Why We, 18 Elder Jewish Women, Chained Ourselves to the White House

Our lifelong feminist commitment to peace and justice compelled us to take bold action for a ceasefire.

Just hours before President Biden welcomed guests to his annual White House Hanukkah party last Monday, we locked ourselves with metal chains to the posts of the White House gates.

The 18 of us elder Jewish women, ranging in age from 61 to 81 years old, put black t-shirts with white letters reading “Not in Our Name” on over our jackets and raised our voices in chant and song. We refused to leave until the President called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

The Secret Service moved swiftly to set up barricades and evacuate tourists from the premises. All of a sudden it was just the 18 of us, standing side by side outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Cameras continued to click in the distance from the other side of the barricades.

Before long, the Secret Service and US Park Police returned with bolt cutters and orders to arrest us with federal misdemeanor charges. As they carried each one of us away, we raised our voices louder and louder, chanting, “Let Gaza Live.”

Jewish feminists have always been on the forefront of movements for peace and justice. Many of us are descendants of Holocaust survivors who know all too well the price of silence. We have lived our entire lives honoring our identity as Jewish women by taking action against all forms of injustice.

Deborah Sagner marched in Washington as a high school student in 1968 to protest the Vietnam war.

Marla Erlien was an organizer of the 1971 feminist takeover and occupation of a Harvard University building that led to the establishment of the first Women’s Center in the country.

Karen Ackerman is former Political Director of the AFL-CIO. She started organizing hospital workers for 1199 in Philadelphia in 1971 and became a UAW local organizer in New York in the 1980s, both of which have called for a ceasefire. Karen managed Nydia Velázquez’s congressional campaign in 1992, making her the first Puerto Rican member of Congress and became her Chief of Staff.

Karen Zelermyer and Jenny Romaine participated in civil disobedience in 1980 at the Women’s Pentagon Action, where thousands of women surrounded the Pentagon, weaving the doors shut with yarn to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the destruction of the Earth, and the oppression of women.

Leslie Cagan organized the historic 1982 march of over a million people from New York City’s Central Park to the United Nations to demand an end to nuclear weapons. Leslie also coordinated United for Peace and Justice in the 2000s, the largest antiwar coalition in this country’s history.

Barbara Schulman and Karen Zelermyer got arrested in 1983 at the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, blocking a shipment of missiles to Europe in an anti-nuclear protest at the birthplace of the suffragist movement.

Joyce Ravitz, a longtime leader in the housing justice movement, has joined vigils held every Thursday for decades at New York City’s Union Square as part of Women in Black, an anti-war feminist organization that was formed by Israeli Jewish women in Jerusalem in 1988 during the First Intifada.

Deborah Kaplan, whose cousin Murray Berger fought the Nazis as a partisan in the Bielski Brigade, has participated in and led reproductive rights and justice movements throughout the 1980s in support of abortion rights, against sterilization abuse, and for birth equity.

Rosalind Petchesky began her activism as a teenager in the civil rights movement. Her scholarship on the reproductive justice movement was cited in the 1992 United States Supreme Court decision upholding Roe v. Wade(Planned Parenthood of Eastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) and earned her a MacArthur Genius Award.

Sarah Sills was active in Students for Equality as a teen, co-led a Teamsters trade union trip to China in 1979, was on the negotiating team for the District 65 UAW clerical workers contract at Columbia University in 1985, and raised money for women’s cooperatives in El Salvador during the civil war in the early 1990s.

It is out of our lifelong commitment to our feminist, anti-war, queer liberation, reproductive justice, racial justice, and labor movements that we felt compelled to chain ourselves to the White House gates on Monday. As our friend Grace Paley, of blessed memory, cofounder of the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, taught us, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”

As we called on President Biden to support a ceasefire, we held our sister Vivian Silver, of blessed memory, in our hearts. The Israeli peace activist, who was killed by Hamas attackers on October 7, served on the board of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and founded Women Wage Peace after the 2014 Israel-Hamas War, inspired by the Israeli feminists who had started the Four Mothers anti-war movement, which called for a withdrawal from Lebanon in 1997.

We mourn the lives of each Israeli and Palestinian that has been taken this fall. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that each and every life is an entire universe. It is out of our sacred reverence for life that the 18 of us, chai, the number symbolizing life in Judaism, took action together.

We are compelled by the families of Israeli hostages urging the Israeli government to stop the bombing of Gaza under the cry of everyone for everyone.

Before we chained ourselves to the White House gate on Monday, several of us had already gotten arrested in Washington DC back in October in one of the largest sit-ins at Congress in history.

Challenging the prevailing media narrative that there is a generational divide, we have been honored to join younger feminist and social justice activists, so many of them queer and trans, to take historic action together with the organization Penny Rosenwasser was a founding board member of, Jewish Voice for Peace.

We shut down Grand Central Terminal during rush hour traffic, staged a massive civil disobedience in the federal building in Oakland, took over the Statue of Liberty and shut down the Manhattan Bridge on the busiest travel day of the year.

One day our grandchildren will ask us what they should do when they see injustice anywhere. We know exactly what to tell them. 

The White House 18 is a group of elder Jewish women who organize with Jewish Elders for Palestinian Freedom. They are: Barbara Schulman, Deborah Kaplan, Deborah Sagner, Emily Wenzel, Esther Farmer, Grace Lile, Jenny Romaine, Joyce Ravitz, Karen Ackerman, Karen Zelermyer, Leslie Cagan, Marla Erlien, Penny Rosenwasser, Renée Steinhagen, Risa Shaw, Rosalind Petchesky, Ruth Kornfield, Sarah Sills

The White House 18

The White House 18 is a group of elder Jewish women, lifelong activists and leaders in the feminist, anti-war, labor, reproductive justice, racial justice, and queer liberation movements, who organize with Jewish Elders for Palestinian Freedom.

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