The JWCEO was formed in 1989 by a group of women wanting to act as Jews and as women in opposition to the Israeli occupation and its attendant injustices. Many of the women had been regularly attending bi-weekly Women in Black vigils organized in solidarity with Women in Black in Israel and wanted to expand their activities as women committed to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.
Many women in the group came from backgrounds where an uncritical allegiance to Israel was a given. For many, confronting the reality of the brutal Israeli occupation was painful. Discovering the many lies told again and again about Israel was a devastating process. Despite the twists and turns of Israeli and U.S. policy and the geo-political realities, JWCEO was committed to action. To paraphrase one of JWCEO flyers: “As a people with a centuries-old history of oppression, we cannot stand by and watch an illegal and violent occupation and destruction of another people in our name.”
JWCEO’s first official action was a special vigil on October 2, 1989, in honour of the Days of Awe, the days in between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days traditionally committed to meditation, reflection, and a recommitment to justice and peace. About 50 women came; we lit candles, heard speeches, sang together, and remembered the Palestinians who had died at the hands of the Israeli military.
On International Women’s Day (IWD) 1990, JWCEO marched, carrying their banner, with the Palestinian women’s contingent. This was a historic moment in Toronto’s feminist movement. They sold buttons and articles, displayed photographs, and gave away sweets at the IWD fair after the march.
The Gulf War of 1990-91 expanded the group rapidly because Jewish women were looking for a place to oppose the war as Jews. The war spurred the group on to new levels of activity. They organized Jewish Anti-war demonstrations and spoke publicly wherever they could at anti-war mobilizations.
JWCEO joined the Women’s Coalition Against Racism and Police Violence in 1990, a group formed after Sophia Cook, a young Black woman, was shot and injured by Toronto police. For JWCEO members, the shooting was another example of an ongoing pattern of state violence against Black people. It was clear to JWCEO that they must protest state-endorsed racism whether it happens in Toronto or in the West Bank and Gaza.
Over its more than 10-year history, the JWCEO held regular vigils at the Israeli consulate on Bloor Street and other locations within the Jewish community. They sponsored educational events and demonstrations, sometimes with other Jewish groups, sometimes with Palestinian groups. They also facilitated workshops for Jewish women to explore questions of Jewish identity and oppression, and to explore the racism of the Israeli state.
JWCEO was a loud and insistent voice in opposition to illegal Israeli occupation and violence. It may have been an unpopular voice, but that did not deter JWCEO. In a sense, JWCEO was a precursor to those organizations in Toronto and around the world who work in support of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.