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Rivkah Duker Fishman on The Oslo Years: A Mother’s Journey

Filed under: Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


The 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, symbolized by the handshake of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, clearly marks a turning point in the history of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people. Many in Israel, certainly those on the Left, believed that the long-awaited peace had arrived and a “New Middle East” would be born.  Others, largely identified with the Right, held opposite views.

According to activist, artist, and syndicated columnist Ellen W. Horowitz, an immigrant from the United States who lived in Jerusalem and later settled on the Golan Heights, “for traditional Zionists, our world was turned upside down” and the handshake was a “trauma.” Horowitz recounts the effect of that trauma and her and others’ reactions in The Oslo Years, an anthology of her newspaper and Internet columns from the Jerusalem Post,, other journals, and her own website; photographs of her original artwork; and a large selection of press photographs spanning over a decade. These are interspersed with passages from the Bible, the Jewish prayer book, rabbinic literature, and the occasional photograph of newspaper headlines or automobile stickers.

The collection takes the form of an album, reminiscent of those commemorating the founding of a kibbutz or an educational institution or even of those that appeared in Israel after the Six Day War of June 1967. Horowitz’s work, however, is far superior technically, artistically, and aesthetically to those creations, and she is extremely articulate.

A Sui Generis Work

Works on the Oslo peace process and its political, military, and social effects have been written by those involved in the negotiations, such as the American diplomat Dennis Ross,[1] or take the form of academic-journalistic studies, such as the one by David Makovsky.[2] Scholarly critiques of the Oslo process have been written by Kenneth Levin[3] and by Joel Fishman and Ephraim Karsh (Paris, 2005).[4]  

On the Right, a comprehensive 422-page volume in Hebrew, entitled Another Spirit edited by the graphic artist Jonah Pressburger[5] includes an introduction, comments by participants in demonstrations, excerpts of speeches by political figures, columns by prominent journalists, protest poetry, cartoons, and press photographs. It covers the period from the election of Rabin’s Labor Party in 1992 until 2004. It highlights the facts that not all of the Israeli public supported Oslo and that a broad-based, patriotic, massive popular movement questioned its very legality and continuously protested against the ongoing terrorist attacks and the actual and proposed concessions to the Palestinians.

This large, composite work leaves a different impression than Horowitz’s book. It is a product of many newspaper columnists, settlers in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and other Oslo opponents of varying lifestyles rather than an evocation by one person.

Although the collection by journalist Judy Lash Balint[6] contains thoughtful and witty columns on aspects of the same period, it focuses on Jerusalem and deals with cultural and religious events as well. Balint often emerges as a keen observer, though she occasionally is a participant as well.

Mrs. Horowitz’s anthology, however, is sui generis because it is compiled, arranged, and written by one person, who selected and edited the photographs and even published the work at her own expense. The Oslo Years, therefore, is a historical source that can be classified as an “ego document,” namely, a statement by an individual about him or herself as affected by historical-political events of the time. This important genre of historical source is generally associated with the memoirs of Holocaust survivors, political figures, or founders of institutions. There appears to be no comparable volume with a grassroots leftist perspective on the events of the decade after the Oslo Accords were signed.

An Interplay of Word and Image

The book is divided chronologically into three parts. The first covers 1993-1996, from the signing on the White House lawn to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in May 1996. The second, dealing with 1996-2000, ends with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000 after the failure of the Camp David talks during the tenure of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The last part focuses on 2000-2004, up to the death of Arafat.

The columns, written from 1993 to 2004, appear in chronological order; the photographs do not. They serve the purpose of illustrating what is written in the columns. Here, Horowitz displays great skill in matching the images with the subject matter. For her, the political and the personal are intertwined. A Palestinian terror attack on a city bus, a drive-by shooting near a Jewish community in northern Gaza, or another meeting between Israeli, Palestinian, and American negotiators become part of her own life, like the births of her children, her family’s move to the Golan Heights, and her participation in protests against the Rabin, Peres, Barak, and Sharon governments.

Although focused on the events, her columns are attentive to the surroundings, seasons, and ambience. For example, in a piece titled “Pesach Reflections” (19 March 2002, 93-94), reprinted from her website, the clutter of her bedroom in her childhood home in Cleveland serves as a metaphor for the turmoil of the times. Horowitz then projects her mother’s admonitions to clean up the room upon her own attempt at putting things in order in Israel’s messy reality. The use of familiar, everyday situations helps reinforce her points.

Horowitz also mulls philosophical questions such as the nature of protest, the issue of incitement to violence, and the limits of expressing dissent. These thoughts are prevalent in her columns from the Rabin era. In a reflective statement titled “Post Mortem” (44-45) that appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 19 November 1995, two weeks after Rabin’s assassination, Horowitz undertakes “painful exploratory surgery” and declares: “I wasn’t responsible for the assassin’s bullet.”

She reminds her readers that “we didn’t have to create rage-the terror attacks did it for us,” and remarks: “We were the ‘victims of the peace'” (the Orwellian term used by government spokespersons for victims of terror attacks) and “there was no stopping the process.” She concludes: “Did we incite? Possibly. Were we tolerant and empathetic to the point of negligence? Yes. But it is also fair to say that in a country where the government first ignores and then demonizes a significant segment of its people, the unspeakable can happen.”

These words may be logical, albeit overindulgent toward the demonstrators of 1995 and those who threatened the life of the prime minister. When they were written, however, they raised a point that few dared to utter: namely, that the government seemed unperturbed by the deaths of civilians in terror attacks and vilified those who opposed its policies. In retrospect, the idea of an urgent necessity for dialogue between the various sectors of Israeli society and the realization that accepting terror as part of a peace process does not make sense, principles we take for granted today,  may be indebted in part to such outspoken columns.

Chronology of Terror

One can neither read all the columns nor look at all the images in one sitting. Newspaper articles are meant to be read in context and in relation to the events, personal and political, that they describe. Many of the excellent press photographs are extremely painful to look at, showing the horror of terror attacks or the virulent hatred of Israel’s enemies. The author gives full photo credits, exact dates, and explanatory captions at the end of the book.

Horowitz’s well-photographed paintings and sketches add a unique dimension to the volume, as they are an integral part of her personal-political outlook and show how events affect the creative process. A particular event that evokes a biblical figure or narrative often serves as her inspiration. For example, her renderings of Rachel weeping for her children (cover, preface) and Noah’s Ark (252) are particularly accomplished.

The book ends with a chronology and brief description of the many Arab terror attacks on Israel’s civilians and soldiers from the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 until January 2005, and a list of the names, ages, and home towns of the victims of each attack, based on the data of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The list of well over a thousand names seems endless.

The Oslo Years will serve as a source for future historians in studying Israeli society and Jewish history. The book is a sustained expression of intelligent and concerned dissent, which manages to be reflective, engaged, and creative at the same time.

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[1]  Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004).

[2]  David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

[3] Kenneth Levin, The Oslo Syndrome (Hanover, NH: Smith & Kraus Global, 2005).

[4] Joel Fishman and Ephraim Karsh, La Guerre d’Oslo (Paris: Les Editions de Passy, 2005). [French]

[5]  Jonah Pressburger, Ruach Acheret [Another Spirit] (Beit El, Israel:  Am ve-Ruach, 2004). [Hebrew]

[6] Judy Lash Balint, Jerusalem Diaries in Tense Times (Hewlett, NY: Gefen, 2001).

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RIVKAH DUKER FISHMAN is lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.