‘Gender violence pushed Jewish, Palestinian women into a corner — together’

Women across Israel were set to strike to protest the government’s inaction toward gender violence. Samah Salaime, a prominent feminist activist, speaks about building solidarity between Jewish and Palestinian women and why this moment feels so urgent.

Feminist activists paint hundreds of pairs of shoes red to protest gender violence, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Feminist activists paint hundreds of pairs of shoes red to protest gender violence, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Tens of thousands of women in Israel were expected to participate in a general strike and demonstrations across the country on Tuesday, protesting the government’s inaction toward gender-based violence, spurred by the recent murders of two teenage girls.

Over 50 Jewish and Arab feminist organizations, comprising the Red Flag Coalition, declared a national “state of emergency” and organized the protests. Demonstrations are set to take place in dozens of locations around the country, culminating with a large rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Tuesday evening. Hundreds of organizations, corporations, and municipalities have declared their support for the protests.

Since the beginning of the year, 24 women have been murdered by a partner, family member, or acquaintance. Many had informed the police prior to their deaths that they were concerned for their safety. According to the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), 200,000 women in Israel are thought to be victims of domestic abuse, with around half a million children witnessing violence in their homes.

+972 writer Samah Salaime has been one of the central organizers in the struggle against gender violence in Palestinian society inside Israel for years. She spoke to +972 about how the coalition of organizations came together, how it overcame tensions between Jewish and Palestinian feminists, and why this moment feels so urgent.

What was the impetus for the strike?

The strike is happening because of the murder of 24 women this year alone, half of them Arab women. It is happening because the majority of cases of murder of Arab women remain unsolved. It is happening because after the killing of 16-year-old Yara Ayoub in the north and 13-year-old Sylvana Tsegai in Tel Aviv we could no longer remain apathetic. It was time to act.

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The strike began as an act of protest organized by a few female social activists which didn’t stand much of a chance. A coalition of Palestinian and Jewish women’s groups was formed a few months ago, in order to organize a huge protest in front of the Knesset. We had planned to build a three-day protest camp with an art exhibit, performances, and gatherings. Then reality slapped us in the face with the murders of Yara and Sylvana. That’s when we decided to declare a state of emergency across the country.

Why is this happening now?

Israel’s extremist and chauvinistic government has gone too far in ignoring gender-related issues. It has opposed all feminist struggles that stood a chance of succeeding. It declared that it would take positive steps and then did the exact opposite. This government annulled granting of custody to single mothers with infants. It killed a law to establish a committee that would look into the government’s handling of issues related to the murder of women.

Palestinian activist and +972 writer Samah Salaime delivers a speech during the ‘Biggest Arabic Lesson in the World’ event in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, July 30, 2018. (Edo Konrad)
Palestinian activist and +972 writer Samah Salaime delivers a speech during the ‘Biggest Arabic Lesson in the World’ event in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, July 30, 2018. (Edo Konrad)

This is the same government that demanded a religious authority be present on committees deciding whether to allow women to have an abortion. It is the same government that supports gender separation and the exclusion of women in the public sphere. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, no less, that the government would freeze an already approved NIS 250 million ($67 million) plan to deal with violence against women. There were Palestinian and Jewish women who were worried about merging struggles, but the harsh reality pushed us into a corner — together.

We are dealing with a government that has a gender violence problem. Not only does it oppress 5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, it violently and systematically oppresses Jewish and Arab women [on both sides of the Green Line].

What do you hope the strike will do?

We want to raise awareness over the phenomenon of the murder of women in Israeli and Arab society. It sounds naive and banal, but we want people to understand that gender-based crimes have nothing to do with family honor, immigration, culture, or religion. Men murder women because they believe in the supremacy of men over women. Through violence men are able to maintain their power.

We cannot ignore the fact that 50 percent of women who are murdered in Israel are Arab. Israeli authorities are averse to put Arab murderers — of Arab women — on trial, letting them roam free. This goes to show that the life of an Arab woman is worth less than that of a Jewish woman — and Arab women are paying the price. It is a known fact that women in conflict zones, as well as women belonging to minority groups, pay a heavy price for militarism in society.

What does a successful strike look like?

Success means Rabin Square is full to the brim with Arab and Jewish women and men. It means the government declares it will enact a national plan to deal with violence against women. It means holding every single Knesset member who has supported anti-women legislation accountable.

The strike is the culmination of years of feminist activity. But the struggle against violence against women has been taking place for quite some time among Palestinian women inside Israel. How has your struggle influenced the larger movement in the country?

I am leading a dedicated struggle through Na’am, an organization we founded 10 years ago to support Arab women and combat gender violence. Palestinian women have been an integral part of every struggle since the 90s. In the past, Arab men took pride in the murder of women, while the legal system handed out light sentences to murderers for so-called cultural reasons.

Arab politicians participate in a demonstration in the mixed city of Ramle against domestic and gender violence, November 26, 2015. (Activestills.org)
Arab politicians participate in a demonstration in the mixed city of Ramle against domestic and gender violence, November 26, 2015. (Activestills.org)

Today you will not find a single religious or political figure who dare use offensive or chauvinistic language. I think we are slowly raising the bar; Israeli society can no longer ignore Palestinian women activists. We translated our struggle into Hebrew and showed how discrimination and neglect leads to the murder of women. Jewish women want a country that enforces the law. Guess what? So do we.

What was it like for Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women to combine struggles?

I had many concerns about cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians here. I worry that I will pay a heavy price for working with Jewish women, some of whom identify as Zionists, that the movement will be used to present Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, that our decision to work together will be painful and lead to criticism from both right and left. The pain and political differences are with us everywhere we go, but I hope that the strike will succeed in merging struggles between Israelis and Palestinians and spark a larger protest movement against the violent oppression of the Palestinian people.