Last week, we published a story about a group of people gathering outside the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver to hold a Yizkor service for Palestinians who died during the March of Return actions at the Gaza-Israel border.
We are not surprised by the reaction from readers, but we are disappointed in some of it. We have been criticized for covering the event. One commenter on Facebook accused us of supporting Hamas.
We are a newspaper. The fact that a group of Jews – it doesn’t matter how many or how few – organized an event like this is newsworthy. We covered it. It is what any newspaper worth the paper it’s printed on would have done. To accuse the Independent of endorsing the event – or Hamas – because we ran a story about it demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about the basics of journalism. When a newspaper covers a flood, it is not endorsing the river.
At least one critic suggested our approach should have been to publish a raving tirade against those saying Kaddish. Our approach, generally, is to report events in an unbiased fashion and leave the raving tirades to others.
Just one question, really, for those who didn’t like the inclusion of that story in last week’s issue: Would you rather not know what’s happening in your community?
A dozen or so people gathered outside the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver Monday in a makeshift Yizkor service to commemorate the deaths of Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces in recent weeks. (Click here for story.)
Each one of the people killed was, indeed, a full human being, with a full life, as Rabbi David Mivasair said of the Palestinian dead. And the loss of life is tragic. That is not something we will debate.
However, reports indicate that, of the 60 Gazans killed on May 14, for example, 53 were claimed as members by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Given the IDF’s strategy of deterrence, which includes graduated steps from warning shots, to shooting to injure and, as a last resort, shooting to kill, it is likely that those who died were among the most aggressive and dangerous among the protesters, some of whom were armed with pistols, firebombs and other weapons.
While there were peaceful protesters among the thousands who marched on the Israeli border, depictions of the rally as a primarily peaceful protest are wrong. In some interpretations, unarmed protesters were there merely as human shields for the violent participants, whose aim, in the words of a Hamas leader, was to infiltrate Israel and tear the hearts out of the Jews. Hamas social media channels presented maps to guide people from the border to adjacent Israeli towns, encouraging those who might break through the frontier to head for civilian locations and presumably fulfil the orders of Hamas.
The deliberate strategy of the Gazan leaders, it seems, is to sacrifice their own people’s lives for their PR value. Col. Richard Kemp, a British military official who has become a vocal defender of IDF strategies, said of Hamas: “This is the first government in history that has deliberately sought to compel its enemy to kill its own people.”
In a Daily Telegraph article re-printed in the National Post, he went on to state that, had the thousands of protesters breached the border and headed for those Israeli towns, the bloodshed would have been exponentially worse.
There is no question that the entire situation is a tragedy. And there is blame to go around. The narrative purveyed outside the JCC Monday and in much of the media commentary – that the Israeli military wantonly kills human beings – is as unfair and inhumane an assessment as the alternative extreme, which finds satisfaction in the loss of life.
As for Monday’s gathering, the combination of a Jewish religious ritual with a political agenda that arguably makes common cause with those seeking the destruction of the Jewish state is a dubious choice, but this is a free country and Judaism is a big tent.
To be clear, the people of Gaza are suffering, due in part to the Israeli blockade, in part due to the repressive kleptocracy of Hamas and in part to their own self-defeating actions, like burning down the main border entry point for supplies.
Palestinians receive more humanitarian aid per capita than any other people in the world. Where much of that money ends up, sadly, is in the mansions of Hamas and Fatah leaders and in pensions and rewards to terrorists and their families. This fact, of course, does not bring the dead back to life.
Palestinians, Jews and everyone who cares about human life are struggling with recent events. Each of us is confronting the multiple dimensions of the violence, which seems to be a repetition of seven decades (or more) of recurrent conflict. Respect for human life – on all sides – should be what we seek. Tallying up the dead like they are goals in a sports match does not demonstrate respect. Indeed, it may be precisely what Hamas wants us to do and, as such, may encourage them to put at risk even more Palestinian lives.
Gabor Maté reads the names of Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza. (photo by Matthew Gindin)
“Each one of them was a full human being, with a full life,” said Rabbi David Mivasair, addressing a dozen or so people, most of whom were Jews, outside of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on May 21, the second day of Shavuot, for Yizkor, the traditional memorial service for the dead.
Organized by Independent Jewish Voices, the group gathered to commemorate the Palestinian protesters who had been killed by the Israel Defence Forces during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza, which began on March 31 and ended May 15 (which Palestinians observe as Nakba Day). They gathered, according to the event’s Facebook page, for another reason, as well: “We will also publicly denounce the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs for its continual dishonest manipulation of Canadian political leaders and media sources to silence and minimize Israel’s brutality toward Palestinians and, in this case, shift the blame for the killings to the very people who were killed.”
Those present included Gabor Maté, a physician, author and member of the Jewish community. He and others took turns reading the names of Palestinians who had been killed. Afterwards, he told a story from an article that Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist, had written days before. In the article, Avnery described how he, as a teenage member of the Irgun, had done similar things to those of the Palestinian protesters when demonstrating against the then-occupying British forces for Israel’s independence, but the British shot over their heads, not at them. Maté also criticized the JCC for not being inclusive enough of all Jewish voices, saying that, in practice, it was more like “the Zionist community centre.”
“The confusion between Zionism and Judaism is a tragedy,” said Maté. “I’m just glad to be here to bear witness along with the rest of you.”
Shawkat Hasan, a member of the Palestinian community and the B.C. Muslim Association, whose family lost their home in the war of 1948, also spoke, emphasizing that the conflict was not between Jews and Muslims but between Zionism and its “victims,” and calling for widespread resistance to violence against Palestinians.
The group carried out their service peacefully. The idea for it came about only days before, and the organizing of it was rushed to coincide with Shavuot. One sign read, “Murdering innocents is not a Jewish value.” Some passersby stopped to join or listen, as members of the group chanted the names and recited Kaddish, and some to express their opposition.
Mivasair told those assembled that the location had been chosen to protest CIJA, who have their offices inside the JCC. CIJA had launched a campaign calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize for remarks Trudeau had made that the “reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable” and his call for “an immediate independent investigation” after a Canadian doctor was shot by the IDF while treating protesters.
“Hamas has left Israel no choice but to use force to protect the tens of thousands of Israelis who live close to Gaza,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, CIJA’s chief executive officer, in a statement May 16. “We are outraged and saddened that Hamas is again using civilian human shields. For Israelis and the Jewish community, Palestinian casualties are painful tragedies. For Hamas, Palestinian casualties are sickening public relations achievements.”
“Everything that CIJA says is contestable,” Mivasair told the Jewish Independent following the service. “The situation in Gaza is desperate enough, due to the policies of the Israeli government, to explain the actions of the Palestinian protesters without imagining that they were primarily orchestrated by Hamas, which they were not. Why are organizations that purport to speak for the Jewish community suppressing discussion in Canada about what is really going on?”
The Yizkor service at the JCC followed weeks of protests by Palestinian solidarity groups outside of federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s Vancouver constituency office.
In the conflict at Israel’s border with Gaza, the IDF faced some 50,000 protesters. More than 100 Palestinians were killed and between 8,700 and 13,000 wounded, depending on the source of the data. The IDF’s actions, in particular the use of live ammunition, has been condemned by organizations including B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. According to Israel, most of those killed were members of the terrorist group Hamas, which, the Israeli government says, organized the protests.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
In a speech to the governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organization last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rambled off a host of textbook antisemitic myths. He reiterated the refrain that Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel, unearthed a legendary trope about Ashkenazi Jews actually being descended from Khazars and accused European Zionists of collaborating with the Nazis.
Abbas went on to say that the tragedies of Jewish history were not a result of antisemitism, but of Jews’ own behaviours. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion,” he said, “but against their social function, which relates to usury and banking and such.”
One of the things Abbas has in common with other elected leaders is the willingness to try to get away with something and then to apologize when called out. Though his wasn’t much of an apology: “If people were offended by my statement … especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them.”
The speech gave Israeli and other commentators the opportunity to once again insist that the Palestinian leader is no partner for peace, something that is no more or less true today than it was last month. Abbas has been saying things like this most of his adult life. His doctoral dissertation, which was later published as a book, quibbled over the number of Jewish victims of the Shoah and advanced the perverse conspiracy theory he returned to last week: that Zionists were Nazi collaborators for whom six million (or, on Abbas’s abacus, fewer) Jewish lives were a small price to pay for advancing the Zionist cause.
Inherent to most antisemitic suppositions is the defence that Jewish particularities, habits, traditions, identities – in other words, whatever stereotypes the purveyor is advancing – are the legitimate causes of Jewish woes. In Abbas’s telling, all European Jews were usurers and bankers. (Consider the corollary: That, if true, being bankers and usurers would seemingly justify genocide.)
It is appalling that a man who is accepted as a legitimate figure on the international stage can claim, with minimal consequence, that Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves. So, the most salient point from this terrible incident may be what it says about his audience.
Consider this in the context of the widespread global interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One can disagree with the policies or approaches of an Israeli government or any number of historical and contemporary developments. But, by no fair reading of history can the full blame for 70 years of conflict be laid at the feet of Israelis. Yet, at almost every point in history – when a pizzeria blows up in Tel Aviv or Jews are stabbed walking down the street in Jerusalem or when Hamas sends thousands to the Israeli border and floats firebombs that set the Israeli landscape aflame – there will be a sizable number of people who will conclude that Jews brought it on themselves.
Whatever else his speech may have accomplished, and despite his apology, Abbas has succeeded in bolstering the stereotype that cunning Jews will sacrifice whatever is necessary to reach their devious aims, and that any horrors that befall them are their own fault. That suits the contemporary popular narrative neatly.
For weeks since March, each Friday, thousands of Gazans have rallied at the border with Israel, leading to violent confrontations with the Israeli military. The objective is to build up to an incursion of such proportion that Israel’s military is unable to prevent an invasion into Israeli territory. The stated goal of the so-called March of Return is to catalyze the movement toward a “right of return,” which would have the not coincidental consequence of demographically threatening the Jewish nature of Israel.
Of course, even tens of thousands of Palestinians trying to breech the border will not result in this goal. Instead, there is an unstated goal: Hamas seeks to turn global opinion (further) against Israel. Shamefully, it seems that a few dozen Palestinian lives is a small price to pay, in Hamas’s worldview, for the PR benefits they deliver. As the New York Times reported Sunday, at least some of the protesters believe that they have nothing to lose. “It doesn’t matter to me if they shoot me or not,” said a 22-year-old protester interviewed by the paper. “Death or life – it’s the same thing.” That attitude will suit Hamas just fine.
To overseas audiences, march proponents depict it as an unarmed, peaceful, civilian-led mass action – and a peaceful protest is something we could accept, if not agree with. However, evidence shows that it is stage-managed by Hamas and anything but peaceful. Flying swastika-festooned kites with petrol bombs are sent over the border, massive tire fires are set to obscure the view of Israeli soldiers and tug-of-war lines are formed to pull down the border barrier, while crowds simultaneously hurl projectiles. At this past weekend’s action, there were reports of a few protesters armed with pistols.
Writing in the Times two days earlier, Fadi Abu Shammalah, executive director of the General Union of Cultural Centres in Gaza and a documentary film producer, insisted that he loves life, but that he is prepared to risk it to give his children a future with dignity.
A more effective means to ensure that Palestinian children live a life of dignity would be for Shammalah and others like him to write opinion pieces in the New York Times and to agitate elsewhere for the Hamas leadership to abandon both violence and their refusal to live in coexistence with the Jewish state. These are the two prerequisites to Palestinian self-determination. But such actions could well get Shammalah and others killed faster than marching against the border with Israel.
A sovereign country has the fundamental right to protect its borders from invasion. Ideally, this could be achieved without the use of live ammunition, and should minimize casualties as much as possible. Killing unarmed protesters is not acceptable.
Exclusively blaming Israel, however, is unjust. But this is more than misplaced blame: it has the precise consequence of rewarding Hamas’s strategy of sacrificing its own citizens. The more world media and activists condemn Israel and reward Hamas, the more Palestinians will be pushed toward the border. In such a scenario, the blame lies not solely with Israel or even with Hamas. The blame must be shared by these overseas enablers who, by rewarding Hamas, truly deserve part of the responsibility for the deaths and injuries.
The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria employed chemical weapons against its own citizens again last week. It’s hard to imagine that the atrocities in Syria could be any worse. Indeed, it is chilling to imagine what Syrian forces would be doing right now had Israel not neutralized that country’s nuclear capabilities in 2007.
Despite the horrific images coming out of Syria, much of the world’s attention, including that of the United Nations, was focused on Israel’s response to rallies on the Gaza border. It was striking to hear the outrage about Israel’s reaction to the Gaza events while a few hundred kilometres away the most atrocious acts were being perpetrated on a people by their own government. That said, the loss of life in Gaza is startling and we hope that the Israel Defence Forces can find non-lethal ways to defend against the protesters.
At the same time, it has been difficult not to be frustrated about the placement of blame. Portrayed by apologists as a peaceful rally – the so-called March for Return – the Friday events, for the second consecutive week, were a violent assault on the Israeli border. The planned action featured Gazans burning hundreds of tires in order to obscure the visibility of IDF soldiers. While tallying up the number of dead – 26 have been killed, according to the Associated Press Monday – it’s clear that the associations of some of the dead have been lost on most audiences, as at least 10 have been reported to be known combatants in the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas’ terrorist wings.
On Friday, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yehya Al-Sinwar, was employing what outside observers will likely dismiss as flowery rhetoric for domestic audiences when he exclaimed on Al-Jazeera that “We will take down the border [with Israel] and tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
Whether the actions of the IDF are deemed justified, the Diaspora community must continue to press for a non-military solution where possible and demand that the IDF remain restrained when demonstrators are unarmed. With a video surfacing that allegedly shows an IDF sniper shooting an unarmed Palestinian man while other soldiers cheer, there are calls for an investigation within Israel from across the political spectrum. As one Israeli politician said in the Times of Israel, “The battle isn’t just between us and Hamas; it is also for ourselves, for our values and for the identity of Israel society.”
It was, however, a leading figure in the Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas, which runs the West Bank, who pointed out what should be obvious to the world. Dr. Mahmoud Habbash, a supreme judge in the Palestinian Authority Islamic court and Abbas’s adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, accused Hamas of “trading in suffering and blood, trading in victims” to get sympathetic headlines worldwide.
It seems to be working. “Solidarity” marches around the world included chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will soon be free.”
Against this backdrop, it may seem odd to raise the issue of Israel’s treatment of African refugees. As a Jewish newspaper, we feel it is our obligation to defend Israel from unjust accusations and attacks, and it is our duty also to condemn actions by Israeli governments or others that betray what we believe to be the just course.
Last week’s flip-flop by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a disgrace and an insult to the values on which Israel prides itself.
A week ago Monday, Netanyahu announced an agreement with a United Nations refugee agency to alleviate a conflict about what to do with 38,000 African asylum-seekers currently in legal limbo in Israel by relocating about half of them to Western countries, including Canada. The next day, after getting pushback from right-wing members of his coalition and some aggressive residents of south Tel Aviv (where most of the migrants live) who want few or no migrants to remain in Israel, the prime minister reneged on the deal, seeking again to eject all 38,000.
As we have said in this space previously, it is ludicrous to suggest that 38,000 Africans – or half that – threaten the Jewish nature of the state. Neither, contrary to Netanyahu’s allegations, would the acceptance of these refugees – who fled violence and war – create a precedent.
If Israel wants to create a situation where it can avoid unwanted refugees while ensuring that it meets the obligations of a democratic state, it must develop the systems to appropriately adjudicate refugee claims. At present, situations like this – affecting the lives of 38,000 individuals – are being addressed arbitrarily and inappropriately. Israel, like Canada, Germany and other democracies, needs to have a standard by which the world’s homeless, who happen to find temporary refuge within its borders, are assessed and treated fairly within clearly defined legal parameters that recognize both the rights of individual non-citizens and the necessities of Israel, from the perspective of both the security of its citizens and the Jewish nature of the state. These are not incompatible objectives.
There is no shortage of challenges facing the Middle East. The situations in Gaza and Syria seem intractable. The fate of 38,000 migrants should not be so difficult to resolve.
Adel Karam as Toni, left, and Kamel El Basha as Yasser in The Insult. (photo from Cohen Media Group)
Ziad Doueiri was born in Lebanon, studied filmmaking at San Diego State and worked nonstop for more than a decade in Los Angeles as an assistant cameraman shooting Quentin Tarantino’s early movies, among others.
“One of my favourite films of all time, I looked at the film and said, ‘One day, I hope I make a movie like this,’ is Judgment at Nuremberg,” confided the impassioned director of Lebanon’s official Oscar submission, The Insult.
Inspired by Stanley Kramer’s 1961 courtroom drama, Doueiri set out to make a deeply felt moral saga using a familiar American genre that would connect with an international audience. The catalyst that sets The Insult in motion is an altercation on a Beirut street between a Lebanese Christian mechanic and a Palestinian construction supervisor. They are unable to resolve their disagreement for personal reasons – male ego and pride, to start – compounded by the overriding political context. The Insult unfolds against a backdrop of half a million Palestinians living as refugees in a country with a population of four million.
“The Palestinians came in 1948,” Doueiri noted in an interview during a visit to San Francisco late last year. “They never returned, they could not return. They were not given green cards. They were not given the right to settle in Lebanon, or the right to work.”
The Lebanese government’s logic, according to the Paris-based filmmaker, was and is “if we give you jobs, you’ll start making a good life. And if a Palestinian settles down in Lebanon and does not go to Palestine, the Israelis are happy.”
Meanwhile, the dispute between the antagonists escalates into a court case that, unexpectedly, turns into a penetrating historical inquiry exposing the depths of simmering resentment between the Lebanese and Palestinians. The elephant in the courtroom, of course, is Israel.
“The Insult is not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” stressed Doueiri. “It’s a story of two people, one who is seeking justice and the other who doesn’t believe in it. The film is also about [how] you cannot have exclusivity on massacres. The Palestinians, in the last 20, 30, 40 years, they have kind of gained a monopoly on their suffering. The Insult is a way of saying, ‘You can’t blame Israelis all the time.’”
Doueiri acknowledged that his emigration to the United States in 1983 began a process of dissipating the hatred he grew up with for everything that’s Jewish and Israeli. Another important turning point was shooting The Attack – his first-rate thriller about a successful Arab surgeon in Tel Aviv whose world collapses after his wife commits a terrible crime – in Israel in 2011.
“The dedication of the Israeli crew on my film was fantastic,” Doueiri said with his characteristic intensity. “How could that not change you?”
Doueiri took a huge risk shooting The Attack in Israel.
“Not only is it a moral dilemma for the Lebanese that one of their compatriots went to Israel, it’s a legal problem,” he explained. “I violated Law 285. It is incontestable.”
When Doueiri flew to Beirut in September last year after premièring The Insult at the Venice Film Festival – where Kamel El Basha received the best actor award for his portrayal of Yasser – he was arrested at the airport. He claims he was released due to the direct intercession of the prime minister, but, regardless, he had to appear the next day before a military judge who specializes in cases involving Israeli collaborators and ISIS terrorists.
“The judge was really bothered by this case,” Doueiri said. “He knows that I did not collaborate with the Israelis. I did not share military information. I just went to do a movie. And I’m an American citizen.”
Fortunately for everyone concerned, Doueiri’s lawyer discovered a loophole: the five-year statute of limitations had expired.
“Isn’t it great?” Doueiri said with a smile. “This is how I was acquitted. It’s a movie. Isn’t it a movie?”
The Insult generated a lot of debate when it screened in Beirut in the fall, according to Doueiri. A truly happy ending would be if it gets a wide release in the Arab world.
The Insult opens Friday, Feb. 23, at Vancity Theatre (viff.org).
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
By bringing together Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees, Roots is trying to help achieve peace.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is one of the leaders of this group, which was established in 2014 by Ali Abu Awwad and Shaul Judelman. In being involved, Schlesinger said he is following in the steps of Rabbi Menachem Froman, who, “for most of his career, for three or four decades, advocated getting Palestinians who we live among to come to a point of dialogue, reconciliation and understanding.
“Froman’s students started a movement called Eretz Shalom, Land of Peace,” explained Schlesinger. “This organization did some activities to bring together Palestinians and Israelis, but really never made it off the ground. When he died, in 2013 … the students who were following in his footsteps, in terms of dialogue connections between Palestinians and Israelis, felt that they had better do something to continue his legacy…. Otherwise, it’s going to be gone.
“Those students, with his widow, in the last week of January 2014, had a little event together with some Palestinians they’d met, which brought together about 15 people from each of the sides. And, 95% of the people there were Israelis and Palestinians who’d met the other side during their lifetime, [were] involved a little bit in reconciliation. The one person there who had never been before was me.”
Schlesinger was deeply affected by the event. He had lived in Gush Etzion for 30 years, and had never met a Palestinian. And, upon meeting some of them, he realized how distorted his idea was of Palestinians.
“I went into a spiritual introspection of revisiting who I was and what I was doing on this land,” Schlesinger told the Independent. “And I forced myself to begin a journey that was leading me to examine many of my core beliefs – realizing it wasn’t just me and my people, that there was another people here who also belong here.
“Without really meaning to, I found myself creating a movement that was embodying this need to open up eyes and hearts, and continue my spiritual process, as well as help others in the spiritual process … that we, the Jews, are not the only ones in this land … that there are other people here and we need to take into account their existence, their humanity, their needs, their suffering.”
Schlesinger met with Palestinians who had been working toward a solution for more than a decade, but only with secular Israelis in Tel Aviv. Until Schlesinger made the connection, they had not sat down with Jewish settlers.
“They’d never met their own neighbours, who are religious Jews, who are deeply connected to the land in a religious, historical sense,” said Schlesinger.
As was the case with Schlesinger, these Palestinians began to undergo a transformation in their understanding. The Israelis with whom they had spoken before then had explained Zionism as of 1948, sometimes as far back as the 1880s. But the secular Israelis had never explained, because, Schlesinger said, they didn’t really know themselves, the ancient Jewish connection to the land – the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
“These Palestinians were getting to know the foundations of Zionism and the Jewish history, culture and religion … just as I was getting to know the fact that there are Palestinians and that they have been living here for many, many years,” said Schlesinger. “Both sides were undergoing revelations.”
Seeing these positive results on a micro-level, with one another, they decided to create a foundation for macro-transformation.
According to Schlesinger, the Oslo Accord did not go far enough. He explained, “It didn’t involve religious Jews or settlers who are deeply connected to the roots of the conflict, the land and history. It marginalized them and swept under the rug, ignoring the roots of the conflict. On the Palestinian side, it didn’t involve observant Muslims. It didn’t involve people deeply connected to the land and history – the people today that they call ‘Hamas.’”
With about a thousand people from each side stepping up and coming to events, Schlesinger understands this is only a drop in the bucket. But, he takes solace in the fact that this is only the beginning.
“Those who do hear of us on both sides, most are critical or skeptical … [seeing us as] ridiculous or traitorous … [because we believe] the other side is worthy to talk to … is human,” said Schlesinger. “It’s really hard going, an uphill struggle. I’ll even say that, especially for our Palestinian partners, it’s particularly challenging. They’re being confronted in their societies and are asking themselves how they can allow themselves to go against the accepted narrative.”
Roots has created different activities with a focus on the youth, keeping in mind the larger goal of transforming Israeli and Palestinian societies.
“For the Palestinians, in their society, ‘dialogue’ is a dirty word,” said Schlesinger. “Dialogue is just a way for the Israelis to buy time before they completely take over their land and destroy them…. Again, their narrative is that Israelis just want to talk and that nothing comes of it.
“When we organize our summer camp and photography workshop, we have to really make it clear to Israelis that the goal is not [only] to get to know the Palestinians. The goal is to get to know them, so that we will have a foundation to bring peace and justice.”
Roots is now working with high school students, where the youth meet three times a month and have joint activities, meals, field trips and conversations about identity, narrative and truth. “This is creating ongoing connections that are powerful,” said Schlesinger.
The group is working to develop political awareness on both sides. They are finding that this aspect is moving much faster on the Palestinian side, as their situation is more dire.
“For the Israelis living here, life is more or less normal,” said Schlesinger. “Every once in awhile, someone is attacked with a knife or a gun and someone may be killed or injured, and that’s a terrible tragedy. But, most people are not killed in terrorist attacks and most don’t have children with relatives killed. Most people have normal lives.
“On the Palestinian side, it’s different. They live under military occupation every single day and they are suffering: suffering from poverty, disenfranchisement and from having their dignity stripped of them.
“I say all that to explain that although on the Israeli side the status quo, is not so bad and most people are willing to live with it … on the Palestinian side, the status quo is insufferable. Our hope is nothing less than peace, justice and reconciliation.”
A documentary has been made about Roots. Called The Fields, it focuses on the founding leaders on both sides – Schlesinger and Judelman on the settlers’ side and Awwad and Khaled Abu Awwad on the Palestinian side. A trailer of it can be watched at friendsofroots.net.
If the occupation is going to end with the help of North American Jews, it will be owing to the growing force of millennials who stand up not only for their own rights, but the rights of others.
One of these individuals has taken to social media via a series of parody videos to get her message across. As Avi Does the Holy Land prepares to launch its second video-log season, I’ve been thinking about its creator, Calgary-raised Aviva Zimmerman. When I was first alerted to “Avi’s” Facebook page, I admit I was fooled. “Arab workers literally BUILDING the Tel Aviv boardwalk. And they call us a racist country?!! #TelAviv #coexistence,” she wrote. I nearly shot back in anger to the mutual friend who had acquainted us, before taking a closer look. Satire is supposed to cut close to the bone, and that’s certainly what Avi Does the Holy Land does.
In the v-log’s first season, “Avi,” a sexed-up Canadian Jew who “went on a Birthright trip and fell in love with Israel,” skewers Israeli treatment of liberal Zionist critics, Israel’s shoddy treatment of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, Tel Aviv’s party scene as counterterrorism policy and Israeli LGBTQ policy as used in the government’s PR campaigns. A successful Indiegogo campaign for season 2 has now expanded to raising funds for a live show.
“Avi” is one type of millennial Jew – though, of course, a larger-than-life version. The differences in opinion and action among millennials regarding Israel, however, are real, ranging from those trying to burnish Israel’s image abroad via an uncritical look at the country to those trying to tarnish every image of the country. But there is a healthy cadre of young Jews deploying a sense of solidarity with their own, as well as with the oppressed.
Some young Jews are gravitating to Open Hillel, to encourage a more pluralistic discourse about Israel on North American campuses, or to the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence, which takes young Jews to the West Bank for projects in solidarity with Palestinians resisting settler encroachment. At the University of British Columbia, there’s the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which bills itself as “a group of progressive Jews committed to creating a new, vibrant, independent Jewish space.”
And there’s IfNotNow, whose anti-occupation mission has expanded into resisting the many moves of Trump’s administration. IfNotNow declares on its website, “Just as Moses was commanded to return to Egypt and fight for the liberation of his people, we, too, feel called to take responsibility for the future of our community. We know the liberation of our Jewish community is bound up in the liberation of all people, particularly those in Israel and Palestine.” Recently, IfNotNow created a hashtag called #ResistAIPAC. “When the Trump Administration Goes to AIPAC, the Jewish resistance will be there to meet them,” the site says.
With the message of Passover soon upon us again, we might best consider how to raise children whose connection to Israel can be transformed into one pushing for rights and freedom for all.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications.
Avi Zimmerman chose for Talk17 a format that would allow a speaker to share their stories and views uninterrupted. (photo from Avi Zimmerman)
There is a range of strong opinions when it comes to Jewish community development east of the Green Line. Many around the world refer to these Israeli communities as “settlements.” But, to Avi Zimmerman of the Ariel Foundation and many Israelis, Ariel is something else.
Zimmerman was born and raised in West Orange, N.J. He made aliyah in 1995 and served in the Israel Defence Forces. After earning a degree in occupational therapy at the Hebrew University and then working in the field for four years, he and his wife decided to move to Ariel. There, Zimmerman started up an aliyah program.
“I was then asked to run the Ariel Foundation, which is what I’ve been doing for the last eight years or so,” Zimmerman told the Independent. “The foundation is not only for raising funds for city projects, it also provides accurate information about the city of Ariel to an international public.”
Ariel will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2018. Established on Aug. 17, 1978, with 40 families, it is now a city of close to 20,000 residents, plus an additional 15,000 students studying at Ariel University.
Geographically, Ariel is east of Tel Aviv, past the Green Line. Given what he – and others – see as misinformation being spread about Jewish communities east of the Green Line, Zimmerman decided to share stories from the people actually living in the area and how local people feel about various issues.
To do this, Zimmerman copied a format that has worked very well for TED Talks on YouTube, and created Talk17.
“Our lives are not lived through a conflict lens, fortunately, nor are those of our Palestinian neighbours,” he explained. “Those elements possibly do exist. It’s not that they don’t exist. But, they are not the primary theme of the way life is lived here.
“If people are interested in what goes on here, I think it’s only fair to the international community to provide more accurate information – not in terms of stats or facts, although that’s part of it … [but] beyond that, in terms of the voices from the region.
“The concept is, instead of talking about us in a well-intentioned yet disenfranchising way, just listen to us and hear what we have to say.”
Zimmerman chose the TED Talk format because it is not confrontational, as are debates and as can be panel discussions. The format allows a presenter to tell their whole story without interruption.
“We want to give authentic voices an opportunity and a fair platform, so there’s no debate, no winners and losers, no questions and answers,” he explained. “There’s no objective right or wrong to that. It’s authentic…. I think, ultimately, people are interested in the breadth and depth of the story.
“There are a lot of people who like to live in what they are calling echo chambers … in a world where everybody says what they like to hear, and they de-friend you if you say something else. A lot of the world is just moving in that direction. But they are not our target audience. If you already know everything, we can’t convince you otherwise. You’re going to turn off the video when you hear something you don’t like and that will be the end of it. My target audience is authentic people. They actually care and are willing to listen to new ideas they’re not familiar with.”
While an 18-minute video is hard for some people to get through, Zimmerman has been finding that, organically, Talk17 has been successful by having speakers who are on the frontlines of change-making. He gave as an example an exchange he’d had just before his interview with the Jewish Independent – an artist had happened upon Talk17’s Facebook page and was very excited about the concept. The artist runs an organization that uses the arts as a form of intercultural dialogue and they and Zimmerman are now working on plans for an arts-themed program, including an exhibition, at the end of April.
“It was just a preliminary conversation today,” said Zimmerman. “But, the thing is, these are the kinds of people who can help us open new doors.”
Since starting Talk17, 90% of the views, as it happens, have been from Arab-speaking, self-identified Palestinians, said Zimmerman. “We’re reaching across the aisle,” he said. “There’s something very real to this.”
While Palestinians, Israelis and Canadians are open to listening to talks in languages other than English, Zimmerman has found that Americans are less willing to do so. Because of this, he has decided to stick with English for Talk17.
“We automatically limit ourselves to English-speakers,” he said. “They don’t have to be native English-speakers. We try to get a fair balance of Arab and Palestinian voices among the Jewish and Israeli voices. We try to get a fair balance of women and men.
“We try to find people that have a unique story … so, it’s not just a personal story, but there’s a new concept to it. If you follow the first videos we’ve been launching, you’ll see each story is very different. We’re also trying to work on themes, events with themes.”
He said an upcoming theme will be diplomatic options for the future. “For 50 years,” he said, “we’ve heard about the two-state solution, we’ve heard about it since the 1947 Partition Plan. But, the point is, it’s not going anywhere. So, people are saying that, if not that, then what? So, we want to examine that.”
Zimmerman hopes that, by the end of the process, he will have been able to create a video archive that people can access to deepen and broaden the conversation about the region, so they can realize there is more to the story than they thought from just reading a short article or hearing a news clip.
Zimmerman also hopes that, in the future, visitors to Israel will be more willing to venture out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and will come visit Ariel to experience firsthand the beauty of the region and its people.
“We all need to remember that, regardless of the terms of the deal that one day will hopefully be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, and regardless of where the lines will be drawn, Jews and Arabs will be neighbours forever,” said Zimmerman. “With that in mind, we need to figure out how to work with them directly, and we’d appreciate it if the world would allow us to do so, by appreciating the dynamics between us … by having this window into our interactions.
“However, the objective of Talk17 is not for me to have a better relationship with my Palestinian neighbour. That’s an added value … something we do anyway. We don’t need Talk17 for me to meet with my friend on Wednesday. We need Talk17 for the relationship between the Israelis and the international community, and the Palestinians and the international community.”