Lessons from Palestine
Jennifer Prince is a CCS student approaching her final year of diaconal studies. As part of her Global Perspectives Experience she helped with a conference exploring justice issues in Israel and Palestine. These are her reflections on that project.
Having grown up near a U.S. border, I grew up in Canada but steeped in American culture. Radio stations, television, print media were 95% American content. My adolescence came about during the Gulf War, and when I was pregnant with my oldest son, the 911 attacks in New York happened. As a kid, I recall the media narrative that Arab people were wired differently than the rest of humanity, with a predisposition to brutality. News footage supported this rhetoric regularly, with the most memorable example of this being the images of Palestinian people dancing and celebrating on September 11, 2001. I remember conversations at the time with clients, my neighbour, my dentist; about how these people could be so depraved as to celebrate the brutal and tragic theft of innocent lives.
A conspiracy theory emerged shortly after the attacks. There were murmurings that the U.S. federal government were the orchestrators. While I have serious doubts that this is true; it planted the seed that the information that we were fed is tempered according to an agenda. From this point, I was prompted to seriously question the narrative that Palestinian people were somehow less human and more prone to violence than any other. I did not accept such a thing as truth about any other group of people; lending suspicion about Palestinian people being any different.
When considering what I wanted to experience for the Global Perspectives Experience (GPE) credit toward the Diaconal diploma I am working on, I decided that I wanted to better understand the situation in Palestine/Israel. As the timing for my GPE fell into the midst of the Covid pandemic, I planned for a non-travel experience that included regular gatherings over Zoom with organizations such as Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Just Peace; Sabeel and Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Kumi Now, and the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine Israel. The latter of these hosts a conference each year for the purpose of educating people and mobilizing people to effect change. I accepted the invitation to be part of the local planning and arrangements team for this year’s conference, entitled “Responding to a Cry for Hope”, and this essay details my experience with that work and with the conference itself.
My responsibilities for the conference included inviting local Members of Parliament to the prologue event at King’s College on the evening of Thursday, May 5, picking participants and speakers up from the train station, organizing rides from the hotel to the university campus for the speaker event on the Thursday evening and then back to the hotel (as well as driving myself), writing and delivering a territory acknowledgement for three of the four days of the conference, helping with set up for creative reflection on the Saturday, and driving participants to the train station on the Sunday afternoon.
What I Learned
The event began with a speaker event at King’s College Western University, entitled “How Are the Children?” The event featured keynote speakers from various organizations that work specifically with advocating for and supporting children and their families in occupied Palestine, and it was apparent that the answer to the event title question is, “Not very well.”
Our speakers were representatives from Canada, Stand Up for Palestinian Children’s Rights, Oakville Palestinian Rights Organization, and Defense of Children International Palestine. Our committee learned that in the future, a chaplain on site for the event would be helpful, and I will warn readers that some of the following content may be difficult to read.
I had known through my previous research and involvement in online communities with Palestine that children are regularly arrested and detained by the Israeli army with no formal charge, no legal representation, and no contact with their parents or families. I had heard in the weeks prior to the conference stories from parents whose homes were invaded during the night by soldiers and their children removed from their beds and homes to be taken to prison. More appalling yet, I learned at the speaker event that there are now instances where children are followed home by military, ordered to be led through the house to show their beds, and are then told by the military that now it is known where these children can be found and accosted in the night. At the age of 12, a child is considered to be at the age of majority and subject to Israeli military law.
Once under arrest, children are often blindfolded and beaten enroute to interrogation, which involves violently coercive tactics to obtain a confession. Zaina Ashawi Hutchinson of Defense of Children International Palestine (DCIP) spoke in her presentation of “the bone crushers” – a tactic in which child detainees’ limbs are stomped on by military until they break. The most common charge against children who are arrested and detained is throwing stones, but Palestinians, including children, can be held indefinitely in prison without formal charges or legal representation. The justification for this is defense of national security and safety, with Palestinian people often labelled as suspected terrorists. The average sentence for a Palestinian child convicted of throwing stones is 10-20 years. For comparison’s sake, consider the average sentence in Canada for violent crime. For example, I once had a neighbour in the mid-1980s who served 5 years for hiring a hit on his wife. In contrast, the response when stones are thrown at Palestinian people, including children, by Israeli military or settlers is that “they are only stones.”
The resounding message that first evening of the conference, and woven throughout the event, was the call for us as Canadians to work on our own government. Canada, Stand Up for Palestinian Children’s Rights speaker, Dorcas Gordon, noted that her organization had received a letter of response from the federal government of Canada asserting that children’s rights are of top concern. How can that be, when Israel is the only country for which Canada has chosen not to include a human rights clause in its trade agreement? We cannot state in this country that every child matters unless every child matters. Certainly, every child matters. How we respond to infringements on international law and how children are treated here ought to reflect that.
It is difficult when examining the occupation in Palestine to avoid the fact that Canada is not better. This is a colonized country, now just beginning to embark on the work of undoing the damage that can be reversed and figuring out how to move forward with what cannot be changed. As a member of the settler Canadian population, I cannot engage with confronting apartheid in Israel/Palestine without recognizing that Canada is guilty of apartheid. The question that this evokes is how Canadians can speak to the circumstances in Israel/Palestine when occupiers here have also and are still perpetrating violence against Indigenous children and their families? My answer is that we cannot move in the direction of being decolonizing people without confronting occupation everywhere. If some of us are not free, then none of us are.
Another major thread woven through the conference, from the presentation given by Ashawi Hutchinson from DCIP at the speaker event on the Thursday evening, to our session with Gabor Maté from Jews for Just Peace on the Saturday, to the words of Shadia Qtabi, one of our Palestinian Canadian speakers; was the way in which the situation is framed. I was startled by the truth in a statement that North Americans are comfortable seeing the situation as Jews verses Muslims, because societal Islamophobia makes violence and persecution of Palestinian Arabs or Muslims more palatable. At the beginning of the speaker even on the Thursday, I had been asked to mention the Afzaal family, who were victims of an alleged Islamophobic attack in June of 2021 here in London. It was with that statement that I was able to connect Islamophobia in North America and complacence for human rights abuses in Palestine/Israel. The fact that many persecuted Palestinians are Christians should not matter; no one should be denied safety, wellbeing, and an opportunity to live fully.
Maté challenged the use of the word “conflict” to describe the injustice in Palestine/Israel. Conflict describes disagreement between two equal sides with equal voice, power, and resources. He pointed out that Gazans do not have drones, explosives, etc. that would equal their military power and threat to Israeli military. They are sitting ducks, which makes this an occupation rather than a conflict. He pointed out that this fact does not support the justification of military power as fear of annihilation. Maté names this as an emotional but not logical response.
Never far from the subject of Israel and Palestine is the fact that Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries, with the gruesome memory of the Holocaust and ongoing antisemitic hate crimes in our collective consciousness and woven into the fabric of post-World War II society. The trauma resulting from the failure of the world to protect the sanctity of life for Jewish people feeds the illusion of a safe place for Jews and the fear of appearing antisemitic in opposing Israeli occupation and human rights violations under International Law or criticizing Israel policies against Palestinian Indigenous peoples. It is for the latter, in addition to capital interests, that foreign governments are hesitant to hold Israel accountable. In the events of the conference weekend, we heard from Palestinian Canadian university students who suffered disbandment of Palestinian student associations and sanctions for peaceful protests against military brutality on the grounds that these threatened the safety of Jewish students. The organizer of the conference, UNJPPI, cannot be considered a charitable organization on the same grounds, and the practice of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) of Israeli products and companies has often been criticized as antisemitic. What is crucial to understand is that occupation is not Jewish, and that the theory that the occupation is backed by Holy Theology is a myth. Jewish faith is deeply rooted in justice, as is authentic Christianity and Islam. Maté understands his call as a Jewish man to help shift the statement from “Never again will we let someone do this to us” to “Never again will we let this happen to anyone.” He urges us to reframe the focus from a matter of being anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian to acting as people who are pro-justice and pro-equality. Maté and the organization that he works with, Jews for Just Peace, are not the only Jewish voices that are crying out for hope for Palestinian liberation. Present with us in the Thursday speaker event at Kings were two people from Independent Jewish Voices. We heard from witnesses that there are increasing instances in which Israeli soldiers bravely face punishment for protecting Palestinian people. Israeli citizens are expected to serve a minimum of two years in the military, making detachment from direct involvement with the occupation difficult and loaded with employment and social ramifications for those who refuse. And yet, there are citizens who do.
Hopes and Dreams: What’s It to Us and What Can We Do?
So why does this matter to me and why do I think it matters to you…
Primarily, if we take that which Jesus names and the Hebrew Bible names as the most important commandment seriously, it matters because these are people. I am reminded of an Indigenous neighbour’s inverted Canada flag on her garage door last summer with the words, “These were children” painted across it in anguished response to the unmarked graves confirmed to be on the properties of the residential schools. The violation of rights and freedoms to adults should be motivator enough; but even if we can argue and justify that, surely, we cannot justify violence against and murder of children.
The second reason is that if we accept our invitation to be kindom builders, we understand that the kindom revolves around the freedom of everyone, worldwide, to live wholly and share their gifts. We need each other; this is not about “those poor people that need our help”, but about us needing people in the world whose energies are currently completely involved in survival. The Palestinian people who spoke at the conference who are now living in North America all spoke of the survivor guilt, the anguish of worrying about their people and families still in occupied territory. Ashawi Hutchinson stated that it is not PTSD because there is no post – the trauma is ongoing.
The third reason is that if the atrocity happening right now in Palestine/Israel can happen there, it can happen anywhere. If some are not safe and free; then none are.
What can we do? We can start with our own government. I encourage people to challenge the lack of a human rights clause in our trade agreement and contact your MP to let them know that this matters to you. Learn as much as you can. I recommend starting with the websites of the organizations mentioned in this writing.
We can talk about it, realizing that this is not about Judaism at all.
In closing, I leave you with the three pieces of a session in the conference led by Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac. (Check out his work on the beatitude “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” here: https://youtu.be/Cf85mK89x80 )
“You are troubled by my language more than you are troubled by my reality.” Rev. Dr. Isaac made this statement and it immediately resonated with me. It is a clear reminder to listen for someone’s suffering before expecting their expression of it to be changed for my comfort level.
“Jesus already came…why are we waiting to be told again?” Rev. Dr. Issac offers this as a challenge to those of us who might wait on divine intervention. The Christian Zionist view is that there will be peace when Christ returns, but I agree with Isaac’s view that this ideology comes at a great cost. We are all God’s hands, feet, and voice – we are called as followers of Christ to continue unbinding one another. May it be so.