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I Was Accused of Being an Israeli Spy When I Stood Up for Human Rights

At the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York March 2018. I participated in a meeting on women’s needs in community and rural development with the delegation from the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW).
At the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York March 2018. I participated in a meeting on women’s needs in community and rural development with the delegation from the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW).

I was stunned when I read a report detailing the lack of condemnation from various human rights organizations, including UN Women, an arm of the United Nations advocating gender equality, following the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7 in Israel. Hamas deliberately targeted women and girls, which left more than 1,400 people dead. Not speaking out against the attack sharply contrasted the organization’s ongoing statements about the urgent needs of women and girls in Gaza.

This glaring omission triggered a wave of painful memories.

I was ten years old when the Six-Day War broke out. It was on the morning of June 5, 1967, and my family was living in Petah Tikvah, Israel.

As if it were yesterday, I still remember rushing home from school to learn that my dad, who was an industrial arts teacher, had been drafted and deployed into combat as a reservist. My mom, brother, sister, and I were terrified.

When the first sirens blared, we rushed to the bomb shelter in the basement of our apartment building. We were instructed to stay in the inner room, away from the windows, until we heard the sirens again, signaling it was safe to come out. We remained in the bomb shelter for 6 days. There were at least 20 families, approximately 100 people, huddled on the floor, terrified. No-one should ever have to experience that, especially not children.

After years of escalating tensions, Israel Defense Forces launched preemptive air strikes that crippled the air forces of Egypt and its allies. A successful ground attack followed with Israel seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire ending the short but deadly war, but it significantly altered the map of the Middle East and gave rise to the ongoing geopolitical friction.

As the days went on, it was torture hearing families cry when they were informed that their loved ones were killed. We were helpless, crippled by the fear that we would be next to learn that our dad was gone too.

After the war ended, my father didn’t return home for an additional four very long days as we waited. Although he was no longer on the battlefield, the war stayed with him and shaped the remainder of his all-too-short life.

He was forever changed. I have no doubt he suffered from PTSD as many soldiers do when returning home from battle. He wanted the family to leave Israel so we wouldn’t have to risk being drafted and fighting in wars. He never spoke of what happened on the battlefield, but I would often find him in his room staring at a blank wall, listening to music.

Human beings will always find a reason to hate each other, both within and across borders. But killing innocent people cannot be the solution. I was raised to believe that all people are equal and deserving of respect, freedom, and safety. This is also how I raised my children.

We left Israel shortly after the war. Although I have been living abroad ever since, my heart and soul remain deeply connected to the people and the landscape where I grew up.

Throughout my career, I have been dedicated to finding ways to contribute to ensuring racial, social, and economic justice for everyone, everywhere. My drive to make a meaningful impact and belief in the potential for a peaceful future led me to join several organizations with the hope of empowering the international community to take stronger actions to stop the rampant bloodshed.

In 2015, I joined the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom – US Chapter (WILFP-US), because I believed in the organization’s mission and vision statements for peacebuilding and human rights.

Their mission stated that WILFP-US members created the peaceful transformation they wanted to see in the world by making connections that built and strengthened relationships and movements for justice, peace, and radical democracy.

Several years after I joined the organization, I was invited onto its Middle East Peace and Justice Action Committee (MEPJEC). I understood the goal to be, “Build Bridges. Not Walls,” to help Israelis and Palestinians build a realistic path for a lasting peace and promote a two-state solution.

Shortly after I joined MEPJEC, I was voted into a leadership position that was confirmed by a majority vote including by the committee chairs and the organization’s president.

Before long, however, I began questioning some of the radicalization approaches they were taking against Israel that could potentially lead to a tendency towards political conflict. They criticized Israel, accusing it of engaging in illegal actions by propagating false narratives aimed at obscuring a history marked by ethnic cleansing, violations of human rights, and the appropriation of land. They advocated an end to the Israeli occupation and full recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

While their mission statement was to advocate for equality, dignity, and respect for all individuals, the organization’s approach occasionally appeared more aligned with that of Palestinian activists and supporters rather than as neutral peacebuilders.

The chairs of MEPJEC asked me to work with committee members to lobby the U.S. Congress and Department of State to remove Hamas from the U.S. Terrorist List. I was shocked and refused to participate.

I asked why the committee wanted to legitimize a terrorist organization that for decades has called for the destruction of Israel and Jews. Hamas has had no election since 2007; and their calling card remains killing political rivals execution style in the streets, in hospital shootouts, or by throwing them off high-rise buildings.

Being the only Israeli and one of a very small minority of Jews on the committee, I explained that going this route would have disastrous repercussions for Israel, Jews, Palestinians, and especially for WILPF- US. This would pave the way for more conflict, not peace.

Once I spoke out, I became the victim of discrimination. I could only assume it was based on my race and national origin. Committee members repeatedly used negative or demeaning emails to shame and/or silence me.

What followed was even more shocking…

The chairs of MEPJEC announced that the committee election where I was voted in wasn’t free and fair. Sound familiar? They emailed all committee members informing them that a new leadership election would take place, but only for members who agreed to the terms and conditions imposed by the committee chairs.

One condition was agreeing to participate in the campaign to remove Hamas from the U.S. Terrorist List and another condition was to denounce Israel as an apartheid State. The term “apartheid” doesn’t even hold up when Arab citizens participate actively in the Israeli government, business, academia, medicine, pop culture, and more.

I wrote to the WILPF-US President and let her know about the discrimination and poor treatment and instead of a receptive ear, I was met with backlash. She said, “Yes, you should be treated respectfully by the committee, even when you offer a very different opinion. At the same time, realistically, if you repeatedly disagree with most of the committee, over time, the other members are likely not to pay so much attention to what you have to say.  Indeed, they may begin to think you are some sort of spy for AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee AIPAC, a lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies to the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government) or for Israeli intelligence — and/or you are very brainwashed.”

After that response, how could I not assume it had to do with my race and nationality? I have no doubt it was discrimination.

They took this to mean that I was no longer aligned with their ideology. With each project I worked on, I was accused of being an Israeli sympathizer. To my surprise, prejudice was rampant within the very organization that championed human rights.

Tackling structural antisemitism requires giving due weight to the insights and experiences of Jewish and Israeli communities. My attempts to communicate this often fell on deaf ears, as if my words were misunderstood or outright ignored. It became painfully clear that my perspective was neither valued nor treated with the respect it deserved. This experience highlighted a deep-seated inequality and injustice at the heart of the organization.

My experience echoes a historical pattern of neglect and antisemitism within WILPF-US, highlighted by an incident in 1935 involving Lillian Cantor Dawson at its 20th anniversary meeting. As a former suffragist, she believed women should play an important role in international affairs. She attended the meeting with a mission: to introduce a resolution condemning Hitler’s political and military action, and especially Nazi treatment of Jews. The organization’s president and other WILPF-US officials would not even consider the motion. Dawson and more than one hundred Jewish and non-Jewish delegates walked out of the meeting.

Just as Dawson was crushed by what she perceived as the moral failure of the organization and felt personally betrayed by the women with whom she had worked with for years – I too could not believe how my experience as an American Jewish woman at WILPF-US was so reminiscent of what was happening in the organization in the 1930s.

WILPF-US sent me a clear message: their vision of advancing women’s peace, security, and freedom excludes Jewish or Israeli women. They not only dismissed the universal principles of peacebuilding but also accused me of being a spy working for AIPAC or the Israeli intelligence, labeled Israel an apartheid regime, and sought to legitimize Hamas. Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, perpetrated heinous acts on October 7, 2023, including the rape, torture, mutilation, and abduction of Israeli and foreign women, girls, and babies to Gaza.

As a feminist and peace activist, I gave my voice to a call at the United Nations for UN Women, to protect and meet the humanitarian needs of Palestinian women and girls: raising a voice for humanity, for all human beings, for all women and girls. Peace is nonviolent action, and it requires avoiding partisan and escalatory tactics and maintaining the confidence of all parties involved in a crisis. This doesn’t mean being passive; it means actively addressing injustice without perpetuating it, neutralizing harm without inflicting it on others, and forging a path that transcends fight nor flight. This approach must nurture a climate where genuine peace can flourish and along with constructing a more equitable and just world for everyone.

As I wrote my resignation letter to the President of WILPF-US, I was overcome with emotions. Waves of nausea roiled my stomach, tears threatened to overflow, and a seething anger heated my skin as I recounted the ordeals I had endured.

When I left the organization, I didn’t know if others would follow me. But one thing was painfully clear: my departure could have potentially tainted Jewish or Israeli women, complicating the path for anyone who followed in my footsteps. The challenge for future leaders, should they be permitted to emerge, will undoubtedly be magnified.

The persistent underrepresentation of Jewish women in organizations addressing critical issues including economic and environmental justice, women’s health, gender-based violence, and peace underscores a significant gap in global women’s advocacy.

This neglect, coupled with a history of antisemitism and a failure to promptly condemn gender-based atrocities and sexual violence, threatens the solidarity needed globally to ensure the rights of women and girls everywhere, including Israelis and Palestinians.

Despite my difficult and painful experience, I remain a radical peacemaker because I believe peace is the only way forward. I know that nothing will ever be pleasant again unless we get up and try to do something to prevent wars and shape peace. Women and children are the ones who lose and suffer the most in armed conflict. Let’s build our future together, united by the collective desire for peace, security, freedom, and all that connects us.

About the Author
Orly Benaroch Light is the Founder and CEO of Mid-Life Women Inc. Mid-life Women is a community hub where women 50+ can connect, share, learn, inspire, champion, and support each other. Orly is also the Founder and CEO of MCE Conferences Inc. an all-female continuing medical education company. She is an activist for women empowerment and humanitarian. Previous and current affiliations: WILPF-US, Peace is Loud, UN Women, NGO CSW/NY, Peace Now, ALLMEP, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Orly was a training captain for Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2019 presidential campaign. She is most proud of being a mom.