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Still Standing: My Years with Women in Black

19 February 2013 No Comment

Judith Berlowitz

Judith Berlowitz
California, United States

My association with Women in Black began nearly 25 years ago, when I responded to an ad on the back page of the local free press, calling on women to dress in black and to stand silently on a Berkeley street corner each Friday at noon, to protest the illegal occupation of Palestine.  Political activism seems to be in the family DNA, and I still have a letter from my mother, written in the 1950’s, in which she said “Israel is using napalm against their cousins, the Palestinians.”  I don’t know if that was true, but it expresses the family ethos and I soon became a regular in demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam, against Franco’s execution of Basque separatists, and against U.S. support for the dictatorship in El Salvador.

Finding Women in Black was in a way like coming home, as it allowed me to express my political beliefs simply by standing in silence with other like-minded women, most of them Jewish.  Not all WiB groups observe silence, but for me the silent vigil is very centering, especially as it seems that people who respond to hecklers only lower themselves to the level of the hecklers themselves.   And of course not all WiBs focus on Israel-Palestine; what unites us is our use of our physical presence to express opposition to violence, militarism, sexism, and racism. We express our indebtedness to the women of the Black Sash, the Rosenstrasse protest, Greenham Common, and Las Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo.

Bay Area Women in Black’s first manifestation took place after the 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center.  Women activists, poets, and musicians gathered by the San Francisco Bay to lament the wrongs done in our names to all peoples, particularly the people of Palestine, and to pledge commitment to ending violence. As the date coincided with the Jewish New Year, we also enacted the ritual of Tashlich, symbolically “casting away” the wrongdoings of the previous year by throwing small pieces of bread into the water.  Our local group has since become much smaller, but now has a steering committee, a website, and a considerable email list.  We have visited our Congressional representatives (Assembly and Senate), presenting them (via their assistants) with binders of materials we have compiled and illustrated. We stand weekly, in silence, in front of a local movie theater, occasionally confronted by a pro-Zionist group whose signs and fliers attempt to connect us with various terrorist groups and label us as anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews.  One or two people hand out our one-page position and research papers on events mostly related to the occupation of Palestine.

Another satisfying aspect of my association with BAWiB is our outreach program.  We co-sponsor local events put on by groups like the Middle East Children’s Alliance, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Students for Justice in Palestine.  We host two or more yearly events in the Bay Area:  a demonstration in front of the “Israel in the Gardens” festival in San Francisco, a march and vigil on “black Friday,” (the biggest retail shopping day in the U.S.) also in San Francisco, and a liberation Tashlich ritual.  These events are always well-attended by solidarity groups and received with support and the expected opposition by the public.

Grand Lake Vigil, Women in Black Bay Area

I have also extended the outreach to other WiB groups in the US and throughout the world, which led to my trip to Colombia in 2011.  Leading up to this event, BAWiB conducted an informal fundraiser, which allowed me to travel to Bogotá to the XV Encuentro Internacional de Mujeres de Negro.  I am a Spanish translator, and the organizers of the Encuentro waived my registration fee in exchange for interpreting for speakers. On my way to Colombia we stayed for a time in New York, where I stood with the WiB in Union Square and in front of the New York Public Library, where I had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Patricia DeAngelis, recently deceased.  In Bogotá I also presented a PowerPoint program on Women in Black in the U.S. Attending this event was so rewarding, as I formed associations that have continued since then. This past spring I was fortunate to stand with the monthly Women in Black vigil in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and I exchanged gifts and shared meals with the Women in Black of Sevilla.  We continue to be in touch with the WiB of Colombia and occasionally collaborate with them by holding special vigils in support of their pleas for an end to the armed conflict and violence against women in Colombia. 

BAWiB hopes to attract younger women to our vigils and other actions.  We are not getting any younger; we celebrated the 90th birthday of one of our founding members last year.  But in the words of Pat DeAngelis, La lucha continúa, and we hope to draw participants for whom standing in silence and being present advances and embodies the struggle against violence.

Bay Area Women in Black can be reached at bayareawomeninblack@yahoo.com 

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