“You develop a thick skin…”: Women in Black

For 23 years, the Women in Black have stood in Jerusalem on Fridays from 1-2 pm in Paris Square. Just a 15-minute walk from the Old City, five minutes from downtown, and a hundred yards from the Prime Minister’s residence, the square is anchored by a large, decorative water fountain. Israelis in non-violent protest first gathered around the square in early 1988 in response to the First Intifada – more specifically in response to the shooting and killing of Palestinians (teenagers) who had thrown rocks at Israeli soldiers.

Renate Wolfson, Woman in Black - Jerusalem - 10 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Renate Wolfson had joined a group of women and men on the south side of Paris Square; the group called itself, “Israelis By Choice” based on a shared experience of immigration earlier in their lives. As that group started to dissolve, she chose to join the Women in Black in the central part of the square where they continued to stand vigil.

The Women came together in January 1988, in vigil for the deaths of the Palestinian youth. They dressed and continue to dress in black as a sign of mourning. At that time, they were typically 150 women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the square every Friday afternoon (from 1-2 pm). Ten to twelve Women-in-Black groups existed at one point in Israel/Palestine.

The Jerusalem Women are not an organized group as such. They only meet to make decisions (e.g., regarding slogans they would use on their signs) and use a consensus-based approach to do so. At each vigil, the Women held, and continue to hold, signs in the shape of a black hand indicating, “stop”, with the words, “End the Occupation”, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. During the attack on Gaza (Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009), they created a banner with the words, “Stop the siege of Gaza”.

Renate & Sherry Ann - Women in Black vigil - Jerusalem - 14 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Helen

During the first Gulf War (1990-1991), when Israelis started experiencing rocket attacks from Iraq (with hits on Tel Aviv and a few deaths), the Women in Black met to decide if they should continue to stand vigil on Friday afternoons. With many Palestinians siding with Iraq during the war, the women debated the future of their own vigil. They never reached a consensus. Finally, some women started standing again in Paris Square. At that point, though, the number of the members of the group began to diminish.

After the Oslo Accords, about 1995, the Jerusalem Women in Black stopped standing for six months. As Renate has recalled, “We thought that things were going to get better – that Israel would pull out of the territories and there would be peace. That turned out not to be true and so we came back”.

Since 1995, they have been gathering every Friday afternoon. They haven’t had a meeting since 1995. As the number of members has continued to drop, making decisions has become informal; the Women simply walk around the Square during their Friday vigils and ask each other about decisions they wish to make (e.g., Gaza banner).

Renate (at centre) - Jeff Halper (at left) - Jerusalem - 24 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Renate is one of the early members of the Jerusalem Women in Black. She was born in Germany and was 10 years old when she and her family moved to the USA. Her father had left for England in 1936 to find work abroad as a university lecturer. He taught philosophy of religion and studied how it is expressed in literature. Not finding work in England, he travelled to the United States. In between, he returned home to Germany. Renate remembers that he was disturbed by the changes in German society in his absence:

“It’s not that Jews weren’t allowed to talk on the street. They could talk about the weather. But NOBODY, Jewish or not, could talk critically about the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) regime where he might be overheard. He could land in a concentration camp. The totalitarian regime took hold gradually and so my father after a year abroad wasn’t up to date and said things he could have said a year earlier, but no longer.”

The family lived with the threat that he might be arrested at any time. When he went abroad again, life became a little less anxious for them. However, life for Jews became ever more oppressive and threatening. Upon finding work in the US, he called for Renate, younger brother, and her mother to join him. The family left in August 1938, just ahead of the November 1938 Kristallnacht (i.e., Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in the persecution of Jews in Germany prior to the Second World War.

Renate moved in 1958 from the US to Israel. She worked “as a librarian at the Jewish National and University Library at the Hebrew University, and later part-time as an abstractor of German books and articles for a bibliography on antisemitism (books etc. ABOUT Antisemitism, not antisemitic books)”. She continued on the bibliography after she retired from the library and still does a little work for it. She married, in 1967, and had two children. Her husband died in 1986. When I asked why she moved to Israel, she recalled that,

“I was a Zionist. I had been in Israel in 1952-1953, after college, for a year of study (Jewish studies). I fell in love with Jerusalem. But now, I’m doubtful about Zionism. I am someone who loves Israel but I am very critical of what is happening.”

In reflecting on the past, Renate described how, “Our whole family – husband and children, have been active in the peace movement. We used to take the children along, when they were very young, to activities we thought suitable for them, such as planting new trees where settlers had uprooted Palestinian olive groves. My son, Yossi, a lawyer, worked until recently at HaMoked, a legal-aid center for Palestinians, and still does occasional work for them.”

In the early years of the Second Intifada (started in 2000) with suicide bombers targeting Israeli buses and cafes, the Women in Black continued to stand in Paris Square. I asked Renate if the Women were afraid while they stood vigil during that period, “We were not; it’s true that passersby became more hostile in their reactions, but we always had police protection.” In terms of life in general, she remembers being “a little afraid” but also recalls that if “you had to ride the bus, then you had to ride the bus”.  At times like that, “You can’t afford to be too afraid. You can’t give up coffee houses in the long run. That intifada lasted several years, until it died down gradually. After about a year and a half, the Israelis made a major campaign and invaded all Palestinian towns, house-to-house, arresting Palestinians wholesale. It was terrible but it put a partial stop to the terrorism. It was a high price to pay.”

After that spring-2002 campaign, Renate remembers that one Women-in-Black member’s daughter-in-law was killed by a suicide bomber and another member’s granddaughter was also killed in a separate incident. Both women continued to stand with the Women in Black. Renate went on to comment that the Separation Barrier is not a satisfactory resolution to the Second Intifada: “It is built in Palestinian territory separating Palestinians from their fields and from the centre of their lives regarding school, work, and medical treatment.”

In the last month in which I have had the honour to stand vigil with the Jerusalem Women in Black (and also on Friday with the Tel Aviv Women in Black), I have noticed that about 8 to 10 women appear each week.

Tel Aviv Women in Black - 31 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

At least two internationals, like me and my Ecumenical Accompaniment  teammates, also appear. On some days, up to 10 or 12 additional people stand and they have included two or three men. Renate, herself, has commented on the older age demographic of the Women. They are now all older women with one exception. A younger woman started standing with them about six or seven years ago. She has since had a son who has become part of the vigil group, too. Their oldest member just celebrated her 89th birthday. As the Women marked their 23rd anniversary last week, they have discussed the need to recruit new members. They also know that since 1988, Israeli women have branched out from the Women in Black effort to form other peace groups (e.g., Machsom Watch). “Now,” Renate observed, “only those of us who can’t do other things continue to stand vigil here.”

I asked Renate how she and the other Women cope each week with being called “traitor” by drivers and pedestrians moving through Paris Square. She says, “You develop a thick skin and you don’t really have much respect for people who talk that way.” Now is not an easy time, compared with the Oslo years, to be a member of the Israeli peace movement. As Gideon Levy, the Israeli journalist, has observed, “The Israeli Left collapsed totally and dramatically ten years ago…” (28 Dec. 2010, Alternative Information Centre event). Last week, he reported that, “The Knesset has resolved to create a parliamentary committee of inquiry to look into the activities of left-wing groups ‘and their contribution to the delegitimization campaign against Israel.’ Such a panel would make even Senator Joseph McCarthy blush” (Levy, 6 Jan. 2011). Not only are accusations of “anti-semitism” flying about but also criticisms that standing for a just peace somehow delegitimizes the Israeli state (e.g., see this article from 29 December 2010). In response, Renate has noted the following for me:

My past as a Jew in Nazi Germany, as well as my present work on the history of antisemitism, make me especially sensitive to the oppression of others and to the need for citizens to act against unjust regimes before it’s too late.

My father, by the way, supported (long-distance, from Germany and the US) a group called Brit Shalom and later Ihud in what was then Palestine, (i.e. before Israel’s independence), consisting mainly of German and American Jewish academics, that worked for Jewish-Arab understanding and for a binational state. (I don’t think a binational state is feasible any longer after all that’s happened and all the hostility that created.)”

Renate Wolfson, Woman in Black - Jerusalem - 14 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Helen

What does Renate hope for the future, in particular for Jerusalem, the city with which she fell in love in 1958?

That it would be partitioned with the eastern part serving as the Palestinian capital and the western part as the capital of Israel. Yet, I hope very much that there wouldn’t be a wall in the middle so that we can go back and forth.”

For more information about the Women in Black’s early years, click here. For information about Women in Black International, click here.

7 thoughts on ““You develop a thick skin…”: Women in Black

  1. Great reflection and story Sherry! Glad to get to know Renate! Here’s wishing endutance and strength to the women in Black.

  2. Thanks so much for all the info. It is especially meaningful to have Renate’s personal story! It was great to see you in the photos, too, Sherry Ann. You continue to smile as no other can which can only lift the hearts of those around you.

  3. as one who was there in 1984 and many people there in the years since, the Women in Black are a particular inspiration and sign of hope for me. Garth Mundle

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