Visiting an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy in Boston, February 2009
This is a departure from my ongoing series of dispatches from the Land of Troubles. I’ll return to that theme later.
Co-editor of The Freedom & Justice Crier—member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge—founder and member of the Israel-Palestine Working Group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge—photographer for the past six years in Israel-Palestine
Before a conflict can be resolved it must first be provoked.
—“The Radical Nonviolent Witness of Jesus,” Ched Myers, Friends Journal, May 2009
In 2006, inspired by the growing troubles in Palestine/Israel and by the concerns of various members of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC), about 10 of us began meeting monthly—to learn, consider action, and finally, three years later, take action. We are the Israel-Palestine Working Group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge.
We’ve faced significant difficulty in conversing about Israel-Palestine, encountering seemingly irresolvable conflicts between some of us. Like many communities in the United States, we hold differing opinions about the conditions, justifications, and struggles in Israel-Palestine. Some of us, although not unequivocally supporting policies of the Israeli government, are suspicious of criticism of that government. Others of us tend to concentrate more on Palestinian experience and perspectives. At times we’ve been hostile to each other, distant, unable to thoughtfully engage either each other or the issues. Some of us have become personally confrontative, eroding community and community spirit.
In this painfully toxic mix of self-silencing and combat we are a microcosm reflecting the wider society—the United States and much of the world. Through our efforts we have been engaging each other to resolve our internal conflicts, and we have begun the conversation about how to foster justice and peace in Israel-Palestine. We pray that we can serve here also as a microcosm, a mustard seed, helping lead the way to a better world.
Despite the problems, our group continues to meet monthly, the number of participants declining to a now solid five. During the first year we’d been gifted with leadership from Linda and Stephen Brion-Meisels, participants in a progressive Jewish congregation, Kahl B’Raira, she a Jew, he from a Christian background. That community, like ours, suffered from a variety of divergent and heated opinions, blocking any concerted action until 2005. Linda and Stephen led several discernment sessions for us, catalyzing us to lift every voice and find common ground, thus struggle forward as a community.
Shortly before we formed, we heard from Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a centrist Jewish lobby group. Diane’s admonition during a well-attended and highly regarded talk was to hear from a range of voices, including Palestinians. We were able finally in May 2009, after months of searching, to sponsor a talk about the One State Option by Leila Farsakh, a Palestinian academic and activist with recent first hand experience in Palestine-Israel.
In 2007 we organized a workshop based on viewing Landrum Bolling’s video, Searching for Peace in the Middle East. The subsequent discussion aired differences without resulting in much progress.
For our group only, we viewed a video about three local Jewish activists. This inspired us to seek connection with Jewish groups in the Boston area.
Our group has been enormously blessed by our involvement with the Compassionate Listening Project. This started in 2007 when FMC offered basic training in the method of listening with an open heart across differences. Following this, we attended a monthly series of Listening Project practice sessions. Inspired, opened and softened, some of us who were most confrontative found common ground—true breakthroughs.
I, who’s often felt dismissed as misguided, partisan, angry, and anti-Israel because of my photography from Palestine-Israel, discovered that within the context of Compassionate Listening, some others were hearing me deeply for the first time. And I heard from one of my primary adversaries, when his turn came to tell his story related to his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, a basic truth that I’d missed despite knowing him for years and hearing parts of his stories repeatedly. In short: a revolution in hearing and speaking from and to the heart. Many of us have finally heard each other deeply, I at any rate discovering how deeply not only Israelis and Palestinians suffer but many us working on human rights for all in that region. Respect and comprehension grew to the point that now, from this practice and for other reasons, some of us have built bridges between each other, cooperating on matters related to Israel-Palestine.
As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a primary inspiration for the Compassionate Listening Project said, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.”
In the spring of 2008 we learned about other Friends’ meetings who were struggling with the same issues. We contacted Anne Remley of Ann Arbor meeting and submitted material about our work to the website she manages, Quakers with a Concern for Palestine/Israel, (QuakerPI.org). We now feel less alone, more connected with other Quaker groups.
Last winter, 2008-09, after the violence in Gaza, our meeting made significant headway. At our January business meeting we decided to donate $10,000 to the Gaza Community Mental Health program, specifically to aid children who were victims of the recent violence. And we signed onto An Interfaith Declaration for Peace in Gaza, the first organization in the Boston area to do so. This unity on the issue of Israel-Palestine was unprecedented in our meeting, causing many people, despite their views about the issues, to rejoice.
During this period, we began visiting aides to members of Congress. Stressing that we do not represent the meeting, and reminding ourselves that we are under the care of the Peace and Social Concerns Committee of FMC, we presented some of our views and questions concerning Palestine-Israel. We asked the aides to look into certain troubling matters of relevance to Congress, such as heavily biased supportive statements and US foreign aid to Israel, application of the Arms Export and Control Act to Israel, and possible war crimes committed by various parties in the conflict.
At our last meeting an aide to Senator John Kerry urged us to return as a coalition of groups in the Boston area, demonstrating a constituency for an Awakened Congress. And this now is our current direction: forming or joining an interfaith group—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and persons of deep but unaffiliated faith—to exercise our rights and responsibilities as US citizens. Repeating: we do not speak for our meeting, although at some point this might evolve; we speak as a concerned group within our meeting under the care of a standing committee.
Our next steps include learning more about the situation, practicing methods of listening and speaking across differences as taught by the Compassionate Listening Project, sponsoring speakers and other public education events, coalition building to engage with senators and representatives, supporting those of us active on the issues, circulating news of our work, and joining with other Friends nationally (such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation) and internationally to concentrate on this issue.
We hope to listen closely to that still small voice inside, the voice of the divine, of conscience, and regardless of the controversy or the suffering our work might entail, encourage every voice in our community and the wider world to help bring justice and peace, with reconciliation, to the pained and burning Levant.
I have seen in the Light of the Lord, that the day is approaching when the man that is most wise in human policy shall be the greatest fool; and the arm that is mighty to support injustice, shall be broken to pieces: The enemies of righteousness shall make a terrible rattle, and shall mightily torment one another; for He that is omnipotent is rising up to judgment, and will plead the cause of the oppressed; and He commanded me to open the vision.
—John Woolman’s, Journal, January 4, 1770
Skip Schiel and his photographic presentation, Bethlehem the Holy, about the Christian exodus from Palestine, (along with other shows) will be available in New England from November 30 – December 13, 2009. Please contact Martha Yager, myager (at) afsc.org for further information.
Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere…[and] consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.