The settler within me

What does it mean to ally oneself with people victimized by colonization when one is a settler? This is a question that has confronted me repeatedly in recent months.

MCC in Canada has just launched a major multi-year education and advocacy campaign on Palestine and Israel called A Cry for Home. The campaign highlights the cry of MCC’s Palestinian and Israeli partners for a just peace – a peace characterized by justice, equality, dignity and respect for international law. It is a project that I and MCC colleagues have helped to shape..

One of the issues that the campaign highlights is the colonization of Palestinian land for illegal Jewish-only settlements. As of June 2017, there were 196 settlements and 232 outposts (smaller clusters of Jewish settlers) in occupied Palestine. Nearly 800,000 Jewish Israelis – 10 percent of the Israeli population – live in these colonies. According to international law, these colonies are illegal.

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An Israeli settlement under construction near Bethlehem. Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

As I learn about these settlements and their impact on Palestinian people and Palestinian land, I grow angry.  And then I remember that I am a settler too. I am a settler on the Indigenous land of Turtle Island (North America).

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s as Mennonite refugees fleeing violence, famine and social upheaval in the wake of the Russian Revolution. My father’s parents settled in southwestern Manitoba (Treaty 2) and my mother’s on Pelee Island, Ontario, the traditional home of Caldwell First Nation.

My grandparents all arrived in Canada with very few resources, and the first decades in the new land were very difficult. Both my parents grew up in poverty. But as a 2nd generation Canadian, I have been blessed with privilege:  a good education, meaningful work, a comfortable home, clean and abundant water, many opportunities — and so much more. Only recently have I begun to recognize how my privilege is rooted in the losses of the Indigenous peoples of this land.

What do I do with the recognition that I live – very well – because I live on stolen land?  And how do I reconcile my own story with my critique of Israeli settlements in Palestine?

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

Not long ago I met Lia Tarachansky, a Russian-born Israeli Jew who grew up in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank.  Lia is my teacher in uncovering what it means to be a settler who has benefitted from the losses of others. She is a brilliant thinker and a compassionate human being.

As a journalist, filmmaker and activist, Lia has committed herself to telling the story of Israel’s past, and to shattering the myths around the founding of the State of Israel. She fearlessly documents the story of the Nakba and how the founding of Israel meant the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 to 900,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. She unveils the ongoing process of colonization at work through settlements, home demolitions, barriers to movement and military occupation.

Paulette Regan is another hero of mine. In her profound book about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Unsettling the Settler Within¸ Regan invites settler Canadians to do the same. True reconciliation in Canada, Regan insists, can only happen when non-Indigenous Canadians decolonize themselves. That includes shattering the myth about Canada’s own “peaceful” relationship with Indigenous peoples. And it means acknowledging and coming to terms with our privilege.

Of course, reconciliation means much more than that for Regan.  But for settler people, she insists, our efforts to be allies must begin with dealing with our own “stuff.” She writes,

“… what is our particular role and responsibility? Is it to ‘help’ Indigenous people recover from the devastating impacts of prescriptive policies and programs that we claimed were supposed to help them? Given our dismal track record, this seems a dubious goal. Or is it to determine what we who carry the identity of the colonizer and have reaped the benefits and privileges of colonialism must do to help ourselves recover from its detrimental legacy?”

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Mennonites walking for reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, June 2015. Photo/Alison Ralph

It is clear where Regan stands.  And it is clear where Tarachansky stands as well.

Settlers seeking to be allies of the colonized must do the hard and painful work of examining and coming to terms with the ways in which we have benefited from the colonial project and how we replicate and maintain colonial relationships today.  We must be prepared to be “deeply unsettled” in that process. Regan assures us that the unsettling will be a good thing.

Jesus once said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).  Before I am too critical of Israeli settlers, I need to come to terms with the settler within me.

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

A Cry for Home — Why now?

Everyone needs a home — where families are safe and secure, where their basic needs are met, where they can come and go freely, and where they can imagine a future of justice and peace. But that is not the reality for Palestinians — or even for some Israelis.

This month MCC in Canada launches a special campaign on Palestine and Israel called “A Cry for Home.”

A Cry for Home logoIt is a multi-year initiative inviting MCC supporters to learn about, engage with and advocate for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. It is a call to respond to the cry of Palestinians and Israelis for a safe, secure, just and peaceful home.

Why this campaign at this time? After all, hasn’t MCC been addressing issues related to Palestine and Israel for years? There are several reasons we are embarking on this initiative now:

  • Because of the cry of our partners. We are responding because of the urgent plea of our partners — especially Palestinian Christian partners — for solidarity and for advocacy. MCC partners have for years been urging a bolder stance in calling for an end to occupation, oppression and injustice. Indeed, in the past six months, Palestinian Christian organizations have urged “costly solidarity” on the part of the global Christian church, insisting, “This is no time for shallow diplomacy Christians.”
  • Because of the increasingly desperate situation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The theft of land and the building of illegal settlements for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank continues apace, despite insistence from the international community that such activity stop. The demolition of Palestinian homes, schools and orchards goes on with impunity. The situation in Gaza is catastrophic, with the UN declaring that it will be unlivable by 2020 and perhaps even sooner. In the meantime, Palestinians and others who resist are increasingly bullied, silenced, imprisoned.
  • Because we care also about Israeli Jews. While the Palestinians suffer most in the current reality, we know that Israeli Jews are also harmed by the words, walls, and weapons that divide them from Palestinians. Like Palestinians, they long for homes and a homeland that is safe and secure. Like Palestinians, they suffer violence. Yet many of them live with a deep sense of fear and foreboding. We acknowledge that for many people, the fear is rooted in Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries. Yet, like many Israeli peacemakers, we believe that a peaceful future for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians will result from an end to the occupation, from the practice of justice, and from respect for international law.housesand_farm_0
  • Because of MCC’s long history. MCC has been active in Palestine and Israel since 1949, when the creation of the State of Israel made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees in their own home. Our history and continuous presence, as well as partnership with Palestinians (since 1949) and with Israelis (since 1967), has given us insights into the ongoing conflict, as well as a special burden to help in supporting a resolution to the conflict. Throughout that history, partners have urged MCC not only to meet immediate needs with relief assistance and community development support, but to engage in advocacy to address the root causes of the current reality.
  • Because the topic is challenging. Over many decades, MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel — particularly, our advocacy for a just peace — has generated a diversity of opinions from our supporters and constituents. While many of MCC’s supporters resonate with our work and approach, some of them disagree with us when we critique the policies of the State of Israel and its actions toward Palestinians. With this campaign, we want to engage with these diverse perspectives — exploring questions together, dialoguing constructively, and building understanding.
  • Last, but definitely not least, because of our faith. Our Christian faith — and our commitment to Jesus — compels us to stand with the oppressed, lovingly speak truth to power, and actively seek a just peace in the land where Jesus walked. Jesus himself denounced injustice and proclaimed good news of liberation to those living under a yoke of oppression; we can do no less. More than that, our faith gives us hope that transformation and reconciliation are truly possible. We are inspired by the vision of the Holy Land as a place where all people — Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians and Muslims — live with peace, justice and security, a land where “everyone sits under their own vine and fig tree and no one makes them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Please join us in responding to the cry of Palestinians and Israelis for home.
Visit our campaign page for information on how to learn, engage, advocate, pray and give. And please sign up for regular campaign updates.

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

Reclaiming walls and fences: finding art and resistance in Palestine and Israel

By Elizabeth Kessler, Donor Life Cycle Coordinator, MCC Canada

This past May I travelled with an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel to learn about the ongoing conflict and about MCC’s work with Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace. I travelled with several other MCC staff members and supporters of our work.

Each day we visited a different place, learning about a different aspect of the context. We learned about the realities of occupation, illegal settlements, uprooted people, destroyed homes, checkpoints, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are used by the Israeli government to assert control. We met Palestinians and Israelis, researchers, activists, businesspeople, tour guides, religious leaders, farmers and even a journalist and a politician–all with different stories and insights to share with us.

But what really stood out to me everywhere were the visual reminders of Palestinian resistance that had been posted or painted on walls.

Palestinian Political Prisoners hunger strike poster

One of the first places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits on top of a cave believed to be the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the church was ostensibly more of a tourist stop, it quickly became clear that tourist stops are not immune to politics. Even before we entered the church, we got caught up in reading these banners that had been posted nearby.

The banners were drawing attention to 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike at the time of our visit. The prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of detaining Palestinians without a trial and also calling for other basic rights like the right of a prisoner to have occasional family visits.

It turned out to be only the first of several demonstrations of support for the hunger strike that we would see during our tour.  At the time, the strike had been going on for a month. While the courtyard around the church was mostly calm, the presence of the signs was powerful, as if the people who put them up wanted to remind the tourists that amid the holy sites there are current, serious justice issues here not to be ignored.

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This key is painted on the door of Lajee Centre, an MCC partner in Aida refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp is home to refugees from a number of different villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948.

The camp has art painted all over its walls. The key is an important symbol for the refugees, many of whom fled their homes in 1948 believing that they would be able to return shortly. Most of them did not pack much, but locked their doors and took their keys. Almost 70 years later, the refugees have not been able to return, but the keys to their homes have been passed down through the generations.

Palestinians continue to advocate for the right of return. The people we met are realistic that they will likely not be able to return to their villages, but they do believe they have the right to at least be compensated for the loss of their homes and valuable agricultural land. It struck me that the symbolism of the key – which is painted and sculpted in a several places around the camp – is important for helping the children in the camp understand their history.

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I’ve always been fascinated by political graffiti and street art, and I have taken photos of it in many of the places that I’ve travelled. What was unique about Palestine was how much of it there was. It makes sense: graffiti is a small way for Palestinians to assert power over their own fate and their land— a non-violent way of reclaiming the space as their own. It proves that they are not defeated.

This image is from a section of the wall that we visited in Qalandyia, a Palestinian village in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The section of the wall cuts off a road that used to be a main artery. There is graffiti all over the wall, in English and Arabic and a few other languages, much of it calling for a just peace. On the right, the faded words say “This wall will fall”.

“No more fear!” was one of the most powerful messages I saw on the trip. Fear is a major underlying cause of much suffering in the world but particularly in Palestine and Israel. Fear drives Israel’s obsession with security and it justifies everything from tight control of Palestinian movements, to the building of the wall, to violations of the Geneva Conventions. To build peace in Palestine and Israel, we have to deal with fear.

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This is a scene a few blocks up the street from the wall in Qalandiya (also written as Kalandia). We were told that the street used to be a busy main artery, but the separation wall has stopped traffic and the local economy. The place is virtually abandoned and extremely quiet considering how close it is to a main highway and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag in graffiti, like the one in this photo, were everywhere in the West Bank. Several of the Palestinians (and some Israelis) we met with throughout the tour spoke about the importance of pushing against the narrative that the Palestinians aren’t really there or have no history here–a narrative that is used to justify illegal Israeli settlements. The flag is a reminder that there is a people here with their own culture and history.

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A sign on a balcony in Hebron reads “Caution, this was taken by Israel.” Jewish Israeli settlers have increasingly been taking over parts of this Palestinian city. Military rule has cut off Palestinian access to the market and, like in Qalandiya, had a severe effect on the local economy. Many of the buildings are abandoned.

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A mural in Nazareth commemorates the anniversary of the Nakba. “Nakba” means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it refers to the time when more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Nazareth is a city in Israel that is primarily inhabited by Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. While these Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (as opposed to Palestinians in the occupied areas who do not), they are denied access to agricultural land and to municipal services provided to Jewish Israelis. They are also cut off from their fellow Palestinians – including family members – who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

We were told that secular Jewish Israelis often come to Nazareth on holidays, and some had repeatedly complained to the municipal government about this mural, which was painted illegally. The mural had been painted over four times, and re-painted four times.

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A wall in a refugee camp in Jerusalem that we visited on the last day of the tour. The refugee camp is messy. There is litter everywhere, and we found tear gas canisters and rubber bullets by the curbside – a sign that the military had made their presence known. But it was busy with people going about their business, and we met friendly people and curious boys on the street.  I think the artist who painted these images must have wanted to beautify the neighborhood and these stencils seem like a solid and lasting way to do that under the circumstances.

Being part of this tour renewed my belief in the importance of MCC’s peacebuilding work and my commitment to pushing the Canadian government to end its complicity in the occupation. MCC has a number of resources about Palestine and Israel which you can access here. You can also support our local partners working for peace and justice by making a donation.

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

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