Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why Israel-Palestine? My personal story

I have been asked a number of times over the past ten or so years I have been focusing on the Israel-Palestine conflict why I chose that situation on the other side of the world to be my passion. It’s a question I sometimes get from those who are genuinely interested and also one many advocates for justice for Palestine get from apologists for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Those apologists want to know why people like me “only focus on the bad things Israel does” or why we hold Israel “to a higher standard” than other countries. They implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) use that observation to accuse us of being anti-Semitic. Of course that doesn’t happen, at least for me, with people who actually know us because people who genuinely know us and care about us have more respect for us than that. It’s simply a rhetorical political tactic used to discredit anything we say. But we don’t have to take that.

We have good reasons for focusing on Israel-Palestine (putting aside that most of us are extremely active on many other issues). I’m going to focus most of this post on my personal story that led to me being passionate about justice for Palestine. After I’m done my story, I’ll conclude by offering a bit of a broader explanation about why it’s necessary for people who have values of peace, fairness, and justice to focus on Israel-Palestine specifically and to not apologize for it and to not get defensive against the apologists described above. So here it goes with my story.

My interest in Israel-Palestine traces back to my roots in the Pentecostal (charismatic, evangelical) Church I grew up in. When I was very young (I’m guessing 6 years old) my family became one of a handful of families that broke off from the Church of God we were attending at the time in Lloydminster where I grew up to start up a new church affiliated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC). It is one of Canada’s most socially conservative denominations. Its members were (are?) the base of opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. It is also a denomination that tends to have a strong focus on “end times” when they believe Jesus will return to save the believers and condemn the unbelievers to an eternity of punishment. Those are a couple of the highlights of the denomination anyway. My purpose here is to give you the general idea of it rather than to provide a full picture of it. The details of any denomination are far more complicated and often nuanced than that, but that’s generally what the situation was when I was a teenager and a young adult in one PAOC church in Lloydminster.

Politics was not usually taught explicitly from the pulpit at this church, or at least the focus of the preachers’ messages were typically not very political (I’m aware that everything is arguably political in some way, but I think you get my drift).  Most of the more political issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and a dislike for liberals and encouragement of conservatism were mentioned on the side, though not irregularly. I recall a specific moment leading up to the 2004 US Presidential election when the Senior Pastor had just returned from meeting like-minded preachers in Texas and passed on the message that if John Kerry was elected instead of re-electing President Bush that it would set the country back decades. I also remember hearing from the pulpit that Israel “miraculously” won a war for its very existence against all odds, and that not only did it survive, but by God’s grace it subdued its enemies in a mere six days. I was appalled at the time by the comment about the Presidential election (I was already quite politically progressive despite my limited political knowledge), however, I took the Israel comment at face value. I didn’t know anything about modern-day Israel.

I did already have a passion for international affairs. Growing up my parents had taught me and my three siblings that we were lucky to have food every day because there were people in other places who aren’t as fortunate. As token as that lesson seems to many people today, I think my parents instilling that in me was actually a big part of me getting interested in working towards a more socially just world. The first issue I remember getting involved in was the genocide in Darfur, in western Sudan. It seemed so simple. There was one group of people who held power who were destroying another group of people who had next to nothing. No one I knew was standing up for the Sudanese government or the militias they supported who were trying to eliminate the people of Darfur. It was clear that the Canadian and American governments didn’t care enough to do much about the violence, so the solution from North America seemed like it needed to start with convincing politicians that the people they represent actually care about it. I wrote up and printed stacks of my own “Darfur 101” factsheet that I would give out to people at shows my band played. A friend of mine donated a “Save Darfur” banner to my band that I would put up at our merchandise tables.

You know those memories where all you can remember is a vivid image from a moment that had a big effect on you? I have one of those from March 19, 2003. I remember the room I was in and the angle I was looking at the TV from and the exact position of every person in the room I was in. I remember the dark city on the television and the massive blasts that lit up the sky. It was Baghdad, Iraq, and the US military was beginning its destruction of the country. I hadn’t followed the lead-up to it closely. I remember it coming out of nowhere for me. I had no idea why the US would be bombing Iraq. It seemed like it had something to do with the attacks on September 11, 2001, but Canada had already helped the US invade Afghanistan for that. It was after March 19, 2003, that I decided I had a lot of learning to do. I needed to understand what was going on. Countries don’t just get bombed for nothing. Innocent people were dying, and I didn’t know why.

I went to the local public library and picked up the newest book I could find on Iraq. It was a book I now own called “Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm” by Dilip Hiro. It was amazingly motivating one small book could be. I don’t know that Hiro’s book is actually radical in any way. I think the most radical thing in it for me was just the history of the US in Iraq. Not only was there no moral reason for the US attack/invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the US had a long history of oppressing the Iraqi people. I knew they had attacked Iraq before, but I didn’t know how much suffering they had caused the civilian population of Iraq. Those people clearly did not deserve any of it. And if the story behind Iraq was so different than the general impression I had before, what else was I missing out on about what was going on in the world?

I began to do more research on Iraq. I found information online about a new documentary that was coming out by a guy named Michael Moore (I had no clue who he was) about US involvement in the Middle East and the September 11th attacks on the US. It didn’t seem like the theatre in Lloydminster would be playing it, but that summer (it would have been 2004) I was playing bass guitar in a worship band at a Pentecostal Bible camp called Living Waters near Prince Albert, SK. When the camp was over, all of us in the band traveled to Prince Albert and went to the movie theatre. Everyone else had a Hollywood movie they wanted to see (I don’t remember what it was); I was extremely excited to see what was probably one of the first political documentaries I had ever seen. I happily went off to Fahrenheit 9/11 by myself.

Not long after I returned to Lloydminster I visited the local bookstore in the Lloyd Mall to see what else I could find about Iraq and US involvement in the Middle East. Their selection was quite limited, but I found a small book called “Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order” by a guy named Noam Chomsky (again, I had no clue who the guy was at the time). It took me a lot longer to get through than I thought it would. Despite it being a small book, it was a dense read for me. There were far too many things I didn’t understand. But I powered through it anyway and picked up some of the things he was saying. It was certainly clear that I could learn a lot from this guy. I looked online and found audio files of interviews he had given with various media outlets. I had recently picked up a part-time second job delivering pizza to pay for my band’s studio recordings and cross-country tours, so I had lots of time to listen to these sorts of things while I was driving around the city.

The recording that I clearly remember was probably about an hour long, and I probably listened through it 8 or 10 times that year. It was an interview Noam Chomsky did with Evan Solomon (who I had also never heard of) on CBC. I think the interview was from 2002 because the first section of it was about the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, but Iraq was not yet a topic of urgent discussion. It was the Afghanistan content that had me interested in the interview. If the situation in Iraq was so different than I had previously thought, maybe the invasion of Afghanistan, which my own country participated in, wasn’t as justified as it seemed to be.

That interview had a profound impact on me. Not only did I find out the invasion of Afghanistan was fraught with questionable intentions and a history of American disregard for Afghani lives, but the second half of the interview was all about American involvement in Israel-Palestine. It was a part of the world I had heard bits about in church (mainly about the miracle of Israel’s existence), but I really knew next to nothing about it. Chomsky talked in the interview about the terrible things Israel was doing to the Palestinian people with the support of President Bush and President Clinton before him. Even though it seemed to me like the Democrats in the US were the “good guys” it appeared that both American parties supported the terrible things the Israeli government was doing to the Palestinian people. I realized I didn’t know anything about Israel’s history and how it got to where it was. I had a lot of learning to do.

I actually found it quite difficult to find a single source that would give me the “101” about what was going on in Israel-Palestine. I wanted something coming from a perspective of social justice, because that’s what I was interested in. However, I had no idea how to find anything like that. I found a website for an upcoming documentary film being produced by a couple of Americans. It was called “Occupation 101”, and it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I pre-ordered a copy. When it arrived, I think I watched it a few times. I couldn’t believe it. Israel wasn’t the ancient country I thought it was. It was actually created in 1948. And its conflict with the Palestinian people didn’t go back thousands of years like I thought. It was maybe 100 years old. So maybe the problems there weren’t as unsolvable as people were making it seem. Noam Chomsky seemed to think it was worth speaking out about. And everything I was learning seemed to be facts that my church’s pastor either didn’t know, didn’t understand, or didn’t want to acknowledge (I’m still not sure I know which of those it was).

Occupation 101 was so good and the situation in Israel-Palestine was so appalling that I ordered three more DVD copies of the film to lend out to any friend who was even remotely interested (the whole film is now available to stream on YouTube for anyone interested). I began to read more and more books and article and watch more documentaries about Israel-Palestine.

I decided I was going to move to Edmonton in 2008. It seemed like the next logical step for my career as a songwriter and musician, and the guitarist I was playing with at the time was going to be studying guitar at Grant MacEwan College (now University). And if he was going to be in classes all day, what was I going to do? It seemed like a perfect opportunity to do some learning on the side. I enrolled at the University of Alberta for the Bachelor of Arts program with a Major in Political Science and a Minor in Middle Eastern and African Studies. That eventually became a Double Major in Religious Studies and Middle Eastern and African Studies, which I finished in 2013.

Sorry if that was extremely long. It was easy to write, and I thought it would make the most sense and be the most relatable if I told it step by step, from my initial complete ignorance to basically where I am now. I still don’t think I’ve completely answered the “Why Israel-Palestine?” question, but now that you have the background story, the explanation seems simple.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was one that my environment had misled me about in a way that didn’t happen with any other conflict. With Darfur no one was telling me the Darfuris deserved what they were getting or that it was a miracle Sudan still existed. North American governments weren’t supporting what the Sudanese government was doing to them. In Israel, it was different. Innocent Palestinians were being oppressed and killed, and not only did North American governments lack the political will to solve it, but in many ways they were supporting the oppression. And there was a significant part of the Canadian public, particularly my own church, who were staunchly siding with the group doing the oppressing and killing. And even among those who didn’t support it, it seemed like the general feeling was hopelessness. At its least extreme it was that we just shouldn’t worry about it because it will always be that way, and at its most extreme it was that someone should just bomb that entire area of the world because it was the only way fighting would stop. I didn’t (and couldn’t) accept any of those views, and I felt like all of this misinformation and support for oppression and injustice was so close to home that I could do something about it.

And that’s why I’m so passionate about justice and peace in Israel-Palestine. So many North Americans are so backwards when it comes to understanding the problems there, and North American governments are supporting the oppression and the killing. For me, it seems to be the most extreme case of that in Canada. There are political problems in many other places, but none in my view where it is so acceptable to support the powerful who are oppressing the weak. We have so far to go. I do feel like society is gradually shifting, but it can never happen quickly enough. If Israel-Palestine is ever going to have a just and peaceful settlement to the conflict there, it will require the efforts of everyone who holds values of peace, fairness, and justice to stand up together to say enough is enough. One day, this conflict will end, and I want to be part of the solution.

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