DevMode
Almost eight years after the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, and myriad publications down the road, themes about the relationship between gender issues, women's activism and the history and politics of the Israeli-¬Palestinian conflict might seem hackneyed and deja-vu. But that does not discourage Simona Sharoni whose book, Gender and the Israeli-¬Palestinian Conflict, has been "inspired by the urgency and excitement surrounding Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish activists' efforts to document and analyze their struggles from the inside out" (p. 3). An Israeli activist in both the women's and peace movements, and an assistant professor in peace and conflict resolution in the United States, Sharoni claims in her introduction that this gives her an added advantage, writing as an "insid¬er" and an "outsider." Sharoni is, indeed, well-qualified to deal with her topic from this dual perspective - but only on the Israeli side.
A simultaneous focus on both Israeli and Palestinian women can be problematic, conceptually and structurally. Such an approach posits the existence of commonalities and shared experiences between women of both societies across the political divide. Yet certain questions inevitably surface: Is shared womanhood enough justification for such an approach? Where do Palestinian and Israeli women converge and where do they diverge? Well aware of this incongruity, Sharoni is careful to premise her book on the recognition of the disparity in power and privilege between Israeli and Palestinian women. In fact, throughout the book, she never loses sight of this asymmetry, which to her is that between occupier¬-occupied, oppressor-oppressed. From a Palestinian perspective, this is imperative for the understanding of the dynamics of any relationship, dia¬logue or joint activity between Israeli and Palestinian women.

Not a Place for Textbook Feminism

Sharoni starts her discussion with a historical and conceptual context for the issues of gender and politics involved in the struggles of Israeli and Palestinian women. Throughout the ages women all over the world have been involved in struggles against various forms of oppression, and in that sense the experience of both Israeli and Palestinian women is not unique. On the other hand, the conflict is pivotal to these women's lives much more so than in any ether instance and it defines the parameters of the gender issues in the region. Thus, Sharoni contends, quite rightly, that women's struggles for gender equality in the Occupied Territories and Israel have to be contextualized and explored not only in relation to feminist theorizing worldwide, but also "in relation to the politics of the Middle East and to women's political activism throughout the region" (p. 26).
The Palestinian conflict is not the place to apply ready-made frameworks of "textbook feminism." In this context, "the role of gender extends beyond what it means to be a man or a woman, it plays an important role in shap¬ing the collective and individual identities of the two societies"(p. 22).
In both these societies, men are socialized to be fighters and protectors; women reproduce the nation and must therefore be protected. In both con¬texts women were encouraged to participate in nationalist projects as women i.e., women had to accept primary responsibility for reproduction and cultural transmission of their respective communities (p. 35).
In Israel, for example, Ben-Gurion went as far as to militarize mother¬hood by drawing an analogy between a woman who brings children into the world with a soldier fighting for his country. (A woman who had 10 children was a "heroine mother.") Demographic victory over the Palestinians was so vital for Israelis that the importance of women's fertil¬ity became a national priority (p. 34).
The same assumptions are evident in Palestinian society. Women are the "mothers of the nations" and thus the "construction of motherhood equals nationhood" (p. 35).
Such assumptions about masculinity and femininity emerge implicitly or explicitly in the respective national discourses of the Israelis and Palestinians. Sharoni illustrates her argument from the speech Rabin gave upon signing of the agreement with the Palestinians in September 1993. In that speech, the term "soldiers/fighters" comes up 20 times; women are mothers who cry for their sons or husbands. The Israeli-Jewish collectivity has obviously been described in militaristic and masculine images. Unfortunately, Sharoni fails to produce a parallel Palestinian discourse, which by no means negates their existence.
In spite of these gendered assumptions on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, women's "national consciousness" induced them to get involved in political activities and to link their struggle for gender equali¬ty with the struggle for national issues, blurring the boundaries between the personal and the public, the private and the political.
The next four chapters Sharoni devotes to a parallel historical overview of Palestinian women's movements and activism (4 & 5) and Israeli women's activism and movements (6 & 7) emphasizing all along the different ways the conflict has impacted on the women on each side. Although the book basically focuses on the Intifada years, Sharoni traces these moments as far back as the turn of the century. She, thus, pays trib¬ute to women's achievements and contributions that have gone undocu¬mented for a long time, and she also traces the development of women's movements which have laid the ground for women's activities and activism during the years of the Intifada.
It is an understatement to say that such historical overviews have been done and overdone in other publications. But Sharoni is able to transcend mere cataloguing of movements by bringing into her account analytical insight and a cause-effect relationship between the individual movement and events on the ground.
On the Palestinian side, Sharoni's account is based largely on second¬hand information, from interviews and private conversations with Palestinian women - mainly activists and scholars. Hers is an enthusias¬tic appraisal of Palestinian activist women's achievements. However, she fails to address the question in writing about Palestinian women: Is femi¬nist activism a precondition for the national struggle for liberation emerges from the text, this is a forgone conclusion for Sharoni. Unfortunately, it overlooks the massive, spontaneous involvement and contribution of thousands of Palestinian women on the grass roots level, women who are not necessarily engaged feminists, but for whom, too, the political has become personal.
The equation gender struggle=political struggle is more readily valid on the Israeli side, informed as it is by Western feminism (the genesis of the movement is attributed to the activism of two North American women in the 1970s). By fighting for the end to political oppression - the Occupation - Israeli women found a vehicle to fight against other forms of ethnic or socioeconomic oppression.
These two chapters (6 & 7) are the most vivid, confident and cogently¬argued chapters in the book, a proof that, here at least, Sharoni is writing as an "insider." Among some of the thought-provoking issues is her dis¬cussion of Israeli women's attempt to "articulate a feminist politics of peace," which establishes a connection between violence on the fronts and its spillover into the family, with women as the main victims. A definite link is also established between sexism and militarism leading to the mili¬tarization of Israeli society. Sharoni further argues that assumptions about masculinity and femininity have also been used for political ends, as, for example, has the myth of gender equality in Israeli society.
The first myth was fueled by the image of the "sexy," "exotic" woman soldier. These in turn were contrasted with the images of veiled women of Arab countries - the veil being an obsession of the West - to emphasize how backward and undemocratic those countries were and that Israel was fighting for its existence to the point of conscripting women into the army.
The second image, of course, is the "tough," "powerful," exceedingly "unfeminine" Golda Meir, labeled as the "ablest man in the Israeli cabi¬net." Ironically, Golda Meir did nothing to further the cause of women. In fact, she hated feminists to whom she referred as "those crazy women who bum their bras and go around all dishevelled and hate men" (p. 99). Which again begs the question about the connection between feminism and paci¬fism. Golda Meir, a woman, was certainly not known for her pacifist stances, so should women who want peace and the end to oppression be feminists? Here again, Sharoni fails to address that question.

Myth and Dialogue

In the final part of her book, Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli women are again brought together for an overview of attempts, on both sides, to "build bridges of trust, understanding and collaboration." Such efforts, Sharoni notes, have a lot of potential but are also fraught with pitfalls.
Dialogues between Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian women, for example, are facing a crisis now because they have been based on the wrong format. While Jewish-Israeli women were more interested in social and political encounters based on recognizable similarities between themselves and Palestinian women, the latter had something different on their minds: to transform the political views of Israeli-Jewish women and to "mobilize support against the occupation in Israeli society." Shared commonalities such as motherhood were not enough to transcend the structured inequal¬ities in power and privilege. The Jewish-Israeli women, Ashkenazi for the most part, and from cushy backgrounds, tried to downplay or ignore the dis¬parities so as not to impede dialogue, but this was resisted by their Palestinian counterparts. Unfortunately, like her compatriots, Sharoni eschews the thorny issues which risk "impeding" the dialogue, issues which can be the acid test for a solid basis for dialogue or any other form of cooperation.
As Sharoni's account ended in 1993, women's movements on both sides had gone into a crisis, internally and between themselves. The crisis goes back to the Gulf War when Israeli women, for fear of being labeled traitors by contacting the "enemy," failed to come through for their Palestinian counterparts, and to the Madrid peace talks (1991). The struggle for peace had drawn the women of both societies together; ironically, peace has sep¬arated them.
But as Sharoni concludes, the potential is there for dialogue and a joint contribution to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. "They [women] could make a real difference in the implementation of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East."
Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the place to look for startling revelations about gender or political issues in the region. It is, however, an informative, (almost too) well-documented, objective book. From a Palestinian vantage point, however, this objectivity strikes a jarring note. Paradoxically, inherent in objectivity is the comfortable, patronizing attitude of one strong enough to simultaneously excuse the "other" and celebrate his/her achievements, and at the same time indulge in self-criti¬cism. By writing her book from this simultaneous viewpoint, Sharoni leaves herself open to such criticism.

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