In deeply divided Israel, Jewish and Arab women build case for peace

At a time when peace is not high on the Israeli public agenda, Women Wage Peace unites Arab and Jewish activists with a simple demand: that leaders just 'reach an agreement.'

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Women take part in a rally outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem Oct. 19, 2016. It was the closing event of the March of Hope, a two-week-long event organized by Women Wage Peace, a non-political movement calling for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The 4,000 women gathered at the Qasr el Yahud baptism site in the Jordan River Valley to press for peace were a motley crew: old and young, Palestinian and Israeli, some raising their phones to film the crowd, others holding babies.

Many wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Women Wage Peace” in Hebrew, English, and Arabic – some over bare arms, others over traditional long-sleeved embroidered dresses. An Israeli in a sleeveless white tunic embraced an elderly Palestinian in a black hijab, swaying to the beat of doumbek drums and tambourines and chanting: “Hey Ya, women walk for peace!”

A little later they marched down to the banks of the Jordan River and sat on the ground. Liberian Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee, in a white shirt and dark head wrap, stepped up to a microphone, facing them.

“If you see the march today and you don’t see hope, you don’t see peace – you are blind,” she declaimed. “What the women have done here today is put an end to the rhetoric that ‘there is no partner for peace.’ We, Israeli and Palestinian women, are partners for peace!” The crowd cheered.

The event at Qasr El Yahud – attended by about 1,000 West Bank Palestinians and 3,000 Israelis, both Jews and Arabs – was one stop on a two-week “March of Peace” in October that started near Israel’s border with Lebanon and ended in Jerusalem. It was organized by an Israeli movement called “Women Wage Peace,” which unites Jewish and Arab activists in a call to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The group has about 10,000 registered members, 10 percent of whom are Israeli Arabs and the rest Jews. Organizers say some Arab women face unspecified “social barriers” to registering, but that many more participate in the group’s events. The group’s rallying cry is, “We won’t stop until there’s an agreement.”

The culmination of the march – a rally Oct. 19 in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence – drew 20,000 participants, a remarkable number considering how deeply unpopular the cause of peace is in Israel right now: After countless rounds of failed negotiations, a violent year full of stabbings and the election of Israel’s most right-wing government yet, none of the country’s leading politicians talk of peace even in vague, aspirational terms.

Benefit of women's involvement

Research shows that women’s involvement in efforts to procure peace improves both its probability and its longevity. In Israel, the military withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 is in part attributed to a campaign by “Four Mothers,” a Jewish women’s organization founded by the mothers of soldiers. For the more complicated West Bank, the question remains: Can a grassroots organization create a peace process where currently none exists? Can the integrated viewpoints of Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli women resonate in a deeply divided society?

This latest women’s peace organization was born out of Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, which disrupted lives in daily missile attacks and exacted a toll of 72 Israelis and more than 2,000 Gazans dead.

Hamutal Gouri, executive director of a fund that helps Israeli women become agents of social transformation, participated in meetings between Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish women where they discussed how to help end the war and prevent the next one.

“We called in an activist from Gaza to tell us what was happening on their side,” says Ms. Gouri, “and discovered that although our perspectives differed, we had a lot more in common.” So when Irit Tamir, another activist, raised the idea of an interfaith women’s peace group, Gouri became a founding member.

'All brothers and sisters'

Amal Abou Ramadan, a Muslim teacher and single mother from Jaffa, was one of those shaken by the bloodshed. She recounts how Jewish and Arab neighbors stopped speaking to each other, but also of how – during a siren warning of incoming rockets – she found herself comforting a Jewish woman, a complete stranger, on the street.

“She was crying and shouting, she needed someone to hold her, so I did,” she says. “I didn’t know her, but it didn’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters.”

After the war she says she felt deeply depressed, and when a friend invited her to a meeting of a new peace movement, her first impulse was to pass. “I said, another movement? What difference is it going to make?”

Today, she is a regional coordinator.

For the past two years, the women have combed the county with marches, protests, and parlor meetings. Last year, on the anniversary of the Gaza war, they held a 50-day fast for peace in front of Mr. Netanyahu’s residence, and this year, during the autumnal Jewish holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), they set up a “Sukkah for peace.” They also organize screenings of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” the documentary film about Ms. Gabowee’s women’s peace movement in Liberia, which they find inspiring.

There are no Palestinian members from the West Bank or Gaza – the decision from the start was to keep the organization Israeli, the better to influence local public opinion – but they work closely with Huda Abu Arquob, a Palestinian from Hebron and director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a network of 96 organizations.

Ms. Abu Arquob helped them conceive of the march, and mobilized West Bank Palestinians to come to Qasr el Yahud. “I still get the chills when I think of the buses arriving and women streaming out,” she says. “I wish we could take them all to Jerusalem,” she adds, referring to Israel’s policy of limiting West Bank residents’ access to the city.

She herself couldn’t continue marching with the Israelis, and had to return to Bethlehem and go through a checkpoint in order to speak at the rally. But she refuses to give in to negativity. “In a conflict zone, we cannot afford hopelessness,” she says, “it will be the end of us.”

Accepting 'whatever is agreed'

Instead of calling for one of the specific proposed solutions floating around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – two states, one state, a bi-national federation – the movement’s is a general call for agreement.

“There are enough initiatives: the Geneva Initiative, the Saudi Initiative, the American Initiative, the world doesn’t need another one,” says Gouri. “We are saying to leaders, take the layouts you’ve got and reach an agreement. Whatever is agreed on both sides, we will accept.”

The general message enables the support of women who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a more standard peace organization – such as Michal Forman, a Jewish settler who was hurt last year in a stabbing attack and spoke at the rally. But it also leaves them open to criticism as ineffectual.

“I can identify with what they’re saying: As women, we are at the heart of the conflict, but our needs are not being taken into account,” says Hanna Herzog, professor emerita of sociology at Tel Aviv University and co-director of The Center for Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. But, she adds, "their demands are not forceful enough.”

“It’s too easy for the right wing to answer, ‘We want peace too but there are simply no partners on the other side,’ ” she says. “They’re walking a tightrope trying to be so inclusive, and it makes it very easy to silence and neutralize them. On the other hand, at least they’re demanding peace, which is so rare in Israel nowadays.”

In a survey of Israelis taken in June by the Democracy Institute, 52 percent of Jews and 69 percent of Arabs said they would support an agreement requiring Israel to pull out of most of the West Bank. However, asked what outcome they would prefer, 55 percent of Jews supported continued control over Palestinians in some form. This makes the goal of Women Wage Peace – to create a popular demand for an agreement so strong that politicians have to listen – seem quite distant.

Finding an opportunity

Marie O’Reilly, director of research at the Inclusive Security Institute, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank that supports women leaders, says the lack of progress toward peace may actually be an opportunity.

“There’s been so little action for so long [in the peace process], that this could be the moment for an alternative approach and a new energy,” says Ms. O’Reilly. “We have worked with Israeli and Palestinian women, and they were some of the most tireless peace advocates we’ve known. It depends on the extent to which they manage to get support from elites on both sides and also on the societal attitudes to this kind of movement. And it’s important to get the message just right.”

A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the past three decades showed that when women’s organizations were effectively involved – whether as a political party, as in the case of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, or by actively campaigning for the end of hostilities, as in Liberia – an agreement was almost always reached, and had a higher chance of implementation.

The reason, according to O’Reilly, is that women tend to reach across ethnic and religious divides and think of the day after the big signing. While that day still may be far off, the activists are not deterred.

“From the beginning, we set our deadline at four years. Our purpose is not to build an organization but to usher in an agreement, and when it is reached we will disband,” says Gouri. “We have a clear goal, we have determination – and we have plenty of hope.”

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