After 38 days of the most tenuous but persistent hope, Vivian Silver’s family got the news that they would not be reunited with their loved one. The tenacious Canadian-Israeli peace activist was not being held hostage, as they believed, but instead, had been killed on that dreadful October 7 in which she spent hours hiding in her safe room in Kibbutz Be’eri.
In the past five weeks, many faces and stories have haunted me day in and day out; one of them was that of Vivian and her smile: in a field of anemones with her AJEEC (Negev Institute for Peace & Economic Development) co-founder Amal Elsana, smiling brightly; in a photo taken by the talented documentarian of Israeli history, Alex Faruri; marching with the grassroots peace organization she co-founded, Women Wage Peace, her eyes crinkling with a smile, draped in a symbolic scarf of light blue. In every picture I saw of Silver, she was fighting and smiling at the same time.
Aside from that smile, the reason Vivian Silver’s story captured so many people who didn’t know her during these past few weeks was that she was, through and through, a woman of peace. For many who have never lived through war, peace may be a word misconstrued for something naive or facile, but for activists fighting for peace on the ground, it is all about the fierce, Sisyphean, constant labor of the body and the mind. It is not popular or easy to keep fighting for peace in a land of constant conflict. Many have died on its altar, and in recent years, as political turmoil roils Israel from within, the word peace often feels like an endangered species. Yet to her final days, it kept falling and falling from Silver’s lips.
Silver was born in Winnipeg, Canada, but her home was Israel. She moved there in 1974, helping to found the American-Israeli Kibbutz Gezer. Then she moved to Kibbutz Be’eri in the 1990s. She had two boys, Yonatan and Chen, and four grandchildren. Her life was one of advocacy for human rights — aside from her work with AJEEC and Women Wage Peace, she was a board member at the human rights group B’Tselem; she fought for gender equality in kibbutzim; and she volunteered at Road to Recovery, driving patients in Gaza to hospitals in Israel.
While Silver was presumed a hostage, her son Yonatan Zeigen reminded the public of her desire to end the cycle of bloodshed and wars, and called for the ceasefire he believed she, too, would be fighting for.
On the morning of October 7, Zeigen was woken up by sirens. He was supposed to be in Be’eri for Simchat Torah with his mother, but instead, his family stayed back in their home in the center of the country. When he called his mother, she was in her safe room. Her bright spirit shone through as ever as she joked with him, even as the messages from Be’eri’s WhatsApp group painted a dark picture of the massacre taking place. “She stayed with a sense of humor, and at the end there was a sharp drop of the understanding that this is the end,” Zeigen told Reshet Bet this morning.
“I’m telling everyone how much I love you and how I’m blessed to have you in my life,” she told him that day.
“I’m with you,” he texted her, and she responded with, “I feel you.” A little before 11 a.m., the messages stopped. Silver’s house had been completely incinerated. Barely a trace of it remained but for some old pottery on ashen ground. Her phone was still in the kibbutz. Zeigen was sure, after that text exchange, that it was all over — and yet, there was still no trace of her body. Since she was a foreign citizen, she was believed to be captured. Now we know that she never left Be’eri, and that the kibbutz she loved was her final resting place. Her remains had been recovered in that first week after the massacre, and yet it took this long for them to be identified. It is an ever present reminder of the fact that Israelis are still, literally, counting their dead, and of how the horrors of October 7 continue to reverberate, and probably always will.
Even in the days and hours before her death, Silver’s work did not cease. On October 4, she marched in a rally with Women Wage Peace. On the day of the attack, she even got on air to talk about peace. “We’ll talk more if I survive this,” she told a radio host who she felt antagonized by.
So many words have been said about Vivian in the hours since her death was discovered. Yet I think we must give as much space for her own words as we can.
In an interview for the Free Press last year, in front of an idyllic background of dotted red flowers, Silver beseeched that “the violence, no matter what, it is has to stop, and we have to start talking… I spent a lot of time in Gaza… like-minded Palestinian organizations, all of those people want to live in dignity and in recognition of a national people.”
Vivian Silver is a 74-year-old Israeli peace activist. For decades she’s been helping Palestinians across the border in Gaza. On October 7, 2023, Vivian was kidnapped from her home. In this video, taken by @timsamuels last year, Vivian discusses her dreams for peace between… pic.twitter.com/Ho6263Lu5W
— The Free Press (@TheFP) October 19, 2023
“I call myself a conditional Zionist,” she explained. “I believe in the right of the Jewish people to have a state, as long as we give the same right to the Palestinian people. This could be such a haven to both of our people here. I know what life could be like if we put down our arms.” She said that she dreams of a different reality for her grandchildren, to whom she was so devoted, “one in peace and security, one where they have Arab friends, where they have Palestinian friends.”
Women Wage Peace shared these words from Silver, spoken a few years ago, in their moving eulogy for her: “We cannot go on without a political horizon…. We cannot accept operations and acts of war that bring only death, destruction and pain, and inflict mental and physical harm, as a daily occurrence… We call upon the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, and the Cabinet to find the necessary courage to promote political alternatives, which will bring us peace and security. 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.”
Yesterday morning, on Israel’s Reshet Bet, Zeigen talked about his mother, each word breathlessly uttered through an impossible struggle.
He described his mother as an amazing grandmother and mother, and a woman of contradictions. “She was small, fragile, very sensitive, and also a force of nature. She had an amazing spirit, she was very assertive, she had a strong moral core when it came to the things she believed in the world and life.” He shared what he believed would have been her heartbreak at the horrors of October 7 as well as the deaths in Gaza. “She worked all her life,” he said, “to steer us off this course… In the end, it shatterred on her.”
He also shared how, for years and years, she had told him that peace could come tomorrow, and he kept telling her that she was beating a dead horse. Yet now, her hope is alive in him, the seed of peace she kept trying to sow growing roots in all the pain.
“I now have her optimism. It feels like a relay race; she passed something onto me,” he said. “I don’t know what [I’m going to do with it] but I think we can’t go back [to how things were]. We need to create something new — more in the direction of what she was looking for.”
May Vivian Silver’s memory be a blessing, and for a revolution. May her memory be the foundation that one days brings us to the realization of her dream of peace.