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Women Lead the Israeli Peace Movement—in Russian and Arabic
Lily Galili, Israel
August 10, 2006
At the vanguard of the radical left protest against the war are two women—an Arab and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union—leading the demonstrations with “End the War” chants in Arabic and Russian.
The evening before we met, Khulood Badawi escaped the horrors of war to go to the al-Hakawati Theater in East Jerusalem. But even escapism is not what it used to be. She was watching the Lebanese movie “The Kite,” directed by a friend’s sister, in which a young Lebanese woman falls in love with a Druze soldier from Israel during the first Lebanon War. At the height of the story, her cell phones began to ring. The news that Katyusha rockets had fallen on Haifa quickly moved through the theater. Badawi, who had lived in Haifa for several years, fled the theater to watch the TV news, where she recognized the offices of al-Ittihad, the newspaper of Hadash, Badaw’‚s political party. Among the ruins she saw many offices she knew, and began calling her friends.
At that same moment, Yana Knopova, who immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine 11 years ago as a young Zionist activist, was fielding phone calls to and from friends and colleagues. The rockets had fallen not far from the Haifa apartment she shares with Abir Kopty, the spokeswoman for the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, and in the heart of the neighborhood of many Arabs and Jews who share her uncommon political path.
The two met the next day in what they call “the Tel Aviv bubble,” where they have been orchestrating the key protests against the war on behalf of the Coalition of Women for Peace and Ta‚ayush. An Arab and a Russian. Another of the strange phenomena to emerge from this war.
The 30-year-old Badawi has a long history of political activism: The former militant chair of the Association of Arab University Students in Israel, Badawi is today a field worker for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. The 25-year-old Knopova, a student of psychology at Haifa University [and coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace], strayed far from the Zionist dream though she had worked five years for the Jewish Agency,
In those years, she believed that “the left was only the Meretz Party,” as she put it, and then she discovered what she calls the lies and arrogance on which Israel is based, which not only create primitive men in Israel, but undermine the judgment of the entire country. Thus she found her way to a political and social home in the radical left.
The Bomb and the Hope
Clearly the sense of marginalization in Israeli society—which views Arabs as the enemy and ignores immigrants—strengthened the solidarity between them. “The police see Khulood as a natural enemy,” says Knopova with a bitter smile, “while in the exact same situation, the police refuse to see me as an enemy. They also live with the stereotype that there are no Russians in the left. Khulood is always dangerous, I am never dangerous; Khulood is a demographic time-bomb, I am a demographic hope. This is an approach that regards the wombs of us both as in the service of the state, and we will not give them this pleasure.”
Over the past month, they have orchestrated all the demonstrations of the left, and held them in three languages— Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. Based on the number of calls coming in to Badawi‚s three cell phones, one would think that opposition to the war is the new consensus; based on the calls to Knopova in Russian throughout our conversation, one would think that a million Russian speakers in Israel changed their political views.
This is not true, of course, but there is no doubt that something different and new is happening. Much has already been said about the uniqueness of this war; the fact that at the vanguard of protest are two women—an Arab and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union—is without a doubt another unique element. Everything is new about this: Most of the protest in Israel, including that of the more left-wing activists, used to spring from the pool of Ashkenazi Jewish men. Not anymore. Today the protest of this war is being led to a large extent by women.
And that is not the only difference. In the past, Arab citizens of Israel refrained from going to demonstrations in Tel Aviv during a war. At most, they would make do with token representation in the later stages of protest. They would also generally hold their demonstrations in Arab towns. Not any more. From the very first week, the Arabs became equal partners to the demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Thousands of Katyusha rockets falling on them erased the reluctance of the past. In their eyes, this is no longer a Jewish war, but a civilian war in which they have an equal right to make themselves heard. Badawi says that they deliberately bring their voices to Tel Aviv, which is seen as the capital of Israel.
Another kind of change is transpiring among Russian speakers, considered the hard core of the Israeli right. Once, bringing a few Russian speakers to demonstrations of the Zionist left was considered a big achievement. Today there is a small, but visible and consistent participation of Russian speakers in the protest movement of the radical left. Thus, the Arabs are learning to chant “Voine—Nyet!” (no war), while Russian and Hebrew speakers are chanting “Salaam—Na‚am!, Kharb—La!” (peace yes! war no!). It looks like this connection will last long after the voices of war subside.
The Old Left Failed
To Badawi and Knopova, all this seems quite natural. Above all, they feel that the role of women in this protest is obvious. “All the elements of this war bring the issues together—feminism, social justice, class distinctions, environment, and the occupation,” they say. “Women make this connection in a natural way. The Old Left, even Gush Shalom, has not managed to connect these struggles. We do. Even the social justice and political networks of women are stronger. This war is taking place on our social turf, in our homes. As women and citizens, we create an alternative voice of women facing the militant voice of men.”
“This is a male war about honor, both that of the Israel Defense Forces and the Hizbullah,” says Knopova. “Women are less into matters of honor. Russian women instinctively understand that this war is a man’s game. We grew up in that kind of society, and it‚s obvious to us.” Perhaps this is why the group of Russian-speaking women in the radical left in Israel grew over a short period from 3 to 200 activists who are now involved in protest.
Knopova explains that even her father now visiting in Israel, a profoundly non-political person, “understood the lie” from watching the Israeli TV channel in Russian. Even he, reports Knopova, noted in amazement that one Israeli soldier seems to be worth the lives of ten Israeli civilians and a hundred Lebanese. “He feels instinctively that something is wrong,” she says, “but the Russians in Israel get brainwashed.”
“Human life is valued in Israel only when it is in uniform,” contends Badawi. “From our perspective, the struggle now is for the dignity of everyone in Israel. Every human being. Arab women have a common socio-economic interest with Russian and Mizrahi women. Our parents will have nothing left to eat after the war. When we speak from the stage—Yana in Russian, I in Arabic —that in itself is a political message. It also conveys to the Arab world that the claims by Israel and the U.S. that Jews and Arabs cannot live together is a false message.”
It is easy to elicit endless criticism from them about Israel, but harder to pry from them statements against the Hizbullah. “Clearly we as feminists cannot support a fundamentalist religious organization,” they agree, “but we do not want our statements to be used manipulatively against our views. Israel gave the Hizbullah reasons to attack, but our struggle is waged on behalf of our own society, to prevent a regional war that would hurt us all.”
Badawi says that this is also the beginning of a way to repair the fractured relations from the events of 2000 [when 13 Arab citizens were killed by the Israeli police], after which it was practically impossible to find Arab partners for political protest. “The age is over when we would accept Jewish partnership at any price,” she says. “Today the connection is genuine, with Jewish activists paying the price of their participation by demonstrations against the wall in Bil’in, refusal to serve in the military, activism at the checkpoints. We have a common fate, but it is different than in the past. These demonstrations can help us out of the severed relations of October 2000. Now the Arab-Jewish partnership is egalitarian.”
Only one area remains outside the joint space: the emotional memories. When Badawi talks about the evils of the Separation Fence, her personal baggage takes her back to 1948. Knopova agrees to every word, but has other associations from the collective Jewish memory. “I do not want Germans guarding us within the ghetto that we created for ourselves with the Separation Walls and security zones,” she says. “In the tragic evolution of Zionism, Israel has become the final solution of itself.” Perhaps this is not the text that will accompany the official lighting of torches on Independence Day in Israel, but it is the only moment when the thoughts of the two good friends part ways.
Published in Ha’aretz,, 10 August 2006, translated by Gila Svirksy and posted by
Jewish Voice for Peace, Aug. 16, 2006, with the following note:
The women’s peace movement - led by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, for which Yana Knopova is employed as coordinator - usually receives very little media attention inside of Israel, in spite of their numerous actions (including many protests with thousands of women). This article is a welcome change from that history. Yet though it was printed in Ha’aretz on August 10th, it was never translated into English and posted on the English Ha’aretz website. Many thanks to Gila Svirsky for translating this article into English.