So, Brazil: why did I go? And did I buy the t-shirts? Yes, two. One is yellow and green, and simply bears the word Brasil; the other is black, and bears a message in Portuguese, which I translate roughly as “kindness begets kindness.”
The purpose of the trip was to attend a conference, the World Social Forum Free Palestine, in the city of Porto Alegre, in the southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. It attracted somewhere between one and two thousand participants (my estimate) from 35 countries. All participants were concerned about the situation in the Middle East whereby historic Palestine has been attacked and/or occupied in one way or another since 1947. Together with China’s occupation of Tibet, it stands as one of the longest-lasting unresolved occupations of the 20th-21st centuries.
The conference was very worthwhile. I attended a number of workshops and presentations, each valuable in its own way. Among these was a panel on the Kairos (“moment of truth”) movement started by Palestinian Christians in emulation of the South African Kairos declaration of 1985. Another presentation concerned the Jewish National Fund, a charity registered in both Canada and the US, which holds rights to 93% of the land in Israel, none of which it will sell to Palestinians. I was much impressed with a presentation by members of unions, in which the most notable speaker (in my view) was a representative of CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Notable, again in my view–and I wonder how many other participants even thought about it, was the complete absence of representation from the mainstream churches of the west, to which the Palestinian Christians have repeatedly appealed for support.
A major highlight of the event, rejoiced at by most, questioned by some, was the vote on November 29 which admitted Palestine to the UN as a non-member observer state, a status held only by one other entity, the State of Vatican City. It was a matter of embarrassment and shame to me as a Canadian that Canada voted against this, as did the US and Israel (no surprise), the Czech Republic (curious!), and four small south Pacific island nations which had been bribed by Israel and/or the US. By this vote, Canada further damaged its own international standing, and contributed to the increasing isolation and paranoia of Israel.
Participation in this conference deepened my conviction that the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestine holds the same moral claim on us in our time as the civil rights movement did in its time. It further increased my conviction that the Middle East, with its potential for a nuclear war involving Israel and Iran, is the most dangerous area of our world, and that it requires the committed actions of concerned citizens of the western democracies in pressing their governments to press Israel to end the occupation.
Ending the occupation, in fact, is the most positive action that could be taken for the well-being of Israel as well as of Palestine. My hope is that each of you will find your own way to take part in this important contemporary movement for justice and peace. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that not to side with the oppressed is to side with the oppressor. If we agree with him–and I do–the conflict in the Holy Land cannot be understood as a matter of balance. Yes, there are two sides to this question, as to every such question, but they are not equivalent. Israel has the fourth-largest military in the world, sustained by an annual grant of $3B from the US. The Palestinians have a few home-made rockets and some smuggled guns which they used, in the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, to defend themselves as best they could against the overwhelming might of Israel. Canadians are inclined culturally to seek balance and compromise, to avoid taking sides; but this is one situation which defies that cultural inclination.
After our week in PA, my interpreter, friend and colleague Anna and I (and who would go to Brazil for four days only!) spent the second week of our time in Rio de Janeiro, a magnificent city of 14 million people. We stayed in an Airbnb apartment five minutes’ walk from Copacabana Beach and fifteen minutes’ walk from Ipanema. (I looked for “the girl from Ipanema,” but she must have been busy!). One touristy thing we did, apart from going to the beach, was to go to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain via the tram-line which has taken people there for 100 years. From the top of Sugarloaf, Rio in all its variety and beauty lay peacefully before us. I am a proud Vancouverite, but in future I will speak more modestly of the beauties of its setting, remembering the glory of Rio.