Victim is one of my least favorite words. It symbolizes the weakened and oppressed, it summons pity, and it unconsciously undermines individual power. The word, however, can draw attention to a personal or social plight. But the problem with this, as noble as it may seem, is that the individual herself has lost control and is dependent on another – a person, a group or organization, or a larger institution or government – to rescue her. In this state of victimhood, women in particular begin to believe that they must be taken care of. This state of mind slowly deteriorates individual power . . . the power within.
This week, we are visiting the bastion of victimhood – Israel and occupied Palestine. Each side’s governmental leadership claims to represent the ultimate victims. Many people buy into this state of mind. The historical ceremonies, dramatized stories and ritualized memorials serve as constant reminders of the ultimate injustice that each side faces. The default defense mechanism of the ultimate victim is to rely on protection, usually in one of two forms: the state as a militarized, well-armed entity to protect the victim population; or, the “international community” as foreign defender and funder. Both these forms of defense slowly and silently disempower individuals and civil society – chipping away at grassroots mechanisms that so often offer creative alternatives and new ideas.
Here is an observation we’d like to share as civil resistance pupils/educators and as women who have become quite connected to nonviolent resistance movements and campaigns around the world. It is this: the narrative of victim so blatantly seen in Israel — dependence on the militarized state as protector; and in occupied Palestine –dependence on international funding, representation, and mythical martyrdom images — has created a kind of social paralysis. Social paralysis causes society to exist day after day with eyes, ears, mouth and sometimes heart closed. This paralysis absolutely benefits the defenders (protectors of the victims), especially the militarized nation-state. It transfers power from individual citizens to institutions (national and international), offering these power-holders the excuse to militarize or to receive international aid and the baggage that comes with it. The grassroots community voice diminishes gradually until it is no longer represented. This is especially the case for the voice of women.
Keep Fear Alive — Create Social Distance
What has been interesting to observe this week during our visit is both the lack of information and understanding about the ‘other.’ There is a lot of anger in Palestinian villages throughout the West Bank . . . understandably so. Agricultural livelihoods are being robbed, traditional village life has been assaulted, and freedom of movement between villages, in some cases just to visit family members, is no longer possible. The rationale that has been provided for decades – security precautions, biblical rights, fear of losing religious “national” identity – has been so overused and exploited, that it’s seen as manipulative rhetoric to local villagers.
The easiest way to keep fear alive is to keep people apart, and the “security” wall is a great tool for such a strategy. Separation tactics have been used throughout history to perpetuate misunderstandings and outright lies about the other side. This was done effectively for decades during the long U.S. history of institutionalized racial discrimination against African Americans, and in apartheid South Africa, and also during and after the war in the Balkans in the early 1990’s which for over five years engulfed Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in nationalistic rhetoric to inspire fear of the other.
Separation and fear politics are used by governments to gain official positions based on nationalist politics and security of the state. What is baffling is how citizens around the world fall for fear rhetoric over and over again. These political tactics pave the way for and invite corruption. Who benefits from the protective, fear-based state? Government and defense officials, defense contractors and weapons suppliers, and corporations, among others. Who loses? Indigenous populations, traditional systems, agriculture, the environment, communities and families. Women often lose the most.
Creating Links, Eliminating Social Distance
What we observed in both Israel and occupied Palestine is that within liberal sectors of society, people are breaking out of social paralysis. Palestinians are digging into their nonviolent history and resisting, increasingly acting together with Israelis and foreigners. Joint action is emerging and becoming more visible.
The courageous work of individuals and organizations here, and their widening reach across borders, is inspiring. Last month in Washington, DC, I attended a private film screening of the film Little Town of Bethlehem, a story of three men of three different faiths and their lives in Israel and Palestine. The story explores each man’s choice of nonviolent action. At the screening, I met not only one of the film’s protagonist who works for Holy Land Trust in Jerusalem, but also a young man from the organization Combatants for Peace. This is a group composed of Israelis and Palestinians “who had taken an active part in the cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine.” They seek to tell their stories publicly – of their past violence, of the transformation in their understanding of the conflict and of the “enemy”, and of their current commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions to their peoples’ aspirations through nonviolent means.
In occupied Palestine, we visited Budrus, a small village in the West Bank which is featured in a documentary film produced by the organization, Just Vision. The film, titled after a small village, is an inspiring story of the local villagers who struggle together to save their olive trees under threat by the construction of the separation wall. The wall would divide farmers from their land, cutting into the fabric of this community and family-oriented village. The film shows how villagers, joined by Israeli and international activists, actively engaged in unified nonviolent demonstrations against wall construction and Israeli Defense Forces. Villagers exerted enough pressure to have the wall rerouted. Anne Marie and I had the great pleasure to talk face-to-face with some of the women involved in this struggle, some whom were either pregnant or had just given birth when the village massively mobilized for nonviolent direct action. These women are fearless. They recognize the manipulation by national and international leaders who claim to represent their interests. They were at the front lines along with their husbands, brothers and sons in the struggle to save their land. Such resistance is closing the social distance that their leaders have imposed on them for too long.
The women of Budrus, like so many Palestinian women struggling, as well as the Israelis struggling side by side with them, don’t want to be pitied. Nor do the women we met at the Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. And they’re not looking for protection either. Very generally, they want equal rights and to live in peace, they want a just solution to their status, and they want a say, as well as to participate, in their local and national politics. They realize their power, and they’re not afraid to use it.
We will tell you over the next couple of postings about some of the great women engaged in resistance in Budrus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Some are young, some are seasoned revolutionaries, many are mothers, and all are strong. They know that something must change in this decades-long conflict and agree that women must play a leading role.
Vanessa Ortiz and Anne Marie Codur traveled together to interview, photograph and videotape several women activists in the West Bank over several days as part of the storytelling work of In Women’s Hands. These Palestinian women welcomed us into their homes or offices and allowed us an intimate look into their lives in struggle. For their hospitality and generosity, we are eternally grateful and inspired.