As It Happens·Q&A

Canadian activist killed in Israel would be calling for a ceasefire today, says friend

Amal Elsana Alh'jooj feels certain that if her dear friend Vivian Silver were still alive today, she'd join the chorus of voices demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to war.

Vivian Silver advocated for peace and diplomacy alongside fellow activist Amal Elsana Alh'jooj

A smiling gray-haired woman stands next to a large photo of herself hugging another woman in a pink headscarf. It's a sunny day and both women are smiling brightly.
Canadian peace activist Vivian Silver poses next to an image of her and her longtime friend and collaborator Amal Elsana Alh'jooj after they won an award for their humanitarian work. Silver was killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. (Submitted by Yonatan Zeigen)

Amal Elsana Alh'jooj feels certain that if her dear friend Vivian Silver were still alive today, she'd join the chorus of voices demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to war.

Silver, a 74-year-old Canadian peace activist who lived in Israel, was among the approximately 1,200 people killed in the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. For weeks, her loved ones held out hope she was being held hostage in Gaza and would soon return, but her family confirmed this week that was not the case.

During her life, Silver fought alongside other women — both Israeli and Palestinian — for peace in the Middle East. One of her closest allies was Alh'jooj, a Bedouin Palestinian Israeli activist who now lives in Montreal. The pair met in Gaza City in 1998, and went on to become co-executive directors of the Arab-Jewish Centre for Equality, Empowerment, and Cooperation.

Here is part of Alh'jooj's conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

After so many weeks of uncertainty and waiting for answers, what was it like to say goodbye to Vivian?

I'm still not ready to say goodbye. I'm still feeling her presence. I'm still hearing her words. I'm still imagining her face.

I was hoping the whole month that she will emerge from the dark and she will light up the area and will bring the message of peace to everyone. 

I'm asking myself about our journey together and all these 25 years advocating for peace and justice, and ending occupation, and ceasefire. I guess I need to hear her voice saying to me: "Stand up. We still need a lot of work to do."

She would push you, even in hard times.

Both of us are very determined, very strong women. And even in times of war that we went through together, we pushed each other very, very hard. We didn't give up.

We were determined that the only way of ending this conflict and ending this bloodshed and ending this suffering is by creating peace — and sharing that piece of land and making everyone understand that we all share the same rights.

That's what we have been pushing. And I still believe in it. But these days are so difficult for everybody.

Two women sit together in a crowd, smiling brightly, holding hands, and leaning into each other.
Alh'jooj, left, says Silver, right, was 'a very dear friend, a sister.' (Submitted by Amal Elsana Alh'jooj)

I was really struck by your essay about Vivian Silver and your first line. You say: "Our 25-year friendship is something from the realm of the extraordinary." What made it so extraordinary?

What made it very unique and very strong is the fact that we were not hiding behind our differences and different identities. We were so clear about who we are as a Palestinian, as a Jew. We invited our intersectionality to every single space we shared. We didn't hide ourselves behind these things and we stuck to our humanity.

And we were tough. I challenged her. Vivian is someone who really believed in things when she was able to see ... a way to implement them. And I was someone who used to come with big ideas. And I remember Vivian always saying, "Please slow down. I don't want to chase you."

But what is really unique about Vivian and her strengths and her abilities is really that the minute she's convinced, the minute the idea became something practical, she would put everything — she would put her soul — to make this idea into reality.

We argued and we had fights. We cried and we hugged. And so for me that kind of partnership is something that you wouldn't find, especially in our area where everything is paralyzed, everything is either black or white, and the in-between space is so fragile and really vulnerable.

Every time something happened, every war we went through, we were there, and we stood up together — even when we were only both of us … having signs demanding "Ceasefire" or "End occupation" or "Build partnership." We were strong even when we were alone there.

WATCH I Vivian Silver's son, Yonatan Zeigen, wants her legacy to live on:

Israeli-Canadian activist’s son wants to keep her legacy of peace alive

3 months ago
Duration 4:09

What did she tell you about what motivated her to keep doing this work?

One is her mother — her mother was also a very active woman, Jewish woman, in Winnipeg — and her life story.

The other thing … was her Canadian values. She is Canadian. She grew up in Canada with these values of human rights and diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging.

She was the first person I met with who's Canadian. For me, this was Canada.

Given how hard she worked to achieve peace, how hard you worked together, when you found out about the Oct. 7 attacks and then knowing how she was killed, how do you process that? 

I'm still processing this. It's absolutely very hard for me. Vivian is a very dear friend, a sister. And for me, she was the one that I would call every time if there is something that I'm happy about, if there is something that I need to take a decision [on]. 

And even when I decided to come to Canada for my PhD, and then later decided to stay here, I never, never forgot our work together. And we continued working together.

What's happened is a reminder that every time we talk about peace, as groups of women leading these efforts, it's not enough. That we women carrying this message — where, I will say it clearly, carrying this message where the men are the ones who are taking the decisions to start the war and to champion wars — is all related to the women's position and status.

I always thought that we needed more power and more positions that really grant us some authority and power to impact the world. 

People speak about the conflict as a very complex one. But it's not complex. It's really very easy, if people want to treat it that way. It's easy because we both have the right to be there.- Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, peace activist

What would she say, do you think, about how this conflict is unfolding? 

I believe if Vivian was with us, the first thing she would say [is]: Stop the war, cease fire, and let's talk.

And I'm not saying this as a slogan. I'm not saying this because she's not here. I'm sure, because I was with her in different wars. We were together in times of conflict and war where both of us were under attack. And she and myself were absolutely very, very strongly advocating for a ceasefire and advocating for processes like diplomacy and negotiation and talking.

Because at the end of the day, violence is not going to solve the problem. Violence only creates more violence and breeds the soil of creating more extremism and more hatred. And that way of revenge and anger is not the way to deal with such issues and conflict and crises.

We know that this conflict is so deep. And we know that people speak about the conflict as a very complex one. But it's not complex. It's really very easy, if people want to treat it that way.

It's easy because we both have the right to be there, and we both share the same right. And we both can live side by side.

It's hard these days to see this vision, but this is the only vision. This is the only way that I can see that saves the children on both sides.

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity

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