Winnipeg-born and raised peace activist Vivian Silver is being mourned by friends and colleagues but remembered through the shock of her death as a generous, proud and dedicated person who, even in darkness, never lost her smile and humour.
“I’m devastated, like all of us. We heard the news last night and since then our hearts have been shattered. We’re broken,” said Yael Braudo-Bahat, co-director of Israel-based Women Wage Peace — an organization co-founded by Silver that says with 44,000 members, it is now the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel.
“The thought of her not being here to guide us all … it’s such a huge loss.”
Silver, 74, was born in Winnipeg and moved to Israel in 1973, where she devoted her life to peace work.
She was initially thought to have been kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas after the militant group’s surprise assault on Israel on Oct. 7.
Her son, Yonatan Zeigen, told CBC News on Monday that her remains had been found shortly after the attack at Kibbutz Be’eri, in the south of Israel, where she lived, but were only just identified this week.
“It was a shock — horrible,” said Jessica Montell, an activist in Israel and longtime friend and colleague of Silver.
“It’s crazy to say, but we were all hoping she was a hostage. That was the assumption that we had for these past few weeks. I wasn’t even thinking that it was uncertain.”
The loss is so fresh that, in talking about Silver, Montell referred to her in the present, then stopped and drew in a sharp breath.
“I have to use past tense. Sorry.”
Montell and others have spent the past month demonstrating and calling for the release of approximately 200 Hamas-held hostages, waving signs with photographs of those missing — including Silver.
Silver, whose home was walking distance from Gaza, was working to foster a shared society and coexistence for Jews and Arabs in southern Israel, Montell said.
“Vivian probably had more friends in Gaza than any of us. She was very genuine and modest — just wanted to do the work to make things better.”
Immediately upon learning of her friend’s death, Montell began thinking about what Silver would want her friends to do. It took little time to realize that answer was “raise a voice for all of the civilians who are suffering,” Montell said.
“For her, it was very clear that Hamas is not Gaza. All the Palestinians are not Hamas. Most people in Gaza are just people who want to live their lives and are struggling like everybody else,” she added.
“It was very important for Vivian to say, ‘if you want the best interests of Israel, there has to be a political resolution that will also ensure safety and dignity for Palestinians.’ All of us who loved her and admired her feel this obligation to continue that work.”
She described Silver as always smiling, always thinking about the human touch of kindness and non-violence.
“She always found a way to find humour even in the midst of kind of hopeless situations. She never gave in to despair,” Montell said.
“[She believed] there’s always something we can do, no matter how difficult the situation looks.”
Humanitarian work ‘no surprise to any of us’
Lynne Mitchell, who grew up with Silver in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto, said her friend’s humanitarian destiny was evident early on.
The duo were in a youth group at age 15, “trying to work for a better community in our own naive [way],” Mitchell said.
“In her heart she always knew that that would be her life’s work. It really is no surprise to any of us, the huge role she played and the huge number of friends that she has around the world, and the recognition that she has as a peace activist.”
Mitchell said it has been difficult to come out of the “vortex of hope” that Silver might have been alive “and now start to deal with the fact that she has been murdered.”
It is difficult to reconcile Silver’s lifelong mission as a champion of equality, justice and peace with her cruel end, Mitchell said.
“To her core, that’s who she was. How do you make sense of such a violent death? The only thing that Vivian would say is … ‘violence will never bring about peace,'” she said.
“We will take her legacy and go on with her voice in our hearts.”
If Silver lived to see the retaliatory attacks by Israel and the ongoing war since that initial Hamas assault on Oct. 7, “she would definitely be heartbroken at the situation,” Montell said.
“Revenge is not the answer. We all grieve the loss of Vivian but of course, we’re grieving for so much more.”
Gershon Baskin, a friend of Silver for many years and the Middle East director for the International Communities Organization, said he wants to dedicate her memory to hope that a way to live in peace can be found.
“She was a happy, optimistic person. She was a person who lit up a room whenever she came in. This was Vivian — she was someone that you liked to be with,” he said.
“She had a moral compass that led the direction of many people who followed her.”
Braudo-Bahat, as one of the people who followed Silver, said the optimism the late activist emanated will be the fuel that keeps her going, encouraging her to carry Silver’s light.
If anyone tried to tell Silver there was no hope, she would argue that “there is always hope,” said Braudo-Bahat.
“This is something we take with us and learn from her — we don’t give up on hope.”