Category Archives: human rights

Fasting for Peace

The Kotel on Tisha B'Av

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM–Starting last night, the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av began. At 7 P.M., restaurants closed, and a strange quiet hung over the city. Recreational spots across the country have also been shut down for the 25 hours of the fast.

The fast honors the destruction of the two Holy Temples in the Old City, which are said to have been demolished out of a senseless hate. They were destroyed over 600 years apart, but both on the ninth day of the month of Av. Today I watched as hundreds of Jews congregated at the Kotel to commemorate the loss, and read from the Book of Lamentations.

The fast has been expanded over the years to mourn other hardships the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, which are said to have happened all on this one day. From the Roman conquerors in the city of Betar, to the Crusaders in France, to Jewish expulsion from England and Spain, to the beginning of World War I, to deportations during the Holocaust, to a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the withdrawal from Gaza which forced Jewish settlers to move in 2005, and more, the fast honors mass suffering of the past.

Today in Jerusalem, the concept of a baseless hate seems pervasive. Hundreds have flocked to the Gilad Shalit protest tent, where I attended a march last week, to lament his captivity, and hope for his return. At the same Wall where hundreds of prayers from the Book of Lamentations will ring today, just last week a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah because of her gender. Just outside of the Old City walls, the residents of Silwan I wrote about a couple of weeks ago await demolitions of their households. Is baseless hatred truly a thing of the past to commemorate, or a continuing characteristic of this crazy city?

For where else in the world do two nations live together on one land, and fight on the battlefields of civilian neighborhoods with construction and demolition? And where else does a religious minority control a democratic government to the point where prayer, religious conversion, and marriage have to follow the rules of the most extreme sector of the religion? And where else do all three of the most prominent religions of the world flock to visit holy sites within yards of each other?

These unique qualities of the city are pulling it apart. A Ynet-Gesher poll of 505 Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis revealed 42% of respondents believe the religious-secular divide causes the most tension in Israel and 41% said it was the Jewish-Arab situation. The baseless hatred is palpable amid these divides: 54% believe Arabs are the most hated in Israel, while 37% believe the Haredi Orthodox are the most hated. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this polarization. With the city 35% Arab and 22% Haredi, racial and religious divides are everywhere.

None of this is news. We are all at least vaguely aware of the constant tragedy and complexity of this ongoing conflict, and can recognize the baseless hate on both sides. I often think of the different sides as looking through mirrored windows, only reflecting back the very real pain each has experienced as a result of the continuing tension and the absence of any sustainable or long-term solution, without being able to see past the wall to the suffering on the other side. The tragedy for me lies in this blindness. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have pain in their hearts, and both sides bear the responsibility of making it better.

On this holiday, though, I appeal specifically to the Jewish people. Among the many Jewish traditions I have learned to love and admire this summer is the social justice teachings in Judaism. In a lecture last week, a religious man spoke about the role of this Jewish morality in the conflict, and used the metaphor of a grasshopper to describe the respective positions of Israelis and Palestinians. He said that for centuries, the Jews have been the grasshopper, and continue to ask for sympathy for this terrible position they were in for so long. On Tisha B’Av, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gross hardship the Jews have faced, and I sympathize deeply with this position. As the lecturer said, though, Israel is not the grasshopper in this particular conflict anymore; Israel has the upper hand and has become the aggressor. The Palestinians are now the grasshoppers, and Israelis, he says, have a responsibility to realize their privileged position and incorporate Jewish values into their actions moving forward.

This is not to say Jews or Israelis do not continue to face hardship inside and outside of the conflict, or have not in the past. They have, they do, and they will continue to face baseless hatred and adversity. Today, though, I implore Israelis to look past the mirrored window, and see the hatred and adversity Palestinians are facing in this conflict. Israel’s success enables it to change the ongoing tragedies in the region. The Jewish state has been created. Israel has internal and external problems, but it is a recognized and developed nation. Today, Jews can celebrate their promised land, but what can Palestinians celebrate?

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Gilad Shalit and the Absence of Face in American Wars

After the march with Gilad's parents from the North, thousands gathered to listen to different speakers, performers, and children on why his release of immediate concern. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – Thousands of people gathered between King David and King George Street on Thursday night in the culmination of the march from the north of Israel to Jerusalem advocating for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. Two hundred thousand civilians joined at some point, and the blur of shirts and posters with a blue outline Gilad’s face cultivated a sense of unity.

In many ways, the march could have appeared in support of anything. Jerusalem is a constant hub of protests and marches given the tense political climate that spans a range of issues relating to land, religion, Zionism, education, gender, modesty, and more. This particular gathering struck me as incredibly unique, though, and exposed a great deal about what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict something difficult to relate to as an outsider.

First of all, the relationship between citizens and the army is completely different from that in the United States. Because of the obligatory service, almost everyone here has, is currently, or will serve in the army. Further, everyone’s sons, daughters, neighbors, and colleagues will serve. The service cuts across socioeconomic lines. This dynamic creates a different culture surrounding the conflict, and makes it intensely personal. Instead of figures and numbers used for election purposes, faces from next-door infiltrate people’s understanding of war. One eight-year-old girl stood up in front of the thousands of people to refer to Gilad as her brother, as every soldier could easily be her brother, and because of this, she prays each night for peace. While the different sizes of the countries clearly influence this relationship, I have never confronted this sentiment in the U.S. The American army does not proportionally represent the population, as it runs almost systematically on socioeconomic lines, and sentiment towards it thus varies greatly.

The army and the conflict were fittingly shown through a humanistic lens. Gilad’s parents were the focus of the event, as speakers asked, “have they slept in four years?” His mother spoke of the pain of waiting for so long, and a woman whose whole family died in a terrorist attack expressed her desire to have a prisoner exchange, even if that meant the release of her family’s killers, because if Gilad can return to live a normal life that is worth more than anything. Saving a life, she said, is saving a world.

Would such a claim ever be made in the United States? How many prisoners of war are there in Afghanistan and Iraq? I don’t even know the number, let alone march for the return of each one. On both sides here, almost everyone knows a bereaved family. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother was killed in a hostage rescue mission. This tragic reality makes the implausible possible, hundreds of thousands of people marching for the life of one.

Proximity also affects the nature of this relationship. The conflict does not hide; people live it everyday. Just walking around Jerusalem, and seeing the settlements, protests, racially divided neighborhoods, walls and towers left from each conqueror, venerated monuments, divides between the religious and the secular, the wall to the West Bank, soldiers everywhere, different organizations educating the public about the conflict, graffiti, posters, and more constantly reveal the issues pulling the city apart. The reality is inescapable. In the U.S., the reality is all too escapable, and I know I could effortlessly pass days without thinking about the wars. We are fighting two, and while I am quick to criticize the conduct of the Israeli army, what about my own? Are the war crimes any different? Do I feel that each soldier is my brother, and think of their parents’ lost sleep each night as the wars carry on?

The intimate feeling with the conflict is true to both sides. Palestinians and Israelis live and feel it together in Jerusalem, and both are deeply affected by casualties. Palestinians face stark facts in terms of prisoners of war as well, as administrative arrests for security can keep them in prison for up to five years with no court, and Palestinians arrested in the West Bank are subject to military court. As of May 2010, Israel is holding 213 Palestinians in administrative detention.

The pain that ensues this mutual grief brings cohesion and passion. Often, it polarizes people further into stringent views, but it can also unite them to work together to effect change. The Parent’s Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families to tell stories of their experiences losing a loved one to the conflict, side by side.

I have not witnessed this humanistic relationship with conflict in the U.S., for where is the feeling that what the American army does matters in my everyday life? Maybe it is an unfeasible desire, to want to truly understand the effects of “shock and awe,” Guantanamo, and the past decade of pain caused by the two American wars. Without knowing the faces, though, how can I hope to hold a genuine opinion on the wars, let alone work to implement my vision of them? I am grateful to not have lost anyone in the wars, but the loss and pain exists, and I believe there is an obligation to at the very least witness it.

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Detained for Prayer

This morning at Rosh Chodesh, police monitored women gathering at the Kotel to pray. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This morning, a woman was arrested at Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll. While I have been doing some work for her organization, Women of the Wall, nothing could have prepared me for the outrage I felt watching several policemen tackle a group of women raising their voices together in prayer, and the admiration I experienced witnessing these women’s bravery.

For twenty-two years, Women of the Wall have met at the beginning of every Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh, to pray together at the Kotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Israeli and Jewish women from around the world who seek the right for Jewish women to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Currently, such action is forbidden under Israeli law, which singles out women: “No ceremony shall be held in the Wall’s women’s section. That includes reading from a Torah, blowing the ram’s horn, wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.”

Women of the Wall tefila. (Saverin/TYG)

Every month, their actions provoke an outcry from the Ultra-Orthodox community, who today screamed, “God sent Obama to take away Jerusalem,” “these women are responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews,” and because of them, “the Jews would lose Jerusalem to the Arabs.” The women sang through the chorus of accusations and screams, and complied with police monitoring of their prayer shawls and noise level. The yelling and aggressive police activity was only to be expected.

Ultra-Orthodox men shouting at the women's section of the Kotel. (Saverin/TYG)

As the group left, though, chairperson Anat Hoffman pulled out the group’s Torah scroll to lead a procession of supporters to Robinson’s Arch, where police forcefully grabbed the Torah. I stood amid violent pushing as women around me fell to the ground, until the forceful struggle ended with Anat in a police car, where she was taken to the police station and interrogated for five hours before being released and banned from the Kotel for thirty days.

The police pulling a Torah away from Anat Hoffman as she led a procession away from the Kotel plaza. (Saverin/TYG)

An escalation of force towards Women of the Wall's chairperson, Anat Hoffman. (Saverin/TYG)

This blatant inequality is the result of an eleven-year Supreme Court case, which dismisses women’s ability to pray as they wish at the Wall. This is not even to mention the fact that the women’s section of the wall was reduced from 18 to 12 meters, and the men’s section covers 48 meters. As the women celebrate the coming month of Av in the Hebrew calender, along with the men who point menacing fingers at their song from the men’s section of the Kotel, they reflect on its message of unwarranted hate, and pray for its departure from the wall as a step to ending the internal strife within Judaism and Israel.

The issues revealed today at the Kotel are representative of several in Israel. The gender inequality in religion, which prevents a woman from filing a divorce without her husband’s consent, forces her to the back of the synagogue, and emphasizes woman’s value in her ability to bear as many children as possible, continues to create controversy and divide the nation. Tension between religious and secular populations in Israel is also a major issue, which affects everything from modesty requirements, to the army, to praying at Judaism’s most holy site, and raises questions on the bounds of religion’s role in democracy.

These are issues that must be addressed. Women of the Wall is taking a seldom-trodden path by reforming women’s rights within religion, as many view feminism and the patriarchal structure of religion as incompatible. In the small overlap between the two, this group’s unyielding song is creating a precedent I hope women around the world will follow.

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The Importance of Being Pink

by Diana Saverin

It’s here: Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons, balloons, signs, and shirts have adorned the streets. Bras hang from the library. We laugh at the ridiculous posters intended to increase our “awareness” of breast cancer: Save the ta tas! Boobies rule, cancer drools! Save second base! Save the boobies! Wear pink on Friday! Everyone loves boobs! A pink ribbon can be found anywhere, thongs, bras, rainboots, perfume, blush, vests, sneakers, yogurt, outerwear, socks, ornaments, mini massagers, book lights, hair straighteners, razors, sink strainers, cookie cutters, Egyptian glass globe bottles, hats, purse hangers, flashlights, and so much more. I am quite certain that if I wished to, I could comfortably live my whole life buying only products with a pink ribbon.

In most ways, this is a great thing. The prominent US-based breast cancer foundations[1] have raised money, awareness, and research enormously. As someone who knows women who have survived breast cancer, I am grateful for these strides that have been made. Moreover, these non-profits provide a model for other causes, as their marketing schemes have worked. They have made an issue, which used to be associated with awkward-to-talk-about breasts, pink. Nowadays, money donated to breast cancer receives more money than any other one topic related to women.[2] Susan G. Komen for the Cure alone has a total expenditure of $347,858,000 a year, which is 27% of the total money spent on all women’s issues annually, ranging from sex trafficking to the compensation gap.[3]

Since giving to the pinkest cause easily translates to the most feminine cause, where do the other pinkish topics stand? These topics include the many subsets under power, human rights, education, economic justice and support, family and work issues, health and women’s bodies, and safety (with breast cancer grouped under health and women’s bodies). So where does the money go? Using the fixed amount of money given to women annually,[4] breast cancer has monopolized the landscape. Out of the over fifty diverse topics and issues related to women,[5] and out of the $1,249,541,000 given to all of those topics in a year, $410,578,000 went to breast cancer, which is 33% of that total. Girls’ education gets 2% of that same pie, work/life balance 0.5%, rape 0.5%, and the compensation gap 0.3%.[6] While I will leave the normative statements of which of these topics deserves the money the most to those wiser than I, I want to understand why breast cancer so dominates the market for women’s philanthropy.

One reason is simple: breast cancer is not considered feminist. The f-word makes the notion that boobs were ever awkward or controversial seem laughable. Supporting one of those feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority or the National Organization for Women, would be riskier, and certainly not very pink. The pink ribbon is losing its spot as the only socially acceptable women’s issue, as it is becoming trendy to talk about empowering girls[7], or giving microloans to women in developing countries[8], but proudly sporting a pink ribbon on a baseball cap or vest remains the classic symbol of political correctness in the minefields of women’s issues and feminism. But by so carefully treading over the dangerous and murky waters of the unlikeable and manly women society has warned us about, do we forget about the one in four women in the US and globally who are raped? Or the sex slavery that kidnaps innocent women and girls and sells and resells their virginity in ways that are sure to make the reader extremely uncomfortable? Or the thousands of women who are brutally killed in the name of honor under sharia law, for heinous crimes, such as wanting to choose their own husband?

Sometimes even more squeamish than these ways women are genitally mutilated and assaulted is their “masculine” ambition. Awkward. Let’s just stick with health, because with health matters it’s life or death, and what could be more important than life? Breast cancer is the best answer: clean cut, depoliticized, pink, whose perpetrators are cells in the depths of our bodies—instead of our own continually discriminating tendencies—and it certainly has some distance from those crazy feminists. But on the note of health, what happens to the women who don’t live long enough to get breast cancer? Or those women who want reproductive freedom, or maternal health care, or who have HIV/Aids? And by the way, isn’t heart disease the number one killer of women, with 1 in 4 women dying from it in the US, while 1 in 30 die from breast cancer?

It gets especially ambiguous for those poor corporations and firms, whose board and leadership statistics[9] reveal in plain sight the continued existence of the glass ceiling.[10] That’s where breast cancer comes in with its pinker than pink pink ribbon that shouts: “See, we love women!” without dealing with all of the dreaded baggage that comes with the f-word. It’s all charity anyways, so it’s all for a good cause, right?

While breast cancer research and awareness does helps 3.3% of the population, imagine if the women around the world who are literally not free, or the girls who are not allowed to go to school because they are forced to perform chores such as walk a total of four hours to get water to boil, or the women subjected to systematical violence got a share of our annual giving. Where would the world be if some of the $410,578,000 currently going to breast cancer addressed the needs of those women? The array of issues related to women’s empowerment and equality is expansive, but in taking pink route and avoiding critical thinking about the state of sexism, society has left those issues alone. We dedicate a whole month to breast cancer awareness, along with 33% of the money we give to women, but resist mustering the strength or resources to learn about the at least fifty other equally important and underfunded issues.

One of these issues is domestic violence, which affects over half of women. It also happens to be domestic violence awareness month. Would it be just too uncomfortable to spread that awareness every October, and knowing that over half of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, count ten women at our lunch tables, imagining five of their faces as they are assaulted by a family member at some point in their life? Or maybe we’ll just keep taking the shortcut, and stick to blaming tumors and cells; no one wants to see that kind of ugliness on a cupcake in every dining hall or in chalk all over the pavement anyways.

This romance with breast cancer doesn’t expose a love for women’s breasts, or the dire need to find a cure for breast cancer; it reveals the unwillingness to acknowledge the elementary facts of the sexism. It is visible in the 77 cents women make for every dollar a man makes in the US, it is visible because women still do not make up even 25% of Congress, and it is visible in seemingly benign sayings like “you play like a girl.” Sexism exists in all its black and white glory, but breast cancer awareness and funding lets us pat ourselves on the back for helping women without having to deal with creating any systematic change. Maybe pink really is more than a color; it’s our way around thinking about the ways women are treated by others, and not cells, in the home, locally, nationally, and globally.

Diana Saverin is a freshman in Berkeley College.


[1] Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Breast Cancer Research Foundation Breast Cancer Network of Strength, National Breast Cancer Foundation, Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund

[2] Diana Saverin and Mayree Clark. “Mapping the Movement.” Silverleaf Foundation, August 7, 2009.

[3] $45,221,540 of this is spent on fundraising and administrative costs, based on the Susan G. Komen 2007-2008 Annual Report

[4] This amount has increased about 6-7% over the past ten years, based on The Foundation Center’s recent research “Accelerating Change for Women and Girls; The Role of Women’s Funds”

[5] Leadership (political, judicial, corporate, professional, academic), human rights, affirmative action, taxes and inheritance, immigration, refugees, prison, LGBT rights, literacy, support for girls, affirmative action in admissions, title IX, compensation gaps, social security and welfare, minimum wage, women in business, women in non-traditional occupations, aging women, paid family leave, childcare, work/life balance, reproductive rights, mental health, HIV/Aids, Breast cancer, physiological differences between men and women, maternal health, general health, domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, trafficking, prostitution, violence arising from religious fundamentalism, poverty, peace, coping with conflict, the environment, race, economic policy, the arts, media, science, marketing, PR, and media, financing, government relations, leadership and talent development, technology, research, development, and advocacy

[6] Saverin.

[7] The NIKE foundation, which only gives to girls 10-19 have made “girls” an attractive cause, which has spurred a recent surge in investment in girls. While a meaningful task, it is confusing, because in doing so they distinctly separate the girls we ought to invest in from the women they become and the mothers who raise them.

[8] The success of microloans, which started largely with the Grameen Bank, has been phenomenal, and the research that these loans work best for women because women invest money back into the family has led to poverty alleviation for many women. According to the girleffect.org, women invest 90% of their income into their family, while men invest 30-40%.

[9] While women make up 46.5% of the work force, as of 2008 they make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to Catalyst’s “Women in Management” October 2008 report.

[10] Refers to sexism in the workplace, that woman can only climb the ladder of leadership before hitting the glass ceiling, and cannot get paid an equal wage for the same job as men.

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