My partner in the struggle for women rights lit an Israeli Independence Day torch. So why did it make me cry, but not from joy

By Samah Salaime • 7 May 2022 (Translated from Hebrew by Sol Salbe)

For all Palestinians, the Independence Day celebrations of the State of Israel are an ongoing ceremony of pouring salt on the Nakba’s wounds.

On this day we are reminded of displaced villages, the victims of the war, our relatives who became refugees in 1948 and were not allowed to return to their homes. The flag with the two blue bands reminds us again and again that there used be a homeland here between the river and the sea, my people lived in it, and when all the neighbours in the region were freed from the yoke of the British and French Mandates, a Zionist colonialist project arose in Palestine in the shadow of the British Mandate, which prompted by the guilt feelings related to the horrors of the Holocaust assisted Jewish militia to capture Palestine’s land.

The colonialist booster, which the Zionist movement received after World War II, brought national disaster, ethnic cleansing, mass deportation and dispossession on the Palestinian people, with the aim of emptying Palestinian land of its Arab inhabitants and replacing them with Jews from all over the world. This process continues to this very day.

My grandparents, on both sides, were displaced; they became refugees in their own country. They roamed the fields and mountains and sought refuge in nearby villages in the Galilee, between Tiberias and Nazareth, seeking shelter, fleeing from sejara (Ilaniya) and Kafr Sabt (Sde Ilan). Most of the family members were forced across the border, into Syria and Lebanon. Decades after the Nakba, they were forced further to refugee camps in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, the same Germany that paved the way for the establishment of the nation state of the Jewish people on Palestinian soil.

I was born here, my parents taught me to study, work, and strive to survive in the Jewish state, which did not know what to do with a third generation of displaced persons and refugees. I chose to become a social worker, to heal the physical and mental wounds of Arab women who are victims of violence. I chose to be a Palestinian feminist, and I elected to live in a special village, Oasis of Peace (Wahat al-Salam — Neve Shalom), where Palestinians and Jews live together by choice, perhaps to chart a different future to this land.

With one hand I delve into the depths of national history, and with the other hand I plough against the patriarchy day and night. I ran through some exercises in my imagination: Where would the feminist movement in Palestinian society have gone had it not been for the Occupation and the Nakba, if Israel had not continued to oppress the Palestinians in the 67 Territories. In my dreams I saw a large conference of Palestinian women fighting gender violence, from Gaza to Tantura, from Ramallah to Haifa, from Jerusalem/Al Quds to Haifa.

Between militarism and chauvinism

In the shadow of the Jewish state, it is difficult to organise such a conference. It’s difficult but not impossible, because I am an incorrigible feminist and optimist. In an effort to free myself from the male oppression in the society in which I live, and also from the iron fist of the army that still rests on millions of Palestinians, in the nexus between the national and gender struggles, I began years ago to understand the link between militarism and chauvinism. Violent and aggressive men, with weapons, who only speak the language of force.

I went out to fight for the well-being of Arab and Jewish women, with partners in struggle, Palestinian and Jewish feminists. Our path has crossed, and many times it has become intertwined: the fight against murder of women, against the incompetence of the police in the face of gender violence, against discrimination against women in the labour market, and against sexual abuse of women, adolescent girls and girl children.

I found partners for the journey, but more than once I had to explain that a Palestinian feminist like me has no place in the struggle against discrimination against women in the IDF, since the army is a factory for soldiers who serve in the oppression of another people. Women and adolescent girls finding themselves in a physical and mental distress were still “neutralised” by female women soldiers at the checkpoint.

In many lectures I have said that 80 per cent of the weapons that kill Arab women come from the army, and therefore the arming of Jewish civilians will harm the security of Jewish and Palestinian women. Sometimes I was more feminist, and sometimes I was more Palestinian. This turbulence continues and I live with it.

Some time ago, the Jewish women comrades announced with great excitement that our comrade, Yael Sherer, had been chosen to light a torch on the 74th Independence Day of the State of Israel. I followed the congratulations of my Jewish friends for this important recognition of the victims of sexual violence.

I too was very excited, but not because I had been overcome by any national joy and pride, which I don’t have towards this country. My stomach turned and my heart was torn, because my friend, a brave friend with a tireless sense of mission, was chosen to light a torch to the glory of the State of Israel in a national ceremony that opens the celebrations of Israel’s independence. There are no words in my mouth that can describe my pain.

Not a feminist victory

My heart is torn between the support for my friend, who has reached this status, which for her is very important, and my disgust and pain as a Palestinian, with all that this ceremony symbolises for me. On the one hand, it is appropriate that this struggle for the victims of sexual violence will garner visibility and exposure, and it is clear to me that even token small moments of a state ceremony will advance even a little bit this just and important struggle. But on the other hand, the fire burned in me that the state that Yael lit a beacon to its glory, does not see Arab women in general, and victims of Arab violence in particular, as equal to Jewish women.

The majority of women, who have celebrated this feminist “victory,” fail to connect the oppression of an entire nation by the Jewish nation-state with gender oppression. It is difficult for the Jewish mind, even if it is feminist, to deal with this complexity and understand that the Occupation is not a feminist act.

It is difficult for the Jewish mind, even if it is feminist, to deal with the complexity and understand that occupation is not a feminist deed.

I was reminded of the harsh criticism I received from Palestinian activists when I chose to be a partner in the women’s strike day and the anti-violence demonstrations organised in the heart of Tel Aviv. One of the Arab feminists wrote to me: “Before you cooperate with these Zionists, look at what female soldiers are doing to the women of your Palestinian people, there will be settlers there who occupy Palestinian land. How is it even possible to stand up straight and speak of Arab women when Rabin’s hands are stained with Palestinian blood.”

I replied that the struggle against violence against women has a place for everyone. I replied that I know where my red lines are, there will be no settler partners in our struggle and there will be no role for the female soldiers in our joint efforts, but “where I have to stand to help a woman in distress, I will stand.”

Torn my feminism to shreds

And then the day arrived when my friend, the dear and beloved Yael Sherer, took the stage on Mount Herzl, spoke and cried on behalf of the victims who should not be ashamed. But instead of being moved and identifying with her, like a true, supportive and encouraging feminist, I felt as if I my feminism has been chomped and torn into shreds, as a Palestinian who hears the words “for the glory of the State of Israel” on her Nakba day from a woman who does wonderful work for other women.

I’m proud of Yael, but I despise that beacon, and it’s hard for me to see a feminist like her as a partner in the work of whitewashing and facelifting the State of Israel. It is not clear to me why all the Jewish feminists, who speak out against the military oppression and militarisation of Israeli society, remained silent on the eve of this ceremony and did not see the contradiction I see.

Yes it is a difficult task for a woman to be consciously proud of her Palestinian identity in the State of Israel, which makes it clear morning, noon and night, in words and deeds, that it does not want me here. It is an even more difficult task at the same time to find partners in the struggle for equal rights for women.

As I write these things, as the women’s groups are incessantly shedding tears of excitement for our friend Yael, and as fighter jets and fireworks and victory resound in the sky, I wish I would not withdraw my hands from this feminist partnership as I march in the March of Return in the northern village of Mi’ar. I wish for myself to keep the beacon of the struggle against the Occupation and oppression burning, while the beacon of justice and liberation will continue to illuminate our path as Palestinian and Jewish women, who will continue to live here even after the ceremony on Mount Herzl.

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