Letter from Brazil

Today, December 1, is the last day of the World Social Forum Free Palestine (wsfpalestine.net). With my friend and colleague, Anna Baignoche, I have been here since the beginning of the forum on November 28. As someone fluent in Portuguese, her assistance has been invaluable, and I salute her herewith.

There are many hundreds of people here, perhaps thousands, from some 35 countries; it’s difficult to tell since we are never all in one place at one time. Hundreds of groups (“delegations”) organized forum presentations on every possible aspect of the wretched conflict/occupation which has been going on in one form or another since late 1947.

Sometimes we will see the date of 1967 rather than 1947 used to mark the beginning of the occupation of Palestine, with the frequent reference to “the 1967 borders.” However, the analogy I would draw is that between the American and Vietnamese views of the war in Vietnam. The American view (cf. WWI and 1917!) is that a war only begins when the Americans get there, in the case of Vietnam after the defeat of the French in 1955. However, from the Vietnamese point of view, the war had been going on since the Japanese invasion of 1939: French colonialists before that, then the Japanese, then the French again, finally the Americans. Ditto in the case of Palestine, when the ethnic cleansing of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes began in late 1947, after the UN vote on partition.

It’s not possible to report in detail on all the presentations; so below I will give a collage of some of the most memorable moments for myself. And if at this point you are having suspicions of anti-semitism, let me simply say that the presence of hundreds of Jews and dozens of Jewish organizations clearly puts paid to that thought.

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House demolitions. As part of the Israeli government plan to eject Palestinians from the homes in which some families have lived for hundreds of years (1000 years in one case I heard of), the Israeli government will require that the family living in a house which it wishes to demolish must show a deed or residency permit. Since no such document was necessary during the Ottoman period or the British period, and since the Israeli government will not issue such a document, the family is left with this choice: move out and watch the Israeli bulldozers level your home, and then be presented with a bill for the demolition, or tear it down yourself, and save yourself the amount of the bill.

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Sound bombs. This story was told by a young Palestinian woman who teaches psychology at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. When she was four years old, her mother came to fetch her from kindergarten. On the way home, not far from the school, they were caught up in a demonstration, and accused by Israeli soldiers of having been part of it. Her mother explained that they were just on their way home from school. The soldiers refused to believe her, and began to beat her with their sticks. The little four-year-old began to scream; and to shut her up, the soldiers threw two “sound bombs” (something I had never heard of until yesterday) at her, resulting in the necessity of ear surgeries and the permanent loss of hearing in her left ear. Even so, she has managed to continue her education and to become a university teacher; I can only salute her for courage beyond what I wonder whether I might have been capable of under similar circumstances.

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Palestinian statehood. November 29, the International Day for Palestine, marks the anniversary of the UN decision in 1947 to partition Palestine into two states, a “Jewish” state comprising 55% of historic Palestine, and an “Arab” state comprising 45% (note the difference). As of two days ago, it will also mark the day when the UN acknowledged Palestine as an observer state, a status which Palestine now shares with the State of Vatican City. The vote for this was 138 in favour, nine against, with 41 abstaining. For the record, who voted against? The US and Israel, understandably, six small south Pacific nations, all in generous receipt of “donations” from the US and Israel, and my own country, the true north strong and free, Canada. The Palestinians regard Canada’s position under the Harper government as “more Israeli than the Israelis,” and are now moving, in response to Canada’s vote, to limit Canada’s role in the Middle East, as being egregiously unhelpful. 

And why did Canada so vote? Because Stephen Harper and some others in his cabinet are Christian Zionists (something which they keep quiet about in public), who believe that “all Israel” must be gathered into the territory of biblical Israel (i.e., Israel proper, plus Palestine) so that the Messiah, understood to be Jesus, can come again and bring history to an end. The Israeli government, largely secular, holds this view in contempt; but for political reasons, they are quite ready to accept Canada’s political support for their policies, to say nothing of the millions of dollars in support of the illegal settlements which they regularly receive from Christian Zionists in the US. To all of this the Palestinians are an inconvenience; and their demonstrable habitation of the land for the last two millennia is dismissed as illusory.

It’s also worth noting the hypocrisy implicit in the recent statements of John Baird, our Foreign Minister (or, as Independent Jewish Voices calls him, the honourable member for Tel Aviv). He asserts on behalf of Canada that only Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can resolve the issue–this in the face of the reality that from the Israeli side, the “negotiations” going on since the Oslo Accords in the mid-nineties have essentially been a form of political theatre intended to distract attention from the building of the settlements (“facts on the ground”) which now house more than half a million Jewish-Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

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Jews of conscience. The first workshop I attended was organized by Kairos Palestine, a movement originating among Palestinian Christians which demands an end to the occupation. (The word kairos is a Greek word used in the New Testament, meaning “the moment of truth.”) At this workshop, a brilliant paper was read from Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, written in response to the Kairos Palestine document of 2009 (analogous to the Kairos document written in South Africa in 1985 and calling for an end to apartheid). In that paper he distinguished three groups of contemporary Jews: Jews of empire, “progressive” Jews, and Jews of conscience. Jews of empire are those in Israel and the US who support the permanent continuation of the occupation; “progressive” Jews are those who want the situation resolved, but who in their deliberations give priority to Israeli security rather than Palestinian claims for justice; and Jews of conscience (Independent Jewish Voices in Canada is a good example of this third group) are those who demand justice for Palestine on the grounds of human rights, including some Jews who locate this demand in the context of the biblical and prophetic tradition, also addressed by Marc Ellis.

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I’ll be writing again on this topic once I get home (after December 9). Stay tuned, and meanwhile, Viva Palestina!

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One Response to Letter from Brazil

  1. Patrick Wolfe says:

    Hi Don,

    I always read your posts with interest. If you haven’t already seen it, I thought you’d appreciate Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s statement of yesterday.

    Green Party Leader and Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May urged that the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird take a more reasoned and balanced approach to the recent vote at the UN.

    “Although Canada’s position against the motion was clear and has been noted, now that the Palestinian authority has been granted non-member observer status, it is time to tone down the rhetoric and join an effort for a peaceful resolution”, said May.

    “The UN vote in no way prohibits the right of Israel to exist. The modern state of Israel was created in 1947 by a vote in the UN General Assembly. Denouncing the vote this week accomplishes nothing”, added May.

    The Green Party of Canada urges that both the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel immediately commit to a peace process, ensuring the current cease-fire holds.

    Patrick Wolfe

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