The struggles of Gaza residents were never far from Vivian Silver’s mind as she led tours there from her idyllic kibbutz Be’eri. Peace activism as an alternative to war grew deeply within the heart and soul of the 74-year-old Canadian-Israeli, as she became familiar with the local Bedouin community and the Gazans living just three miles away. When she spoke to the journalist Tim Samuels last year she described herself as a conditional Zionist.
“I believe in the right of the Jewish people to have a state, as long as same right applies to the Palestinians. We have more in common than not. We have incredible human resources and this could be a haven for both of our peoples here”.
But the woman who spent decades trying to make peace a reality fell victim, herself, to war on October 7. Hamas gunmen, who would never have understood her pacifism, burst into her house and burned it to the ground. For five weeks she was believed to have been taken hostage. Her family learned the terrible truth after what little remained of her body was identified through DNA.
The survivors of the Be’eri attack may never completely erase from their minds the sounds of the terrorists’ gunfire or the screams of the victims.But their memories of Vivian Silver, the smiling, yet steely woman with a mischievous twinkle and a warmth and lightness of being will endure.
As her son Yonatan Zeigen described her: “On the one hand, she was small and fragile. Very sensitive. On the other, she was a force of nature. She had a giant spirit”. Zeigen reflected on his mother’s last words to him in a WhatsApp message she typed, hidden in a cupboard as the terrorists approached. “’I love you. ‘They’re inside the house, it’s time to stop joking and say goodbye.’
“And I wrote back: ‘I love you, Mum. I have no words, I’m with you.’
“Then she writes, ‘I feel you’. And then that was it, that’s the last message.”
It was as toddlers that Yonatan and his brother Chen symbolised for their mother the truth of friendships broken by war. At Kibbutz Gezer they had befriended Nassar, a Palestinian worker at their kibbutz, but could not understand why, after the second intifada, Nassar had disappeared. He no longer had a permit to work there, she told them. It was due to a conflict over land. Because the Hebrew words for earth and land are the same, one of the boys filled a bucket with earth and told her; “Give it to Nassar so he can come back”.
The child’s simple request resonated with Vivian Silver. For the next 50 years she pondered: how could she bring neighbours together, at Gezer and later Be’eri, where she moved in 1990? It was home to all of them. She thought of the women on the other side, mothers with children, who only wanted to bring them up in peace. Yet she lived through four wars.The bombs that fell when she walked in the fields in 2009, when she had to run for shelter. The 50 days of terror during the Gaza war of 2014. The Palestinian kite bombs in 2018 which destroyed her beloved Tel Gama archaeological site and local nature reserve. As she watched life turn to ashes again, and again, the thought persisted: when did war ever bring peace? There were, she reflected, a hundred ways to peace.
“Violence has to stop and we have to start talking,” she said.
It was in Canada and later New York, that she honed her ideas about peaceful activism. First it was women’s rights. The Winnipeg-born student was deeply involved in the North American Jewish Students Network, As administrator of the Jewish Student Press Service she started publishing articles about Israel-Palestinian relations. She co-founded the Student Zionist Alliance and was invited to attend its national conference in Montreal.
Her decision to make aliyah in 1974 stemmed from a period studying psychology and English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At Kibbutz Gezer, where she first lived with her husband Lewis Zeigen, she became that rarity, a woman secretary and eventually the mazkira, community chair, involved with organising its building programme. She founded the Kibbutz Movement’s department to advance gender equality in 1981 and worked on the Knesset’s sub-committee for the advancement of women in work and the economy. She joined the board of the Jerusalem-based human rights group, B’Tselem, and was involved with Alliance for Middle East Peace, leading awareness tours to Gaza and the West Bank.
Later, at Kibbutz Be’eri she helped impoverished local Bedouin people, gave jobs to local Palestinians and founded a cross border peace group. She organised training programmes for Gazans and ensured fair wages for construction workers. In 1998 she became executive director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, partnering Palestinian Amal Elsana Alh’jooj. They jointly won an international award in 2011. In the same year, Haaretz named Silver as one of the “Ten Most Influential Anglo Immigrants” to Israel.
Everything changed in 2007 when Hamas took power in Gaza. Fearing for her Palestinian friends, she took their money to the checkpoint which they could no longer cross. She picked up sick Palestinians and drove them to Jerusalem hospitals. In 2014, now a grandmother, Silver began to re-evaluate her life. She realised her left-wing politics had done nothing to resolve the eternal conflict between the two sides. But suddenly woman-power took on a new perspective.
She launched Women Wage Peace to lobby for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Its several thousand strong membership of Jewish and Arab-Israeli women was followed by a Palestinian sister branch, Women of the Sun. On October 4, they walked hand in hand to the Dead Sea shore.
“We cannot go on without a political horizon”, Silver told the rally. “We call upon our sisters in Gaza: join us and call upon your leaders, enough. Terror benefits no one. You, too, deserve peace and security”.
Weeks later, cars lined the road for several miles outside Kibbutz Gezer for Silver’s funeral, which drew some 1,500 people, including Reform and Orthodox Jewish leaders, international media, and Women Wage Peace activists in their familiar blue scarves, who formed a circle and sang Israeli folk songs.Jewish and Palestinian women tearfully held each, promising to work towards her vision.
Yonatan’s brother Chen Zeigen told them: “She believed in the end of this cursed conflict and that people in Gaza and in the Gaza envelope inside of Israel deserved to live in peace”. Avrum Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset and a founder of All Its Citizens, a new Jewish-Arab political alliance party, watched the diversity of the crowds and coined a new phrase: Vivianism.
Last year journalist Tim Samuels asked Silver what she believed would be the future for her grandchildren. “One of peace and security”, she replied. “Where they have Arab and Palestinian friends. And would not be afraid. I am an unusual person for them. They don’t meet people with my views, who have friends on the West Bank or Arab villages.I want them to grow up that way.”
Vivian Silver is survived by her sons Yonatan and Chen and four grandchildren. Her husband pre-deceased her six years ago.
Vivian Silver: born: February 2, 1949. Died October 7, 2023.