The Mizrahi feminists shaking up Israel’s human rights scene

A new movement is bringing a fresh model to the struggle for the rights of Israeli society’s most invisible and marginalized groups. Can it succeed?

Sapir Sluzker Amran was still working as a full-time lawyer when she first met Dalal Daoud. It was November 2018 and, like every year, Sluzker Amran had been looking for a meaningful way to mark the upcoming International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

At the time, Daoud, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was serving a 25-year sentence in Israel’s only all-women’s prison, Neve Tirtza, for killing her husband who had repeatedly abused her, raped her, and locked her in chains in their home. After learning of Daoud’s story and speaking to her over the phone, Sluzker Amran’s mind was made up: this year, she would raise some money for Daoud to spend in the prison commissary, as a way of showing her that there are women on the outside who care.

When she visited Daoud for the first time in person, though, Sluzker Amran realized commissary money was only the start of their relationship. She decided to launch a campaign for Daoud’s release, cutting down her working hours so that she could spend one day a week coordinating it.

“A small group of women and a few organizations joined the campaign, and everything was planned together with Dalal,” Sluzker Amran tells +972 Magazine. The campaign combined on-the-ground protest with widespread social media activity and traditional media coverage, alongside lobbying in the Knesset — all of which endeavored to refocus the narrative on Dalal’s resilience and ability to survive in an impossible situation.

Sapir Sluzker Amran speaks through a megaphone at a protest for the release of Dalal Daoud from prison, Ramla, June 19, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Sapir Sluzker Amran (right) speaks through a megaphone at a protest for the release of Dalal Daoud from prison, Ramle district court, June 19, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

It worked. After several months of campaigning, Daoud was released on parole in June 2019. As well as transforming Daoud’s life, the campaign’s success proved a pivotal moment for Sluzker Amran, after nearly a decade of trying to balance her radical activism with her legal career. “The day [Daoud] was released, I decided to quit my job as a lawyer because I saw that this is more effective,” she says.

Armed with a formula for success, Sluzker Amran still lacked the means to put that formula into action on a bigger scale. What she needed was a movement, and she knew exactly to whom she could turn to help make that happen: her long-time partner in activism, Carmen Elmakiyes Amos. The pair had been active together for several years in a range of struggles relating to poverty and public housing, and it was a shared dream of theirs to take their activism “a step forward, into something more organized,” says Elmakiyes Amos.

And so, in late 2019, a new movement was born: Shovrot Kirot (Hebrew for “Breaking Walls,” in the feminine form).

The movement’s name pays homage to a poem by Vicki Shiran — one of the founding mothers of Mizrahi feminism [Mizrahi meaning Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries] — which tells the story of a Mizrahi woman from the periphery who wants to break out from the walls constraining her and fly into the sky. The name is also intended as a rebuke of traditional “liberal” feminism, which stands accused of overlooking the racism and financial hardships experienced by many non-white women.

“[Liberal feminists] are always talking about breaking the glass ceiling, and celebrating privileged women who are supposed to be our inspiration,” says Sluzker Amran. “We’re talking about the women who have to break walls before they can break the glass ceiling — the women who don’t even have a house, or who don’t have the money to pay for electricity, or who are worried that their husband is going to kill them. These are the most inspirational leaders that we have.”

Dalal Daoud after her release from Neve Tirza prison, Ramle, June 20, 2019. (Flash90)
Dalal Daoud after her release from Neve Tirza prison, Ramle, June 20, 2019. (Flash90)

‘We wanted people to be talking about issues that were less sexy’

Sluzker Amran and Elmakiyes Amos’ story begins over a decade ago, in the summer of 2011. Israel’s “social justice” protests had taken over Tel Aviv’s upscale Rothschild Boulevard, the pinnacle of the city’s financial district, and were rapidly spreading across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and pitched tents in response to housing scarcity and the soaring cost of living in the country, voicing the broad but unifying Arab Spring-inspired cry: “The people demand social justice!”

For Sluzker Amran, who was 20 at the time, the wave of protests was the start of her journey into activism: after reading about the demonstrations, she decided to head to the first tent on Rothschild Boulevard to join in. But instead of encountering a radical movement seeking to alleviate the dire economic conditions of the most marginalized sectors of society, she found a crowd of mostly middle-class Ashkenazi activists concerned first and foremost with lowering the price of rent in Tel Aviv. Uninspired, she went home.

Absent from the main protest encampment was a recognition of the fact that not all Israelis experience the same level of financial distress. For decades, Mizrahim have experienced discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the state’s Ashkenazi-Zionist establishment, producing an ethnic underclass within Jewish-Israeli society. Mizrahim have resisted their oppression ever since the state was established — from uprisings in the ma’abarot [transit camps] in the early 1950s, to a rebellion in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood in 1959, to the protests of the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. But the struggle for an equitable redistribution of the country’s resources and the recognition of past injustices persists to this day.

As the 2011 protests continued to grow, Sluzker Amran returned with her own tent and found a new crowd in the so-called “No Choice” tent encampment, built by those without means or access to any form of housing whatsoever, with whom she felt more affinity. “Instead of being with the students or the people my age at the protest, I found myself connecting with the homeless people, the single mothers, and those who had just been released from prison and needed to find somewhere to live,” she says. From there, Sluzker Amran found her way to the parallel protest encampments that had formed in the generally poorer and predominantly Mizrahi neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where a mutual friend connected her with Elmakiyes Amos.

An activist from the Lo Nechmadim/Lo Nechmadot movement leads a crowd of social justice protesters on Tel Aviv's Ayalon Highway, July 15, 2012. (Oren Ziv/
An activist from the Lo Nechmadim/Lo Nechmadot movement leads a crowd of social justice protesters on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, July 15, 2012. (Oren Ziv/

It proved to be one of several fateful meetings between Mizrahi activists amid the explosion of grassroots organizing that summer, united by their dissatisfaction with the limited outlook of the mainstream protest encampments. “We wanted people to also be talking about living in poverty, about public housing, about child benefits, and all kinds of issues that were less ‘sexy,’” says Elmakiyes Amos. In response, she and a group of other activists sat down one evening and decided to establish a new movement called Lo Nechmadim/Lo Nechmadot (“not nice” in masculine and feminine, riffing ironically on then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s description of the Israeli Black Panthers she met in the 1970s).

For several years thereafter, and long after the mainstream protests of 2011 had subsided, Lo Nechmadim/Lo Nechmadot led an unwavering struggle for public housing in Israel alongside a number of other grassroots movements and organizations. The groups regularly brought their demonstrations directly to the homes of cabinet ministers; as they saw it, the private houses of elected officials become a legitimate site of public protest when those politicians are responsible for throwing other people out of their own homes. However, with frustratingly little to show for their efforts over that period, both Sluzker Amran and Elmakiyes Amos realized, as the former puts it, that “the way we had been organizing was great for the time, but now we needed something else.”

A new model of activism

Reflecting on their experiences in NGOs and having failed to bring about the kind of changes they desired in Israeli society, Sluzker Amran and Elmakiyes Amos identified a systemic problem which they call the “NGO triangle.” There is a total separation, they argue, between the “experts” who work professionally in human rights organizations; their “clients” in the marginalized communities, who often become dependent on the NGO’s support; and those financing the NGO’s work, which are usually large international foundations, wealthy foreign donors, or even foreign governments.

The Shovrot Kirot model, by contrast, aims to collapse these three separate categories into one: the “clients” themselves would be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights, and their funding would come primarily from small donations enabling the movement to maintain its independence. “Those who’ve done this kind of work know exactly how important this freedom is,” says Elmakiyes Amos. The model is already showing signs of success in just over two years: “We see women who we were helping with something only a year or two ago becoming partners in the movement — either as donors or activists — once they manage to get their heads above water,” she adds.

Carmen Elmakiyes Amos, co-founder of the Shovrot Kirot movement, stands in front of the ruins of the Givat Amal neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Carmen Elmakiyes Amos, co-founder of the Shovrot Kirot movement, stands in front of the ruins of the Givat Amal neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Daoud is a prime example of this. After being released from prison, she joined Shovrot Kirot as an activist and now leads a “community” (the movement’s term for a group of activists advancing a specific struggle) working on incarceration and rehabilitation, especially of women. “People outside have no idea what’s happening in prison,” Daoud tells +972. “But now I know how to help people when they’re inside and after they’re released — in terms of money, care, and support. There are basic things that we can do to help them start their lives anew and be independent. My goal is for no one to have to go through what I went through.”

However, the aspiration of sustaining the movement primarily through small donations is proving as challenging as one might expect. Elmakiyes Amos explains that it is especially difficult to raise money for this kind of work, because few beyond those directly affected by these issues — public housing tenants, those who cannot afford their electricity bills, the formerly incarcerated — are moved to do something about it. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic shortly after the movement was established further exacerbated this problem. “For now, we’re just about surviving, but we need to increase our monthly budget from small donations, otherwise we simply won’t be able to continue,” she warns.

“The subject of women living in poverty, particularly Mizrahi or Ethiopian women, doesn’t really interest most people,” Elmakiyes Amos continues. “It seems that it’s less comfortable for many who profess to be human rights activists to deal with our issues and our populations. It’s really hard to get people to understand why things like poverty, the right to shelter, and the right to electricity are an inseparable part of the struggle for human rights in Israel, and why these issues are no less important than the struggle against the occupation and the struggle for democracy. Those struggles are important, but there are other struggles that are completely invisible.”

‘A policy of evictions is violence against women’

Following in the footsteps of Lo Nechmadim/Lo Nechmadot and other movements that came before it, the struggle for public housing remains a central area of focus for Shovrot Kirot. Over 30,000 families in Israel are currently sitting on the government’s waiting list for such housing, while thousands more are ineligible to even apply due to the government’s stringent criteria. And because poor Mizrahi women tend to be exploited the most by this system, it is a struggle with a distinctly Mizrahi and feminist character.

On top of the lack of public housing and the extreme difficulty of acquiring access to it, tenants who are able to obtain it have little recourse if the authorities decide to evict them, making for a highly precarious living situation. In recent years, the neighborhood of Givat Amal in north Tel Aviv has become a powerful symbol of a broken system and the struggle for justice — a struggle to which Shovrot Kirot has once again brought its unique mode of organizing.

Israeli police carry out evictions in Givat Amal, Tel Aviv, November 15, 2021. (Oren Ziv/
Israeli police carry out evictions in Givat Amal, Tel Aviv, November 15, 2021. (Oren Ziv/

“In 2011, people took to the streets because they felt that the state had been taken away from them,” says Ronit Aldouby, a member of Givat Amal’s action committee who lived in the neighborhood until its last residents were forcibly evicted in November 2021 and their homes bulldozed. “We also joined the protests that summer, but the difference is that in Givat Amal, we never felt that the state used to be with us and now it’s been taken away: the state was never there.”

The story of Givat Amal is one of exploitation, neglect, and broken promises. Originally established in 1947 by an Ashkenazi Zionist establishment that viewed Mizrahim as “human material” for the colonization of Palestine, Givat Amal’s first Jewish residents were settled there in order to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees from the village of al-Jammasin al-Gharbi. The Mizrahi families, however, were barred from formally owning the properties into which they had been moved.

Despite multiple promises that Givat Amal’s residents wouldn’t be evicted without full compensation and rehousing, the land was repeatedly sold from under their feet until the current owner, real-estate tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, approved a large-scale development project in 2005 which made their eviction an inevitability. The struggle waged by the residents in recent years finally yielded a compensation package from the government that was acceptable to the residents ahead of the eviction of the last remaining families, but the funds have been held up at the office of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (whose New Hope party also currently holds the Housing Ministry).

Shovrot Kirot has played a key role in what Aldouby describes as the residents’ “Sisyphean struggle” since the group’s establishment in 2019, though its founders and activists have been involved since 2014, the year in which around 80 families were evicted from the neighborhood. “We fought a war that year to stop the evictions, and Carmen and Sapir were accompanying us in all of the protests. They were at the evictions too — Sapir was arrested at one of them.”

Activists from Shovrot Kirot stand in front of the ruins of Givat Amal, where the construction of new luxury apartment blocks is taking place, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Activists from Shovrot Kirot stand in front of the ruins of Givat Amal, where the construction of new luxury apartment blocks is taking place, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

In a protest co-organized by Shovrot Kirot in early February to demand justice for the neighborhood’s evicted residents, around 100 activists blocked the busy junction that separates Givat Amal from the apartment of Gideon Sa’ar — which, in a cruel twist of fate, overlooks what are now the ruins of the neighborhood’s destruction. Holding placards, megaphones, and drums, and tailed by a dozen police officers, the activists shouted “Criminal government, stop the evictions!” and “We won’t give up on compensation!” At the entrance to Givat Amal, next to a few dozen tealights that had been arranged on the floor to spell “We won’t forgive,” was a handwritten sign bearing Shovrot Kirot’s name, reading “A policy of evictions is violence against women.”

Although the residents are still awaiting the compensation they were promised by the government, the very fact that they forced the government’s hand is an achievement that gives them something to hold onto as the struggle continues. The diversification of tactics pioneered by Shovrot Kirot — particularly the decision to focus on the legislative arena alongside protests in the field and building support through new and traditional media — had a part to play here, too.

“Carmen and Sapir were arriving and bringing other activists to all the Knesset discussions,” says Aldouby. “They’re even in the Whatsapp group of the neighborhood’s campaigning team, getting all the updates and thinking together with us about what needs to be done. They’re with us at every stage and in every decision.”

Connecting struggles

Despite defining itself as a Mizrahi feminist movement, the nature of Shovrot Kirot’s work enables connections between the Mizrahi struggle and the struggles of other oppressed communities in Israel — including Palestinian citizens. In recent months, the movement has been increasingly active in Jaffa, where an aggressive gentrification process is pricing out the Palestinian population that remained in the city after the Nakba. Here, too, single mothers suffer the most from the state’s and municipality’s lack of investment in public housing.

In November 2021, in the very same week that Givat Amal’s final residents were kicked out of their homes, Farida Najar, a Palestinian single mother who had been on the public housing waiting list for four years, decided to pitch a tent in a Jaffa park along with her four children. Najar was soon joined by eight other mothers and their children, filling the park with tents to protest the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s failure to provide solutions to their predicament, until a short-term compromise was reached.

Farida Najar and her children at a protest tent camp organized by single Palestinian mothers in Jaffa who are demanding public housing, November 17, 2021. (Oren Ziv)
Farida Najar and her children at a protest tent camp organized by single Palestinian mothers in Jaffa who are demanding public housing, November 17, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

Ohad Amar, a social rights lawyer and member of Shovrot Kirot’s board of directors, visited the park to meet with the mothers, and immediately began organizing legal aid for the women. “When I started talking to them, I understood that none of those women have their full rights in terms of social security or housing, no one has a lawyer, no one has anyone to help them apply for their benefits,” he tells +972.

“We’re trying to build a group of volunteer lawyers to provide this stuff because it is so complicated for people to apply for their rights,” he continues. The nine women that the movement has been assisting in Jaffa now all have temporary solutions in place, and their social security applications are pending. But, according to Amar, even with those benefits the mothers “will still be living in poverty.”

Ethiopian Jewish women are also disproportionately represented among public housing tenants in Israel. Elmakiyes Amos recalls an episode involving a Mizrahi woman, Rachel Levy, who was kicked out of her house along with her children after her mother died, because she didn’t meet the criteria to continue living in social housing.

“The authorities brought an Ethiopian woman to replace her,” says Elmakiyes Amos. “When she saw Rachel, who had pitched a tent outside on the grass after the eviction, she apologized. But Rachel replied to her: ‘It’s not your fault. We shouldn’t have to fight over this apartment; there should be an apartment for you and an apartment for me.’ This, in my eyes, was the whole sad story. To see that situation was to see the evil essence of the policy that pits weakened populations against each other, and it’s also the perfect example of why weakened populations need to struggle together and form these connections.”

Palestinian single mothers from Jaffa protest alongside activists from Shovrot Kirot outside the home of Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, holding a banner that reads "Women of Jaffa demand housing", November 27, 2021. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinian single mothers from Jaffa protest alongside activists from Shovrot Kirot outside the home of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, holding a banner that reads “Women of Jaffa demand housing”, November 27, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

‘The Mizrahi struggle needs to answer for itself’

Building solidarity between oppressed communities is certainly an ambition of the Shovrot Kirot activists, even if it is currently only an indirect byproduct of their work. For now, Amar believes that there still exists a tension between those promoting “social rights” and those promoting “political rights” — chiefly the Palestinian struggle.

Part of this tension stems from the peculiar nature of the left/right divide in Israel, wherein what is considered the “left” — and particularly the “Zionist left” — largely represents the wealthier, mostly Ashkenazi sectors of society; what is considered the “right,” meanwhile, has traditionally represented the poorer, mostly Mizrahi sectors of society.

“We’ve not yet found the base to combine campaigns and struggles,” Amar argues. “I’m not sure we’re ready to say that there is a connection between Palestinian rights and fighting capitalism, and that we need to work together in these struggles. It’s easier for the left in Israel to deal with the occupied territories than with people being disconnected from electricity, for example, where they have to ask themselves, ‘Well, does this mean I need to pay more taxes?’”

“On the other hand,” he continues, “our community is very open to the idea of social rights, so we’re building bridges to be able to bring the discourse of Palestinian rights and the right to social housing together in the same conversation. I think that’s the necessity of Shovrot Kirot: to raise awareness about social rights so that we can fight colonialism and capitalism at the same time.”

Sluzker Amran believes that there is strategic value in focusing first and foremost on her own community. “It’s not that we’ve given up on fighting the occupation — I think the Palestinians will end the occupation,” she stresses. “But what we can do at the same time is to make sure that our communities are in better shape, and to talk about all of that together in a way that is relatable and identifies the similarities.

Israeli police arrest a Bedouin protester in the village of as-Sa’wa al-Atrash in the Naqab/Negev, January 13, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Israeli police arrest a young Bedouin woman during a protest in the village of as-Sa’wa al-Atrash in the Naqab/Negev, January 13, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

“I’m not aiming for the ‘peace camp,’ most of whom come from a very privileged place and from families that are already left-wing,” Sluzker Amran continues. “I’m aiming for the people who know what it feels like to suffer from police brutality, so they won’t be surprised when they see the police killing Iyad al-Hallaq, or when they see how the police act toward the Bedouin in the Negev and at the demonstrations in occupied East Jerusalem every Friday. In Givat Amal and other places, they see the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and in the Negev, they see the picture of the old woman begging the police or the soldiers to let her stay in her house.

“It’s not the same,” Sluzker Amran clarifies, “but people see the similarities; I don’t need to point them out because they’re clear. So this isn’t the reason I’m doing it, but I do see myself fighting the occupation with this work.”

For Sivan Tahel, an activist in Shovrot Kirot dealing primarily with the issue of police violence, there is no value to be gained from the movement conforming to traditional political labels. “Saying ‘I’m a Mizrahi woman’ is already a political statement,” she argues, “because it actually sees the power relations; not ‘I’m on the left’ or ‘I’m on the right.’

“That’s why spaces like ours are super important,” she continues, “because we don’t really have a political home. And what’s so radical about looking for a political home within the system? We’re activists, our goal is to change the system, not only to change the person who stands at the top.”

Activists from Shovrot Kirot in Givat Amal, north Tel Aviv, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Activists from Shovrot Kirot in Givat Amal, north Tel Aviv, April 11, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Yet, even as Tahel acknowledges the connections between different marginalized groups facing the same social issues, she also cautions against flattening their differences. “To connect populations is to create a mechanism that subverts the system of divide-and-conquer,” she says. “But if we want to unify struggles, it’s important to recognize that every population is unique.”

She explains further: “To always talk about the Mizrahi struggle as a gateway to the struggle of another community that is supposedly weaker than us is harmful, because Mizrahim have been excluded and oppressed for over 70 years with no process of justice or restitution. To be Mizrahi is to constantly have to fight for your place, and to constantly have to convince people that you’re telling the truth about your oppression. So the Mizrahi struggle needs to answer for itself, and Shovrot Kirot is empowering us to do that.”