On February 3, Brock University hosted its tenth annual Social Justice Forum in the Marilyn Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts in St. Catharines, Ont. Once producing train seats, that repurposed factory now showcases the humanities. A conference dealing with environment, human and labour rights found the renovated venue a fitting place for the 12 workshops.
The session “Palestine/Israel: From Zionism to ‘Boycott, Divest and Sanction:’ Challenging the Rhetoric; Dispelling the Myths” drew some 50 attendees packed into a classroom for 30. Leading the popular conversation were Rabbi David Mivasair and Christian Courier’s own Ineke Medcalf.
Rabbi Mivasair’s credentials build on four years’ residency in Israel, where he both attended university and taught school. These days he travels there as an activist for Palestinian rights. Currently two adult children live in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Ms. Medcalf goes to Israel/Palestine often. From October, 2014 to January, 2015 she participated in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel, a World Council of Churches’ effort. During a recent trip, Medcalf suffered in an unprovoked tear gas attack by IDF soldiers on the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem.
Framing the issue
After brief personal introductions, Medcalf began the 75-minute workshop reciting important basic facts of Israeli and Palestinian history since Israel’s 1948 founding. Though almost all attendees were clearly “members of the choir,” the brief slide presentation set the stage for personal anecdotes by the rabbi and her, ending with 25 minutes of questions and responses.
Starting in Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea, Medcalf showed images from lives of the 1.8 million Palestinians crammed in the tiny “strip” measuring 10 by 51 kilometres – among the planet’s densest populations. Gaza, a place with virtually no green spaces, receives electricity about four hours a day.
On the other side of Israel lies the West Bank. There high walls separate Palestinian families from relatives in villages sometimes located just across the wall. Yet travel to time-consuming security checkpoints in the walls adds hours to visits. Walls also split farmers from fields. When they are not permitted to cross, they return home without working. In Hebron and elsewhere, children must pass checkpoints to attend school.
Describing a Catch 22, Medcalf showed West Bank Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed time and again; they were built without permits. When people apply, though, they can’t get permits, often pitching tents, which too are frequently demolished. Ancient olive groves are regularly ripped out to expand settlements in the West Bank. No matter the reasons, it is jarring to see pictures of Palestinians, officially called “Arabs” by the Israeli government, living in shacks or tents without power or water. Israeli settlers occupy solid masonry homes metres away.
Looking for action
After Medcalf’s introduction, Rabbi Mivasair switched gears.
“We don’t need more information. People who come here know enough. What are 10 things you’d like to talk about to do something to improve Canada’s policies in Palestine?”
The audience didn’t immediately bite on that ripe question, asking instead, “How much of the Palestinian-Israel issue is driven by religion?”
Mivasair’s response: “A lot. As a child I learned that all Jews had the right to live where Abraham and Sarah went, where David strummed his harp. Yet remember, our faith also commands justice: Don’t cut down fruit trees; don’t remove boundary markers from your neighbour’s property. But that’s precisely what the Israeli government keeps doing.”
Moving toward the action question, several people asked about the history and effectiveness of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement (BDS).
Mivasair’s clear answer: “About 10 years ago Palestinian civil society organizations in Palestine organized BDS to pressure Israel to give freedom, justice and equality to Palestinians. To calls it BDS was really a PR mistake. They should have called it the movement for freedom, justice and equality. Still, BDS is patterned after anti-Apartheid tactics in South Africa. The United Church of Canada supports BDS.”
What about BDS’s effectiveness? The rabbi continued, “It has some impact on Israel’s economy, but the economy’s strong. Not buying an Israeli hummus or halvah won’t make Israel leave Bethlehem. Still, it is an effective way to engage people, but the impact is like a flea in an elephant’s ear. The elephant will notice the flea, will be bothered, but not hurt. Still, some corporate pension plans [not named] have withdrawn investments from Israel, so there is some impact.”
At that point Rami, who grew up in Palestine, spoke: “BDS draws attention to injustice, one example of which is the Israeli practice of giving biblical names to settlements that aren’t historical, but settled after 1948. In 1990 we could visit Israeli friends. After checkpoints were set up, friends lost contact; many haven’t entered Jerusalem since. A generation of Palestinian kids knows Israelis only as occupying soldiers.”
Another attendee asked, “What about Canada’s $30,000,000 aid to Palestinians?”
Mivasair answered, “Those funds support the Palestinian Authority’s Security Police. Their officers quell demonstration, thus oppressing their own people.” He suggested that people lobby MPs to support programs to meet real human needs instead.
Medcalf added that, “Since the Liberals took office, Canada has provided $20,000,000 to support education, health and social services for vulnerable Palestinian refugees, as well as urgent humanitarian assistance.”
What does the Ecumenical Accompaniment project accomplish? Here Medcalf spoke from experience: “Participants do basic, grounded work assisting Palestinians. We take kids to medical appointments or school. We run errands for families who need assistance.”
Finally, one person asked about Canadian support of a two-state solution. Mivasair replied, “A two-state solution is a delusion; Israel will never permit it. The idea simply maintains the current oppression. God doesn’t want us to be separate. Let’s aspire to one nation state with different people, different languages. Canada continues to build a nation with many ethnicities, two official and many unofficial languages. Why couldn’t that happen in Israel-Palestine?” Why indeed.
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