Sarai Aharoni is Assistant Professor at the Gender Studies Programme, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and one of the founding members of the new Haifa Feminist Institute (HFI). She has written about Israeli women and the Oslo peace process. Aharoni has also critically examined the impact within Israel of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which amongst other recommendations proposed that more women participate in official peace negotiations and in conflict resolution. In this wide-ranging and in-depth interview the strengths and weaknesses of the so-called ‘feminist peace hypothesis’ are subject to a searching examination. Aharoni also addresses questions of sex segregation, feminist historiography and the boycott.
Feminism and the Conflict
Alan Johnson: Let’s review some history. You’ve argued that the feminist peace movements, after enjoying initial success in the 1990s, fell into crisis during the Second Intifada, due principally to the violence and the resulting fragmentation of Israeli and Palestinian society. You have suggested that the women’s movement in Israel has been ‘paralysed’ as a result. How do you assess the state of the feminist movement in Israel today and what is the way forward?
Sarai Aharoni: Feminists have been active in Israel since the 1970s. They created one of the most inspiring feminist movements in the world. And it is very important for me to stress that this movement is still full of ideas and has led the way to so many reforms in so many fields: rape crisis centres, hotlines for female victims of domestic violence, legal demands for equal representation and equal pay, anti-sexual harassment laws and campaigns, women in politics and more; everything from prostitution and pornography to fertility and healthcare for women. This feminist movement was built from the ground up in a long process. External forces or international institutions such as the UN did not create this movement.
AJ: How does the conflict impact the feminist movement?
SA: First, we find that it is women who identify as feminists and peace activists who have engaged for years in cross-national and cross-cultural dialogues that are often the first to respond to the armed conflict by going out to the streets and protesting. But these are a very small minority of women. Second, and this is more of a majority experience, conflict has a huge and negative impact on women’s engagement with public life. Conflict imposes a lot of pressures on women. This is one of the reasons why I argue that the Jewish-Israeli feminist movement became ‘paralysed’ after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. I meant to point to the fact that the majority of feminist organisations were not able to respond to the conflict situation, which in turn, impacted their sense of agency or ability to change the place they live in later on.
AJ: Can I ask a naïve question? Why does the conflict depress the level of women’s organising, self-confidence and activism in civil society?
SH: Conflict, in general, undermines people’s overall sense of security. These days, militarised conflict does not always happen ‘out there’ on the front, but often right here, within urban spaces. Armed conflict has a destabilising impact on women for various reasons. First, many women take care of others and conflict pushes women ‘back’ to their caring roles. Not all of them, I don’t want to essentialise, but many women assume caring roles during times of violent escalation. Second, militarised conflicts reinforce all kinds of binaries (us/them, Jews/Arabs, soldiers/civilians) but especially gender binaries that differentiate between the roles, responsibilities, and power of masculine and feminine bodies: the ‘warrior,’ the ‘nurse’ and so on.
UNSCR 1325: A new approach to women and conflict
AJ: Could you explain to our readers what UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 is and how it affects Israel?
SH: Passed in October 2000, UNSCR 1325 is one of the most important Security Council resolutions for women, and for advocates of gender equality. In this resolution, the Security Council has acknowledged for the first time that war is gendered. The resolution touches upon various issues, including: the responsibility to protect women and children during conflict; the responsibility to prevent conflict, because it especially disturbs the rights, including the right to life, of vulnerable groups like women and children; the need for more participation of women in official peace negotiations and in various kinds of conflict resolution mechanisms. UNSCR 1325 also speaks to the responsibility of the UN and UN institutions to monitor the way they are engaging in conflict zones.
The UN unanimously adopted this resolution in 2000, about the same time as the Second Intifada broke out in Israel. So, it took two or three years before women’s groups in Israel/Palestine started to use it as a language to talk about the armed conflict here; to identify that women have particular needs and perspectives and that these must be acknowledged. Different women’s groups started to use the resolution to bring forward different claims, including the issue of women’s participation in peace negotiations. In 2005 in Israel the Women’s Equality Bill was passed, amending the original 1951 law stipulating that Israeli women should have representation in any national decision-making mechanism including in a peace agreement, interim agreement or any other conflict resolution mechanism.
Perhaps this was a little naïve. In 2017, 12 years after this amendment was passed, we still see pictures of official Israeli diplomatic and security delegations that have no women.
AJ: If someone were to say ‘well, why should women be included in those delegations and those negotiating teams, just because they are women?’ what would your answer be?
SA: I guess that brings us to the ‘women and peace’ hypothesis. There are different justifications as to why women should be included in official peace and conflict resolutions processes. For example, women suffer in very particular ways in conflict and these experiences must be at the table. Or, representation is a value in and of itself, i.e. women are half of the population and therefore should be there as equals.
AJ: If you were to step back and make a summary judgement about how much that UNSCR 1325 has actually shaped policy and practice what would you say? Are there ongoing efforts and campaigns to try and make 1325 transformative in Israel?
SA: The euphoria that was experienced in many places in 2000, when the resolution was passed, has faded away. As one can learn from the Israeli experience, the resolution proved to be very hard to interpret and to localise. However, we do have more knowledge today about the ways in which conflict in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, affects women. These issues had not been discussed enough previously. And we now have a better language with which to describe those differences.
I’ll give you an example, in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War I was in the north and I did a series of telephone calls to Rape Crisis Centres in the north to ask them, ‘What’s happening? What are you doing? How are you coping?’ In one northern city that was under rocket attacks by Hezbollah, a woman in charge of a centre said: ‘We closed down the hotline, we closed down the Rape Crisis Centre, and we left the city’. And I asked her, ‘What if women need help?’ She responded: ‘We can’t be there, it’s too dangerous,’ Now, compare that to the 2014 Gaza War. When centres came under rocket attacks, people were more aware of the fact that women who suffer from sexual violence are actually subject to higher forms of anxiety during conflict situations. The research that we conducted to better understand the gendered dimensions of conflict escalation taught us that empirically, women who were impacted by gender-based violence, whether it is domestic or sexual violence, were most likely to suffer from some sort of a traumatic experience during conflict and that these women really need help. In 2014, unlike 2006, all the centres remained open to assist women. So this is an example of one thing that has changed due to awareness caused by UNSCR 1325.
I’d also say that UNSCR 1325 sparked a lot of debate among women in Israel concerning the meaning of the term ‘security’. What is security? Why does the term ‘national security’ not always represent and reflect women’s concerns? And how is ‘national security’ used in different ways to prevent us from seeing different types of insecurity? Consequently, women activists were able to push parts of society to talk about different types of security, not only national security.
The ‘Woman and Peace’ hypothesis: an essentialism?
AJ: You mentioned the ‘women and peace’ hypothesis earlier. What is it?
SA: The ‘women and peace’ hypothesis states that women have somewhat different ways to address the question of violence and peace and that women may bring with them a different voice and are more likely to talk about reconciliation, care, empathy, etc. It suggests that women are somehow more peaceful than men.
AJ: Some people worry that the idea ‘essentialises’ women. Do you think that worry is a valid one? Or is the real danger that, by being so concerned about the danger of ‘essentialising’ women, a basic and obvious fact is being missed: women just do bring something wholly new to these discussions?
SA: I’ve been struggling a lot with this question, and I’ve written about it as well. The fact is that there have been many women’s peace movements in Israel since the 1980s. The first movement of women to come out as a peace group was in 1982 when mothers of soldiers came out to demonstrate as Mothers Against Silence during the First Lebanon War. These women used their social role as mothers of soldiers – which in Israel is perceived as a central role for Jewish women – to say something political. This group and many others that followed really did try to bring a different voice on the prices and conditions of war. So, yes, there are women who have tried to create alternatives. Paradoxically, since Israeli women did not get a chance to participate directly in official ‘dirty’ politics of militarism and war and were driven (for various reasons) to the civil society sphere, they were able to express alternative voices representing values of empathy, fear, love, etc.
Personally, I think that the idea that women are more peaceful is a very strong cultural myth. When we look at the data – and there’s a lot of data on the differences (or lack thereof) between women and men in their opinions on the conflict – it is very hard to say that gender has a real impact on attitudes or action. In fact, degree of religiosity or national identity (Jewish/Palestinian) are proven to be far more important in shaping political perspectives than gender, and the tendency of Israelis and Palestinians to support a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
We must remember that there is a huge difference between the way that Jewish-Israelis and Israeli-Palestinians view the conflict. Israeli-Palestinian women are much more similar in their attitudes to Israeli-Palestinian men than they are to Jewish-Israeli women. It is the national divide that is really the determinant, as well as religiosity and level of education, to some degree. Gender doesn’t really appear to play a role here.
But, as I said earlier, the myth of women’s peacefulness is far more acceptable among the wider public than the empirical findings, which contradict it. For example, if we look at the group called ‘Women Wage Peace’ (WWP) that started organising in 2014 that attempts to build a mass feminine peace movement in Israel, we can see how the myth persists Women Wage Peace are quite inspiring. They truly speak from a place of care and from a desperate desire to resolve the conflict and stop the future suffering it may produce. In this movement, many activists define themselves as mothers, so they engage in a very feminine performance of peace activism. You can see what I mean if you take a look at the viral video they created titled ‘The Prayer of the Mothers’:
Citing this case, and a few others, although we cannot prove the ‘women and peace’ hypothesis empirically, it is a powerful mobilising idea that can inspire women’s social movements. What I have learned from groups like WWP is that for them gender binaries are not a source of oppression and violence, but a possibility for hope, continuity, care and connection.
Israeli Women and Oslo – an untold story?
AJ: In your paper ‘Gender and “peace work”: An unofficial history of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations’ you expose the previously hidden role that women have played in the process. Can you tell us about that and also can you reflect on why the role played by women has not received more exposure?
SA: In 2006 I interviewed a group of 30 women who were involved in various roles in the Oslo peace process throughout the whole decade of negotiations. Some of them were involved in negotiations as part of their role as, for example, military legal advisors. Some of them were administrators; others were typists, because in those days women secretaries typed the draft agreements, which was a lot of work. These women in particular, were physically in the room or in the room next to the room, but were treated as invisible and were deleted from memory. Sometimes, in order to write history from the perspective of women, you really need to look at things differently. This is what I wanted to do. I was trying to write the whole history of the negotiations from the perspective of women who were invisible actors. Listening to their stories, I learned many things about the structure of negotiations and about the role of women as gatekeepers. They did important work by deciding who could enter and who could not, by inviting people to meetings, passing notes and keeping secrets; all the things that you don’t really hear about but which were happening. I really got a different picture of the very complicated human terrain and human reality within the official negotiation tracks of the Oslo Peace Accords.
Another thing I noticed that was very specific to this peace process was how the connection between militarism and masculinity was the major reason for the fact that women were absent from official peace talks. We should remember that when militaries are in charge of negotiating peace, it is even less likely for women to sit next to the peace table.
AJ: Yes, you write that one of the main reasons that women did not reach the higher levels of the negotiation team at the time is that men often promoted men with whom they had shared ‘combat rations’ – that is to say, men with whom they had served in combat units during their national service. Mixed gender combat units are now a part of the IDF; do you those units will eventually change this dynamic?
SA: I think that’s an interesting question, but I’m not really sure where this will lead us. Interestingly, while we have seen more women integrated into combat-related roles in the IDF, there are fewer and fewer ex-generals in the government. So, possibly, the military is actually less powerful than it was due to the development of other paths to enter the closed circle of decision makers in matters if finance, security and foreign policy.
So it’s not only about militarism, but more about secrecy and control. Peace negotiations, sometimes, are run like secret societies. It’s very hard to understand, but there is a very small group of people, sometimes [between] 10 and 15 people in Israel, who have the power to decide on dramatic issues like war and peace. Consequently, one of the challenges that feminist groups around the world pose to negotiators is to make these processes more open and more accessible. This has happened in Colombia and other places.
How has women’s absence from peace negotiations been rationalised? For me, culture plays an important role. The concept of the ‘gender-culture double bind’ captures the way that gender and culture are linked together in different discourses to perpetuate discrimination. For example, think about the problem of gender segregation in Israel due to religious practices. You find all these culturalist rationales: ‘oh, we really need to respect the other’ or ‘oh, we really need to respect the ultra-Orthodox and give them access to education by creating different classrooms for men and women’. In my research on peace negotiations I discovered that one of the ways of rationalising women’s absence was to say ‘Oh, Palestinians or Arabs find it hard to negotiate with women, so maybe we shouldn’t bring women.’ Again, this is not about women. Rather, it is an orientalist perception of Palestinians and Palestinian masculinity.
Creating Feminist Archives
AJ: Since 2007 you have been working with a group of Israeli feminists to create The Feminist Archives – a unique collection going back to the 1970s. The archives are managed by the Haifa Feminist Institute (HFI), a community-based project run by Isha l’Isha, Haifa Feminist Centre. Can tell us a little about this project, how the archival work is proceeding and how the histories are being used?
SA: The Feminist Archives is a unique initiative that was started by a group of Haifa-based feminists in 2007 as a means to preserve the local history of feminism in Israel. The archive is simultaneously an activist space and a collection of thousands of documents from the 1970s until the present. These documents include various materials on paper, audio, video, posters and any other material aspect one can imagine in terms of the legacy of the movement.
This collection is itself an action. Archiving is becoming a feminist practice all over the world, to preserve the past, which nobody else will do. These communities want to be remembered and they want to determine the conditions under which they will be remembered and they see themselves as keepers of this particular history. The feminist archives in Israel don’t have any governmental support or recognition, they are curated by a group of volunteers. And they have such treasures in them! Everything is debated: what should and should not be in the archives? What material should be open access? How to digitise the materials? How to secure the resources to handle the materials?
These issues were widely acknowledged through a very successful pilot project run by the HFI which included a digitisation project of the Queer and Lesbian Collections. Unfortunately, most of the materials are in Hebrew and are still relatively inaccessible to English speaking audiences. I guess this is a major indication of the purpose of this project — to make the past accessible for younger Israeli women. But not all the materials are in Hebrew. For example, we are now working with a group of researchers from Brandeis University to digitise Marcia Freedman’s personal collection. Marcia Freedman was the first Israeli feminist member of the Knesset, from 1974 till 1976, and all her Knesset materials are deposited at the archives in Haifa. When this project is over maybe international audiences will become more aware of this particular project.
Sex Segregation in Israel
AJ: Yofi Tirosh is very concerned about expanding sex segregation in Israel in public spaces and institutions, in particular the military but also the universities. What’s your take on that? Is segregation increasing in public spaces and institutions? Is it a concern to you as a women and a feminist in Israel? What resistance is there to this trend?
SA: Historically, one issue of disagreement among Israeli feminists has been the question of equal representation versus the possibility of creating separate spaces for women. For example, liberal feminist organisations have demanded for many years that women be included equally in politics, in Parliament, in the judiciary system, in civil affairs or in every other public space. They have done a lot of legal work and public awareness campaigns to educate people and ensure that women would be represented in politics, in the military, in the media. That was a very important way to talk about the universal aspect of feminism and the basic-yet-radical fact that women are human. However, other groups of feminists in Israel have insisted that in order to explore differences, to build power, to gain skills and to feel secure, women sometimes need separate spaces.
In the debate about segregation today, many local feminists are resisting any attempt to justify segregation by sex due to religious or cultural reasons. That being said, not all Israeli feminists feel the same about the issue; especially women who come from communities who do not have access to resources and are not currently equally represented in education and politics, like Orthodox women or Palestinian Bedouin women. For instance, some Bedouin women say, ‘I want education, so if the only way for me to get my father to allow me to go to school is if there is segregation, then I prefer segregation’. So the important question that we are struggling with is – what are the terms in which segregation is practiced, who gets to define segregation and who gets to administer it?
This is where I totally agree with Yofi Tirosh. The current demands for segregation are not coming from women; they are coming from a very masculine institution – the religious Jewish Orthodoxy. That is why I am very suspicious about demands for segregation, because the terms of such segregation are not determined by women themselves.
The Boycott and Academia
AJ: You set out why you oppose the boycott in ‘Is This a Path towards Strong Solidarity? An Israeli Feminist Perspective on Academic and Cultural Boycott’. You argued there (with your co-author Amalia Sa’ar) that the academic boycott is harmful to women and increases the marginalisation of feminism, both in the academy and in society, in Israel. Could you explain why?
SA: Talking about the boycott is very dangerous for Israeli academics because any engagement with the question of boycott is considered very harmful for the ‘nation’ and is framed as a ‘strategic threat’. But I don’t view it that way. Rather, I find it is legitimate for academics to decide the conditions of cross-national partnerships they want to engage with. I think that it is totally legitimate for academics on a personal level to decide that they do not want to have professional contact with Israeli researchers if they don’t want to be associated with the Occupation, or with other issues related to discrimination or militarisation. I can understand that.
However, for feminists and feminist scholars there is another question to be considered. Alliances between women that are cross-national are not only necessary, they are existentially important for women. So, there is a real price that is being paid for breaking those alliances and those who pay the price are women, namely, a group that is relatively under-represented in national politics and decision making. Due to the boycott, in the last ten years the most progressive and interesting feminist scholars in the world have not come to Israel. Consequently, our students do not have a chance to see or hear about anything that’s happening in terms of feminist thought in the world, which makes it easier for them to remain isolated in a closed society. This is quite harmful on the long term, because local women’s groups all over the world flourish and thrive when they can foster direct connections with similar groups in other places.
AJ: It sounds like there might be some sort of silent boycott going on.
SA: I don’t think it’s so silent. ‘Progressive’ and ‘critical’ scholars, many of them feminists, often adhere to the boycott. Things get complicated.
AJ: It strikes me that often the boycott weakens the very forces that are most likely to push hardest for change and reform in Israel, while strengthening the new annexationists. What are your thoughts about the practical impact of the boycott on Israeli politics and in particular those who support two states for two peoples in Israel?
SA: For those of us who believe that only communication and conversation can change reality, of course boycott is not an option. But we also know that conversation, as we have seen in the history of this conflict — especially in the Oslo period) — can also be a way to retain status quo; to run away from resolution. Personally, in my feminism, I believe in crossing borders and reaching out is vital and it is the hardest challenge. The activists that I work with, this is what they do, they cross borders and lines and risk a lot in doing this. I really think that engaging with conflict is more productive than boycotting it. But that’s my perspective.
AJ: What are you working on at the moment?
SA: I’ve been working on several projects, including a fascinating historical ethnography of Haifa port and the visits of the US Sixth Fleet between 1979 and 2001. That is done. Several other projects are ongoing.