It’s Hard to Build Bridges when Bombs are Falling

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We stood to sing O Canada – “with glowing hearts …” – my heart was not glowing. Remain standing for Hatikva, “hope,” the Israeli anthem. Let me not give up hope. To attend this rally was difficult. We knew the Government of Canada was in wholehearted support of Israel, no matter what, and we knew that Israel’s position was to use its military power to keep Gaza under blockade and to squelch Hamas from its rocket fire — in their words, “defending against the terrorists.”
A few days into last week’s action, the call to rally came to my Inbox – Emergency Briefing, Crisis in Israel, at Vancouver’s reform Temple Shalom. Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, and ICEJ, the Canadian Branch of the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem, the featured speakers were the Hon. Stockwell Day, former MP with the Conservative Party of Canada, here representing the CIJA’s National Board of Directors; Mr. Eliaz Luf, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the State of Israel in Canada; and, via video, the Hon. Jason Kenney, MP, current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.
The night before, a hurried email campaign was organized by many dissenting voices and groups. Their invitation was to stand outside Vancouver’s Temple Shalom a half-hour before the program was scheduled to begin, in support of the people of Palestine, and in protest not only of Israel’s disproportionate display of strength over the past week, but against its ongoing blockade of Gaza.
I recently joined the planning team of Building Bridges Vancouver. I feel great compassion for all the people who are suffering in this ongoing struggle, Palestinians and Israelis, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, and I wish to support an end to the Occupation, granting all people a safe home with human and civil rights guaranteed. My views, sadly, are not welcome within parts of my own family or in the mainstream Jewish community. Until the night before the rally, my fears of confrontation and of being seen as a traitor to the Jewish community had overwhelmed my ability to act. But when I looked myself in the mirror and gave serious thought to the source of my fears, I suddenly realized that my own personal anxiety was not useful at all in such a critical matter. This is about human survival, the survival of humanity. I have to go.
With a flurry of emails amongst our group, seven of us on the committee decided to attend, and all felt better able to do so in the company of each other. We decided not to join the protest outside, figuring that the only chance we would have to raise concern for all people of the region would be to go inside, listen openly to the positions of our government and Israel’s government, and broaden the conversation by asking pertinent questions. We each wrote on small sheets of paper, deciding to fill the collection baskets with our questions should we be stopped from asking them.
Together we walked towards the synagogue steps. The protesters had been moved to one side. Security had been revved up, and our purses and bags were searched before our being admitted. Following the anthems, the speeches began. We heard about Israel’s democracy, the human rights and privileges it grants to “all citizens.” We heard how willingly Israel takes in people from every oppressive country and every belief system, while other countries do not. Israel helps first in every world disaster. Their generosity, advances in technology and sense of the humanitarian know no bounds, even though people world-wide probably don’t know any of this, they say; because they don’t brag about it.
No mention was made of Palestinians, those in Gaza, their children, their poverty, their humanity, their need for generosity. The generosity was for Jews, for Israel’s supporters, for other downtrodden people, but not for those behind the Wall. Suddenly, a small group of people near the back of the hall stood and called out, “What about the Palestinians?” Within moments, Security ushered them out of the sanctuary. As the speeches continued, one of our group members, called out, too. He was ignored by the speaker, but was watched carefully as he sat down — and when he left the building shortly thereafter, because what was being said was so intolerable to him, someone from Security rushed to check under his chair.
When Israel left Gaza in 2005, pronounced the Israeli deputy ambassador, they left it in the charge of the Palestinians. Israel never interfered. And what have the Palestinians done with it? he asked. The green fields and farmlands are now a wasteland; they made it themselves. The picture he painted became more and more repugnant. He was actually gloating as he spoke. He stressed how the rockets from Gaza have bombarded southern Israel daily, and that they are not merely firecracker rockets; they are bombs, 1500 of them in this last barrage, terrifying Israel’s millions. They are strategically fired from schools and hospitals because the Palestinians know that Israel would never retaliate to places filled with children, the sick and the vulnerable. Palestinians take that risk, he said. They put their children in harm’s way, intentionally; they don’t value the lives of their own children.
His final topic was asymmetry, not referring to the power differential between Israelis and Palestinians, but to Israel as target of blame, target of anti-Semitism, target of the media, when it is so small, surrounded by Arab countries, suffering the constant threat of Iran and the fervent wish of every Palestinian to see all of us dead. Why? he asked. So that they can take over the land – the land promised to the Jews! And, he added, we have all the documentation necessary to prove that promise!
A terrible sadness overtook me. It was very clear that the speakers and the audience held a very fixed point of view. They were not looking for a humane settlement of the conflict. There was only one people to protect. From all the reading and research I had done and from my own visit to Israel-Palestine earlier this year, I knew that almost every statement was intended to fire up the crowd, whether true or not, cheers and standing ovations one after the other. I searched the faces of the audience, hoping to see the same shock and horror that I was experiencing. Other than our own group, the audience applauded their willing response to the rallying cry.
Don’t they know the suffering of the Palestinians? Don’t they know about the expulsion, the Nakba? Don’t they care? I had heard this kind of talk many times before. The Palestinians are to blame for their own misfortune. Their treatment is their own problem. Surely, they can’t still believe that the people with no land came to populate the land with no people! Were they following blindly, without all the facts? Sadly, there was an attitude of ridicule and smugness in the room, evident with every snide remark and chuckle about the people of Palestine and the people outside protesting.
I couldn’t stay till the end; none of us could. The language, tone, and most of all the dehumanization of the Palestinian people made it impossible. Minister Kenney’s remarks, even about Hamas, “banned anti-Semitic death cult” were deplorable. To sit and listen with judgment suspended felt like being an accomplice, condoning what was said and done. Four of us left, turning our questions over to the two from our group who remained a little longer. Thank you, we mumbled as we hugged each other and headed out the door.
I stood outside, wondering what fairytale I had just stepped into and out of. The whole experience seemed so separate from the rest of my life and my values – the values I first learned from my family and from my people. Where were the voices of justice, humanity and non-violence now? What possibilities were there for compassion and dialogue? Where was the invitation for all voices to be heard?
I don’t know why I hoped to hear something different. For years, I have felt shame in realizing that “my people” are committed to Israel, regardless of their bullying tactics. They say Israel has no choice. They had to build walls of protection. They have to knock out “the enemy.” It troubles me that I, too, could have followed that path without question, not wanting to upset others, feeling a responsibility to Israel, a strong allegiance to the new nation that provided a homeland for all Jews. When I learned that one people had been driven out to make way for another, it seemed impossible. And then I found out more — deliberate policies of transfer, of occupation, even of elimination. I have been shocked time and time again as documentation has been made public. Who could do this? Not my people. Never. It took until last night when, perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt surrounded in shul by people who are my people, but they are not my people; their deeds are not my deeds. I sat in the sacred space of a synagogue feeling that I didn’t belong, and that I didn’t wish to belong. I felt that I was on the other side of the separation wall, the one erected right there in that sanctified place, each speaker digging it deeper and the crowd building it higher. How can what I heard and saw last night build bridges? How can my own feelings in this moment build bridges?
My sympathies went to the crowd outside, still shouting ‘Free Palestine’ — and yet protesting and shouting are not for me. Some were yelling to keep the Intifada going, and that voice is not mine, either. The Vancouver Police were out in a full contingent, red and blue flashing lights, their vehicles filling the driveway, spilling out onto Oak Street, with more parked across the street. We were “escorted” away from the protesters towards our vehicles, as if we were being threatened. We weren’t. Some of the banner-wavers saw us leaving and called out to us, “Shame. Shame.” And there we were, just like that, lumped in assumption with those “on the inside.”
Last night was not easy for any of us. I am glad we were there to see the reality of the situation, as hopeless as it all seems now. Thank you, Mark and Twilla, for taking our questions and leaving them on the chairs. That was a statement. And thank you, Max, for standing and speaking out, raising your questions. That was a statement. Dear Susan, John and Jennifer, all of our withholding of applause, our refusal to join in the cheers and rah rahs, and our early exits were also statements. Samia, we tried; we feel for your pain and the pain of the Palestinian people. Jennifer, what a “blasphemy,” as you said, hearing the words in Hatikva, “To be a free people in our own country,” knowing that equal rights are not extended to the Palestinian people. What is heartening is to have experienced it together, to have been able to share and hold each others sorrow and anger. I think we built some bridges last night amongst ourselves, and I am so grateful for that mutual support. The evening gave me the opportunity to face some very difficult facts and feelings and the courage to keep moving forward in spite of them.
Building Bridges Vancouver is a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization which aims to provide a forum for dialogue and information concerning the long-standing conflict in Israel-Palestine. For more information: Facebook & Transcript of Minister Kenney’s Speech. Ada Glustein is currently a member of the planning team of Building Bridges Vancouver, a long-time meditator, and a fledgling writer.