Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

Strong Women

Ramle women pose in front of their photos. (my own work)
Ramle women pose in front of their photos. (my own work)

When I started this blog, my intention was, among other things, to highlight the stories of the strong women around me. I’ve been remiss, but this week, I found that fortunately others have been doing it for me. I attended the opening of a unique exhibit in the Open House/Rossing Center in Ramle. On the walls are 15 photos and stories of inspiring women. Collecting their stories was the result of a 7-month-long, intensive student project in the city. In the course of the project, young Palestinian and Jewish women worked together to investigate what it means to be a woman in Ramle, and how other women have succeeded in this place, in this mixed city where crumbling 4-story “block” buildings built in the 1950s abut anonymous high-rises erected in the 1990s.

Reading through the accompanying book, I note some common themes. Of the 15, only four were born in Ramle – two of those to immigrant parents. The story of Ramle’s women is one of migration. Immigration from Ethiopia, including a woman whose father had been imprisoned for aiding the Mossad in helping Jews emigrate. Immigration from Gaza, as a second wife to a Ramle man. Immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Young Palestinian and Jewish women worked together to investigate what it means to be a woman in Ramle

With immigration, for many, came hardship. A family of 18 living a three-room apartment; life in a tiny, crumbling, asbestos hut. Learning (or not learning, in one case) to speak Hebrew. Dealing with racism, discrimination and daily put-downs because of their accents or looks; being told they would never succeed.

Nearly all the women married – some of them in their teen years. Many had children at the same time they were attaining degrees, working to improve their status or position. Some husbands left, some had special-needs children. All found a way to advance to new heights in their chosen professions – law, art, electronic engineering, nursing, teaching and more – while raising families.  One found strength, after a son was killed, in working against violence. Another learned to save, so her 12 sons and daughters could obtain educations. Today six of her grandchildren are doctors.

I’ll mention just one by name: Buthaina Dabit, an architect who grew up in the Arab quarters of Ramle, says that her first independent project was designing a synagogue. Dabit helped found A-Dar, which works to renovate buildings rather than let them be demolished. “My construction unites Arabs and Jews in shared housing projects and in areas that support this coexistence,” she says, adding that her dream is to create a green Ramle.

All these women, from different cultures, who live in different parts of the city and work in different areas, share something else. They all see Ramle as a home – one they love because they share it with one another. The young women who interviewed them, though their studies take them to other cities, are now a part of that circle.

The Stories Beyond the Arches: Women’s Voices from Ramle exhibit is open – with prior arrangement.

A reason for optimism

On the weekend, I had the chance to cross paths with another strong woman in the course of a conference for alumni of the Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom School for Peace: Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya (who, coincidentally, was born and raised in Ramle).

Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya. Credit: Moran Barir for the School for Peace

Hadad Haj-Yahya researches Palestinian society in Israel, and by her numbers, our country is failing our minorities miserably. Taxable employment is shrinking, while organized crime presents young people with opportunities. Drug use is on the rise as well. Gaps between Jewish and Palestinian citizens are growing in almost every measure. Boys, especially, are being left behind.

Taxable employment is shrinking, while organized crime presents young people with opportunities

And yet Hadad Haj-Yahya says she is optimistic. She sees the growth of a Palestinian middle class in the country as a basis for positive change. While education gaps between Jews and minorities are still abysmal, more young people are attaining higher education and entering influential positions. “I completed my education with my parents’ blessing, but it was not a given,” she says. “With my daughters, it’s understood they’ll go on to study past high school.”

Even as past gains are being rolled back on the national level, she pointed out, local authorities are more and more aware of the need to work to deal with Palestinian communities and work to close those gaps – something that did not exist 20 years ago. The soft-spoken researcher is, herself, a source of hope – one who brings hard evidence to Jews and Palestinians alike on the areas in which we can work to alter our society.

While we’re on the subject of Palestinians: I tend to use the word Arab just because it seems less clumsy than “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” But if I claim for myself the right to self-determination and self-definition, I also refuse to deny it to others. So in response to Smotrich’s attempt to stuff that cat back into the bag, I’ll be using the term Palestinian as much as possible when I write.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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