The front page of the news in November 1992 was a story of a young girl who was either 12 or 13 or 14 years old, and lived in a kibbutz, in a settlement very much like our settlement. She had been gang-raped by 11 boys. And this was the first time that this kind of a story had ever hit the news. It was extremely sensational. The judge basically exonerated the 11 boys from having committed rape on the basis that the girl didn’t say no….And I heard the headlines in the morning, and somehow the news just sunk all the way down to my feet. My daughter at the time was 8 or 9, and I thought, I could absolutely see this happening anywhere in Israel. It was, it was so clear to me that women’s status and women’s bodies and women’s rights were…completely trampled on by a society which was extremely patriarchic, which was extremely geared towards male’s views, male’s needs, and um…men’s perceptions of women’s bodies and sexuality.

The same day the news came out I came to the Women’s Center. I walked in the door and that was it! I walked in, and I saw the books. It reminded me of many of the books I had read when I was at Wellesley College. There were books by Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. It was the first time in Israel where I really connected back to all of the intellectual and ideological beginnings of my feminist awareness, which was when I was in college in the 1970s, in the mid-1970s. And this was, you know, 10 or 12 years later, finding a place where there were women who all came from the same ideological core.

So when I came to Isha l’Isha the Haifa Feminist Center, I said, Oh I can connect with this. I can connect with these women. So I became a volunteer for about a year, and found it very challenging because I didn’t really understand what was their feminism. I looked at feminism from the viewpoint of American, privileged, white women, talking about rights over their bodies, rights to abortion, right to contraception, right to equal pay, whereas this group was talking more about…was more grounded in the Israeli milieu, Israeli society, in the fact there were many kinds of divides in society. There were the Palestinian women, and at the time when they said “Palestinian women” by the way, when I came here in 1992 nobody in Israel used the word “Palestinian-Israeli”. The word was never used! And I remember hearing it, and saying “Why are you calling them Palestinian? They’re Arabs.”

And from the very beginning, I understood that this was a group that had its own definitions, had its own worldview, had its own ideological concept, had its own theories about who was discriminated against in society, and how the hegemony worked…So that within the Jewish community, the Ashkenazi Jews were privileged over the Jews from the Arab countries, how in the general community the Jews were privileged over the Arabs, how straight women were privileged over lesbians, how men were privileged over women…you know, there’s a whole kind of…uhm…structure or a hierarchy, of who is who in the power-ranking within society. And it took me a while to understand how it worked and what it was, because I wasn’t raised in Israel. I came to Israel at the age of 28. So this was really a way for me to learn about power structures within society, which I had seen, but I didn’t know how to interpret or understand them.

I was involved in Isha L’Isha intensively for 13 years. From 1992 and 93 until 2006, those are the years I was the most active here. I was involved with Security Council Resolution 1325. I was on the steering committee. The Resolution specifically relates to issues of women in areas of conflict, how they’re treated during conflict, how they’re treated after conflict, how they’re exposed to different systems of oppression, how they’re the most susceptible to being raped and to being abused and not receiving food after a military conflict, how they are brought into conflict…

On the one hand, the Resolution was one of the biggest visions that we had, but it was also a very big disappointment because in the end, I understood that the closer we came to talking about things that related to specific political action, we became less and less cohesive and we became more and more…divisive. In the end, pretty much the outcome of 5 or 6 years of work, in my opinion, was…very disappointing because there was a lot of in-fighting and many very good women left because they felt that they didn’t want to deal with the anger, and the conflict that we had among us.

It went from the political national international sphere, to the very very personal, individual level. We cannot work on issues that talk about power-sharing between Palestinian women and Jewish women in the real world. We can only talk about power-sharing for us, in the Center. We only know how to implement those kinds of issues in real-time, from what we’ve done in our own experience, on a woman-to-woman level.

We don’t have solutions. We have strategies that work for us. In terms of the women’s movement, I think that only when the general political sphere will become more open to discussions of social issues, only then will our impact be seen again. And for now, we’re basically what you would say in Hebrew, you’d say “You’ve got your foot on the gas pedal full speed ahead, but the clutch is in neutral.” So you’re moving ahead, but you’re not going anywhere.

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Interview with Paula Mills on 3/17/11
Age: 57
Date of birth: 2/8/54
Place of birth: Boston, MA

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