This last summer’s war in Gaza seems to have been a turning point for many in Israeli society; fed up with living in a reality which promises nothing but a cycle of endless war, ordinary citizens have decided to force the government’s hand. I spoke yesterday with a representative of Women Wage Peace, a grassroots organization created at the spur of the moment at the height of the war, made up of concerned women and mothers who have taken this thankless task upon themselves. Shirit Kasher, a lawyer by trade, hosted me at her office in Ramat Gan, overlooking the whole of Tel Aviv towards the ocean, to give an overview of the group and its goals for the future.
“The war this summer was simply unbearable. It was the third one in six years, and it was no different than the previous rounds. Thousands of people were killed for no reason, and no progress was made in finding a solution: we’re right back where we started’. Kasher, along with a number of other women, many of whom with children serving in the army, realized that enough was enough; they reached out to their friends and family, amassing a group of thousands of people in a short while through social media and word of mouth. In the span of about half a year, the organization has accrued nearly 11,000 followers on social media, along with 15,000 on-the-ground activists. Lest anyone think otherwise, Kasher informed me that at least 15% of those activists are men. Their activity culminated with a march on the Knesset last week, which has already garnered attention from the likes of Haaretz to the UK’s Independent. The organization’s regular activities include everything from parlor meetings to standing at highway junctions handing out brochures.
Their goal is radically simple: for leaders to stop dragging their feet, sit down together and talk to someone, anyone who is willing to listen and sign a peace accord between Israel and a representative of the Palestinians. What shape that accord takes is less important than one that leads to a definitive change in the status quo; otherwise, it seems that Israel is doomed to many more round of fighting in the future, perhaps even uglier and more traumatic than what was experienced this summer. This is all easier said than done, of course, but one has to start somewhere. The organization is non-partisan, and does not endorse any one party, doing its best to shake the stereotypical conflation of left-wing politics with that of peace. “Social issues have been completely absent in negotiations with the Palestinians”, she said. “We see in places like Liberia and Ireland, where peace accords have been successfully struck that groups like ours were instrumental in making these agreements stick.
“People also ask us, ‘why an organization called Women Wage Peace?’. I tell them that in all of the discussions that deal with negotiations, there are no women at the table. You have 51% of the population being left out entirely of these discussions; the only ones who make an appearance are male generals. How often have you heard a Russian woman [from the former Soviet Union] given a platform to talk about these issues? Or a Palestinian woman?”.
On the subject of demographics, I was dying to know: was the organization seen as a stereotypical assembly of Tel Aviv-based, affluent Ashkenazi women with too much time on their hands? “We’re keenly aware of that issue” she responded, “which is why we’ve been doing all we can to recruit women from all backgrounds and all sectors of society: Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, women from the center and periphery, north and south…”. There were even plans to recruit Jewish women from settlements and Palestinian women from the West Bank. “We don’t want any one single demographic to be associated with the term ‘peace’, as has happened in the past”.
Kasher knows, of course, that talking about such issues is almost always an uphill battle. “I attend parlor meetings and always hear from people: ‘we have no one to talk to’, and that we’re naive about Palestinian and Arab intentions. I don’t want peace to become some sort of utopian term, something unattainable. My goal, as a friend said, is to be able to wake up and think of something innocent, like football”. She seemed frustrated by the constant skepticism she encountered: “you always hear how Oslo failed. So what? Even if you fail that way you don’t stop there, you find another way. You don’t have the privilege of not trying, of giving up”. Still, she said, it was important to let people air this type of grievance. “At our events we always like to have people who don’t agree with our views speak about what they believe is the alternative”.
Although the organization does not embrace any particular framework per se, Kasher spoke quite highly of the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting point. “I say starting point, because things can be negotiated upon; we don’t have to accept everything as is” (readers should already be familiar with my support for the initiative, along, of course, with that of Amos Oz). The API is seen an especially good point of congruence given the common threats posed by ISIS and Iran, and the business opportunities that would be available with the advent of a peace accord. Arab states keen to do business with Israel for years could finally ‘come out of the closet’, so to speak, comforted by the resolution of the Palestinian issue. “Still,” she sighed, “we’ve made every mistake possible”.
And what of the next Knesset? What parties and politicians would the organization be approaching come the spring? As a non-partisan organization, Kasher reminded me, any party that was willing to listen was a friend. A smart and sadly necessary move, no doubt, as any association with the left in the last few years has acted as a cudgel with which to beat and defame anyone naive to talk about issues as frivolous as peace. Still, it’s hard to deny that in the short term at least, a center-left government would be far more receptive to the organization’s ideas. But another term of Bibi’s foot dragging is unlikely to dampen the spirits or ardor of the group; as the situation worsens, we’re likely to see more of these groups emerging, demanding some sort of solution from the government.