A Non-Violent Response to the Israeli Occupation?

 — Nov. 1, 20051 nov. 2005

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International Meeting on Responsible Investment:
"A Non-Violent Response to the Israeli Occupation?"

Toronto, Ontario, 25-29 October 2005
A trip report by Stuart Brown, Canadian Centre for Ecumenism

1. The purpose of this trip was to attend an international meeting on responsible investment: "A Non-Violent Response to the Israeli Occupation?" Our Centre was one of the sixty sponsors of this conference, which was organized by the Canadian Friends of Sabeel. I travelled by train, and I stayed with my elder son and his family in Downsview.

2. The first event in the conference program was a lecture by Jeff Halper, an Israeli anthropologist, at Trinity-St Paul’s United Church, on Wednesday evening, 26 October. (Halper is also the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against the Destruction of Houses.) According to him, most Israelis want peace, and Prime Minister Sharon wants to complete his program and leave politics: this program would be to consolidate the territories permanently transferred to the State of Israel and to make it impossible for a Palestinian state to exist. It seems that Sharon is convinced of the need for a Palestinian "state" in five cantons (Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, East Jerusalem and Gaza), separated by Israel territory. According to Halper, this is a type of apartheid. He insists that the two-state solution is no longer feasible; the only alternative to apartheid would be a unitary state, where all inhabitants would be citizens with equal rights, or where there would be two (or more) classes of citizen. To avoid the imposition of apartheid, Halper wants sanctions against the occupation of Palestinian lands. He would target the companies which produce goods in the occupied territories, universities which conduct research there, sports teams which play there, etc. There were at least 250 people present to hear this lecture; ten of them asked question, well phrased for the most part, and Halper gave good and careful answers.

3. Thursday 27 I went to the offices of the United Steelworkers on Cecil Street near the campus of the University of Toronto. There I chatted with the conference chair, the Revd Robert Assaly and several others while we waited for the program to begin. B.H. Yael, a Toronto cinematographer, showed three of her films and told us about herself. (She was born in Israel, where her father had come from Poland and her mother from Iraq, and she has been active in the peace movement for several years.) The first film recalls the memory of the massacre at Deir Yassin; the second, which is longer, speaks of the solidarity which Yael would like to encourage between Israelis and Palestinians, even as it shows several instances of persecution (land seizures, home destructions, intimidation, poisoning of water etc.). The third film, in three languages, is more poetic, with a mix of Israeli and Palestinian music, scenes and words. We were more than a hundred present, and the discussion was lively and rather broad, touching contacts between peace activists on both sides of the divide and underlining official efforts to suppress all evidence of persecution, including the reduction of school programs. Some Jewish private schools have developed their own programs in collaboration with Palestinian friends. It was noted that "Canada Park" sits on the site of three destroyed villages. Yael’s films are available for $150 on the site vtape.org

4. Frances Combs, from the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada, showed us a film entitled "Protest and Prayer", which describes a committee’s efforts to persuade the Conference to join a boycott and a campaign of divestment from companies profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. The main obstacles were the ignorance of Canadians about historical and political facts and the prejudices which rejected any criticism of the Israeli government and which portrayed the victims of persecution as terrorists; for example, some people would not believe that there are many more deaths among Palestinians than Israelis. Evidence of the destruction of the databases of the Palestinian ministries in 2001 has been systematically eliminated. The film shows some moments during the Conference meeting which adopted the resolution. During the break, I chatted with Linda Nichols (Anglican Church), Mary Corkery (Kairos), Marjorie Ross (Presbyterian Church), Bill Hanzen (Mennonite Central Committee), Keith Reynolds (Society of Friends, Whistler, BC) and Michael Peers (Toronto School of Theology).

5. Thursday afternoon was the time for the official opening. Robert Assaly told us about how the conference had come about, pausing to evoke the memory of Jim Graff, longtime coordinator of ecumenical efforts for justice in the Middle East, who had died of cancer on Sunday 23, just before the conference began. Robert invited us to share Jim’s dream of peace and reconciliation, between Palestinians and Israelis and throughout the world. Robert also explained that the program would be built on a series of discussions and exchanges. He introduced Michael Peers, praising him for his contributions to the cause of justice. Michael spoke of his fifty years of witness, beginning with his student years at the University of British Columbia. He wove together his experiences in Palestine and South Africa, and he finished by saying that he had never allowed himself to be disempowered.

6. Dale Hildebrand, from Kairos, was the moderator of our first panel. Naïm Ateek, an Anglican Palestinian priest and director of the Sabeel Centre in Jerusalem, was our first speaker. (The Sabeel Centre is an ecumenical institution for liberation theology.) The title of this talk was "Why Now?" Sabeel is not the originator of the boycott campaign, which was started by the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church in the USA. All the churches support the existence of the State of Israel, but they insist that this State should end the occupation and negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Naïm toted that today’s world does not like walls: the Berlin Wall has come down and this new wall in Palestine has convinced nobody of its political necessity. It seems that nobody can stop Israeli persecution. Jesus preached love and Sabeel has therefore turned to the churches in search of justice. The churches ought to support justice and truth by eliminating their investments in this unjust occupation.

7. Stav Adivi, a member of the group "Courage to Refuse" and the Committee against the Destruction of Houses, refused to serve as an army officer in the occupied territories. He said that he agreed with everything that Naïm had said, and he insisted that the only away for Israel to have security would be through recognition of the Palestinians’ rights and the negotiation of a lasting peace. It is the duty of the international community to help Israel achieve these goals. Several times Stav repeated that he was against the occupation only, while the existence of the State of Israel was not in question. Justice delayed is justice denied. We must have the courage to act, now. Even though we were a bit behind schedule, we heard a number of questions and answers. The main themes of the discussion were the clear distinction between Israel and the occupation, future relations between Israel and the Palestinian state in particular and the Arab states in general.

8. The conference’s organizing committee had prepared eight workshops to sharpen our minds, but we had to make some serious choices. For my first workshop, I went to group #2, chaired by Monica Styron, a Presbyterian from California, helped by Frances Combs from the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada and David Wildman of the United Methodist Church. Frances told about the work leading to the adoption of the Conference resolution, as we had seen in the film. She added that, even after the resolution had passed, there had been some foot-dragging, but she had persevered. Finally, she had cleared all the hurdles and someone had been hired to staff the implementation. David outlined the practical aspects, based on 1 Jn 3:18 (let us love one another, not only with words, but in truth and action). For example, we could see whether interfaith dialogue is falsely used to prevent action: we must base our work on justice. We must pray without ceasing and maintain contact with the political and religious authorities concerning earlier declarations and decisions. Members have a responsibility to know the current positions of their churches concerning investments. Some churches (e.g., the Mennonite Church) have prepared lists of agencies in Israel and Palestine which deserve positive investments. The Episcopal Church in the USA is reducing its investments, but wants to keep a small remnant to be able to make proposals in shareholders’ meetings. At the site iccr.org we can see the list of boycotts and divestment campaigns currently supported by the churches. One participant also wished to underline the importance of contacts with the press.

9. For my second workshop, I was in group #8 with about ten others. The title of this workshop considered fair trade and alternative tourism. Robert Massoud told us of the olive oil he was selling (Zatoun brand), produced from the trees of his family and his Palestinian friends. The cooperative (www.zatoun.com) has recently begun to sell olive soap. The workers and their partners have become friends through their common efforts. The big problem facing the organization just now is overcoming the "viability barrier": how to make the operation sustainable. Mary Corkery suggested a campaign like the "Tools for Peace" campaign which had supported Nicaraguan workers in the 70’s and 80’s. Robert concluded his presentation by underlining that the Palestinians hoped to develop intensive agricultural operations (olives, oranges). We ended our discussion with a review of several groups which sponsor responsible tourism in Palestine.

10. Naïm Ateek was the evening’s lecturer, at Bloor Street United Church, speaking to about 150 people about his vision for the Sabeel movement. He reminded us that the foundation’s priorities are justice, peace and reconciliation – in that order because the Palestinians would need to have justice before they could build peace and develop reconciliation. There were many good questions, and a few political speeches posing as questions. Naïm responded to every intervention with patience and calm.

11. I got to the Hall early Friday morning so I could set out some twenty copies of our magazine in English and ten in French, on the table which had been allocated to the Centre. I visited the other tables, most of which treated particular aspects of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean or campaigns against violence. Imam Farid Esack from South Africa led us in a reflection, reminding us that we are God’s creatures and that we would return to God. Our talents belong to God, and we will have to tell God what we have done with the resources entrusted to us.

12. Stephen Sizer, from the British committee of Friends of Sabeel, chaired our first session. He read a report on the destruction of a Palestinian village and the awarding of a prize to the most diligent bulldozer operator. Jad Isaac, executive director of the Jerusalem Institute for Applied Research, was supposed to speak to us about the economic impact of investments, but he had not been allowed to leave Bethlehem. So we heard his recorded speech and watched a series of accompanying illustrations. He explained how the present regime in Israel had limited Palestinians’ access to the Israeli labour market, even as it destroyed homes and industrial buildings in Palestinian territory. At the same time, Israel is seizing more and more lands which had been in Palestinian hands, transferring them to new settlements, especially in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. The settlers had been withdrawn from Gaza, but the territory has become the world’s largest prison, controlled by the Israeli authorities. On the West Bank, there are two road networks: the paved network of 750 km reserved for Israelis, and another system, less direct, for the Palestinians. The government plans to dig tunnels to link the Palestinian zones and avoid the presence of Palestinian vehicles on the Israeli roads. Repression leads to increased frustration, which is the breeding ground of violence.

13. We succeeded in reaching Jad by telephone, and several participants were thus able to ask him questions. We were about a hundred in the hall, and for half an hour Jad replied to a dozen or so questions. For example, he was asked to define "viability", to discuss the fate of Palestinians living in areas surrounded by settlements, physical constraints like the restrictions of movements or visits, the sea wall in Gaza. Jad’s presentation is available at www.arij.org

14. Michael Mandel, a professor at Osgoode Law School, gave us a lecture about the judicial aspects of the occupation. Speaking as a Jew opposed to this occupation of Palestinian territory, Mandel believes that the solution to the situation rests entirely in the hands of the government of Israel, which need only accept the 1967 borders and the UN resolutions. The occupation is illegal and criminal. Several current policies and activities of the government of Israel are contrary to Canadian and international law. A divestment campaign by the Canadian government would be illegal, but a public campaign by individuals would be within the law. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has criticized the government’s position. The illegal occupation of the West Bank constitutes an aggression, and every act of violence to support this aggression is a crime under international law. There are 400,000 illegal settlers on Palestinian land. This occupation, said the professor, is not good for the Palestinians; it is equally bad for Israel and all the Jews. It is illegal, and its continuation works against every effort for peace.

15. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great "patron" of Sabeel, had planned to attend the conference. Prevented by illness, he had sent a video, in which he deplored the attitude and the actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. He insisted that violence breeds violence, and he pleaded for more conciliatory attitudes on all sides: "Give peace a chance!"

16. Monica Lambton offered an overview of the workshop discussions. Most participants had found the workshops useful because they had offered opportunities for networking, even though they also allowed a few negative elements to attack the people who were trying to improve the situation.

17. We then attended our third set of workshops. This time, I went to the discussion of an international movement for responsible investment. Mary Lou Leiser Smith from ICAHD-USA (North Carolina) and Jeff Halper (executive director of ICAHD in Jerusalem) were our leaders. (Perhaps we should recall that ICAHD is the Israeli Committee against the Demolition of Houses.) Jeff wanted the group to develop an effective strategy, but it seemed difficult to get the exact formula. We have to keep in mind that the primary goal is to end the occupation. We can easily divest our money from Caterpillar, but we would have to find another company in which a church could invest. (The Canadian company SNC-Lavalin built the main road reserved for Israelis from Jerusalem to Jericho.) Several participants wished for more clarity in the terms of the discussion: we want to inform people about the occupation and we want to recruit them in an effort to end it. There are companies which have opened branches in the occupied territories (Starbuck’s, Burger King, Estée Lauder) and others which have profited from the occupation in some way (Motorola, ITT). We know that the oranges, dates and avocados sold abroad are mostly products of occupied lands. Several participants noted that it was necessary to correct the image of Israel, which is a regional power rather than a victim. ICAHD-USA is preparing documents to be used in educating the public.

18. During the break, I chatted with Bob Paterson-Watt of the Baptist Peace Fellowship. Then we returned to the plenary to hear a third panel: Colin Morton from the Mission Commission of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland was the chair. Amneh Badran from the Jerusalem Women’s Centre gave us her analysis of the parallels between the South African apartheid system and the Zionist regime in occupied Palestine. In both cases, a group of people from overseas settled a country where there was already an indigenous population, even though it was conventional to refer to uninhabited lands or to peoples of inferior culture. The Group Areas Act assigned lands to certain ethnic groups, just like the rules imposed by the Jewish Agency. In both cases, the indigenous populations were forced to leave their ancestral homes to live in the zones reserved for them by the authorities. Israel was the only state to recognize the Bantustans established by the South African system. The ANC never gave up, and it finally won its independence, but the PLO accepted a partition of the territory. The ANC enjoyed the support of the neighbouring peoples, while Arab governments have done nothing practical for the PLO. Most Israelis liberals have acted in their own interests instead of seeking an egalitarian society. The white liberals in South Africa, few though they were, worked with the African populations in a common struggle for a free society with equal rights for all.

19. Farid Esack, who had already led the morning’s meditation, began his lecture by distinguishing between the South African and Palestinian situations. Life in occupied Palestine, he said, is much more complicated and more difficult than the suffering ever was in South Africa. By mistreating the Palestinians, the Israelis and all their accomplices are contributing to sacrilege against a great religious tradition. The South African regime never officially condoned torture, nor collective punishment. Before demolishing houses, the apartheid regime issued notices, several months before the date.

20. Luthuli and his colleagues had asked for sanctions in the 60’s, but it was only after the uprisings of the 70’s that the movement in general supported the call. International solidarity was an important element in the South African struggle, along with the internal resistance led by the national movement and the armed struggle. Appeals for sanctions were in the framework of a sent of specific requests, developed in consultation with friends abroad. These friends had to act according to their own consciences: "now we are in solidarity with the victims of a system which soils our own hands and we are acting for our own purification."

21. After the break, we had yet another panel. Kim Byham, lawyer and member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church (USA), did not feel that divestment could was the blood from our hands, for most of the stains on American hands had been put there by the US government. The Presbyterian Church’s stand had given a courageous example and a warning of the possible consequences, especially in terms of the reactions of pro-Israeli organizations. There are some voices in ECUSA who wish cut off discussion of divestment, but there are also good contacts with the Church of Jerusalem and Canon Ateek. ECUSA has chosen a policy of positive engagement with all participants in the economy of the occupied territories: shareholders’ resolutions, press releases, investments in local enterprises.

22. Frances Combs once more told the story of how she had guided the committee on divestment in the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada: defeated in 2002, the resolution was passed in 2003. Nathan Wright spoke of the experience of the committee which won approval for a resolution for divestment in the General Council of the United Church of Christ in the USA, in spite of the dishonest manoeuvres of the opponents.

23. Anne Remley of the Society of Friends in Michigan described the efforts at promoting peace in Israel and Palestine within her own church, in the ecumenical movement and in municipal councils. Marc Tétreault, from the Alternatives movement based in Montreal, tries to sensitize the Quebec public to the questions involved in a divestment and boycott campaign. After his talk there was a general discussion. Evangelical Zionism poses a challenge to theologians, evoking, for example, the prophets who criticized oppression. There were some doubts about the effectiveness of investments in small enterprises, but Kim underlined the Christian’s "duty" to be optimistic, stressing the positive point that people who have invested in something will pay attention to the fate of their assets. Jews opposed to the occupation encouraged everyone to hold fast.

24. At the reception, I chatted with Marjorie Ross and Mary Corkery, before taking my place for the official dinner. I chatted with Nathan Wright and Colin Morton, and we all heard a gently provocative speech by Luis Prado, a retired Anglican bishop from Brazil.

25. Mitch Smolkin, a cantor, and Judith Wiseman led our meditation Saturday morning. They spoke of a time when people lived in peace without fortifications, when men and women lived as equal partners in harmony with all creation. They supported their message with some biblical songs (Song of Songs, Psalms) in Hebrew and some readings in English, and Mitch got us all to sing in Yiddish.

26. Marjorie Ross was the moderator of the next panel, in her capacity as chair of the Canadian Churches’ Middle East Working Group. The first speaker, Bill Somplatsky-Jarman from the Presbyterian Church USA began by referring to the letter in our folios from Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA and a lifelong advocate of justice in Palestine. The PCUSA’s General Assembly voted for a progressive divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian lands, following the model develop in the cases of South Africa and Sudan. This action had elicited a massive reaction from the Israeli government and its friends. Bill underlined the importance of a well-conceived and well-managed press strategy, and he expressed his appreciation of the colleagues in his own church and the partners in other churches and organizations who had expressed solidarity. On behalf of the audience, Marjorie thanked the PCUSA for its courageous intiative.

27. Liat Weingart spoke to us as the representative of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which had been the first Jewish organization to support the PCUSA position. Liat recounted the experience which had helped her understand how her grandfather’s artistic village had been stolen from its Palestinian inhabitants. Today in Israel, there are no road signs to show the way to Arab villages, even though Arabs make up 20% of the total population of the State of Israel, to say nothing of the occupied territories. Polls indicate that half of the Jews in America want Israel to make concessions in order to obtain a lasting peace. The great Jewish institutions are doing nothing, and there is therefore a rise in the number of "marginal" groups expressing this new tendency.

28. Monica Lambton, conference secretary, had recruited me to chair a group in the fourth workshop session; eight people were summoned during the break so she could instruct us on our duties for the afternoon.

29. When the panel resumed, it was the turn of David Wildman of the United Methodist Church. He described the American churches’ campaign, which had adopted the slogan, "Freedom from occupation, equal rights for all under international law". The campaign is based on a common commitment for human rights, and there are already some two hundred groups working together in the coalition. One of the main areas of activity is the policy of the US government, while the great challenge is circulating information and ideas for effective action to undertake in various contexts. The Caterpillar Company has become the main target for the debates, because its bulldozers are used to destroy homes. At the end of his speech, David suggested that we should reduce the time we spend responding to critics so we can spend more time forming useful alliances.

30. The last speaker was Salpy Eskidjian, a former employee of the WCC‘s Commission for International Affairs. She underlined the essential role of the WCC in programs of social action, due to its historic involvement in supporting human rights and its basic networks in all parts of the world. The occupation is illegal and its consequences are immoral, and the WCC has always worked to end this injustice. Responsibility lies with every church to act according to its own conscience, and with the churches together, to join their efforts in support of justice in Palestine.

31. Marjorie offered a brief summary, noting that all the speakers had touched the same themes of empowerment: Christians know their duty and they are aware of the resources available. This conference has given us many ideas for putting our principles and tools into action. There were some twenty comments from the audience, concerning appreciation for the role of the WCC, the desire to involve interfaith dialogue groups in actions for justice, praise for the efforts of Christians, Muslims and Jews in Palestine and Israel working together for justice, and the wish to broaden and deepen these movements in North America.

32. We took our plates of hummus into the workshops. As expected, I was the chair of the dozen persons from Montreal, Ottawa and Hamilton. We elected Marjorie Hamilton as our rapporteur. The group supported the idea of an international network connected to Sabeel as well as the idea of a Canadian network which would circulate news from each region to encourage exchanges and to share collected information, for example, about Canadian companies involved in the occupied territories.

33. The final plenary, chaired by Chris Derksen Hiebert, a Mennonite from World Vision, first heard the eight workshop rapporteurs. The ultimate initiative must remain with the Palestinians who suffer the worst effects of the occupation. Some groups suggested that common calendars would help coordinate campaigns, visits or demonstrations. It would be difficult to sustain a coalition with a single program, but it is possible and desirable to have a network for information and mutual encouragement. It was decided to establish a continuation committee, and the Canadian Friends of Sabeel are to work on the organization of this committee.

34. Monica gave a summary of the conference, from the beginning (why now?) to the end (what next?). Naïm offered a homily on Lk 16: 1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager. This story gives us advice about responsible investment for the funds of a parish or a denomination. When a church learns that its funds have been used to support an illegal occupation, the members have a responsibility to act; otherwise, they become accomplices to the criminal actions of the occupation. The parable shows us that the leaders may manipulate the facts in a dishonest manner. The faithful must watch to assure that their investments have a positive effect on the populations affected. Finally, we must have clean hands: whoever is faithful in little things will be faithful in great things. We all have the responsibility of opposing evil.

35. This conference was an exercise in practical dialogue. There were Christians, Jews and Muslims from several parts of Canada, the USA, Europe, Israel and Palestine. United in the face of the evil of the occupation of Palestinian lands and the systematic oppression of their inhabitants, the participants committed themselves to combat this evil with all available means, and especially with campaigns and actions to affect the agencies and companies which are profiting from this illegal occupation and this inhuman oppression. I am circulating this report to the members of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Centre of Ecumenism and my colleagues on the Coordinating Committee of the Ecumenical Network for Justice and Peace, in order to encourage a broader reflection on the theme of responsible investment.

Posted: Nov. 1, 2005 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=2209
Categories: News
Transmis : 1 nov. 2005 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=2209
Catégorie : News

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