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.