Some good news (and a thank you)

People who have been reading for a while will remember that about eighteen months ago I started to raise funds to take teenagers from one of the youth projects I work with to Rwanda. Organised by the Taizé community, an ecumenical community with quite a radical emphasis on justice and reconciliation that emerged during the Second World War, it would have enabled young people who live in very difficult situations to meet with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and explore issues surrounding the fight for justice – and the importance of trust. Unfortunately we could not raise the necessary money in time. So we decided to send them to Taizé itself, in summer, when the community is flooded with thousands of young people from all over the world. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) came forward with a grant that partially covered our costs, and last week it arrived. A few blog readers and friends also donated (which I am very grateful for, as none of the people I know are what you could call spectacularly rich). We have just enough for the teenagers to fly out. All that remains is to raise enough money to cover train and bus travel within France, and hostel costs in Amman. (Being from the West Bank, the teenagers have to fly from there – they aren’t allowed in the airport at Tel Aviv, which adds extra complications.) I’ve created a fundraising page to collect the remaining amount. It will expire in a week, as the trip is to happen in August. If you haven’t yet done so, please donate if you can, or share the page with people who might be able to. And pray for us.

Thank you once more to everyone who has helped. With the exception of the ACN grant, this whole thing really was cobbled together from ten-shekel donations, and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve managed it at last.

Lifelines

Lifelines is a network of penfriends who support prisoners on America’s Death Row. Last night I happened to see a note from them in the back of one of the magazines I read occasionally. They have a long list of prisoners waiting to receive penfriends and they need more people to join.

I’ve been aware of Lifelines ever since a very memorable religion and ethics class on capital punishment that my class was given when I was fourteen years old. The teacher showed us some material from them, and she also read aloud to us from Sister Helen Prejean’s remarkable book Dead Man WalkingThe book chronicles Sr Helen’s time as a chaplain on Death Row and her fight to establish robust and total Catholic opposition to the death penalty. I couldn’t join Lifelines as a penfriend back then, as they only accept people who are over eighteen, but I ‘adopted’ a prisoner to pray for. This was the first political activism I ever did, pretty much.

Sr Helen has written that she was drawn towards this work by recognition of the link between the death penalty and poverty. “It didn’t take long to see that for poor people, especially poor black people, there was a greased track to prison and death row.” Her involvement was cemented by one more thing: “I began to understand that some life is valued and some life is not.” After being present at dozens of executions, she also saw that this disregard for life and dignity extends far beyond the person being killed: “When you witness an execution and watch the toll this process also takes on some of those who are charged with the actual execution—the 12 guards on the strap-down team and the warden—you recognize that part of the moral dilemma of the death penalty is also: who deserves to kill this man?”

All injustice seems to come down to the same idea, whether implied or explicit: some lives don’t matter enough. This is why I’m writing about Death Row on a blog about life in occupied Bethlehem. Perhaps some people reading may want to respond to Lifelines’s request and become a penfriend. Information and FAQ are on the website.

Art and apartheid: worlds apart

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.

During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).

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The least of these: a reflection on a bad choice

It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…

Stop!”

The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.

The entrance to Bethlehem, viewed from inside the checkpoint complex.

He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.

“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.

“Where are you going?”

“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”

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‘Resistance: which way the future?’

The main entrance to the arts centre was bedecked with bands of white plastic tape, with ‘Peace Week’ printed on each strip in blue letters. It reminded me immediately of the tape used to cordon off crime scenes while police gather forensic evidence. The organisers of the week were playing on that image deliberately: Peace Week was established in response to violent street crime in inner city Manchester. Now it is in its tenth year.

Police-style incident tape bearing the words 'Peace Week'.

The arts centre was hosting a film installation by Liz Crow, Resistance: Which Way the Future?. I don’t know if the centre deliberately arranged to feature this artwork during Peace Week. It may just have been a coincidence – but coincidental or not, the installation has something tough and dark and powerful to say about non-violence.

Entering the room, you sit down before the first of three screens. The film coughs into life with the sound of an engine. The first image: an exhaust trailing smoke, the underbelly of the bus. You watch for a long time. At first you are expectant. Then the wait starts to grate on you. What’s happening? What are you waiting for? With a sudden roar, the bus drives off, revealing a young nurse with a clipboard standing outside a creeper-covered country house. She makes a decisive mark on her clipboard, then walks briskly into the house.

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From Bethlehem to Rwanda

Just after Christmas I started to feel restless. I was dissatisfied with how things were going with the youth group. Late last year we lost our youth house in Bethlehem (one of three premises) because we couldn’t afford the rent and upkeep, and now the youth have to squash themselves into what was originally an office and practically sit on each other’s laps when they want to meet. I decided that they needed something to perk them up a bit. A field trip seemed in order.

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Syrian snacks, disability rights, and a simple act of kindness: what I’ve read this week

I’ve decided to create a weekly round-up post of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and urgent things I’ve come across during the week, especially if they haven’t received much attention in the blogosphere. All of the links will be relevant to peace and justice work in some way, although not always specifically to Palestine. Feel free to add your own reading suggestions.

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Time to face the music

A child in the Gaza Strip plays the cello in a music school for under-12s. Photograph by Jehan al-Farra.

During BBC Proms last night, the BBC was compelled to pull the performance of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra off the air. Peace and justice activists entered the Royal Albert Hall and staged a performance of their own, beginning with a modern choral rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (“Israel, end your occupation / There’s no peace on stolen land…”) followed by a more experimental form of music, slogan-shouting. The BBC decided that chants of ‘The IPO – are instrumental – in an illegal occupation’ didn’t add to the listening experience, so it had protesters expelled from the Royal Albert Hall and ‘regretfully’ stopped the radio broadcast of the IPO’s performance. Today it’s become one of the most talked-about aspects of the Proms.

A few weeks ago, I joined other supporters of justice for Palestine in asking the BBC to revoke their invitation to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. In my own letter, I wrote, “This orchestra routinely entertains troops in the Occupied Territories, adding a sham veneer of culture to occupation’s misery. Music should be for everyone. Until such time as Palestinians can enjoy concerts too (which means they have to be able to move about freely, for a start), don’t promote the IPO.”

The response we got was that the invitation was ‘purely about music’; there was no political element to it of any kind. Today, I have seen many people making that argument, describing music as ‘apolitical’. Others ask what on earth the Israeli Philharmonic has to do with Israeli government policy. Some take it a step further and declare that music brings  people of all races together, meaning that a boycott of an orchestral performance is a counterproductive step.

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While I’m gone

I am going to be away for the coming week. My destination is Taizé, a community of prayer that was founded in response to the idea of one monk, Brother Roger:

Since my youth, I think that I have never lost the intuition that community life could be a sign that God is love, and love alone. Gradually the conviction took shape in me that it was essential to create a community…where kindness of heart and simplicity would be at the centre of everything.

Taizé is mostly famous for its beautiful music, but its members are also well known as peace workers. Brother Roger is no longer alive (he was stabbed to death by an emotionally disturbed woman in 2005) but he remains a person whom I look to for inspiration in my own work.

I have chosen to make a silent retreat, which means that in addition to keeping physical silence throughout my week, I won’t be online. (Not that there is much time for Internet at Taizé anyway – there are only a small number of computers to be shared between thousands of guests.) I will be holding you all in my prayers. If you have anything particular that you would like me to pray for, please just say.

Here are some thought-provoking blogs to keep you entertained while I’m gone:

Palinoia

Here, I was Born

Gaza Diaries of Peace and War

Shalom Rav

Palestinian Field Negro

Do Unto Others

And if you’re in the UK, check out the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s events calendar for the coming weeks. It’s fantastic. Reem Kelani is in concert, there are lots of cultural and literary events happening up and down the country, Combatants for Peace are in town, and there are some demonstrations against the arms trade planned in conjunction with other peace groups.

Au revoir, mes amis.

Blackout

Jehan is a twenty-year-old woman from the Gaza Strip who writes a beautiful and illuminating blog under the wryly humorous name of Palinoia. I also follow her on Twitter. She’s usually quite active at this time of night – as is the rest of the Gazan Twitter crowd. When they all sign in en masse in the space of ten seconds, I know that there is a bombing raid going on and they’ve given up on sleep. Together, they provide 140 character windows into Gazan life – their hopes, their frustrations, what they’ve had for breakfast, and what it feels like to have F16 fighter aircraft acting as pre-dawn alarm clocks. Oh, and the most effective music for blocking out the sound of said aircraft (Metallica, apparently).

But tonight they are silent. Initial reports are that the Israeli military has cut off all telecommunications, using bulldozers. The land cables have been severed. The mobile mast has been damaged. Naturally, people beyond Gaza have started to get worried. As one Gazan Palestinian living in my own city of Manchester put it, “They could be doing anything to them and we wouldn’t know.”

The Israeli authorities have said nothing about the communications blackout so far. It’s easy to predict what the justification for imposing even further isolation on 1.7 million besieged people will be: “Security. Counter-terrorism operations.” They say that so often that they have started to sound like parrots with severe vocal tics. For a counter-terrorism operation, it is certainly fostering enough terror of its own.

I’ve never met Nader or Jehan or Sameeha or Mona or any of the others, and thanks to the siege, I’m not likely to see them any time soon. But through their writing and our cosy bombing-time chats, I’ve come to feel close to them. I want Nader to achieve his dream of studying in the UK. I wish I could smuggle a concert grand through some Egyptian tunnel and into Jehan’s house, so that she can make the music she loves. I wish she and Sameeha could have something resembling a normal gossip between two young women who are friends, and not the usual, “There is a helicopter over my house! Have you got one too or is it just drones where you are?” I’d like the world to know of Mona’s kindness and good practical sense, her commitment to justice and her work as a doctor, so that they have another image of Gaza to set alongside the gallery of masked men with rocket-launchers that the Israeli authorities present to the public.

I’m not going to get my wishes, at least not tonight. There is no wishing well deep enough to accommodate them. So instead of wishing for things that can’t happen, I am penning this short reminder: there are 1.7  million human beings trapped in the Gaza Strip tonight. They are being prevented from speaking for themselves. I am not trying to speak in their place – no one can do that. I am simply giving voice to my own concern, because this ominous silence feels horribly like a foretaste of what it might be like never to speak to them again. I’m simultaneously thinking of Operation Cast Lead and trying not to think of it.

Graffiti on the separation wall near Ramallah.

It’s only possible for Israel to continue in its policies towards Gaza because there aren’t enough people in the world who are acquainted with this feeling. Even in the West Bank, we joke that Gazan Palestinians are aliens; Israel has been very successful at cutting them off from the world. The Internet is their way of fighting back against the dehumanisation and the isolation. Reading what they write and chatting to them online is how you can help break the siege without leaving your own living room. Let’s value their voices and make them heard.