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Voices from the Heart

Conversations with Israeli women


This is the first publication in English of my book  published in Denmark in may 1998.

The original title is 'Et Land Der Fortærer sine Egne'

Countless volumes have been written about the rebirth of the Jewish state, its wars and the quest for peace. Numerous heroes and politicians have been portrayed and given their due place in history.


This humble volume looks at Israel from quite a different angle. It is a collection of interviews with 15 Israeli women from the generation of grandmothers. Grown women who all tell the tale of their life interwoven with the first 50 years of the Jewish state.


Some where born during the time of the British Mandate. Rachel's childhood in Tel Aviv was influenced by a highly ideological mother, and her youth and the rest of her life by her choice to join a young group of pioneers who founded a kibbutz in far away Galilee, where she still lives. Yohevet born in Kibbutz Degania, the oldest of kibbutzim, lost her first husband and spend most of her life among new immigrants in Beer Sheva. Both took active part in the clandestine and dangerous preparations for statehood in the Hagana and the Palmah respectively.   

Opposite Frida from Arab Jerusalem and Agafni born in Jaffa saw their families and societies crumble and flee in those years, and each of them tell how the creation of Israel was experienced from the `other side', and how it looks 50 years later.

Also Sofia was born in Palestine, but she chooses to talk about the one thing that has influenced her grown-up life more than anything: Her oldest son's sudden choice to become newly religious.


Others arrived in Palestine as children. Esther from Germany came with her parents, and as 12 years old had some very difficult years understanding life in the Jewish Yeshuv. She grew to take up important tasks in the defense of the land and later in defense of democracy and of women in society. Shulamit came seven years old with her mother from Poland. Her whole life has been strongly influenced by her husband who was active in the pre-state Etzel militia.

By donkey and by boat, six year old Ora and her family made their way to the Holy Land from Yemen. Her experience as dark skinned in the mainly Azkenasi society of those days made her a very aware observer of the frictions between Azkenasi and Sephardi Israelis that at certain moments still seem to split Israeli society in two. Adina was sent from Syria with her sister to go to school in Palestine. Due to the creation of Israel and the closure of the borders she never saw her mother again. After long life as a socialist activist for the underprivileged she decides at the age of 60 to return to the faith of her fathers, and is now and ardent activist for religious orthodox Shas party.

Ilana and Shoshana survived life in hell. Both Polish born, both lost their families and fled the Nazis each in her own unbelievable way. Ilana arrived in Palestine with her young brother through Teheran, Karachi and Bombay in 1943. At the time the two youngest child immigrants ever to have arrived alone. Shoshana was hopeful aboard the legendary immigrant ship Exodus, able to see the lights of Haifa where her only living relatives where waiting for her only to be rejected and take prisoners by British soldiers at Haifa port. She finally arrived in Haifa many months later. Ilana and Shoshana have drawn diametrically opposite conclusions of their life experiences.

In her native Egypt Dina was a Zionist student activist. The very day Israel was born she was taken prisoner and was held 444 days. Her savior send out from Israel to help getting Jews out of Egyptian prisons, became her life companion. Matilda from Casablanca helped send thousands of her Moroccan Jewish brothers and sisters to Israel before leaving herself, for the land of her dreams, even though many of her relatives tried to convince her not to go. Aziza non willingly followed her Zionist brothers and daughters from a comfortable life as the wife of a wealthy coffee dealer in Baghdad to the immigrant tents on the slopes of the Carmel mountains, 50 years later she still regrets she was forced to leave. Abigail arrived in Israel as the bride of an orthodox Jerusalem rabbi from the tight knit orthodox environment New York longing for the Holy Land, and a pious religious life.


All of their stories interweave with the modern history of Israel. Nothing compares to the emotions and expectations felt among the Jews in Palestine and all over the world when the Jewish state finally became a reality in the United Nations at November 29th 1947. 33 countries `yes' votes against the `nay' votes of 13 Arab nations decided that the British mandate over Palestine should be dissolved by May 15th 1948, and the territory divided between a Jewish and a Palestinian Arab state.


While Jewish immigrants arrived from all corners of the world, the feeling of hope and togetherness was fighting fear of extinction while the newborn state fought for its life during the war of independence.  

During the years of the Cold War the Jewish state became the bastion of democracy as the only American foothold against the wide influence of the Soviet Union in the Arab world.


As the result of six days of war in 1967, again fighting extinction, Israel controlled territories more than three times its original size. The Arab armies had been sent fleeing.

For certain Israelis this was a sign of the approaching arrival of the Messiah, others felt that it was here - with the occupation of more than a million Palestinians - everything began to go wrong. 


On the holiest of holidays, Yom Kippur 1973 the famed Israeli Security services misinterpreted the Arabic troop movements and Israel was surprise attached by several enemy armies. The moral was broken, and nothing could soothe as the nation stood mourning over the hundreds of fresh graves.


In the following years Israeli and Egyptian emissaries met secretly in Marocco and prepared the first American brokered and guaranteed peace in Middle East: The historical pact between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Peace between Israel and Egypt sealed by the triple handshake with US president Jimmy Carter in 1979.

But in 1982 Israeli minister of defense Ariel Sharon convinced the aging prime minister Begin to an Israeli invasion into Lebanon, waging a war that became the first war not all Israelis where willing to fight. A war that changed Israel forever. 


The Intifada - the Palestinian civil uprising against 20 years of Israeli occupation (1987-1993) -  further exposed the deep internal Israeli division. Every time Israeli soldiers pointed their weapons at stone throwing Palestinian children, there seemed to be two different interpretations. But at the same time the Intifada fertilized the ground for change.

In the wake of the Arab-Western alliance to fight Iraq's Saddam Husseins occupation of Kuwait US secretary of State James Baker claimed the existence of a rare `Window of opportunities'. This led Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to travel to Madrid, Spain, to speak peace to Syria, Jordan, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Egypt under American, Russian and European auspices. This was the official opening of the still ongoing peace process.


Ever since Israel has stumbled along the bumpy road to peace. From the clandestine meetings between Israeli and Palestinian academics in a remote summerhouse outside Oslo to the hesitant historical handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. Though Yassir Arafat's triumphant arrival in Gaza May 1994 and the peace treaty with Jordan in October the same year. Hope of peace and normalization was time and again abruptly shattered by murderous suicide bombings

by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A distant chance of peace with Syria once in while floating to the surface only to re-dive into the frozen waters of conflict.


Until the chock: The murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The murder of peace November 4 th 1995.


This political murder exposed all the gaps in Israeli society. The simmering ideological, religious, ethnic rifts where fueled by the crime that had been committed. Fueled by the verbal attacks culminating with murder of a democratically elected leader and furthered by the screaming silence sounded form huge parts of the national and religious camp in stead of a clear sounding condemnation.


The gap became even more clear cut when only 30.000 votes stood between the continuation of the peace process led by Yitzhak Rabin as partner Shimon Peres and the road named `Peace and Security' by Benjamin Netanyahu. A road, that after Netanyahus three years in office, proved to be nothing but a blockade to peace.


All these controversial questions appear in the 15 conversations. At the same time they uncover pictures of the social and cultural differences in the Israeli society often hidden by the historical headlines. The generation of grandmothers is the generation that is able to look back to the birth of the state but at the same time have worries and visions for the country they will be handing over to their grandchildren and their children.


Interviews like these have certain limitations. 15 personal tales cannot be a representative sample of a population of more than 6 millions, and were not meant to be. Other individuals would surely have given other explanations and interpretations of the problems Israel have lived through in her first 50 years. Men would most probably have placed a stronger emphasis on Israel's wars and their own frightening experiences at differing fronts. Younger people would have focused more on the latest issues. This is the reason neither men nor youth are represented.


The cultural gaps keep reappearing in the conversations. Every one has her commentary to the difference between the European inspired Zionism with its clearly socialist tendencies and the religiously inspired dream of returning to Zion after two thousand years of exile. A gap that in the early years led to the worship of the `new Jew', the secular agrarian pioneer tanned in the sun in opposition to the primitive, helpless and religious oriental immigrants. An unavoidable gap due to the very ideological foundation of Israel, as the homeland of all Jews when ever they might come and wherever they may come from.


I have chosen only to speak to women living behind the 1949 cease-fire lines, the so called `green line' to be able keep the geographical continuity all the way though the 50 years or more the conversations cover. Therefore there are neither Palestinian nor Jewish women from Gaza or the West bank among the interviewees.


Every sixth Israeli is a non-Jew. One million Israelis define themselves as Palestinians. In Israel's early years they lived under military rule since it was feared they would undermine the Jewish state. They still do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces which prevents them from having a fully free choice of profession. But a recent poll has proven that the Israeli Palestinians are loyal citizens who have no wish to live in a Palestinian state, if such a state should become a reality.  


As historical documentation interviews are a bit problematic. The human memory is not only selective but also adapts itself to the environment. One remembers what one wants to remember and places it in contexts where it seems to fit the best. With the help of two Israeli historians Dr. Nili Keren and Dr. Yaron Tsur all interviews have been edited for eventual historical errors. Apart hereof the personal opinions and other statements by the interviewees have not been edited. The quoted passages have been translated as literal as possible from either Hebrew or Arabic.


The interviews were conducted in the months leading up to the celebrations of Israel's 50 years independence, May 1998.



In Danish the book prints 248 pages. 35 of which are a glossary in small print with more than 100 entries explaining all expressions, movements mentioned and giving short biographies of some of the historical persons who appear in the text.

The book is illustrated with photographic portraits of all 15 women and with 4 historical maps showing the change of borders in the region.


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