The Women in Black and freedom of speech in Israel

Crinkles collected in the corner of her eyes as she smiled and said “I have been coming here for the last twenty four years. I sometimes wonder why, but I come. We have to show our belief as Israelis, as humans, in peace”. I was standing with a handful of women who were dressed in black, collected in the middle of a busy road junction in West Jerusalem. They come at same time, to the same place, every Friday. They stand with large cut out plastic hands with the message “Stop the Occupation” written on them in three languages. Collectively they are referred to as the “Women in Black”.

As the protesters began to assemble I was standing with three women, all in their seventies, all smiling and all opposed to the occupation. It was hard not to be won over by them.

The Women in Black movement started in 1988, a month or so after the first intifada broke out. The first protests began in Jerusalem but the idea spread internationally taking on local relevance. In Germany for example, Women in Black protests became active in countering the neo-Nazi movements. Everywhere they appeared they were organised by women and condemn violence in whatever its form.

Defying any stereotype around age or gender or nationality, the Women in Black are a powerful striking image on the road side making those passing by stop and take notice. Even through the smiles you could sense a steely determination which brings these women out onto the streets every Friday. This determination resonates to those around.

Before the demonstration I had been told about a ‘counter demonstration’ that occurs on the opposite side of the street to the Women in Black protest. At first this ‘counter demonstration’ played out like I would have expected. A small group of predominantly men gathered waving Israeli flags. One held a placard with the slogan, “Get an occupation and support Israel” (You have to give credit where it is due, it is a witty slogan). These two demonstrations happened alongside each other with little interaction.

Cars passed by honking their horns in support, and both protests took the noise and commotion to be in support of their cause. It was unclear to me who was honking to who but I got the feeling that most people were supporting the ‘counter demonstration’.

A taxi driver with a small Israeli flag flying from his window puts two fingers up at the women and drives off.

One passer by stopped and asked one of the Women in Black why they thought there was a counter protest. The answer showed, at the very least, an ability to understand what drives those who attend the ‘counter demonstration’. Glancing out from her black sun hat she answered, “For them, we are calling for half of Israel to be given away. Not only that, but we are asking for it to be given to a group of people who they think want Israel, and by extension their families, driven into the sea”. When the Women in Black call for an end of an occupation of a foreign land, many Israelis see it as ‘giving away’ part of greater Israel.

This back-story is important to understand as it provides a partial explanation (different to a justification) to why then the protest took a nasty and unpleasant turn.

A small group from the ‘counter demonstration’ crossed over the street and started accusing the Women in Black of being everything from ‘Nazis’ to ‘supporters of Ahmadinejad’ (Iranian leader). No slur appeared to be too extreme. To the credit of the Women in Black protesters, and perhaps because of previous experience, they showed almost no reaction to the provocation. Silently they continued to hold their signs calling for an end to the occupation.

This was until one ‘counter protestor’ approached me and accused me of being a “German, Nazi, Christian” (wrong on all three fronts). At this point one of the Women in Black came over encouraging me to ‘not talk to this man’. You can hear me at a number of points say “it’s ok” to her, trying to calm the situation as the ‘counter protester’ continued his hate speech. I only managed to record a small part of what he said and missed some of his worse comments. Still, both the recordings are truly shocking in places (see video below).

The Women in Black are on the street every Friday, keeping the Israeli opposition to the occupation in the public’s mind. Many involved in the protest want the counter demonstration banned, feeling that it is ‘threatening’. I agree it is certainly unpleasant.

For me however, Israel as a modern democratic state has to support the plurality of views and enable this ‘counter demonstration’ to take place for as long as remains peaceful and non-threatening. I did not witness any behaviour which was ‘threatening’. Of course the same has to be true for Palestinians who routinely have their right to protest violated.

As Voltaire didn’t actually ever say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

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7 Comments

Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Politics, Religion

7 responses to “The Women in Black and freedom of speech in Israel

  1. Just a small correction: Women in Black do not want to deny the counter-protesters their right to demonstrate. We merely want to ensure that they stay on their side of the street. We have had physical violence directed at us many times, and we want to prevent any more from happening. Gila Svirsky, Women in Black, Jerusalem

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    • Thanks for the comment Gila, I am glad that is the case (different to what a couple of people said to me at the time). Equally, if as you say you have had physical violence directed at you I would hope that those responsible have been arrested. Have you or anyone else tried to press charges?

      Either way, best of luck in the future and I hope you will not have to face any more of this vulgour (physical or verbal) behaviour.

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      • After 24 years of facing a constant barrage of attack and criticism, and struggling for the right to have our voices heard, it’s not likely that one of the Women in Black would deny someone else the right to speak. We have filed complaints many times with the police – having been beaten, had our glasses broken, knocked down, signs ripped from our hands, and once a mass charge of a whole group against us. Once about 3 years ago someone was arrested and immediately released on the grounds that he was too mentally sick to indict.

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  2. Thanks – very odd footage – I was struck by the guns too, and also by the rather strange way the counter protesters swirled their flags – it was as though they were in a world of their own – it was more like a dance than a demonstration.

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  3. Another really good blog post, Steve – thanks! I hope you didn’t find the experience too disconcerting – though I suspect you have experienced worse in the last 4 – 5 months!

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  4. I saw that some of the counter protesters were armed, which I think would make many people feel threatened (even if they didn’t arm themselves specifically for the occasion, which is likely – and even given the prominence of weapons in Israeli life).

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    • Indeed, but given the context I would argue (as you did) that the guns were not to intimidate. As such, any definition has to (a certain degree) reflect the norms of society and not just the subjective feelings of the ‘victim’ (as this has the potential to be infinitely mad).

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