“The Crime is Standing Aside and Doing Nothing”
Women in Black Reunion
March 23, 2007
Today we went to a Women in Black Vigil and the most wonderful thing happened, and I can hardly wait to tell it. Women in Black are mostly Israeli women who have been standing in silent vigil every Friday for almost 20 years holding signs in English and Hebrew and Arabic that say “Stop the Occupation.”
But to put my story in context I have to go back 15 years. I’m a fabric artist and I’m always looking for new images. So when I saw a photograph in a book of an elderly woman standing with Women in Black in Jerusalem holding her Stop the Occupation sign, I could hardly wait to get started. The caption below the picture said “This woman is demonstrating because her family was killed in the Holocaust and she doesn’t want the Palestinians to suffer as she has suffered.” Inspired, I stitched her portrait with her words embroidered behind her.
Later in 1994, I attended a Women in Black conference in Israel, and I found the subject of my portrait. I learned her name was Anna Colombo and that she was 86 years old, and she had grown up in Italy and those were indeed her words. I gave her the portrait I had made, which I had slipped into my back pack in the hope that we would meet.
We liked each other very much and corresponded for some years. In one of her letters to me she wrote that she had once been asked why she wasn’t afraid living in Europe under Hitler, and she had replied “Why should I be afraid? All Hitler can do is kill me, but he can never be right”. She became one of my heroes, and I have told her story many times over the years.
After awhile I stopped receiving her letters and I believed she had become too elderly to write, or perhaps was no longer alive. But today when we arrived at the Vigil, there she was, still dressed in black, now 98 years old and proudly holding up her Stop the Occupation sign for all to see. She remembered me perfectly although her hearing is poor and we spoke through a translator. But we had hugs and took photos, and although I can’t possibly carry her in my heart more than I already do, I’ve been given a huge gift in meeting with her again.
For Our Children
March 25, 2007
I find it difficult to write coherently about the many intertwining threads of my experience so far, especially so since there are so many troubling themes. Suffice it to say that I see this as an escalating system, rushing toward less and less desirable conditions, and that in such systems cause and effect, right and wrong, justified and unjustified simply do not leap out. In the recent past, repressions by Israel, the terror of Palestinian bombings to a society with so much terror in its past, the over-the-top security response of Israel (the wall, checkpoints, redundant roads, house demolitions…) which fragments Palestinian populations, separates villages from their land and other villages and so clearly violates human rights, is most depressing. Imagining what will follow if this path of escalation continues is just unthinkable.
We know that breaking any cycle of escalation requires massive efforts, courage, building trust, and dialogue. We have seen with our own eyes impressive efforts that are aimed at doing things in this direction: organizations collecting the facts making visible what is going on; very inspiring joint grass-roots efforts (one tragically bringing together bereaved parents of murdered children on both sides); village-level nonviolent resistance to the fracture of their lands and livelihood (where we stood with villagers confronting armed young Israeli soldiers); a Palestinian farmer surrounded by hostile Israeli settlements staying on his hilltop land and running programs for children from both sides.
I have thought of the wonder that an Israeli/US/World “Marshall Plan” would bring. I have thought how sad I am that the massive US aid to Israel is likely being used to continue the wall and settlement developments that are reducing the Palestinian standard of living, inhibiting democracy (freedom of movement already so restricted that political campaigns are very difficult) and the like. How much better to turn our aid, our tax contribution, into helping to rebuild this nascent state to viability and give respect to its people, draining any thoughts of violence as the only response. These are some of my hopes, stemming not from study or reading, but from seeing and conversing in person.
Just one more thing…and that is why we North Americans should care so much in such a troubled world on many fronts. Here are a couple of reasons, from conversation on our journey. First, whatever our religious views, this is the Holy Land, the birthplace of many major religions, and as such should be a powerful symbol for human rights and social justice. If it is not so viewed (and today it cannot be so viewed), it can drive a wedge with the third world, be a base for disrespect of our ways and violence toward our society. In addition, there is a historic US unique interest here, personally, politically, and financially which is in jeopardy. This is a place we need to care about and nurture, for of our children and future generations.
That’s all for now, just six days in (it seems like months), more caring, and trying to sort it out.
“We belong to the only club that does not seek new members”
It is a beautiful, clear, sunny, Sunday morning. We have some time to ourselves. I am reflecting on the last week and the amazing things that have been revealed to me on an hourly basis. Perhaps two of the most amazing I will try share now. I want to tell you of two men, brothers, who did not ask to be brothers.
Bassam is a Palestinian, with strong Arab features and centuries of struggle on his face and in his eyes. Like most Palestinian men, Bassam has spent time in an Israeli prison (the average Palestinian male will spend 3 years in jail). Bassam has spent nine years. Over such a period you have time to think, read, educate yourself and think some more. Through a process of reading and discussing with other prisoners, Bassam and others, like Suleiman (another man we met with who spent 10 years in jail), came to an understanding that violence gains nothing. Together, they have been working for the last two years to form the Combatants for Peace movement. If there were Palestinians who have come to this conclusion, surely there were Israeli soldiers who have reached the same conclusion. Word went out and indeed there were.
At first finding meeting places for these two groups was difficult. Neither were legally allowed in the same places. One time Palestinians were smuggled into Jerusalem (apropos of its history as a city of peace). Other times, Israelis sneaked into Bethelehem. Most often, the group would meet in a restaurant on the “seam” or the border. They met there until the wall made it inaccessible to the Israelis. Skeptical at first, taking the better part of six months just feeling each other out, the group grew and a declaration was formed. Neither Israel nor Palestine would survive if this craziness continued. If former soldiers could come together in peace this would be a sign to others – and so was formed Combatants for Peace. Combatants for Peace went public last year in April in a celebration and press conference in Jerusalem, strategically timed between the commemoration of Prisoners’ Day in Palestine and around the time of Passover in Israel. 125 ex-prisoners and former combatants, from both sides, were invited to gather in peace and solidarity –over 300 showed up. This year, the group is building toward a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine on June 5th.
Bassam has several children. One, an 11 year old daughter, Abir – a beautiful young Arab woman, and bright as demonstrated by her advanced math placement in a special program and her being offered scholarships to some of the fine Palestinian universities. In January, Abir attended a special exam in math. As the exam students were let out of school, Abir and her friends were walking past Israeli troops as they have done many times before. Witnesses say one stone was thrown. One shot was fired. A “rubber” bullet hit Abir in the back of the head. She was rushed to the hospital and for three days all that could be done was to watch her die.
I know how I would have reacted.
“I will not seek revenge. I believe in this peace and I will not break it,” Bassam said.
He continued, “my friends thought I lost my mind. For 3 days, while I stayed at the hospital Palestinian and Israeli stayed with me. It was an opportunity to use Abir’s blood as a bridge between people.”
“I wished and hoped Abir would be the last victim. Sadly, she is not.”
Bassam had become a member of another club; a club that does not seek new members. The Parents Circle – Families Forum: Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in this mess. One of the Israeli Combatants for Peace is the son of Rami Elhanan. Rami, an Israeli, lost his daughter in a suicide bombing almost 10 years ago. Like Bassam, Rami had hoped his loss would be the last. Now, Rami and Bassam are brothers tied together by the “power of pain.” “Together we can bang our heads against this pain,” says Rami, “or we can recognize that with people like this there is hope. The crime is standing aside and doing nothing.”
“Rami,” I asked, “how do you maintain your non-violent approach in the midst of all this pain and suffering?” With a smile and pounding his finger into the table, he answered, “nonviolence is a choice you must make every day. When you get up and the sleep clears your head, and the memory and pain start to return, you must look in the mirror and tell that man, no more killing, I swear.”
“The issue is not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. It must be pro-peace, pro-human rights, and against killing.”
“The agreement is on the table and it will be signed the minute the cost of making war is greater than the cost of making peace.
“As hard as it is to be a member of Bereaved Parents, it was thrust upon me and my dear friend Bassam. But these courageous men, the Combatants have made a choice to lay down their guns, and anger, and hatred. You may feel sad for me, but celebrate and lift up their bravery and dedication to peace.”
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