Women protest in Israel

June 8, 2023

From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters

More than 25,000 women dressed in red cloaks and wearing white bonnets formed human chains in 70 locations across Israel on March 8, combining the commemoration of International Women’s Day with the wave of protests in opposition to the proposed laws to turn Israel into a theocratic dictatorship.


Handmaidens from the filming of Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” Photo: Joe Flood.

Since mid-February, as described by Al-Monitor, the marches, with outfits inspired by Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale, “started off spontaneously as an initiative by a group of apolitical social activists calling itself ‘Building an Alternative,’ comprised of women from across the social-political spectrum—secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Arab, Jewish—campaigning for equality and against violence.”

Hadas Ragolsky, a journalist and one of the initiators of the Israeli “slave march,” said that the effect on the disguised women was as powerful on the participants as on the onlookers. “There is power in walking quietly, submissively, with your head lowered. It was a creepy sight for women who saw us and literally cried—and for us, too.

“The ‘No to Dictatorship’ slogan powering the expanding mass protests reflects a concrete fear. ‘We won’t wait for them to impose [religious] head coverings on us, decide when we buy at the supermarket, where we sit on the bus and when we go with a sick child to the clinic,’ she said, referring to ultra-Orthodox attempts to dictate segregation of women in the public sphere. ‘The new laws certainly endanger our freedom.’”

Safania Shwartz, who organized a demonstration in a few hours in Shoham, said, “Women in Shoham are very socially active: They also turned out for demonstrations opposing violence against women, and…the fight against the judicial overhaul… [E]nough is enough when it comes to representation: we want 50-50 gender balance. We want more women in government in the decision-making positions where choices are made that affect our lives.”


Despite attempts to include Palestinian women in these marches, few participated. (See “Palestinians silenced,” p. 11.) Some were told their speeches were not helpful or told to revise them.[1]Gaz

Below are comments from several Palestinian activists explaining why they refrained from joining the demonstrations:

“Arab society has lots of protests, but none of them have drawn a significant Jewish presence. And I’m not talking about political demonstrations for prisoners or members of our people in Gaza or the West Bank—I’m talking about [common] social issues, such as the struggle against violence and crime.

“The main reason that Arabs are absent from the demonstrations is that Arab society has been disappointed by the state too many times. The neglect that we have been experiencing for years has led to a lack of confidence in the possibility that anything here can change in our favor, and that has led to despair and indifference about the future.”

—Marah Amara

“My ambition is for people to understand that it’s impossible to live in a partial democracy, or under a government that has a preference for a certain population, and I came to demonstrate so that this country will be everyone’s country….For weeks, I tried to decide whether to speak at the demonstration in Haifa. In the end I agreed, in a joint decision with friends in Hadash,[2] in order to say what we have to say….I don’t know what the organizers expected or what role they wanted me to play there. They claimed that my speech wasn’t encouraging, and instead lays out all the reasons for Arabs not to join the protest…”

—Rim Hazan, Secretary-General of Hadash

“The first reason is that the demonstrations speak about democracy as though it relates only to Jews. What about the rights of the Palestinians living under occupation? Separating the occupation from the issue is problematic. The idea of a Jewish state is unanimously accepted in these protests, and the demonstrations are about the nature of the democratic system in the country.”

—Raghda Awwad, attorney


The “Handmaids,” a vital part of the massive Israeli battle against the right-wing power grab to roll women’s freedom back centuries, have an opportunity to comprehend that these same reactionaries are spewing vicious hate against Arabs on a level not seen since World War II, when it was aimed at Jews.

As long-time Israeli activist Gila Svirsky put it recently: “If this [the recent demonstrations against the Israeli government] sounds like good news—massive public rejection of anti-democratic behavior—I’ll tell you what is missing from it: an understanding that the occupation of Palestinian land and the five million Palestinians who live there is unjust, immoral, and as anti-democratic as any evisceration of the Supreme Court. In fact, probably more.”

If those 25,000 women can actually listen to Palestinian voices seeking freedom and dignity, they can build on their visions of a humane society for all in Israel.

—Susan Van Gelder

[1].  This calls to mind that before the 1963 March on Washington both the Kennedy Administration and the mainstream Black leadership prevented then-revolutionary John L. Lewis from giving the radical speech he had written for the occasion.

[2]. Hadash is an Arab-Jewish political party.

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