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Witnesses for peace keep the faith in midst of escalating violence

Date 27 Feb 2001 11:40:29

Note #6407 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

in Holy Land

Witnesses for peace keep the faith in midst of escalating violence in Holy

Despite peace talks' collapse, "Women in Black" aren't demoralized

by Alexa Smith

JERUSALEM -- Dressed in black, 80-year-old Aviva Muller-Lancet sits crouched
on the second tier of a small concrete plaza at a busy intersection in the
heart of Jewish West Jerusalem.

This plaza has many names. Some call it Paris Square. Some call it French

And some -- including the 50 or so women gathered there on this day with
Muller-Lancet -- call it "Women in Black Square."

For 13 years they have gathered in this square every Friday from 1 o'clock
until 2, bearing signs protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

They don't shout or interfere with traffic. They stand silently, all in
black, while a few soldiers sit nearby in a jeep and another crouches on the
low roof of the Prima King's Hotel across the street.

Even at 80, Muller-Lancet shows up every week - unless, she's quick to say,
it gets too cold. Her reason for coming is clear and blunt-spoken: "They
haven't stopped occupying the land. It is getting worse and worse."

Peering over her eyeglasses, she asks: "Do you know what's happened today?"
Referring to the Israeli military, she answers herself: "They've cut the
Gaza band in two. Now, imagine you were a mother with a child on the other
side. You can't cross and she can't pass … with all the tanks, all the

A loud male voice interrupts her: "Get out. Just get out, you f---ing
communist." It's a stocky middle-aged man wearing a yarmulke.

A younger woman with long curly hair, standing on the sidewalk to
Muller-Lancet's left, wearing a black T-shirt and a dark windbreaker, says
over and over to the man, "Shabbat Shalom."

Nonplussed, Muller-Lancet resumes her conversation. "People here don't want
to know. They don't listen to the news. Or, the news is reported in a way
that they don't understand what it means," she says in a deep Hungarian

Two men and three or four teenage boys -- kept on the far side of the plaza
by police -- would disagree. Their signs, in big Hebrew letters, slam the
now-defunct Oslo peace process and anyone who thought it might work. They
also praise an anti-Arab rabbi who was assassinated -- martyred -- about 15
years ago.

Itamar Ben Gvir, who organizes the weekly appearances of these
counter-protesters, is a voice from the far right who doesn't get much of a
hearing among ordinary Israelis. He says the only solution to Israel's
political quagmire is to deport all Arabs to the Arab States. "To save
Israel," he explains. "We are in danger all the time from our enemy, the
Arabs, who kill Jews all the time."

The best English-speaker in Ben Gvir's group is a red-haired 15-year-old
named Zev Blomberg, who lives in Kiryat Arba, a settlement near Hebron, a
combustible Palestinian town with a group of Jewish settlers living in its
center to be near the supposed tomb of Abraham.

Blomberg stands at the edge of Ben Gvir's entourage, listening, albeit
skeptically, to Rebecca Johnson, a young woman from the United States whom
he calls one of the "red hats."

She belongs to a Christian Peacemaker Team, a well-organized community of
U.S. activists who live in some of the world's hot spots, serving the dual
purpose of being international observers and witnessing for non-violence.
They wear red ball caps with the CPT insignia.

"I'm trying to talk to him," Johnson tells the Presbyterian News Service
when the boy has slipped away to another corner of the square to be near Ben
Gvir. "The settlers in Hebron won't talk to us. They'll spit at us. At best,
we might get a hostile 'Shalom' to our greeting, 'Shalom.'"

Such is life here.

But for women like 50-something Gila Svirsky, who joined the Women in Black
three weeks after it was formed, this is no time to give up.

"There's just no room for demoralization, I'm so busy," she says in a small
café just after all the protesters, left and right, packed up and went home.
"Talk to anyone in the women's peace movement. We have Women in Black every
Friday.  There's a big demonstration tomorrow ... at the Bethlehem
checkpoint. And in two weeks there's a march in Tel Aviv of both Arab and
Jewish women.

"There's just no space for getting demoralized," Svirsky repeats.

She says the women's peace movement is a coalition of eight organizations.

Not all of the voices in Israel's peace movement speak with such unanimity,
when they speak at all.

The left grew quiet during the recent election campaign, disappointed
Palestinians and progressive Israelis agree - thereby ensuring the election
of Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

Sharon, a hard-line retired Israeli general who is known for having overseen
the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the 1980s, and whose
appearance at a Muslim holy site in Old Jerusalem last September provoked
rioting that quickly became another full-blown intifada (Palestinian
uprising) has managed to pretty much silence the left in Israel.

Rabbi Arik Asherman is the first to say so. A transplanted Pennsylvanian who
lives in Jerusalem, he is one of the people who speak for the left-wing
organization, Rabbis for Human Rights.

"The entire country, from the left to the right, is in a big, national
depression," Asherman says, observing that greater force is the right's
automatic answer to violence, even though nobody really believes it will
solve anything. The left, he said, doesn't know what to do.

"The left is shell-shocked," the rabbi says, describing folks who are angry
with the Palestinian leadership for so relentlessly pushing for the right of
return of Arab refugees, which many consider an insurmountable obstacle to
peace, because it would tip the population balance in the region far to the
Palestinian side.

"And the rioting by Israeli Arabs (who live inside Israel as Israeli
citizens) shook them to the core," he adds. "You had to turn on the radio
here to hear where it was safe to drive. People felt like we went back to
1948. Right now, you just see an apathy, a numbness that has been
uncharacteristic of Israeli society up until now."

Galia Golan, a spokesperson for Peace Now, the largest peace movement in
Israel, which in the past has been capable of turning out over 100,000
people for a protest, insists that her organization hasn't been totally
quiet. It has, however, turned to smaller vigils and marches, rather than
trying to stage big demonstrations, which, for now, seem impossible.

Golan is afraid that the incoming Sharon government won't make the
concessions that are necessary for peace. "It just looks like it will only
come after a lot more bloodshed," she says.

Even the determined Svirsky admits that peace activists are back to "square
one," which is why the 100 or so Women in Black in Jerusalem keep coming
back to their square, despite an overall reluctance among Israelis to make
peace now.

"There's tremendous passion to do something. It is unbearable," she says.

Women in Black has added a seventh city to its list of protest sites as a
peaceful response to the escalating violence on the West Bank.

Svirsky thinks Peace Now and other leftist groups will be more visible as
the Sharon government settles into power.

"From the beginning, our message has been: 'End the occupation.' Over the
years we added a few other things:  'Share Jerusalem, let it be a capital
for two states,'" she says, remembering a time years ago when such topics
were taboo. She also remembers when Women in Black moved its protest from
the center of Jerusalem to the present site because they were often drenched
with spit from passers-by at the first location.

"I love Women in Black," Svirsky says. "We have stood with each other for 13
years. We know if there is a riot, we're going to be there for each other.
We've gone through dangerous situations. We've gone through being hurt
physically … and we've learned to be strong."

Galit Katz, a 37-year-old descendant of Russian immigrants to Israel,
started showing up for the Friday protests just a few months ago.

Katz observes that house-hunting in Jerusalem is ethically complicated. She
doesn't want to rent a house that was owned by Arabs until it was
confiscated by the Israeli government years ago, even though many of those
old stone residences are lovely.

Not long ago, she was considering a spacious residence in Malha -- a town
from which Palestinians were removed in 1948 to make way for Jewish
immigrants. The landlord told her that the bodies of dead Arabs were in the
house when the current owner's father got the property. Katz didn't sign a

Since she began standing here with her sign, she says, she's been a called a
whore, and worse, by passers-by, usually males, many of whom say that if
she'd have some children, she'd be at home with something constructive to

"It is always combined with this chauvinism," she says softly.

"I'm suffering from being part of a society that believes that it must rule
or dominate ... other people," she says. Then she pauses as the driver of a
passing car leans hard on his horn. It's hard to tell whether his outburst
is directed at Katz and her companions or the men waving a blue-and-white
Israeli flag just a few feet away.

Katz says she can't reconcile herself to pushing other people out, when
Israel was safe haven for her own family when it needed to escape from
Russia. Looking around the square, she says, "This is a little bit that I
can do."

Sam Freed is more adamant. "The fact is, we have an apartheid system here
.. and people don't want to know," he says, clutching a "Stop the
Occupation" sign.  He is one of only a few men who take part in these
demonstrations. "If I want to have a right to complain about racism in
Europe in the '30s and '40s, I have to protest against racism in our
community," he says.

On this particular Friday, there is plenty of support for the advocates of
peace. The crowd is so large that Ben Gvir's group is confined to only
one-quarter of the square; normally, opposing groups split the available
space 50-50.

About 80 internationals from 21 countries - in Jerusalem for a conference
sponsored by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a think-tank
for Palestinian Christians - have joined the ranks of the peace activists.
Among them are three members of the Presbyterian Church (USA):  the Rev.
Theodore Nace, of Annapolis, MD; the Rev. Darryl Meyers, of Los Angeles, CA;
and the Rev. Len Bjorkman, of Syracuse, NY.

Asked what impact their presence might have here, Bjorkman says: "One never
knows what good might come from one's act of conscience.  We're here out of
conscience, and we have to trust ... that it will lead to a desirable goal.

"Here, peace is not just the goal," he says. "Peace is the way."

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