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Every woman needs a balcony | Shirly Karavani

In The Know

I recall precisely the moment I realized I wasn’t Zionist. Just like Herzl, it dawned on me when I was on the balcony. Only the view from it wasn’t of a foreign river, but of a mosque in the heart of Tamra; here, in the space over this bloody piece of earth, at my friend Kholoud’s house. It wasn’t a momentary lapse, but part of an ongoing process of politicization and more precise comprehension. Unlike some other insights I had into Mizrahi oppression, the occupation or tracking in education, this one came with sadness and deep unease. It was quite the crack in the walls of what I had thought of as home.

The process of shaping my political understanding and consciousness, which lasts to this day, started when I was an undergraduate student at Sapir Academic College, studying communications and volunteering through a scholarship scheme in the city of Sderot, with an NGO called Mahapach-Taghir. An important component in how this organization operates is the implementation of “praxis” – a process inspired by the writings of Paulo Freire, combining political action, extensive learning and reflection: As part of our volunteer roles doing education work with local children, our team would meet for joint study sessions every six weeks, with the aim of fostering a more critical political discourse. This became even more significant when I joined the team as a paid coordinator, and took part in meetings and seminars for coordinators aimed at strengthening that. Alongside that, in my academic studies I got to know, through my lecturers, texts and worldviews I had never encountered before. All of these together offered me notions, words and definitions for the things I had been feeling my entire life, and a space in the community of friends I had made at Mahapach-Taghir, where I could keep exploring myself and my perceptions in a safe and loving environment.

It was in this process that I had come to deeply understand the narratives that make up the intersection of identities that exists in me as a woman, as Mizrahi, as an LGBTQ person, as a Jew, as a single parent. Each of these identities have within them a history of oppression. In this learning process, I’d been embedded with the fundamental notion that with my oppression comes the responsibility to act, whether in resisting the policies and the systems that hurt my and my identity groups, or in stopping others from being oppressed. I was raised politically into the notion that there’s no way of being a Mizrahi feminist without also being non-Zionist and resist the occupation.

As much as I appreciate the process I’m going through, it’s important to note that opening the eyes of the consciousness does not offer a simpler life. Reality becomes much clearer, and therefore much more complex and painful. The critical notions I hold are seen by many, even some of those closest to me, as subversive and potentially treacherous. I have to deal with difficult things said by people I truly love in my family, friends and fellow activists. There were moments in the Mizrahi discourse where I was “too leftist” who only thinks about Palestinians, and in white feminist or leftist circles I was “too Mizrahi,” someone who insists talking about issues they deem irrelevant. I had been looking a long while for a space where I could fully belong, and I can’t even find the name for it – a feminist, queer, non-white and non-Zionist space.

As a Mizrahi woman born into a family without any well-oiled network of influence, ideas that challenge what is known to be the heart and soul of the Jewish nation comes at personal, as well as financial, costs which I paid before and most likely will keep paying too. Any time I share a post on social media, any public remarks, even writing these very lines might put my job at risk, or my relationships with friends and family.

One of the most precious things I lost when my political consciousness grew was my innocence and the ability to be simply moved by things along with everyone else. Just recently, in April, there was a shocking attack at Ilka, a bar in Tel Aviv, where three people were murdered. My mother told me with excitement how after the attack both religious and non-religious Jews gathered there and sang Vehi Sheamda all together. She expected me to join in on her excitement. How complicated it is, explaining that it doesn’t thrill me, that when people are being murdered by a young person who felt he has nothing more to lose – that’s not exciting. That God has to save us primarily from ourselves, rather than “from their hands,” as that song goes. So I kept quiet, not to cause her any pain. I was left alone with my frustration, leaving her with her sense of hope.

To be honest, I sometimes wish I could shut my consciousness anew, let go of this critical point of view and go back to being the girl who was able to share with her mother or with most people she knew the sense of strength that comes with collective national pride. I would like to go back to feeling that sense of belonging and its warm embrace, like how it feels to be sitting in the winter by a heater, wrapped in a heavy wool blanket. But ever since my early 20s I’ve been always on the alert, fearing the blanket might touch the heater and it all could burst into flames.

Photography: Eli Eliahu

Difficult as it may be, shutting my eyes is no longer a possibility for me. Furthermore, I believe it’s important we all go through some constant process of asking questions and examining our tough reality with a critical view, or there’s no chance for change – and that’s an unbearable thought. I understand that going through these processes should come from a place of realizing the complexities and the difficulties that these insights bring with them and the costs they demand of us, ideally while creating communal spaces that provide a safe net to fall onto. It applies for when we “lecture” our family members or colleagues at work, as much as it does for when we talk with those who may appear to us as experienced activists.

Echoing the words of the late Vicki Shiran, “To create a new world through non-violent undermining of the oppressive old world,” and not only in the sense of broader political actions, but also in personal processes we and those around us go through; coming from a place that seeks love and compassion for ourselves and for our partners along the way, who – like us – would probably make some mistakes, ask some questions and even say and do things we’re uncomfortable with. As well put by Inbar Rost in an earlier edition of this magazine, to create a “safe space for making mistakes.”

These processes of political learning can’t happen on Facebook or in WhatsApp groups, which can’t contain complexities or break them down. It can’t really happen in conversations “along the way” during protests or political activity, either. Political organizations and groups have to create a “praxis” space, putting aside time and resources for it as an inseparable part of their activity. In the organizations I’m part of, and specifically the Mizrahi LGBTQ Forum and Breaking Walls, we work to create these kinds of spaces. We, as activists, should also dedicate time to learning, researching, reflecting and community building, as well as knowledge transfer; pass down what we already know. Only this can the crappy reality we live in undergo a deep, meaningful transformation, which is at least as important as any individual act.

צילום: עדי חורי
Photography: Adi Khoury

Shirly Karavani

Danielle’s mom, co-founder of the Mizrahi LGBTQ Forum, board member at Breaking Walls, feminist, Mizrahi and queer. Lives in Ashkelon.

1 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

2 Vicki Shiran Z”L, a Mizrahi feminist activist who stood out in her commitment to fighting all forms of oppression and human rights violation in Israel, and specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian, Mizrahi and feminist fields. She was an Israeli criminologist, sociologist, poet, director and media personality. Read more [in Hebrew]:


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