On Monday, November 25th, 2019, the international community opposing violence against women took to the streets with rallies, marches, and demonstrations. In Israel, too, a sweeping current underpins its civil and political spheres, and a multiplicity of groups joined in the marches that took place in the main cities. Right- and left-wing youth movements side by side with both Jewish and Arab-centric political parties as they marched from Rabin Square to the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Centre in the name of eliminating gender-based violence.
As someone who arrived in Israel less than 2 months ago, I was able to use the language barrier to my advantage— chanting along and reading signs was not an option, but observing with wide eyes how people interacted, how they moved through a space otherwise reserved for transportation, and how their commotions created an atmosphere somehow universal to activist spaces were my main intentions.
Before the march, however, I accompanied Samah Salaime to a meeting in Tel Aviv. Samah is the founder and director of Na’am-Arab Women in the Center, and she was to give a speech at the Tel Aviv municipality. Inside a slightly cramped room in the uniform building that is the municipality, people were filtering in and out as activists, local politicians, and representatives from municipal departments gave speeches concerning current injustices against women in Tel Aviv/Yaffo. Samah vibrantly discussed the potential future of Tel Aviv through notions creating safe spaces for women via the feminization of space.
She was not met with satisfactory politeness or subtle remarks. Rather, her speech seemed to ignite what I’ve observed thus far as a classic Israeli interaction— a reaction that is both hot and cold, never warm. There was shouting, hands raised, and interruptions, but it is often not possible to tell if these reactions are in excited agreement or are representative of two opposing sides clashing.
After her speech, we made our way outside in the temperate Mediterranean breeze that was making its way over Rabin square. This is where we parted ways— Samah to go back to Lod to support efforts at the Chicago Community Centre, and me to continue into Tel Aviv with the rest of the assorted groups that had shown up to support the cause of eliminating violence against women.
From here we marched to the Performing Arts Centre, and it was here that I began to process what Samah had requested of me in the car earlier— she was supposed to go on-stage at the end of the march to make a statement representing Na’am and honoring the memory of Shadiya Musrati, a woman who was murdered in Ramle in the past year. She asked if I would take her place on stage so she could attend the event back in Lod. As an introverted half-Dane, the sheer thought of doing this went against my DNA, but in a moment of fight or flight, I was somehow able to channel my other half— my American side and agreed to go on stage.
It wasn’t necessarily the idea of speaking in front of the crowd that scared me, nor the idea of representing Na’am, but what terrified me the most was whether or not I could do Shadiya justice. Shadiya was a 29-year-old mother of three who was shot at close range while simply walking down the street in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ramle. It is significant to note that this is not the first murder-related tragedy for the Musrati family, it is not even the second, but Shadiya was the third woman in her family to be murdered.
Months after her murder, Netanyahu approved an increase in funding for a program working against domestic violence. There have also been efforts by the Knesset Constitution Committee enabling stricter and harsher punishments for convicted men and more lenient punishments for convicted women who have also suffered abusive situations. There is something ironic, however, about the Knesset approving these legislations while there still exists remnants of our historically dark past as humans who have constructed these suffocating gender roles— we are still teaching women to defend themselves and enacting punishment on their attackers and not enough is being done to teach men not to attack in the first place. The fact that so many had turned out to march was a sign that little has really changed, either in Israel or in the world. From Chile to India, women are speaking out against abuse, but it is still we women who must learn to defend themselves against attacks, while men do not learn how to avoid or prevent those attacks.
To get on that stage and know Shadiya’s image was projected on the screen beside me as I spoke about Na’am: Arab Women in the Centre was powerful and instilling of something greater than one person standing on stage talking about gender-based violence. I stepped up the microphone after the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and spoke the following words:
“My name is Maya Vizel-Schwartz, I am from Na’am-Arab Women in the Center, which works in Lod and Ramle. I am here to honor the memory of Shadiya Musrati, who was murdered this year. We stand with all women who have been affected by violence.”
After I spoke that last sentence, the crowd roared, and I was overcome with shock. Were they cheering for me? With me in honor of Shadiya? In that sweeping moment I saw amongst the faces in the dark crowd an immediate reaction, I saw their lips part and the noise that escaped was at once cacophonic and jarring in its abruptness, yet it was also encouraging and positive. I had done something right to honor Shadiya. We were there together to stand up for these women who can no longer stand up for themselves. The range of youth groups, disparities aside, and the plurality of political representations all showed up to this interfaith march in the name of eliminating violence against women.