A Tribute to Vivian
The last time I saw Vivian was in Washington, D.C., at an ad-hoc meeting of Palestinian and Israeli activists on the fringes of a conference. We met for a brainstorming session on the difficult question of how to revive our camp — the liberal-left-democratic camp, comprising both Jews and Palestinians — following the catastrophic Israeli election of November 2022 that brought to power the most far-right government in the country’s history. We laughed, jested, and joked, making fun of our situation, but there was great sadness in that room when Vivian said: “I’m too old to establish and build another political body; I have to join what already exists.
“What’s nice about being an old and sarcastic retiree is that I can say aloud what I think, and I have nothing to lose,” she continued. “Our camp has lost quite a few times; we’ve taken many hits on the jaw. And I’ve been through plenty in my own life as well. I’ve learned a lot, the hard way, about Arab-Jewish partnership, and I know that when it succeeds, it succeeds because every side understands that the justice it seeks depends heavily on the justice of the other side. Closing the gap comes from collaborative work, and not from struggling against one another.”
Nothing prepared me for yesterday’s bitter news of Vivian’s tragic end. I felt deep despair, like a bottomless sink-hole had opened under the foundations of humanity, where thousands are already buried – men, women, children, innocent Palestinians and Israelis. People who had wished for peace, and did not live to see that wish fulfilled.
Already 39 days have passed since that terrible Saturday, October 7. I have read the messages that Vivian and her son sent one another while she was hiding in a closet from the Palestinian militants who raided Kibbutz Be’eri. It was as though I could feel her heart beating, louder than the tramps of the murderers in her living room.
I tried, a thousand times, to imagine her being taken in their cars into Gaza. “What did she feel during those moments?” I wondered. I thought she might have looked with compassionate tears in her eyes at the dozens of ragged Palestinian children standing on the Gaza roadsides, and she might have prayed for them in her heart. Vivian knew what their lives looked like under Israel’s siege, and she would have known what was about to befall them when the Israeli army began its unprecedented assault on the Strip.
“Did you hear those bombs falling where you were?” I thought to myself. Those bombs you hated, because you knew, better than anyone, that they would not bring any sort of solution or security to any of us.
I had convinced myself you were someplace safe, trying to communicate in mangled Arabic with those around you, and trying to explain who you were and what you stood for: a born activist with no reservations. I imagined you comforting the children taken hostage with you, keeping them busy and calming the other women held underground while the earth shook from Israeli airstrikes. The images I had in my mind and the headline I kept imagining — “Peace Activist Released” — will never reach the media. Instead, last night we read: “Body of Peace Activist from Be’eri Identified.”
Until that moment, I did not believe for a minute that you were no longer with us. I was sure you would survive this evil, and would live to tell us about it, even entertain us with stories of the jalabiya you were given to wear — one made for a woman much larger than your tiny frame. Vivian, my dear, we will never have this moment.
An “Iron Sword” can only kill
Vivian Silver was born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1949, and immigrated to Israel in 1974. For dozens of years, she was a social activist involved in projects promoting women’s rights and advocating for peace. As the co-director of the Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Economic Development (AJEEC-NISPED), she worked to improve the lives of the Bedouin community in the Naqab/Negev, helping to advance a shared society. She was active in the organization Women Wage Peace, a board member of the human rights group B’Tselem, and a volunteer with The Road to Recovery, which helps transport cancer patients from Gaza to Israeli hospitals.
One of the things she used to say often, which I think sums up her life’s philosophy, is: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” I told her once: “You know the Palestinian people are not a piece of wood, not even a piece of metal. We are made of hard rock, so it will be difficult for a hammer in the hands of an idiot to crush us.”
Vivian believed in the power of women, and the power of compassion and love — in the completely naïve, simple meaning of these words. She knew, like many of us Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, that the army cannot bring peace, and that an “Iron Sword” — the name the Israeli army has given to its “operation” in Gaza — can only kill. The hammer crushes everything in its path. Even those of us, Palestinians and Israelis, who survive this war will emerge from it crushed by grief.
We’ll erect a mourning tent out of misery and regret over the mountain of victims and the destruction that remains. And no “Al Aqsa Flood” — as Hamas named its own October 7 “operation” — will return the thousands of children who lost their lives in Gaza and the south; no flag of victory will fly over Gaza’s shores as they are pounded by the bloody waves of Israel’s assault.
There above, Vivian, I know you are meeting your friends — among them Eiman, Tofaha, and Maha, Palestinian partners in activism from Gaza. You will be greeted by thousands of other victims, including women who never stopped waging peace, and Palestinians who were murdered by the Israeli military and buried under the rubble while still holding their children as we prayed for their safety.
I, along with thousands of Palestinian and Israeli women, will accompany you on your final journey some day — a walk I cannot make behind the corpses of my own friends from Gaza. Their stories, their hopes, and their dreams are faintly heard, somewhere in this world. In accompanying you, Vivian, we, the women of peace, will walk and cry together, and we will hug and mourn this deep loss. And each will remember, in your honor, the loved ones and friends, Palestinians and Israelis, who lost their lives in this pointless war, in this region we all loved.
I promise you I will continue on that path. Our destination will not be another cemetery; it will be a place of dreams, somewhere over the house of eternal peace.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.
Samah Salaime is a feminist Palestinian activist and writer.