothers, who all had children in elite combat unites,” the former Israeli ambassador to Cameroon recalled. “The speed in which they learned to work with the media was astounding. They finally managed to get Israel out of Lebanon against the opinion of the army.”
Levy-Furman said she believed women should “take responsibility for their lives and stop being victims all the time.”
“The outlook of women is conciliatory; it’s constructive rather than destructive,” she added. “Men have a rigid, one-sided vision. They don’t see the way out.”
Elad, the group’s spokeswoman, admitted that the two most prominent women in Israeli politics, former prime minister Golda Meir and the Zionist Union’s co-chair Tzipi Livni, may not be the most glowing examples of peace-oriented leaders. The former disregarded peace overtures from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s, unable to avert the devastating Yom Kippur War of 1973, while the latter — a chief negotiator under prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu — clearly occupies the right flank of her adoptive movement.
“They were two women operating in a heavily male-dominated environment. They weren’t surrounded by thousands of women and didn’t have the unique support of thousands of women. I don’t think they necessarily had the chance to express their feminine voice,” she said. “We rally together in order to create the power of many. It’s not very easy to be heard as women here.”
Aware that elections are just around the corner, Abdul Halim nevertheless said she never tells women who to vote for.
“I don’t like politics. It only gets in the way,” she said. “All I will say is ‘vote for those who want peace.'”