When a political conflict escalates you seldom hear women, let alone feminists, offer analysis. Not that women’s expertise is sought of by the mainstream media in times of so-called peace but our absence from the TV studios and the airwaves and online publications when bombs and rockets are at play is especially striking (no pun intended). In the past week, I have not seen or heard any woman, Palestinian, Israeli, or international asked to share for her perspective and expertise on the current escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine. I saw images of women as victims and interviews with mothers and aunts of slain Palestinian and Jewish kids but no women analysts, speaking in a voice of authority. I exclude here Israeli women officials, drafted to spread government and military propaganda, a strategy deployed by Israeli governments in recent decades. What has been missing are feminist scholars and activists who can explain the futility of military solutions and outline an alternative. I want to hear a cost and benefit analysis of militarized masculinities and of the relationship between racism, de-humanization, and violence.
Twenty years ago when I published my book, a progressive Middle East analyst who reviewed it took issue with its title, Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I don’t think he read the book but he had the audacity to say, with the authority that men commentators command that he is not sure why I insisted on making gender central to the analysis of the conflict. Sadly, the mainstream media and policy circles still reflect that mindset. Because I think that a gender-sensitive analysis allows us to ask questions and demand answers that are often left out of dominant narratives about the conflict, I will attempt to explain here why gender matters when we think about Israel/Palestine and how a feminist perspective can bring about an end to violence. This is, on purpose, a simplified analysis of the conflict, because so many people justify their inaction with a lack of understanding of the conflict. Ironically, the more you watch the mainstream media, the more overwhelmed you are and the less you understand. In reality, the causes and dynamics of the conflict are fairly simple.
1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is NOT a conflict between two parties on an equal playing field. Rather it is an asymmetrical conflict: one involving an occupier and an occupied. Anti-violence feminists have long worked to politicize our experiences of sexism and gendered violence, pointing out that practices like violence in the home or in the streets cannot be reduced to interpersonal conflicts, that they are reflections of systemic oppression and that the imbalance of power between men and women is a key factor shaping the dynamics of the conflict.
2 . The bystander dilemma: Before the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the international community’s way of dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resembled a bystander’s response: Observing but not taking a stand, let alone action. As a feminist, I found this passive position troubling. Would you call the Police if you saw a man attacking a woman on a street corner or in your apartment building?! Would you try and intervene and defend the person being attacked? Not taking a stand on the issue, or insisting on a so-called “balanced perspective” is like walking away from a situation where a defenseless woman is being brutally beaten and threatened with murder.
3. Blaming the victim: Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and even before, Israeli officials skillfully blamed their campaigns of aggression on Palestinian provocations and the international community for the most part accepted this excuse as legitimate. Continuing with the domestic violence analogy, what if you chose to intervene and try to stop a man who is lashing violently at a woman on the street and you are told by the perpetrator that the woman is to blame that in fact she has provoked the attack. Would that be enough for you to let it go and look away?!
4. Violent solutions take their toll on perpetrators as well. Violence does not stop when a military attack ends and men take off their military uniforms. The sharp shooters, the F-16 fighter pilots, and all the foot soldiers know they are responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. This knowledge and the experience of killing is likely to haunt many of them for the rest of their life. There are no winners in military confrontations. As Ruth Stern, an Israeli woman peace activist wrote yesterday in a blog: “we should call on Israeli men to refuse to answer the call to arms. Without soldiers, there is no military and without a military there is no war!” (Translation from Hebrew mine).
5. Listen to women and other marginalized voices. Have you learned anything new from listening to the dominant media’s coverage of the situation? When a ceasefire is finally reached and the brokers insist on another round of negotiations, feminists must be at the negotiation table. We have a vision of a post-conflict society, based on equality and justice for all and we can mobilize masses on both sides of the divide to convince politicians that this is the only viable alternative now and if they refuse to listen, we can vote them out of office. Militarized men and the women who supported them have had almost a century to try their own methods. It’s time for an alternative!
The exclusion of feminist expert analyses from the media is often justified by insisting that women are “too emotional” because we insist on “putting a human face” on violence and aggression. Trigger happy politicians are the ones who are “too emotional,” unable to take a deep breath, study history, and don’t repeat prior mistakes. Feminists offer a voice of reason amidst this escalating crisis, one that is filled with compassion and a long-term vision of justice and peace for both Palestinians and Jews.
Simona Sharoni is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance. She is currently working on a manuscript titled: Gender and Resistance in Palestine and Israel to be published by Syracuse University Press.