Could it happen again?

Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting, collaborating with and even perpetrating such evil?

This is the question that haunts me after attending a recent conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.

HolocaustThe conference, attended by over 200 people from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, U.S. and Canada, was the 3rd in a series of conferences on the same topic. The first two occurred in Germany (2015) and Paraguay (2017). These three conferences have highlighted an emerging body of scholarship on Mennonite complicity in the Holocaust.

Over the course of the two days, we heard 20 different speakers present their research into a profoundly disturbing story.  These are a few of the things we heard…

…German Mennonite churches (both conservative and liberal) bought into National Socialism’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology that valued blood purity and Aryanism. Many Mennonites considered Adolf Hitler as God’s instrument to restore the fatherland of Germany.  Their theology gave them few tools to resist Nazi propaganda because they had abandoned earlier Anabaptist commitments to nonviolence and had also lost a sense of the centrality of the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by Jesus.

…Many Mennonites in the Ukraine knew about—and a few even participated in—massacres of Jews around their communities during the period of German occupation, 1941-43.  In one three-day massacre near Zaporizhia (and the Mennonite community of Chortitza) over 3,000 Jews were murdered and thrown into a mass grave. A Mennonite named Heinrich Wiens became an SS commander and was responsible for killing thousands of Jews. Many of the Mennonites hired by the Germans to act as interpreters translated lists of Jews who were subsequently murdered. Mennonites benefited from the German occupation while their Jewish neighbours suffered unmeasurably.

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Dr. Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto gave the keynote address.

…Some Mennonites in Poland accepted homes and businesses confiscated from Jews. Refugees accepted the clothing and effects of Jews who had been killed. One prominent local Mennonite, Erich Ratzlaff, assisted in rounding up Jews for a new ghetto. Later in Canada, he edited the Mennonitische Rundschau for many years.

…In the Netherlands, many Mennonites actively supported the occupying forces. One such individual, Jacob Luitjens, played a role in the Nazi propaganda service and also helped to track down Jews. In 1991 he was extradicted from Canada to the Netherlands to serve the prison sentence handed down in absentia decades earlier.

…During the German occupation, some Mennonites in the Netherlands participated in the resistance movement and some also hid Jews. One of the latter, Gerrtje Pel-Groot, took a Jewish baby into her home while the baby’s parents hid elsewhere. The little girl survived the war, but Geertje died in a German concentration camp after someone informed on her.  She is one of 40 Dutch Mennonites who have been honoured by Israel as “righteous among the nations.”  But, as the Dutch scholar put it,  why only 40?

…Mennonite Central Committee actively worked after the war to identify Mennonite refugees in Europe as Dutch rather than as German, and to minimize Mennonite connections to the Nazis. It did so in order to better enable the refugees’ escape from Europe to destinations in South America or Canada. MCC worked closely with avowed Mennonite Nazi supporters and party members like Benjamin H. Unruh.

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A 1935 film produced by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry and featuring Mennonite themes was shown at the conference.

At the end of two days of hearing these stories and much more, my heart ached and I struggled to hold back the tears.  Questions swirled around in my mind.

  • Why the silence? Why are we only hearing these stories now? This question was actually put to me by the one person attending the conference who publicly identified herself as Jewish.  “Why has it taken Mennonites so long to acknowledge this?” she asked.
  • How does memory shape a people and a narrative? The conference highlighted that memory is constructed—shaped and re-shaped to “make sense” of people’s experience.  Memory can, for example, reinforce identities of victimhood, while denying identities of victimizer. How can memory serve to honestly bear witness to truth in all its complexity?
  • Does a community’s own experience of trauma absolve it of complicity in the harming of others? Soviet Mennonites were, when German occupying forces arrived in 1941, deeply traumatized. Under Stalin, they had lived through forced collectivization, starvation, repression, and the murder or disappearance of thousands. Does that reality lift the burden of responsibility? Or does it simply explain why Mennonites did not come to the aid of the Jewish community?
  • How do Mennonites recognize, acknowledge and atone for this dark side of our collective story? How do we lay aside the sense of “Mennonite exceptionalism” that we are somehow better than others?
  • And this one: Could it happen again? Could Mennonites once again be drawn into supporting power structures that commit such horrible atrocities?  How does the church in our day nurture the robust theological and spiritual resources, and the foundational commitments to justice, peacebuilding and Christian discipleship so necessary to resist systemic evil?

I am thankful to the historians and theologians, the preachers, poets and artists—as well as the organizers of this conference—for guiding our community in this painful but necessary journey.

More information on the conference is available here.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Africa through new lenses

This week’s guest writer is Patrick Handrigan. Patrick is a grade 12 student at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland where he is active in a wide range of social justice initiatives.

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to become a better global citizen.

I joined three other  Atlantic Canadian youth, plus five Alberta students, in a three-week youth learning tour to Uganda with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in cooperation with the Alberta and Atlantic Councils for International Cooperation. The tour was called ACT 4 Global Change. While in Uganda, we visited MCC partners who are working to bring about positive change through peaceful initiatives.

During one of our final group debrief activities, we were asked to relate something we saw, felt, or heard on the trip to a symbol on a die. The pair of glasses that I rolled became a symbol that represented my new vision of Africa.

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The group of Canadian students who visited Uganda. Photo credit Leah Attarh

Many Canadians believe that the African continent is the nucleus of poverty, famine, political unrest and conflict. My own closed-minded views of Uganda and its people concerned me and added an element of unease to my travels. The continuous media images of a violent region had me believing that I was going to land in a -plagued zone. But I was wrong. On landing in Uganda, I was greeted with smiles, open arms, and a genuine happiness for my visit. I didn’t expect such a warm reception 10,000 km away from my home in Newfoundland.

After arriving at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, we traveled five hours by bus to Kamuli, a small town in the eastern part of the country. AIDS Education Group for Youth (AEGY) is an organization working within the community to promote the education and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. They offer support groups, school courses, radio talk shows, and health services to people needing them, with support from MCC.

In our first day in Kamuli, we worked with AEGY to build eco-stoves from clay which allowed for proper kitchen ventilation to reduce the risk of lung-related illnesses of people living with HIV. This unique architectural consideration in a simple family dwelling not only made their homes safe, but gave the community a sense of ownership, pride and self-reliance. Our visit concluded with dancing, singing and lunch with the Namasambya 1 Village Savings and Loans Association, a visit to the Peer Support Clubs at Kasambira High School, and a community game of soccer and netball with teens.

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Students assist in building AEGY eco-stoves. Photo credit Leah Attarh.

The next day, we made a visit to Nakulyako Primary School to observe the RUMPS (Reusable Menstrual Products) club in action. Prior to this program, female students were unable to attend school while on their menstrual cycle, but with support from MCC, this new program evolved. Male classmates fully supported and actively participated in this venture, and understood its importance to a better future for Ugandan women. This is a huge step forward for women’s rights and educational equality in Uganda.

In Kampala, African Leadership and Reconciliation Missions (ALARM) works for  peace between boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers and the local police. At our visit to the police barracks, we learned about peace club initiatives that promote respectful dialogue.

At Mengo Hospital, we met Dr. Edith Namulema, who is responsible for the Counselling and Home Care Clinic and coordinates the peer support group. This group provides medical and counselling services for teens living with HIV. Our team joined the group for a session and connected through eating, dancing, and sharing stories. From the support of MCC, the hospital is expecting the completion of a new clinical wing.

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Patrick Handrigan with Sister Sophia of the Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School. Photo credit Louise Hanavan.

We were welcomed with open arms at Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School in Kiryandongo. This school was founded in 2001 during the reign of the Lord’s Resistance Army and provided a safe-haven and an education to girls affected by the war. Under Sister Sophia’s leadership, students performed a comedic spin-off of Cinderella and a somber, more informative play about malaria and its effects on the community. We enjoyed a meal together and spent the afternoon playing volleyball, soccer, racing Sister Sophia in a 100m dash, and teaching the Macarena to the girls–a truly wonderful way to spend my last few days in Uganda.

Our visit to Soroti gave us the opportunity to see a different geographical landscape and the challenges that persist with living within this region. Action for Peace and Development (APED) supports conservation agricultural community initiatives that create jobs and peace within Soroti District. They follow a method of “Farming God’s Way” which teaches them to respect the earth and not destroy its natural beauty. Church of Uganda in the Teso Region (COU-TEDDO) taught us the importance of agriculture in peacekeeping and the impact climate change is having on this region. We celebrated the first rain in many months together.

Youth, as global citizens, are the catalysts for change in today’s world. We have a responsibility to ignite a paradigm shift in how Africa is portrayed in our society. Learning not to judge an entire country or continent by a news headline is a critical way to increase global understanding. Building positive relationships with that country, in turn, will  assist in the country’s educational, economic, political and social development.

Because of my learning experience, I see Uganda – and Africa — through new lenses.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” — Kenyan proverb

 

Ahed Tamimi and all the other Palestinian children in detention

In just a few short weeks, Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has become a global celebrity of sorts. In mid-December, then 16-year-old Ahed confronted Israeli soldiers outside her home in the village of Nabi Saleh in Israeli-occupied West Bank. A video showing Ahed slapping and kicking the soldiers quickly went viral.

According to witnesses, Ahed was angered by the soldiers’ presence because they had just shot (with a rubber-coated bullet at close range) and seriously harmed her cousin. The larger context is that other Tamimi members have been killed and many others detained over the years, as the community of Nabi Saleh—through persistent and unarmed resistance—has said “No” to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and more specifically to the confiscation of the village spring by a nearby Israeli settlement.

Days after the confrontation, Ahed was arrested in a night-time raid. Her mother Nariman—who had also appeared in the video—was also detained when she went to a police station, inquiring where her daughter was being held.

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Ahed Tamimi enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli authorities at Ofer Prison, January 1, 2018.  Photo Ammar Awad, Reuters

Ahed now faces a total of 12 charges, including assault, incitement and throwing stones. She could potentially be imprisoned for ten years.  The first hearing of her trial took place on February 13; the next one is scheduled for March 11.

Since December, Ahed’s story has been picked up by news media around the world. Amnesty International and Avaaz have taken up her cause, demanding her release. Canada’s own CBC broadcasted a feature story about Ahed, describing her as the “new symbol of Palestinian resistance.” And parliamentarians like Hélène Laverdière, NDP critic for International Development, have spoken out on her behalf.

And yet Ahed’s story is not only about one young person’s resistance to a military occupation that has humiliated her people for decades. It is about the daily reality of Palestinian children who are arrested, interrogated, convicted and detained in a military court process that denies them basic rights. Most of them are accused of throwing stones.

Ahed’s detention provides a glimpse into what hundreds of Palestinian children experience each year.

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Jarrah Mesalmeh was arrested at 15 and spent 9 months in military detention. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

As we have previously written about in our blog, each year hundreds of children aged 12 to 18 face military detention in a process that deprives them of basic rights. In three quarters of all cases, children experience some form of violence after arrest. In most cases, arrest happens at night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. And in most cases, children are interrogated without legal counsel and without access to a parent or guardian. After sentencing, more than half of detainees are transferred from the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel, in violation of international law.

Expert organizations like Defence for Children International, Military Court Watch and UNICEF demonstrate that the ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees by Israeli forces is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the Israeli military detention system.”

Moreover, they point out that the process is not primarily about seeking justice—in fact, a staggering 99 percent of Palestinians (adults and children) are convicted. The practices of the military detention system work to protect Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements in the West Bank and to intimidate and suppress a population that resists a 50-year occupation.

In a recent study, Military Court Watch determined that 98 percent of child detention cases occur near Israeli settlements. As Gerard Horton, the organization’s co-founder, puts it, “If the politicians in Israel decide to put 400,000 Israeli civilians into the West Bank and you give the job to the military guaranteeing their protection, then the tactics employed by the military generally include suppressing and intimidating the villagers living next to those settlements.”

The story of Ahed Tamimi provides a window into a much wider reality of oppression. As Brad Parker of Defence for Children International states, “Ahed’s detention and prosecution in Israel’s military court system is not exceptional, but provides a clear example of how Israeli military law and military courts are used to control an occupied Palestinian population.”

Please take action for the hundreds of children like Ahed who are paying the price of this sustained occupation. Join the growing movement of people and organizations who say that military detention is No Way to Treat a Child.

Learn more about Palestinian children in military detention through a story, video and factsheet MCC has produced.

Then sign the petition urging the Canadian federal government to address the situation of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.

A New Year’s plea for children

The Christmas leftovers are eaten, the decorations are packed away, and the season’s concerts are receding into memory.  But it is just a short time ago that many of us gathered with family – including little children – to celebrate the birth of another child, the Christ-child Jesus.

As I witnessed the wonder and delight of my little grandchildren at Christmas, I once again whispered a prayer of gratitude that they are growing up in safety and security, their basic needs met, and love surrounding them. But I was also reminded that the well-being of these two little ones results, not only from their amazing parents, but from white middle-class privilege and the good fortune to be born far from a war zone.

For millions of children around the world, and in Canada, life does not include a safe home, enough food and water, or the presence of loving caregivers. It does not include communities in which children can grow and thrive.

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Kolo Adamu holds a photo of her 18-year-old daughter Naomi who was abducted by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, in 2014 along with more than 200 other girls who were taken from Chibok secondary school in Nigeria. In May 2017, Naomi was among 80 girls who were released. MCC photo/Fred Yocum

Consider these realities:

  • According to UNICEF, 2017 was a “nightmare year” for children living in conflict zones. Children in conflict zones came under attack in places that should be safe: homes, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. They were used as human shields. They were raped and enslaved, abducted and recruited to fight, maimed and killed.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children were displaced from their homes. Indeed, it is estimated that, currently and worldwide, 50 million children are uprooted by brutal conflict and extreme poverty.
  • Displaced children become refugees when they cross an international border. In the last weeks of 2017, we heard much about Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, but child refugees also fled and continue to flee countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them were alone. In Europe, refugees who are “unaccompanied minors” number 100,000 annually.
  • Millions of children live with hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. In East Africa alone – notably South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – at the end of 2017, 6.9 million children suffered from malnutrition, with 1 million severely malnourished or at risk of dying by the end of the year.
  • Palestinian children in the occupied territories, convicted of throwing stones or some other misdemeanor deemed a security threat to Israel, are placed in Israeli military detention, where abuse, harassment and violation of basic rights are systemic and widespread.  (Learn more and take action on this issue.)
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Tricia Monague, an Ojibway jingle dancer, dances in Ottawa in memory of Indigenous children who died at Indian Residential Schools. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

And the horrors many children experience are not just “over there.”  Many children here in Canada live with poverty, discrimination, violence and insecurity as well.

Children deserve a life free of fear and free of want. They deserve to be loved and cared for by people they can trust and love in return. They deserve to be surrounded by communities of care.

As Christmas 2017 recedes and 2018 opens before us, let us commit to building a world of justice, peace and security for children.  Especially those of us who welcome and worship the Christ-child Jesus.

“When God is a child, there is joy in our song, the last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.” — Excerpt from song by Brian Wren, “When God is a child,”  © 1989 Hope Publishing Company.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

 

 

 

10 + 1 reasons to oppose war

Remembrance Day—and, for Anabaptist-Mennonites, Peace Sunday—is once again upon us. It is the season to mourn the loss of human life in war. And the season to commit, once again, to building a culture of peace.

Resistance to war is part of the very heart of MCC.  As an agency of Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, MCC holds to the confession that war and participation in war are counter to the way of Jesus.  For us, resistance to war is at the core of our identify as pacifist Christians.

But there are many other reasons to oppose war.  And we suspect that many Canadians—who may not share our theological commitments—can nevertheless affirm these reasons.

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War’s destruction in Homs, Syria. MCC photo/Doug Enns

  1. War kills and harms soldiers. War kills, injures and disables the very people who must carry it out. It causes high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can lead to moral injury as well – namely, the deep shame, guilt, anger or anxiety experienced by soldiers as a result of killing or harming others. Some soldiers may commit suicide. Since 2010, 130 Canadian soldiers have taken their own lives.
  2. War kills and harms civilians. In the 20th century, some 200 million people were killed in war, and many millions have already been killed in this century. War not only kills, it also mains people, separates family members, causes disease, hunger and other forms of deprivation. Toxic substances released by some weapons result in severe birth defects, long after wars are officially over. Another frequent weapon of war is rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls. The human cost of war is staggering and the impacts extend over generations.
  3. War creates refugees. War causes people to flee their homes for safety, sometimes crossing an international border. The UN currently reports that around the world 65 million people are forcibly displaced. The personal upheaval for these individuals is profound, the social and political consequences breath-taking.
  4. War harms the natural environment. War contaminates earth, air and water. It destroys natural habitats, killing their flora and fauna. The use of Agent Orange by the U.S. to defoliate the Vietnamese countryside continues to wreak havoc on Vietnam decades later, while use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq will mean radioactive contamination for thousands of years to come. Even in peacetime, standing armies harm the environment because of their enormous carbon footprint.
  5. War’s financial cost is enormous. Consider these statistics: Canada’s 12-year military engagement in Afghanistan cost $8.4 billion, while U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (and related violence in Pakistan and Syria) from 2001 to 2016 cost about $4.8 trillion. The Institute for Economics & Peace determined that in 2016, the impact of violence (including war) to the global economy was $14.3 trillion per day – the equivalent of more than $5 per day for every person alive. What might be possible if those funds were invested in peacebuilding rather than war-making?
  6. War sets back development. The destruction of homes, schools and hospitals, as well as transportation, electrical, water treatment and sanitation systems in wartime can set back economic, social and community development for decades. Wars prevent farmers from farming, children and youth from going to school and ordinary people from going to work. A typical civil war in a medium-sized country costs more than 30 years of GDP growth. No wonder the United Nations in 2015 identified the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies as one of its key Sustainable Development Goals.
  7. War empowers the weapons dealers. War is good business for those who manufacture and trade in weapons and weapons system. In 2015 just 100 companies sold $370 billion worth of arms, and just one company —U.S.-based based Lockheed Martin—had $36 billion in sales. Weapons dealers often have undue influence on politics and foreign policy. In 1961 outgoing U.S. President Eisenhower warned against the power of the “military-industrial complex” to perpetuate war; in many ways, his predictions have come to pass.
  8. War distorts truth. In 1918, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson’s 1919 stated, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” How very true! War promotes prejudices and stereotypes about people considered “enemy” and often portrays the enemy as less than human, thereby legitimizing the use of violence against them. War reduces moral categories to the simple binary of “we are good, they are evil.” Nuanced public discussion becomes increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible.
  9. War does not address root causes. While war may end in some measure of “peace” if accompanied by comprehensive peace negotiations, it rarely addresses the grievances that give rise to it, whether hunger, class division, religious or ethnic conflict, access to land and resources, political exclusion, etc. Because of this, many wars lead to new wars. The war against ISIS, for example, is rooted in the Iraq War, which is rooted in the Gulf War.
  10. peace buttonsThere are many nonviolent alternatives to war. Diplomacy, dialogue, disarmament, development, conflict resolution, peace education and strategic peacebuilding are only a few of the nonviolent approaches available to prevent war and thereby avoid war’s horrific consequences. A growing body of expertise also points to nonviolent alternatives to addressing terrorist and extremist violence. States and societies truly interested in peace have many nonviolent tools and approaches at their disposal!

Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”  Many reasons confirm his words.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office.

Download MCC’s 2017 Peace Sunday Packet: Praying for Peace.

God as advocate

Our MCC Ottawa Office has been engaged in advocacy since it was founded in 1975, but we still occasionally are asked why we are involved in speaking to government as a church-based relief, development and peacebuilding agency.  After all, the question often goes, doesn’t scripture admonish us to simply feed the hungry, clothe the naked or give water to those who thirst?

We as staff have developed a response to this question.  We have many reasons for justifying the work we are mandated to do, not the least of which is the role that advocacy plays in the Bible.  We point out how biblical characters like Moses, Esther, Daniel and John the Baptist spoke to the powers of their time, sometimes with a divine call to do so.  We lift up the words of prophets like Amos and Isaiah who denounced the evil practices of kings. We point to Jesus and how he challenged the religious authorities of his day.

Advocacy for justiceA new book gives us a deeper way of responding to the skeptics who believe that advocacy is beyond the realm of a Christian humanitarian agency.

The book is Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures, written by Stephen Offutt and four other U.S. church leaders (one of them, Robb Davis, was executive director of Mennonite Central Committee for a short period of time). The book speaks to evangelicals suspicious of advocacy and seeks to persuade them that advocacy is as important as any other form of Christian ministry, whether evangelism, relief, service or development.

The book accepts – as would our Ottawa Office – that reasons to engage in advocacy include:  1) the fact that partners call for it, 2) that it can address root causes of suffering, and 3) that it can have a much more sweeping and lasting impact than, say, relief distribution. But the authors’ key argument is a theological one – namely, we are advocates because God is an advocate.

God advocates by speaking creation into being and regularly calling that creation to care for the poor and weak, the widows and orphans. God advocates through the “vivid brilliance” of Jesus, whose proclamation of the “kingdom” (a political term indeed!), and whose healing, teaching and sacrificing ministry reconciles the world to Godself.  God advocates through the Holy Spirit who is present with the believers and who empowers them to “bear witness to the life of Jesus applied to all facets of society, whether education, economics, or even politics” (70).  Advocate is a metaphor for God’s very triune nature.

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L-R: Ted and Katherine Oswald (MCC Reps in Haiti), Member of Parliament Bev Shipley, Clare Maier (former Ottawa Office intern), Rebekah Sears (MCC Ottawa Office policy analyst).

Not only that! The authors argue that for Christians, as “image-bearers” of Christ, advocating to “the powers” is an essential part of being faithful disciples.  They also caution that any all such advocacy must reflect the basic Christian principles of humility, integrity and love for the other.

There is much more to commend this book.  For example, it identifies the important roles of local congregation, denomination, church-based NGOs and para-church organizations in advocacy. It also analyzes key Christian advocacy initiatives and their strengths and weaknesses.  More importantly, it identifies and challenges that which makes many evangelicals skeptical of advocacy: a highly individualistic view of the gospel.

What I found particularly interesting was the chapter that addresses challenges and tensions in faith-based advocacy.  Many of the issues addressed are ones that our office is confronted with regularly, such as, for example, the tension between integrating a faithful response to the advocacy request of our partners with the approval of our donors and supporters. Or, to get more specific,  how do we call for bold action on climate change (because that is our partners’ plea), when some of our donors resist the notion that climate change is human-induced?

For Christians who already embrace the notion of faith-based advocacy, the book will not be necessary. But for evangelicals and others who are still wary of the place of advocacy in the life of faith, it is a major contribution.

And for us in MCC’s Ottawa Office, it gives us new language to communicate why we do what we do. We advocate because God advocates.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office. 

 

The regularly destroyed village of Alhadedya

This piece was prepared by MCC Palestine staff and was originally published on the MCC Palestine Update.

After the rains of the winter months, the typically dry and yellow Jordan Valley turns a beautiful green. Tucked in between the rolling rocky hills lies the Palestinian village of Alhadedya. We visited Alhadedya with Stop the Wall, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization that does grassroots community organizing in villages, refugee camps and cities across the West Bank. At the start of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the village boasted 300 families. In 1997, however, only 150 families lived in the village. Finally, in 2017, Alhadedya only has 15 families remaining.

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On a tour with MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, Abdulrahim Sharat talks about how the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank has negatively impacted Alhadedya, his village in Area C, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

The dramatic drop in the village’s inhabitants is no mistake, explains Abdulrahim Sharat, the village elder. We met Abdulrahim in the community tent and we were offered coffee and tea immediately, as is customary in Palestinian culture. He greeted us warmly and began explaining the difficulties his community has faced with the Israeli authorities.

“They started in so many ways, in experimental ways, to chase us away. They first started to chase the shepherds and the farmers, taking them to military courts.” At the beginning, the Israeli authorities began to give out fines as a way to cripple the village economically and force the people to leave. “When this did not work,” Abdulrahim recounts, “they started chasing the animals with the military and began killing them from the helicopters.” Neither the fines nor the deaths of their animals were enough for the villagers of Alhadedya to leave.

This type of pressure by the Israeli military continued until 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada, or Palestinian popular uprising. “The three years during the First Intifada was the best time for us. The Israelis were too busy with people in the city and left us alone.” However, this tranquility came to a halt after the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 to begin realizing the dream of a two-state solution. For the villagers of Alhadedya, the agreement was a nightmare.

Under the Oslo Accords, Alhadedya was designated as Area C, which means that Israel has full civil and military control over their land. Under the agreement, these lands were supposed to be turned over to an independent Palestinian state after a tentative 5-year period. Nearly 25 years after Oslo, Israel is still in full control over Area C, which covers over 60 per cent of the West Bank. During this time, Israel has only intensified its efforts to force the inhabitants of Alhadedya off of their land.

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Abdulrahim Sharat shows his village to visitors from MCC partner organization Stop the Wall, January 24, 2017. Photo courtesy Stop the Wall.

“After Oslo, they began their destruction policies,” explains Abdulrahim. “They came to destroy the village – we call this a military campaign. They came with soldiers…and destroyed the tents, animal shelters, and water tanks.”

Abdulrahim told us that the Israeli authorities have destroyed the village many times afterwards. Enclosed by Israeli military zones and a nearby Israeli settlement (illegal under international law), the people of Alhadedya are slowly being squeezed out of their land. To fight this, the villagers went to the Israeli High Court to defend their case and prove their right to the land. Unfortunately, they have had little success in stemming the destruction of their village. Demolitions of Palestinian homes and buildings in Area C and illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank are at all-time highs. The village of Alhadedya is feeling the pressure of these two dynamic forces and Abdulrahim questions why he is being forced off his land.

“What does it mean [to say] legally or illegally?” questions Abdulrahim. “We were born here and our ancestors have lived here.” He wonders aloud why the nearby settlement, full of settlers originally from the United States and Russia, is not considered illegal under Israeli law but his village is. “Why? What is their right to kick us from our land?”