Shatil Spotlight–A Peace Activist Held Captive by Hamas

3 November 2023
Vivian Silver

Photo Credit: Alex Farfuri

On October 7, Israelis were shaken to their core by Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on the communities along the southern border with Gaza. Many of the people killed and captured were peace activists. Many had helped ferry sick Gaza residents to medical appointments in Israeli hospitals. Among those now held captive in Gaza is Shatil’s own dear Vivian Silver, a long-time peace advocate and activist. As we grieve along with the rest of the country for all of the loss and tragedy, the NIF family is extremely distressed over the uncertain fate of all of the hostages, including Vivian. 

One of her sons told the BBC that his mother texted him while hiding in a closet in her home in Kibbutz Be’eri. She told him a massacre was taking place at the kibbutz and the terrorists were now inside her house. He told his mother he loved her and that was the last communication between them. 

Born in Canada, Vivian moved to New York in April 1970. Alongside her involvement in the feminist movement, she participated in a Zionist anti-war group. They had two projects: they were actively opposing the Vietnam War while also organizing an aliya garin – a small group preparing to immigrate to Israel. The group immigrated to Israel, and joined a Habonim garin to re-establish Kibbutz Gezer, where they promoted cooperation and equality.

Vivian became kibbutz secretary. In meetings and committee sessions, she noticed a glaring gender imbalance. Out of all the kibbutzim in the United Kibbutz Movement, only seven women held the position of secretary. Motivated to address this issue, she researched and authored a book on gender inequality in kibbutzim, and established the Department for Promoting Gender Equality in the kibbutz movement. The Department organized empowerment workshops and Vivian gave talks at kibbutzim across the country, even though she faced ridicule and was labeled as a “crazy American” and dismissed as a feminist. She persevered despite the resistance, knowing that social change takes time.

When Vivian moved with her family to Kibbutz Be’eri in the western Negev, her work in equality promotion took on a new form. She served as CEO of the Negev Institute for Peace and Development Strategies which, at that time, held courses in Gaza and the West Bank on the role of civil society in promoting peace and sustainable development. The institute also offered training in promoting cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Even though it is surreal to think about now, during that time, she traveled regularly to Gaza to meet Palestinian partners.

After a few years, Vivian and former NIF board member Amal Elsana-Alh’jooj established AJEEC as part of the Negev Institute. They knew that there was a need to foster connections between the Jewish community and the Arab-Bedouin population in the Negev. AJEEC was ground-breaking, forming an Arab-Jewish partnership during the Second Intifada, when trust between these groups was at its lowest.

One of AJEEC-Negev Institute‘s first projects to benefit from Shatil’s guidance and counsel was a program for developing a culture of volunteering within Bedouin communities. It included a collaborative track for Bedouin Arabs and Jewish participants from the Tzofim (scouts) movement. Although they didn’t receive support from the government, AJEEC-Negev Institute secured funding and established the Volunteer Tent in Be’er Sheva, which recruited 1,000 to 1,200 volunteers annually. Eventually, even the government adopted their model for promoting volunteer work. 

Vivian was featured in the Shatil 40 x 40 exhibit for her promotion of equality between genders and sectors as a basis for a shared society. In her portrait she is embracing Amal, her partner from AJEEC. Both women are smiling broadly. It is a wonderful photograph and a portrait we must keep steadfast in our minds and hearts to remember the work so important to Vivian even in these difficult times, as we hope, pray and advocate for her release.

Bedouins and Jews were all victims of that day three weeks ago, when the terrorists did not differentiate between Jew or Arab, and our fate will be intertwined when all the dust settles.

But for now, tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes—both in the south and the north of Israel. Rockets continue to be fired at Israeli towns from Gaza by Hamas and from the north by Hezbollah. And as Israel conducts its ground invasion, and the entire region threatens to be consumed by war, we hope that Vivian will come home to us soon, to join us once again in that battle she has been fighting all her life for peace, justice, equality, tolerance, and co-existence. 

We need her here on our side now more than ever.