Anyone who visited Sindyanna of Galilee in Kafr Qana on Saturday (March 4, 2017) was impressed by an unusual sight: some fifty Arab and Jewish women, including members of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN), women from Sindyanna, and members of the general public, all busily weaving baskets from date fronds. Some had their heads bowed to the work, others were exchanging ideas, and still others were examining the finished products. The event commemorated Women’s International Day, and it commenced with a basketry workshop. This is a fun experience affording direct contact between women who do not normally meet. The weaving was guided by Rachel Jerbi Lugaci, who teaches groups of Jewish and Arab women at the Sindyanna Visitors Center with the help of her former student, Mariam Menzel, as well as Asmahan-Abu-Hilal from the village of Arara. Asmahan is a skilled weaver and teacher who began her career at Sindyanna a decade ago. There were two groups from Baka al-Gharbia and East Jerusalem, both belonging to the WAC-MAAN women’s forum, as well as Arab and Jewish women from communities in the Galilee.
“I too come from the field of art,” said artist Edna Ben-Zvi from Tivon. “The language of art is an international language that brings together women from diverse backgrounds. I wove a placemat. To overcome the language barrier, I spoke with the Arab women using my hands, but the joint effort puts us in a position where we are equal.”
After the weaving, renowned artist Sigalit Landau captivated the women with a talk about her Dead Sea art project. She said she had sculpted baskets from salt—a fact that created an immediate connection between her and the weavers. Landau began with an explanation of her video art installation, “The Endless Solution”: an eternal loop of five hundred watermelons, in which the nude artist is caught, slowly unraveling and reforming in the Dead Sea. She told the group how she had made the video, and why she had chosen the sweetness and redness of watermelon to stand in contrast with the Dead Sea salt. She described her connection as a Jerusalemite with the Dead Sea. She spoke of the difficulty and uniqueness of sculpting with salt, which is best done in the oppressive heat of July and August. She introduced objects made of salt crystals, including a carpet beater and a black dress which, immersed in salt water, had emerged as a spectacular wedding dress weighing 200 pounds. Landau contributes regularly to WAC-MAAN’s “Bread and Roses” exhibition, whose proceeds go to promoting the economic empowerment of Arab women. This year she contributed a braided basket made of salt crystals.
After a lunch buffet, cooked by the Sindyanna women, the day’s program continued. A panel discussion took place among Arab women striving to change the status of women in Arab society. They are not afraid of fighting conservatism in their villages while struggling for equality on the broader Jewish-Arab front.
In the intervals between discussions, the women were entertained by Diane Kaplan and Mira Ailabuni from the group “Three Women in Three Languages.” They sang in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Hanan Manadreh Zoabi, who co-runs the Sindyanna Visitors Center, moderated the panel. She talked about Sindyanna, which was established by Jewish and Arab women as a Fair Trade association. Sindyanna is dedicated to strengthening Arab women via economic empowerment, bridging the gaps between Jewish and Arab women, and fighting extremism on both sides. Sindyanna not only employs women evenhandedly and teaches them the art of weaving, it also markets the products of Galilee’s farmers and small manufacturers, as well as handicrafts made by women in Israel and the West Bank. Hanan said: “Empowering Arab women means being in opposition to the traditions and customs grounded in distorted religious interpretations, which reduce the role of women to raising a family. Being stuck in the home is a death sentence to our aspirations and abilities as women.” She added: “Just as the employment of Arab women strengthens the economy as a whole, so the solidarity of Arab and Jewish women is the only way to overcome the barrier of hate, racism and fear.” Hanan talked about the women’s protests in the United States one hundred and eight years ago not only for bread, but also roses, and the huge women’s protests we see today throughout the United States against the policies of President Trump.
Another panelist was Nadia Giol, who is multilingual. She hosts groups of visitors in Sindyanna and has been active for ten years as a point person for Arabs and Jews who believe in non-violence. Her story is unique: Her family was compelled to leave the village of Safuria in 1948. She grew up in Nazareth as a refugee in harsh conditions, without running water and electricity. “I felt very bitter when I saw my grandfather’s land transferred into Jewish hands. He remained a refugee and penniless. But over the years I’ve become committed to dialogue and nonviolence in order to achieve coexistence, which is possible when we learn about each other and share experiences. As a Palestinian-Israeli woman, I grew up in a traditional society that didn’t allow me to shape my life and destiny. However, I married the man of my choice, a Spaniard, and paid a personal price. Today I’m working with women who made similar choices and wish to merge their capabilities. So it’s very exciting for me to see so many Palestinian women here. On another level, I am excited about meetings between Jews and Arabs that strengthen the bond between us as human beings. It’s not something you see in everyday life in this country.”
Wafa Tiara, WAC-MAAN’s Project Coordinator for Women and Agriculture in the Triangle, explained why the slogan “Women weave for equality” is on target. “Today there is no equality for women, not only between Arab and Jewish women but also around the world. There is a terrible tragedy taking place in Syria. The country is being destroyed without pity, and the world is indifferent. It’s as if rights and equality are for some people, but not for Syrians. The president of the world’s largest democracy has become a symbol of racism and hatred.” Tiara talked about the difficulty that Arab women have making a livelihood because of the lack of jobs and other obstacles, which leaves them far from the equality they dream of. She spoke of WAC-MAAN’s struggle to integrate women into the workplace in decent conditions. Tiara also spoke about a basketry course recently opened in Baqa al-Gharbiyyeh with Sindyanna’s assistance, and the establishment of a new cooperative of cleaning women. “The struggle of women for equality is far from complete, and we will continue it even more so today.”
Munsirat Martinez, director of the Lakiya Negev Weaving Visitors Center, spoke in English. She is of Spanish origin. “I came here to follow my heart and love, and I stayed because I loved the country and its people,” she said. “I was extremely affected by the grim situation among Bedouin women in the Negev. After I visited Lakiya and having conversations with women who wanted change, a program of empowerment relying on the sale of traditional handicrafts began to take shape in my mind. This enables them to make a living without leaving the village. The seed was sown for a Center of creative women. The idea has broadened to include plans to eradicate illiteracy among Bedouin women. Today the Center has become a magnet for visitors, who admire the weaving and embroidery. The women have overcome many obstacles.”
The panel concluded with Rania Saleh from the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where she organizes WAC-MAAN’s women’s project. Saleh spoke of the abject poverty among Palestinian women (only 11% of them are employed). She described the struggle for fair treatment by the Employment Bureau and the National Insurance Institute, on which Palestinian women depend for income support. Saleh has established a WhatsApp group of 100 women, who report to WAC-MAAN on their problems with the Employment Bureau. The group has managed to change the atmosphere there. It allows WAC-MAAN to address problems in real time when confronting the bureau. This has increased the women’s involvement and imbued them with self-confidence. WAC-MAAN instructs women in rights issues, labor laws, understanding pay slips, personal empowerment, and learning Hebrew. Finally, those who are sent to work receive the backup of a WAC-MAAN aide until successful absorption in the job. Saleh finished her remarks by saying: “On this day we tell women: We have a choice. We can educate a new generation to build their future, showing our children the power that is hidden in us, or we can raise a weak generation that is not equipped to face the challenges of the future.”
Reactions to the event were enthusiastic:
Mary Manzel, a Sindyanna weaver: “I really enjoyed the panel where every woman talked about her life experience and how she got here. What I heard encouraged me to learn from the experience of Jewish women and allow them to learn from ours. The meetings with Jewish women were very warm, and the singers made me emotional and brought up strong childhood memories.”
Yardana Etzion, a graduate of the Shenkar College of Art, member of the Council of Contemporary Art in the Community, and lecturer on the design of learning spaces: “It was the most meaningful Women’s Day I’ve experienced in years. I was born in Kibbutz Hukuk. Kafr Kana is only 20 minutes away, and I’ve never been here. I still do not speak Arabic. I am still ignorant about relations between Jewish and Arab women, but it got me thinking. The event was beautifully put together, and I was amazed by the generosity and the warm welcome I received. At the end of the day, I have a very great desire to be in contact with you. This place is exciting and authentic, and may the world be a little bit better because of it.”
Bruria Barzilay from Tivon, an active member of Women for Peace: “I spoke with women from Baqa al-Gharbiyyeh and one of them said, ‘Bless the Lord who will give us strength and will protect us and our children,’ and I said something about God. We spoke about God having a feminine nature, and then one of the women said that if our leaders were women, things might have changed a lot. This was the consensus.”
Fawzia Kitani, a weaver from the village of Jatt: “I liked the design of the Visitors Center because it used recycled planks as raw material for decoration. I love the simplicity, frugality and cleanliness of the decoration, and I think I’ll use it in my home.”
*Written by Michal Schwartz; Translated from Hebrew by Robert Goldman*