A prophet and truth teller

Lia Tarachansky is an Israeli filmmaker and journalist who is creative, compassionate and courageous.

She was in Saskatoon and Winnipeg this fall to screen her film “On the Side of Road” and to talk to audiences about coming to terms with what it means to be a Jewish settler on Palestinian land. I and several MCC colleagues were privileged to view her film, hear her speak, and engage her in conversation.

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Lia Tarachansky near the settlement in which she grew up.  Photo/Palestinedocs

Lia was born in Kiev, Ukraine, moved to Israel as a child, and studied in Canada, before returning to Israel as a journalist. Back home she began to report on the Israeli occupation of Palestine for a variety of alternative media. She soon embarked upon her ambitious film project—telling the “other” story of 1948, namely, the story of the Nakba.

As a Jewish Israeli, Lia grew up celebrating Independence Day, the May anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. But along the way, she learned there was another story: the story of the Nakba or “catastrophe” for Palestinians. Some 750,000 Palestinians—two thirds of the Palestinian population—lost their homes as a result of forcible displacement by the Israeli military in the weeks and months after Israel’s declaration of Independence.

Realizing that most Israelis are discouraged from knowing this story, Lia set out to tell the truth about 1948. She scoured archival documents, photographs and newspaper reports, and sought veterans who fought for the Palmach (an elite Israeli fighting force) in 1948. Some of the veterans she interviewed admitted to committing atrocities against Palestinians in their efforts to ethnically cleanse the land of its indigenous population.

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Qalandiya checkpoint. Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

Lia expresses profound sadness for the violence and injustice committed against Palestinians, realities that have only become more brutal over the decades.  At the same time, she feels compassion for the trauma of those Israeli veterans who participated in the atrocities, many of whom have carried their actions in secrecy and silence for decades.

Lia acknowledges that telling the truth about 1948 is a great taboo in Israel. In 2012 the Israeli government in fact criminalized groups that commemorate Nakba Day in May. Although the “Nakba Law” has not been fully implemented, it has cast a chill over Palestinians—and their Israeli allies—who regard the day in May as one of mourning, rather than one of celebration.

In her film, Lia also describes her own personal journey of coming to terms with the truth of Israel’s existence and, in particular, its continued theft of Palestinian land.  In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel gained control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and began an ambitious settlement building project. Today hundreds of thousands of Israelis[i] live in Jewish-only settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Israeli settlements in Gaza were evacuated in 2005,) on land that most of the world, including Canada, considers occupied territory.

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A Jewish settlement under construction near Bethelehem. Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

Lia grew up in Ariel, a large Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank, only a short distance from a number of Palestinian villages. But she admits to never noticing those villages, the people that inhabited them, or the call to prayer emanating from their mosques, until her exploration of her country’s history. She admits to being blind and deaf to the Palestinian reality.  In fact, she had never met or spoken to a Palestinian until she did so in Canada, during university.

In her short life—she is in her early 30s—Lia has come a long way, geographically, politically and personally.  She has become a truth teller, committed to telling the history of her country honestly and in such a way that will hopefully open the ears and eyes of her people to the reality of the Palestinian people. “We have to know our history if we are going to move forward into the future,” she says.[ii]

More than that, she says, the current travesties must end.  Not only must the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and people end.  But so must the brutalizing of Israeli youth who are required to enforce the occupation through mandatory military service. “We continue to force our young men and women to do horrible things,” she says. “The human cost in this mountain of tragedy is enormous and it must stop.”

Lia sees her writing and speaking and film-making as her act of hope and an expression of her vision for just and peaceful co-existence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. “This is my truth and this is the way that I am going to continue hoping . . .”

Lia Tarachansky is a courageous voice for justice and peace in the midst of a seemingly intractable conflict. She is a prophet and a truth teller.

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

[i]There is debate about the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, estimates the number to be 560,000.  Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem estimates the number to be more like 700,000.
[ii] Direct quotations are taken from interviews posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQf4MedPjeY  and https://soundcloud.com/greenplanetmonitor/liatarachansky

Staying awake for Advent absurdities

Based on Lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent:  Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44, Romans 13:11-14.

Colombia Christmas

This photo is from the Day of the Little Candles (Dia de las Velitas), in Bogotá, Colombia. It’s the official start of Christmas, where families light candles at night for each member of the family and to welcome and guide Mary on her journey to Bethlehem.

Most November days I find it difficult to wake up. The mornings are dark with days getting shorter, the nights are colder, trees are bare and in Ottawa at least snow often doesn’t come until December to cover the dead leaves and brown grass. Most days I’d prefer to sleep until maybe Easter.

And yet the scripture passages for the first Sunday of Advent call us to awake from sleep and stay awake. But for what? Do we stay awake for a new natural disaster somewhere in the world each month, or more reports of gang violence in our cities, or higher unemployment rates?

None of these really seem like good incentives to stay awake. A nice long quiet nap seems much more preferable.

When it comes to the beginning of Advent, though, scripture calls us to prepare for the unexpected and the world certainly does have its unexpected surprises.

Learning that the people of Colombia rejected a peace accord that could have ended over fifty years of violent conflict was certainly surprising to me. Waking up on Nov. 9 to learn that Donald Trump had become president-elect of the US was certainly unexpected for many people, and even absurd to some. Hearing that Syria continues to be bombed when there is nothing left to bomb, except for the injured and the destitute, seems sadly absurd.

However, the promises in Isaiah 2 are equally absurd. The idea of nations giving up war forever seems absurd in the extreme. And while being able to witness swords being beaten into ploughshares would certainly be unexpected and worth staying awake for, I have a feeling the wait may be long.

However, waiting, and staying awake while we do it, seems to be what Advent is about.

Throughout Advent, we’ll wait patiently to celebrate joyously the birth of Jesus Christ while hoping for peace in a world filled with conflict. We’ve done it all before and we’ll do it all again next year.

Sometimes we feel frenzied or anxious as we stay awake waiting, while at other times we are able to be contemplative as we quietly keep watch. But what we are waiting for never changes. As we wait we continue to long for the usual promised gifts of hope, joy, peace and love, even when they may seem absurd in our current realities.

Advent’s gifts or absurdities—depending on your perspective—are also blessings and when we are called to keep awake, we are also called to recognize the needs and sorrows present around us.

This first Sunday of Advent we are called to live and wait in hope. For as absurd as it may seem, the baby born 2,000 years ago in lowly circumstances did change the world. And as the passages in Matthew and Romans remind us, Christ will return and when he does the world will experience full transformation.

During these dark months, as we keep awake to wait for the light, may we find ways to share our hope with a broken world in desperate need of a little Advent absurdity.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office.

Praying by the prison, Part 3: Forgiveness

This week’s writer is Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK.    Restorative Justice Week will be held in Canada, and throughout the world, from November 20-27. 

Tricky thing, forgiveness. As I walk the park trail near my home, in the pre-dawn quiet along the wide South Saskatchewan River, I ponder the words about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Across the river, a line of lights twinkles, marking the Regional Psychiatric Centre (a hospital within the Canadian correctional system) with its high fences and razor wire.

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is as foreign a concept to the criminal justice system as it is the focal point of the Christian message—and practice—of reconciliation. Is there a place for the concept of forgiveness, as we explore what it means to pray near our prisons? Or is the gap too wide, the worlds of faith and justice too distant, divided by a cold river that can’t be crossed?

There are many reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner to our justice system. At its core, the criminal justice system is built on a foundation of the impersonal and abstract. A crime against a neighbour become an offense against the state, symbolized as “the Crown.” The Crown, not the victim, is the principal actor. This was adjusted slightly in 1988, when victims were given a (proxy) voice in the court process, through victim impact statements—although it took another eleven years before victims were actually allowed to read their statements to the court. But in general, the system is designed to keep victim and offender separate; the focus is on the offender alone, on guilt and punishment, and not on the dynamics of the relationship that bind together victim and offender. Forgiveness is fundamentally about what happens between persons on either side of an offense, and criminal justice builds a high wall exactly where forgiveness wants to take up residence.

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If you are in BC (Fraser Valley, Kelowna, or Victoria) Nov 17-27, come see the play, “Forgiven/Forgotten,” touring as part of National Restorative Justice Week. Tour details are available at https://forgivenforgotten.wordpress.com/

There are other reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner: it might be the wide variety of ways people think of forgiveness. Some consider that offering forgiveness to a wrongdoer excuses the offense, undermining its severity or ignoring it altogether. Others are offended by the proverb “forgive and forget”—and I agree with them, for that’s another way we might minimize the very real harm done in an offense. And if we underestimate the harm done to victims, aren’t we actually abetting the offender? We end up re-victimizing the victim, and adding to the original offense. Forgiveness goes sour; rather than a healing balm, it becomes poison.

For those schooled in the ways of Jesus, it seems to me there’s another way in which forgiveness turns toxic. The words of Jesus, right here in the Lord’s Prayer and many other places, urge and even command his followers to forgive. There is no getting around this—Christians are called to forgive. And this can induce huge guilt in a victim. “Am I not a good enough person to forgive?” Or the community can place its expectations on the victim to take the moral high road. “Just get on with your life. You ought to forgive” (and we can almost hear the unspoken conclusion, “…and forget.”) And so forgiveness becomes an unbearable weight, or a volatile fuse.

And yet… and yet, there are people who have suffered unspeakable things, and who forgive their wrongdoers. Such forgiveness is real, and such stories show up everywhere. If we can say anything about authentic forgiveness, it is that it is a mystery, and a gift. We can never demand it of the victim. Like true love, it is intensely personal: each person’s path towards forgiveness is unique. Like true love, we don’t create it (although we can create conditions for it to take root and flourish)—we find it, or even, it finds us. In fact, forgiveness isn’t like true love, it is a form of that divine love.

So, are there ways to bring back the relational element, the dimension of community—preconditions of forgiveness—into the justice system? Many communities (and even some courts) have restorative justice processes that lead in that direction. They add an element of humanity to the journey, giving voice to the victims, and increasing the possibility of offenders taking responsibility for the harm they caused.

And for those in prison? Does this line of the Lord’s Prayer mean anything for them? Two thoughts cross my mind. The first is this: how long do we continue to label someone based on their offense? They have done a bad (even horrendous) deed; must they forever be labelled a horrible person? Do we as society do right to continue to label them? Or do past (and duly recognized) misdeeds have an expiry date? Is there a place and time where we can agree to release people from stigma, from blaming and shaming? That release is part of what Jesus means by forgiveness.

A second and final thought—relating to something I observed at the Willow Cree Healing Lodge, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, a federal correctional institution based on Indigenous cultural practices. The men there are not called “inmates,” nor “patients” (as they are at Saskatoon’s RPC). They are n­īcisān (NEE-tsan), Cree for “brother.” They are treated with humanity and dignity: guard and n­īcisān walk side by side (and I was told more than once how very difficult that is for any guard trained in a regular prison). They celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts together, again side by side. A humane relationship like this creates the space for a new start, for a healthier re-entry into the community.

And it makes me think of another word of Jesus: If someone offends against you, go to him alone. …If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. Even in our prisons, is this not a taste of forgiveness?

Edna Hunsperger’s witness against war

This year MCC’s Peace Sunday Packet – a resource to help churches commemorate Peace Sunday – focuses on the theme Women as Peacebuilders. This reflection is written in the spirit of that theme.

Edna Hunsperger was a trailblazer. Most young women growing up in the 1930s in a rural (Old) Mennonite community in Ontario anticipated early marriage, child-bearing and life working on the family farm. But Edna wanted an education and she wanted to serve others. She persuaded her parents to allow her to enter nurses training in Kitchener-Waterloo. She graduated as a nurse in 1937, the first Mennonite from her community to do so.

Two years later Canada was at war and in a short time there was a call for nurses to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp. Several of Edna’s friends responded to the call. They encouraged her to do the same. But Edna identified with the nonresistant convictions of her church community and knew that she could not enlist. At the same time, she did not want to be called a “yellow belly” or a coward–charges often aimed at young Mennonite men who sought exemption from military service as conscientious objectors (COs).

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MCC workers in England 1945, L-R: Ellen Harder, Sam Goering, Edna Hunsperger, Peter Dyck, Elfrieda Klassen Dyck. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

An invitation from Mennonite Central Committee resolved Edna’s dilemma. In 1941 MCC had begun a war relief program in England, and it wanted two Canadian nurses to serve in convalescent homes. Almost as soon as she heard about this need from her minister, Edna said yes. She saw this opportunity as a way of meeting human need, while also serving her country. Arriving in England in 1942, she remained until the war ended, caring for seniors and children affected by the devastation of war.

Edna, and her companion Elfrieda Klassen, were the first two Canadian women to join MCC’s emerging international relief service program.  And they were on the forefront of women’s involvement in MCC service as a witness for peace.

MCC’s relief service program–later known as voluntary service or, simply, service–emerged as a direct result of the war and the alternate service required of Mennonite men who registered as conscientious objectors. Even before the war was over, some people began to suggest that service offered voluntarily through MCC should continue after conscription ended.  After all, if Mennonites said they were about preserving life rather than taking life, they needed to demonstrate this at all times. Indeed, engaging in service was a way of giving an authentic witness for peace–something which simply refusing to go to war could not do.[1]  One leader put it this way:

“If our nonresistance is something only on paper it has no real worth. Our task is not only to not shed blood, but to preserve life and to help those in need.”[2]

During the war, women in Canada and the U.S. were not required to do military or alternative service by the state as men were. Nevertheless, many felt an “inner compulsion” to share in expressing their own commitment to peace and to preserving life.[3]  From the outset of the war, women’s groups were actively engaged in sewing garments for relief purposes.  But many wanted to do more–they wanted to actually serve in contexts of suffering and need.

In 1943 a group of Mennonite women in the U.S.–calling themselves “CO girls” — requested MCC establish service units for them at psychiatric institutions, as it had for men.[4] MCC did so, with some reluctance.[5] This initial experiment evolved into MCC’s summer service and voluntary service programs, which expanded rapidly across the U.S. and Canada.  At the same time, a growing number of women joined the relief service program overseas, caring for victims of war, poverty and disaster in many parts of the world.  Indeed, in the first decades of MCC’s service program, almost twice as many Canadian women served as men: 604 to 341.  Moreover, in 1950 alone, a full 40 percent of all MCC’s U.S. and Canadian service workers overseas were single women, twice as men as single men.[6]

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Edna Hunsperger worked for the Victoria Order of Nurses after the war. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Historians have offered a variety of reasons why women chose to join MCC service in such significant ways.[7]  There isn’t room here to explore those. Suffice it to say that in response to the conflagration of the Second World War, many Mennonite women eagerly embraced MCC service as their way of resisting war and embodying peace. That contribution has not been adequately recognized.

Times have changed since Edna Hunsperger left for England in 1942. Canada has not had conscription since the Second World War, and so pacifist Christians have not been forced to uphold their convictions in a wartime context for decades.

 Additionally, within MCC the strong link between service and peace–the idea that one engages in loving service as a way of resisting war and embodying peace–has waned. Peacebuilding has taken on different and more specific meanings today. Moreover, the opportunities for service–that is, giving several years of one’s life to tending to human need with little to no financial reward–are no longer there as they were in the post-war decades.  MCC is also more conscious of the downside of service:  service can, for example, feed impulses that are colonial and paternalistic and build on a foundation of white privilege.

There are some good reasons for the shifts.

And yet, despite the changes, Edna’s question is still worth asking, especially in the context of Remembrance Day:  “If my friends and neighbours are prepared to do military service to defend the country, what will I do to witness to another way?”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office

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[1] A 1945 MCC document put it this way, “The peace doctrine of the church requires a program of active relief work to be properly understood.” M.C Lehman, The History and Principles of Mennonite Relief Work: An Introduction. (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1945), 38.

[2] David Toews, as quoted in Esther Epp-Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013), 48.

[3] Harvey Taves used the phrased “inner compulsion” to describe women’s commitment to MCC’s relief program.  See Lucille Marr, The transforming power of a century: Mennonite Central Committee and its Evolution in Ontario (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 99.

[4] In the U.S., MCC administered the Civilian Public Service program; in Canada the federal government operated the Alternative Service Work program.

[5] Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Pres, 1997), 101-111.

[6] Epp-Tiessen, 63.

[7] See for example, Waltner Goossen; also Beth Graybill, “Writing Women into MCC’s History,” in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity (Telford, PA: Cascadia Press, 2011): 239-257.

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

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Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office