An Unlikely Unity in the Midst of War

Since the mid-1980s it is estimated that over a million Russians have immigrated to Israel. With a population of just over 6 million, this makes the Russian immigrant community a strong voting block in the Jewish state. Politically, they are considered a staple of the Israeli right wing.

But as Lily Galili reports in Haaretz, war can produce combinations that on the surface of Israeli politics seem unimaginable. At the head of Israel’s antiwar movement against the invasion of Lebanon stands Jana Kanapova and Khulud Badawi. Kanapova immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine as a young Zionist 11 years ago. Badawi is an Arab-Israeli resident of Haifa, which for the last month has been the target of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets (which were ironically made in Russia). Together they have been the leaders of the peace movement on behalf of the Women’s Peace Coalition and the Ta’ayush organization. An Arab and a Russian. The combination defies most assumptions about the politics of ethnicity and the ethnicity of politics in Israel.

The way Kanapova and Badawi view the war and Israeli politics in general is laden with feminist overtones. As Karapova told Haaretz, “The police sees Khulud as a natural threat. In the same exact circumstances, the police refuses to see me as a threat. After all, they also share the stereotype that there are no leftists within the Russians. Khulud will always represent a danger, I’m never a danger; Khulud is the demographic ticking bomb, I am the demographic hope. This is the exact same attitude that views both of our wombs as state instruments, and we will not give them that pleasure.”

The demographic problem and solution that both their respective communities represent to the future of Israel makes their struggle more than over policy and war. Theirs is also a biopolitical struggle over what their bodies represent to the present and future of the Israeli state. Israel’s “Right of Return” law has always had biopolitical elements. The hope is that immigration from the Jewish Diaspora will offset the rapidly growing Palestinian population. Israel’s battle for its future therefore is more than about guns and missiles. It is about the reproduction of bodies. But not just any body. It is about the reproduction of particularly Jewish bodies.

The biopolical analysis that both Kanapova and Badawi make is not the only unique quality about resistance to this war. In fact, it is difficult to say whether this consciousness of the body is the main logic behind the peace movement. However, the fact that the protest against the Lebanon war, unlike Israeli peace movements of the past, has been mostly headed by women inevitably throws issues of gender into the mix. “All the aspects of this war tie the feminist, social, ecological and class struggle closely to the ongoing struggle against the occupation,” they told Haaretz. “Women make this connection naturally. The old left, even that of ‘Gush Shalom,’ did not manage to connect these struggles. We did. The women’s social and political networks are also stronger. This war is taking place in our social arena, in our homes. As women and citizens, we produce an alternative feminine voice to oppose the militant male voice.” “This is a war of men fighting for their honor, both the IDF’s honor and Hezbollah’s honor,” concludes Kanapova. “Women are less into the honor thing. Russian women are instinctively aware that wars are men’s games. That is the society we grew up in, and we find it obvious.”

The significance of Kanapova’s and Badawi’s gender is not the only unique aspect of resistance to this poorly planned and ill fated Israeli offensive. Their respective ethnicities is what makes them attractive to the news. If they were two Ashkenazim, their presence and efforts on the Israeli Left would have perhaps been overlooked. Their presence allows for the peace movement to be conducted in three languages—Arabic, Hebrew and Russian–,and according to Kanapova, this has allowed her to engage, and even convince some in her community to oppose the war. The presence of Russian female activists has ballooned from three to 200. It has also led to more contact with Israeli Russians and Arabs:

In the past, Israeli Arab citizens avoided coming to demonstrations in Tel Aviv in the midst of war. At most they resigned themselves to a symbolic representation in the later stages of the protest. Their demonstrations against the occupation also usually took place in Arab towns. No more. This time, the Arabs were equal partners in the left’s demonstrations in Tel Aviv from the outset of the war. The thousands of Katyushas, falling on them as well, have toppled the old inhibitions. They do not see it as another Jewish war, but as a civilian war in which they have an equal right to speak out. Badawi says that they purposefully bring their voices to Tel Aviv, which they consider to be the Israeli capital.

Another kind of change is happening in the Russian-speaking arena. The community of Russian-speakers has long been considered the hard core of the Israeli right wing. The recruitment of a even handful for leftist Zionist demonstrations was always considered a great achievement. On this occasion, there exists a small but prominent and consistent presence of Russian-speakers in the radical left’s protests. The Arabs learn to shout out the slogan “Vayni nyet” (no war), and the Russian and Hebrew-speakers rhythmically call “Salam na’am, hareb la” (peace yes, war no.) It is safe to assume that these ties will remain long after the sounds of war fade away.

One hopes that they are correct.