Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

The Human Spirit: Women and Children

June 25, 2010


Whether it's a Gaza-bound flotilla of so-called women activists or a cell block full of women prisoners, they should be dealt with no differently than a mixed gender or all-male party.

A women's flotilla. What a brilliant public relations move. Images of women sailing the seas excite our imagination. Named for the Virgin Mary, the ship was christened at a shrine to make its passengers appear to be the envoy of sanctity and maternal love. I'm reminded of a breakfast I was privileged to take part in more than a decade ago at a Jerusalem hotel. The guest of honor was Harvard law professor and jurist Alan Dershowitz. I came away with two important thoughts that have remained with me. The first was the realization that no matter how horrendous their crime, the guilty among this famous defense attorney's clients always rationalized their actions. The second was Dershowitz's correcting someone who used the phrase "women and children" in its cliched sense, as in "women and children stood in the front rows of the demonstration facing the cameras."

"Why group women and children together?" asked Dershowitz. "If women are indeed equal to men, they should not be grouped with children. They're adults and make their own decisions." Point well-taken. You either want women to be full-fledged grown-ups responsible for their decisions or not. Whether we're speaking of a flotilla of so-called women peace activists sailing toward Gaza or a cell block full of women prisoners, there should be no different procedure in dealing with them from a mixed gender group or all-male party.

NONE OF us old enough to identify the names Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigades or Leila Khaled without typing them into a search engine would be naive enough to think for a moment that women are incapable of terrorism. Let us not forget that there was also a widely reported alert earlier in the year that al-Qaida was sending trained non-Arab women terrorists to attack the West.

To elevate the image of the Mariam, it is purportedly carrying cancer medications. This alleged cargo creates the cynical and false impression that Israel would deny tomixifin or herceptin to Palestinian women.

According to press reports, only women who comply with the dress code designated by the male sponsor can take part in the so-called sacred journey. No licentiousness allowed.

But modesty offers no guarantee of innocent intentions. Remember, please, Hamas-emissary Reem Riashi. In January 2004, this mother of two told the security checkers at the Erez exit from Gaza that the metal plates in her supposedly crippled legs would set off the security alarm. Sensitive to Riashi's need for modesty, she was asked to wait on the side so that a woman security guard could search her discreetly. That's when Riashi detonated a two-kilogram bomb, killing two people and wounding 11 Israelis and Palestinians. Fellow Gaza resident Wafa Samir Ibrahim al-Biss, 21, was injured in a cooking accident in her home in Jabalya in January 2005. She was admitted for treatment at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where the patient physicians and nurses eventually sent her home. She continued to receive treatment as an outpatient, crossing also through Erez. On one visit for treatment, she was found to be hiding 10 kilograms of explosives in her underwear. On Israeli TV she admitted that she had planned to explode the bomb in the hospital. She explained to other reporters that she yearned to murder as many children as possible.

INDEED, I had a personal encounter with female terrorism. On the sunny afternoon of January 27, 2002, I was hurrying toward my cousins at a shoe shop on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem when a young Palestinian woman blew herself up between us. She was a Red Crescent professional named Wafa Idris. I escaped harm, but one person was killed and scores of others, including my cousins, seriously wounded.

Like Dershowitz's high-profile clients, terrorists also justify what they do. More so with women terrorists. Not only do they justify their actions, but the media are obsessed with figuring out why a woman - as opposed to a man - would blow herself and others up. Such a decision is counterintuitive to every feminine and maternal stereotype. Even our own Foreign Ministry Web site oddly offers speculation about how and why the infamous terrorists of the intifada were drawn to their diabolic roles. Maybe Idris committed murder because she'd been hit by rubber bullets. Another woman terrorist had been taken advantage of by her boyfriend. Another supposedly couldn't stand living at home.

All this said, if we find it harder to understand that women would choose terrorism, it is indeed easier to believe that the women espouse peace. For all the public relations nastiness, there is something fascinating and hopeful in a women's flotilla. In the bleak Middle East, we have experienced a dearth of women's voices at the peacemaking tables.

Here's my fantasy: I'd like the Mariam to sail into Ashdod. While the cargo is being examined, the women should gather a few minutes away from the port in the all-women's secluded beach where no men are allowed. Having nearly been blown up by Wafa Idris, I would appreciate security checks and am willing to undergo one, too.

There they could meet with us Israeli women to talk about regional problems. I would hope that Aviva Schalit would be there to insist that visiting her son would be an indisputable part of the agenda. I would hope the Lebanese women would invite her to join them in Gaza and see him there.

Since the flotilla women are interested in treating cancer, international aid for Palestinian women who are not getting referrals to Israeli hospitals would be an important subject to discuss. We all know that treating cancer is a complex process which requires far more than a medicine cabinet full of medication. Israeli medical centers function at a high level of cancer treatment that doesn't exist in the Palestinian Authority. A mechanism to ensure that funds for needy patients are not diverted already exists through the Peres Center for Peace.

Perhaps the Lebanese women would join the Komen Race for the Cure on October 28, when women of every ethnic group here will march in Jerusalem. Wouldn't that be a step in the right direction?

At the Ashdod segregated beach, there would be actual and figurative jellyfish tentacles to avoid, of course. The brave might dip their feet in the water.



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