Obituary: Vivian Silver, Canadian Israeli who campaigned for peace and women’s rights

She was killed in the attack carried out by Hamas on 7 October

Vivian Silver, a Canadian Israeli peace and women’s rights activist – and co-founder of the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJCEEC) in Israel – has died aged 74.

She was initially believed to have been abducted from her home in Be’eri during the Hamas attacks on 7 October which incited the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, and was confirmed dead on 13 November. On 14 November her son Chen Zeigen confirmed he had been formally notified of her death by Israeli authorities. She was killed in the initial attack on 7 October.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Silver studied psychology and English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was involved in the North American Jewish Students Network, where she was the administrator of the Jewish Student Press Service and co-founded the Student Zionist Alliance.

In 1974, she became a member of kibbutz Gezer as part of Habonim Dror, where she became secretary – one of the few women to do so. In 1981 she founded the United Kibbutz Movement’s Department to Advance Gender Equality and also worked within the Knesset on the sub-committee for the Advancement of Women in Work and the Economy, for the New Israel Fund, and on the Steering Committee of Shatil.

Silver later moved with her husband and two sons to Be’eri, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, where she became better acquainted with the local Bedouin community and Gazans. From 1998 she served as an executive director for the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED), working within the kibbutz to organise programmes to help Gazans, with education and training, and ensured that Gazan construction workers at the kibbutz were paid fairly.

In 1999, Silver and Amal Elsana Alh’jooj co-founded the AJCEEC as an off-shoot of NISPED. Silver served as the centre’s director, organising projects in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. In 2010, Silver and Alh’jooj received the Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, an annual prize given by the Institute of International Education to pairs of Arab and Israeli activists working towards peace.

Before the closure of the Gaza border in 2007, she worked with Gazan residents in cross-cultural projects, including Creating Peace, which focused on fostering business connections between Palestinian and Israeli artisans.

Silver was a former board member of B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based human rights organisation and was also involved with Alliance for Middle East Peace, as well as a number of their member organisations. As part of this work, she helped organise and lead tours of the Israeli side of the Israeli-Gaza border, as a way to raise awareness about the struggles of Gaza residents.

Following her retirement in 2014 and that year’s Gaza War, she co-founded Women Wage Peace, an interfaith grassroots organisation, and also began volunteering with Road to Recovery and Project Rozana to transport Gazan patients travelling to Jerusalem for treatment. On 4 October 2023, Silver helped to organise a peace rally in Jerusalem which attracted 1,500 Israeli and Palestinian women.

Mully Dor, chair of the executive board of AJEEC-NISPED, said Silver “did everything possible to promote co-operative values, peace and Arab-Jewish partnership”. 

“My friend believed with her whole heart in the idea of promoting peace,” said Dor. “Since we founded AJEEC-NISPED, together with Dr Yehuda Paz, you could always see the human qualities in her. She could form deep friendships and left a mark on everyone she met, from her friends in the kibbutz co-op to Palestinians and Bedouins. 

“Within AJEEC-NISPED, Vivian flourished with Amal Elsana, whom she brought on as co-CEO to show that we not only speak about a shared society but achieve that dream together at every level of our organisation. She had a rare sense of humour, resilience, and bravery to persist in her vision. She knew how to bring people together towards the vision that she lived, and she will be greatly missed.”

Dor added that AJEEC-NISPED remains committed “to continuing Vivian’s path and commemorating her memory through acting for an equal and just society, Arab-Jewish partnership in every place we operate, to spread light just as she did in her life”.

Online tributes to Silver were paid by Canadian politician and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, Canadian foreign minister Melanie Joly and Canadian ambassador to Israel, Lisa Stadelbauer, among others. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau also recognised Silver’s death, calling her a “bright light” and adding she “will be deeply missed”.