Defying Hate

As you know by now,  social justice issues are important to me.   There's plenty of injustice to go around, plenty for all of us to tackle.   I want to alert you to a PBS program about a couple from Massachusetts who left home for Prague, Czechoslovakia to help desperate refugees escape Nazi Germany.   The program is called Defying the Nazis.   One couple defying hate. Now we have horrific violence in Syria and Iraq fueling the worst refugee crisis since World War II.  Countries are sealing their borders, shunting refugees from one border to the next, and failing to provide desperately needed humanitarian aid.  As always, women and children are the most vulnerable. The Dominican Republic  revoked the citizenship of its residents who were born to undocumented Haitian parents.  This meant deportation.   Now refugees, with nothing waiting for them in Haiti, they're living in tent cities on the border, facing hunger, unemployment and government indifference.  Who are the most vulnerable?   Women and children. Check Myanmar to see what's being done to the Muslims in Rohingya. And then there's us.    Do we have the courage of that Massachusetts couple to step  out of our comfort zone to defy hate?        

What Do You Know About the Palestinians?

Posted on March 25, 2017 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby

It was 40 years ago that I co-founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) and wrote "Palestinians, the Invisible Victims". I was concerned that in the American mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been reduced to a simple equation: Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem.

When most Americans thought of the conflict they were able imagine Israelis as people just like us. They were parents who loved their families. They wanted what we wanted—peace, prosperity, and a chance to watch their children grow and realize their dreams. They had names and faces. They experienced pain and loss. They were real.

Palestinians, on the other hand, were, at best, presented as an abstraction.  They were objectified into a faceless mass, without names or personalities. When spoken of at all, they were refugees or terrorists or, after a conflict, mere numbers in a body count. We did not know them as individual people and what we did know was cast in negative stereotypes. The only emotions we ascribed to them were that they were angry and violent and not to be trusted. They were not people to be supported, but a problem to be solved.

It was through this lens that most Americans, both policy makers and the public, at large, viewed the conflict. When given the choice between a people or a problem, is was an easy call to support the Israeli people.

This framing of the issue was not by accident. Rather it was the result of a systematic campaign to dehumanize the one side while humanizing the other. It was best captured by the 1960's propaganda film "The Exodus" which transposed the then popular American narrative of pioneers confronting the Indians onto the story of "courageous Israelis" fighting the savage "Arab natives".

During the following decades, this framing of the conflict continued. In 1981, I reported on TV news coverage of a cross border confrontation between Israel and the PLO in Lebanon. On the first day, two Israelis were killed. TV cameras were there interviewing weeping family members, telling their story of fear and pain. The next day Israeli jets bombed the Fakhani neighborhood in West Beirut killing over 383 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. That night, the TV cameras were again in Northern Israel with more follow up interviews. There was no coverage from Lebanon, just reports of an Arab body count. When the TV coverage did occur a day later, the reporter stood at the end of a bombed out street showing massive destruction. No one was interviewed, no personal stories were told. In Israel the story was the people, in Lebanon it was the buildings and a body count.

In 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a young American-Israeli terrorist massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque, the Washington Post did a major feature piece trying to understand what happened to turn the young man to violence. The faces, names, and ages of the Palestinian victims never made it into print. Goldstein was the story; his victims were invisible. A few years later a 3 month Israeli baby was murdered by a Palestinian sniper. The story was front page news for three days with pictures and interviews with the weeping parents. When, just days later, a 3-day old Palestinian baby was murdered by an Israeli sniper—no major paper picked up the story. It was only reported on the seventh line of a short AP story. No name was given and the parents were not interviewed. It was as if their child and their pain did not matter.

Palestinian invisibility and/or objectification continues to define the conflict today. Even the most progressive voices in Congress don't speak about Palestinians. Instead they advocate for a "two state solution" to preserve Israel a Jewish democratic state. A liberal pro-Israel group periodically puts full page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post calling for two states making the obscene argument of the demographic threat to the Israel's Jewishness posed by the Palestinian birthrate.

Unfortunately, oftentimes progressives unconsciously contribute to this by failing to elevate Palestinian humanity. Their efforts focus on condemning Israeli policies (which, no doubt, deserve condemnation), calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. While I support BDS, I fear that at times the case for BDS is made without telling the personal stories of Palestinian victims of occupation. Instead of elevating Palestinians, punishing Israel becomes the goal.

And so the problem remains—Americans still do not know Palestinians as real people and, as a result, do not care about them. Because this remains the challenge we face, I have decided that 100 years after Balfour, 70 years after the partition, and 50 years after the 1967 war, I will go back to my roots to tell the Palestinian story. To do so will inevitably confront the Zionist narrative that has denied not only Palestinian humanity but their very existence as a people with a history. I want to elevate Palestinian poets and artists. I want to spend my energy elevating the Palestinian narrative, putting flesh on the bones of the Palestinian experience, and challenging Americans to know Palestinians as real people who want and deserve justice, equality, peace, prosperity and as parents who love their families and want to see their children grow and realize their dreams.

Some may find this threatening because it challenges the fundamentally racist equation that has defined this conflict for a century. So be it.

MORE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP

At Ma'an, members spend one month at a time working in one of four different work stations creating felt decorations and household items. Each station crafts a different item. They purchase local sheep's wool which is washed and prepared. An assistant delicately fits the wool into a mold. The core members then use soap and water and press the wool in the molds, like in the picture to the left, transforming the wool into felt. It is then put out to dry on their balcony (photo below) before being dyed or decorated. The organisation is well-known for their felt interpretations of the nativity scene, but they have also branched out to countless other items, from ornaments to potholders to Easter chicks. The work day is interrupted first for breakfast, followed by announcements and a dance party (and apparently, "You haven't seen a dance party until you've seen a Ma'an dance party," or so Anna tells me). The next break is an afternoon lunch shared together before members work again until five, with a mid-afternoon snack break. All tasks, from the work itself to preparing meals, are shared equally between the members and the assistants. I spoke with Rania, the program's administrative assistant, who told me, "Everything is unique here. Our core members were used to being pitied and not having any expectations placed on them. Here, they are respected and valued. They are human and must be treated like any other human. This includes high expectations about their behaviour and work." The need for such a community in Palestine is strong, where there is still a lot of stigma around disabilities. Families feel shame and keep their children at home. There are few resources for education and empowerment. The programs that do exist are only for children, leaving those who age out of such programs without structure or purpose. The staff at Ma'an hope that the community provides both to their members, as well as a means for empowerment. Members earn a stipend each week, dependent on the hours they work. They are treated as equals to the staff, with the same expectations placed on them. Rania told me, "Their stipend teaches them that their work is valuable and gives them the opportunity to choose how to spend it. It is empowering for them to not have to ask their parents for everything." She tells me stories of core members'  transformation. For example, Rami, who sat next to me during the morning gathering smiling and showing off his notebook, was completely withdrawn when he first started coming. He refused to participate in any gatherings or work, even refusing to use the bathroom at the centre. He just stood by the door waiting for his father to pick him up. Now, a year later, he has blossomed. Rami is joining in everything, staying full days at the centre, and obviously enjoying himself. I ask Rania and Anna, left, what they hope Ma'an provides for its members, and this is when Anna tells me: "Belonging. Friendship. We all want friendship. This is one of life's most basic needs, and people find it here. They might not find it anywhere else, as so often they are not even taken out of the house. When you come, you can see we are all friends here. People also need to feel productive, to feel they are creating something beautiful and worthwhile. Here we all contribute to work that makes beautiful things, things we can be proud of." You can purchase these beautiful products to enjoy yourself or to sell in your congregation or community. The money goes back to Ma'an lil Hayat, to purchase wool, pay stipends, and keep the program going, giving their members joy and community every day. To order, email Rania at arche.bethlehem@gmail.com. You can find a catalogue on their Facebook page under "Files" here.

WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE

"We all want friendship. This is one of life's most basic needs, and people find it here," Anna Johnson tells me. Anna volunteers three days a week at Ma'an lil Hayat, a L'Arche community in Bethlehem. The first L'Arche community was founded in a small village in France by Jean Vanier with the intention of bringing people of varying ability to live together and share life in community. Through the years, the community grew, with members deciding to start similar groups in their own countries. Today there are 149 communities in 37 countries, including Palestine. Local culture dictates that Ma'an lil Hayat is not residential, but members share life together five days a week. Indeed, the meaning of their name is "Together for Life." Ma'an has 29 core members with various disabilities, ranging in age from 16 to 46, attending in two different sites- one in central Bethlehem and one in a village just outside the city. They arrive every day by 8:30 a.m., when they gather for announcements, share news, pray together, and sing songs, along with the "assistants," the program's term for members who are staff. The day I visited, news and announcements included one core member modelling her new sneakers and another smiling shyly when an assistant shared that she had attended a party the day before. Everyone clapped and celebrated these joyful events. They closed their sharing time by singing, Muslims and Christians together, with a Taize song adapted to Arabic, "Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten, God alone fills us." After a moment of silence, there was a flurry of activity as everyone prepared to receive their assignments and begin their work day.

Living in a Barn in Snowy Lebanon, a Syrian Mom Braces for Winter

This is from the January 3 ANERA newsletter.
Syrian refugees in winter need protection due to poverty and poor living conditions More than half of the residents in Wadi Khaled live under the poverty line, with a large portion of them being Syrian refugees.
Back home in Syria, Nadia Al Hammoud had a house and a little farm. Now the mother of four is a refugee, living in a cattle barn in Lebanon. She fled Al Qusayr, Homs with her husband and four children in 2012, as the war took away all they had. The family of six ran away to save their lives, leaving behind any legal documents. Paperless, they settled in Wadi Khaled, a rural region on the Syrian-Lebanese border. “There are about 10,000 families residing in Wadi Khaled, equally divided between original Lebanese residents and refugee families who fled the civil war in Syria,” said Ali Al Badawi, the Mayor of Al Rama village in the Wadi Khaled area.

Poor Living Conditions for Syrian Refugees in Winter

Syrian refugees in winter need light and warmth, like Nadia who lives in a barn.

“We use candles at night, but now we have this battery-powered light,” said Nadia. “It’s a great support.”

Nadia and her family live in a single shoddy room in the cowshed. It has a cement floor that becomes frigid in the winter, walls that leak rainwater, and a roof rusted with asbestos. There are no glass windows in the shed, only open holes that let in the cold despite Nadia’s best efforts to seal them with nylon bags. But at 600 meters above sea level, the region is cold and windy. Winters see heavy snows.
Syrian refugees in winter live in harsh conditions like this converted barn in Lebanon

The converted barn, where Nadia lives with her family of six, offers very little protection from the cold.

This winter, ANERA distributed winter protection kits to 1,500  Syrian refugee families like Nadia’s. The families reside in Wadi Khaled and Berkayel, both in northern Lebanon. The UN reports that the area is one of Lebanon’s “most deprived regions.” Of the 1.1 million residents, roughly 65% are under the poverty line. The crisis in Syria greatly affected the region, as 300,000 refugees have settled there after fleeing war.

Winter Boots and Battery Rechargeable Lights Support Moms Like Nadia

Syrian refugees in winter need battery powered lights because they have minimal electricity.

Battery rechargeable lights are a necessity in villages like Wadi Khaled, where residents get only three to six hours of electricity per day.

The winter kits include warm clothing, boots and battery rechargeable lights to address the lack of reliable electricity. On average, there are three to six hours of electricity per day, and many Syrian families cannot afford to buy generators.
“We use candles at night, but now we have this light,” said Nadia. “The light is a great support to me, especially when one of the kids wake up at night.” Zahraa, Nadia’s youngest, was excited to slip on her new cozy winter boots and stow away her slippers for the summer. “My siblings will be very happy when they return from school and see the new things we’ve got,” said Zahraa. ANERA distributed the kits as part of its annual winterization program to help protect Syrian refugees in winter. Most of these families are enduring harsh conditions. As winter sets into the cold, hilly regions of Lebanon, these kits are a necessity for helping Syrian refugees keep warm.