From Denial to Equal Representation: Women’s Peace Groups and the Creation of New Feminist Activism in Israel
For many years, the members of feminist groups in Israel were mainly middle-class, professional, Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) women. Lower-class, Mizrachi (Jews of Oriental and Arabic origin) and Palestinian women were a small minority among Israeli feminists. Lesbians, not nec¬essarily small in number, were invisible at best, and at worst, shunned alto¬gether. The creation of women's peace groups and the increasing activities of other women's groups presented new challenges to Israeli feminism. Feminist work had to include women from different social, ethnic and national backgrounds, and from different lifestyles.
It was the Intifada, together with the disillusionment of many women with the male-dominated peace movement, that gave the impetus to the creation of so many different women's peace groups (Sharoni, 1993; Young, 1992). The Intifada created a new politics of the oppressed. Its mes¬sage has been that when people do not have political power, they can struggle to achieve it using whatever means available. As the Palestinians were using stones to gain a voice, women were using their presence in the streets to express their opposition to oppression. Although women's peace groups were opposing the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, they nevertheless had a greater impact agitating for a voice for women in society.
The assumption that women should not have a voice in public affairs, especially in war politics, has been prevalent in Israeli society for many years. With the emergence of a women's peace movement, Israeli women could challenge their traditional roles as mothers and keepers of the home-front and take positions on crucial political matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian con¬flict. Moreover, they were protesting against their existence as dependent and marginal members of society and against the restrictions imposed on women in patriarchal society. For women to demand a public voice and at the same time to oppose the Occupation was a form of subversion.
This subversive position helped t.o create the connections between gen¬der and politics in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As pointed out by Hagar Rovlev, a founding member of Women in Black in Jerusalem,

It is very important to find local interpretations of feminism in Israel ._. For example, those who see feminism as a political intervention grounded in the daily lives and struggles of women, may argue that even for women
who do not identify as feminists, the very choice of going to a women's demonstration conveys a feminist message, whether women are willing to admit that or not (Sharoni, 1993, p_ 226).

Thus, feminist activism found its manifestation in the protests of women's peace groups, such as Women in Black, Women for Women Political Prisoners, Shani and others. Each woman demonstrating was taking part in feminist struggles even if she herself might not have necessarily been aware of it.
Furthermore, the development of the women's peace movement facili¬tated cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian women in Israel. The activities of different women's peace groups created a model for joint work, based on the acceptance of the political, national or other differences between the participants. The history of the women's peace movement in Israel, as shown by Sharoni, "reveals attempts to overlook differences in political ideology and direction in order to mobilize broad segments of the society" (1993, p. 23). The loose framework of Women in Black, for exam¬ple, enabled many women with different political views and women who were not previously involved in politics to participate (Espanioli and Sachs, 1991). This alliance between different women had to ignore differ¬ences and to assume unanimity when it did not necessarily exist.
The impact of a new agenda, developed by the women's peace groups in Israel, seemed to have offered a new possibility of building a national feminist conference. The previous conferences were divided deeply on articulating the connections between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and feminist issues. Thus, each of the feminist group or projects was left to carry out its struggle on its own. There was no basis for a united platform or activism of any kind.
In 1991, after an interval of five years, there was a "new" feminist con¬ference. This time the basis for joint work was a new concept which was introduced by the group of Mizrachi women from Tel Aviv. This joint work did not ignore the differences between women and different groups of women; on the contrary, it was based on identifying differences and introducing equal representation for each group. Thus, the work done by the women's peace movement was taken a step further.
Feminist conferences used women's experience in the peace movement while refusing to overlook differences. They could be used, as Audre Lourde said, as "powerful connections" to forge personal and political power.
To translate theory into practice, three groups were identified, as repre¬senting the most salient social groups in Israeli reality: Mizrachi women, Palestinian women and Ashkenazi women. Each group was to take respon¬sibility for one-third of the workshops, one-third of the panel's speakers and hopefully one-third of the participants. The groups and women in the orga¬nizing committee agreed to this new concept and the eighth feminist con¬ference, the first in the "new feminist era," was on its way.
When the conference started in Giv'at Haviva, in May 1992, it became clear that this new idea of artificially "dividing" feminist women in order to give voice and strength to those needing it most, was highly controversial. It did, however, excite the women, who could see the potential of this new direction. Yet, lesbian women did not find themselves represented any¬where. Before the conference was over, a "feminist arithmetic" was created.
Since 1992, three more conferences have followed (in 1993, 1994, 1995), aimed at creating new visions of feminist struggle in Israel. The introduc¬tion of equal representation brought forward women who otherwise never had the chance to speak. It exposed the participants to the "other" on both the personal and the political dimensions. It also brought great pain to women who had to recognize that taking power is also sharing it equally, that equality with men might mean different things for different women, and that anger and frustration of long years of oppression should not be directed at each other.
Each woman participating in these conferences had her own point of view on the concept of representation. Many women who could not easily accept this "artificial" representation found themselves empowered by it, thus recognizing the importance of giving voices to women from different groups. Other women accepted the notion of equal representation as a compromise or as a necessary stage for the present, but not desirable for the future. But for many women, this new representation was the first time that the two (or more) standpoints of their lives could find a place. Women could speak up, connecting their position as part of a wider oppressed social group, and at the same time address' their oppression as women.
Personally, I am uneasy about identity categories and am not sure why anyone should identify or be identified with anyone group at all. I would like to follow Judith Butler who is "permanently troubled by identity cate¬gories, consider them to be invariable stumbling-blocks, and understand them, even promote them, as sites of necessary trouble" (1991, p. 14).
Nonetheless, the last feminist conferences set the stage for exploring the possibility of identity, the limitations and the need to promote identity cat¬egories, together with the necessary troubles.


Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out, Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Diana Fuss, Ed. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Espanioli, Nabila and Sachs, Dalia. "Peace Process: Israeli and Palestinian Women."
Bridges, Fall 1991, pp. 99-11l.
Sharoni, Simona. Conflict Resolution Through Feminist Lenses: Theorizing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from the Perspectives of Women Peace Activists in Israel. Fairfax: George Mason University, 1993. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis.
Young, Elise. Keepers of the History: Women and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
New York: Teachers College, 1992.