Sumud Palestine was privileged to welcome Methodist Minister Brian J Brown to give a talk on commemorating the Naqba. Brian was administrative director of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa when he and it were banned in 1977 by the apartheid regime.
Introducing Brian Angela Glendenning spoke about how Brian’s history had awakened her memories of Christian and political activism during the 70s and 80s. She reflected how in 1963 she had hitched to Jerusalem aflame with the idea of Kibbutz creating microcosms of socialism and making the ‘desert blossom like the rose.’ She and her girlfriend had expected to be greeted with enthusiasm by kibbutzniks only to be met with complete indifference.
Angela returned to England with a different view of Palestine and Israel but the Anti-Apartheid Movement took over and she thought little about Palestine but a flame had been lit. She worked on a UN Youth against Hunger programme for the Christian Aid Department of the British Council of Churches which involved enlisting support for a women’s cooperative in the West Bank. She corresponded with the Secretary of the African Council of Churches and in the early 1990s attended a conference at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the ending of Apartheid. Walking up the steps, a scene of so many protests and demonstrations and along a corridor flanked by portraits of the architects of the Apartheid regime and hearing a throng of South Africans singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was a not to be forgotten experience.
Angela reflected that as administrative director of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa Brian must have worked alongside many heroes of the anti-apartheid movement. On his return to Britain he didn’t settle for a quiet life. He became Africa Secretary of the British Council of Churches and continued to preach the indivisibility of freedom and at some point he turned his attention to Palestine and Israel.
A recent UN report concluded that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid and that the extreme gravity of the charge required prompt action. It goes on to say ‘Since the 1970s, when the international campaign to oppose apartheid in southern Africa gathered momentum, apartheid has been considered in the annals of the United Nations and world public opinion to be second only to genocide in the hierarchy of criminality.’
In the 60s and 70s it was difficult to envisage the ending of apartheid in South Africa. It is even more difficult to see a just resolution of the situation in Palestine/Israel.
Concluding her introduction Angela commented “Brian, your topic is a dark one but I believe what you have to say will burnish our commitment and we will go out with our faith in collective action to achieve change reinforced.”
Brian’s talk was not recorded but the following article, Nakba, prepared for the Methodist Recorder in May, is reproduced here. The printed word cannot carry the impact of Brian’s talk. It was no so much that told us anything new but the moral authority with which he spoke carried an impact which none of us will regret.
Similar words have different associations for different people. Come January our Jewish friends commemorate their Shoah (calamity) and in May our Palestinian friends recall their Nakba (catastrophe).
There has been a marked growth in the commemoration of the Nazi Holocaust that, with genocidal intent, ethnically cleansed some six million Jewish people while murdering millions from other groups. Thank God the end result of this greater awareness is that it is ever harder to be a Shoah denier. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as recalled in their Nakba, is less recognised in the international community though also growing as an event of significant commemoration. As with Shoah, disciplined academic studies have made denialism of the Nakba impossible for all but those who wish to embrace ‘alternative facts’.
On Holocaust Memorial Day Jews invite us to share their commitment that never again will institutionalised hatred go unchallenged. On or about 15 May Palestinians invite us to consider whether their present institutionalised suffering will continue forever? Nakba offers an opportunity to consider the magnitude of that suffering.
When in the late 1800s the Zionist movement began its settlement in Palestine the local Arabs (Muslims essentially but with a then significant Christian minority) comprised over 90% of the region’s population. By the birth of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 this Arab population had been decimated. Far from Israel being established ‘in a land without people for a people without land’ – a lie brazenly proclaimed at the time – more than 750,000 Palestinians fled the war and its associated ethnic cleansing. Survivors of Nakba sought temporary sanctuary in refugee camps, local and regional, where generations later the over-populated camps testify to their enduring dispossession.
The violence and terror that contributed to the creation of Israel with its Jewish majority was intentional. Given this purposefulness it’s not surprising that the Palestinian diaspora were not allowed to return to their residences when Nakba had supposedly ended. As a Palestinian lawyer twice driven from his family home declared to me in Nazareth, ‘I didn’t come to Israel, Israel came to me’. Particularly for Palestinians who share the Judeo-Christian heritage, this Israeli determination that refugees must languish in an exile that has lasted for 70 years is perplexing. The welcome of ‘the other’ or stranger is enshrined and dominant in Hebrew scripture. Earlier this year, and in the face of growing hostility to refugees by some political figures, the voice of some Jewish rabbis in the UK was clear and unequivocal: ‘To ban refugees on grounds of national origin was both indiscriminate and unjust… When Jews look at refugees they see themselves, remembering their historic identity as migrants and refugees.’
Given such profoundly spiritual assertions Nakba commemorators struggle to understand a contradiction: Why, of the now millions of refugees still suffering this catastrophe has not one been ‘seen as Jews see themselves’ and allowed the right of return to Israel/Palestine? Sadly, Nakba’s commemoration requires the displaced and dispossessed to once more consider how ‘realpolitik’ and demographics trump both religious and international law in this enduring injustice.
Nakba truly presents one of the great injustices of our age: The involvement of Palestinians, to their detriment, in Europe’s out-sourcing of responsibility for the Holocaust. Palestinians who did not contribute in any way to Shoah were and are obliged to make proxy restitution through Nakba. Spiritual icon Nelson Mandela understood Nakba better than most. He had witnessed the dispossession of black South Africans as imperialistic alliances and brutal apartheid policies joined forces in displacement, forced removals and house demolitions along racist lines. When then viewing Israel’s policies towards Palestinians he didn’t question the right of Israel to exist within internationally agreed boundaries but he condemned the ongoing Zionist-colonial-settlement with the same vigour as he did apartheid. His innate belief in the indivisibility of freedom led him to declare, ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ For Mandela the elephant in the room was the occupation of Palestine.
An article in the weekly British Methodist Recorder at the time of the 2017 Shoah remembrance expressed ‘concern’ at the current destruction in Palestine of olive groves, the building of settlements and the erection of a ‘security barrier’. However the contributor, a leading Methodist minister, failed to offer any condemnation of Israel for these policies and turned the argument on its head. He suggested that such expressions of concern can be covert Jew-hatred presented in the guise of Palestinian rights, perhaps even innocently expressed in the pursuit of supposed justice.
So presumably the pursuit of the spiritual values of justice, freedom and dignity for Palestinians – as well as the exposure of the illegality and evil of many Israeli policies – must be accompanied by a spiritual health warning: Those declaring the enduring Nakba can be seen as innocently duped at best or Jew-haters clad in the guise of justice seekers at worst! In fact, those identifying with the victims of Nakba will feel more than ‘concern’ at the building of these settlements and walls. Anger is far more likely to be felt. If one observes upwards of 580,000 illegal Jewish settlers (and ever growing) taking over your land and houses, and squeezing your homeland into oblivion, righteous anger is surely a spiritual response.
Nakba is a time for asking deep questions. The Palestinian cause has at times been ill served by poor leadership, by ideological disunity, by corruption and by the reluctance of some, however understandably, to recognise Israel lest a powerless people lose a precious bargaining chip. Even the response of counter violence to the occupier’s institutional violence can prove unproductive when observed by outsiders who neither know nor understand dispossession. And it was civil society rather than an oft inept political society that instituted the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel so as to do something to encourage and promote non-violent change. So the tough question presents itself – How does a Palestinian house often divided against itself offer a united voice to a global community that itself lacks unity and integrity in its response to Nakba?
2017, the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration, will not readily encourage Palestinian belief in global integrity. Prime Minister May suggests that citizens should own that declaration with pride; one in which the British administration unilaterally promised to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Rev Dr Alex Awad, Palestinian and retired mission partner of the United Methodist Church has replied to May’s assertion: ‘Your Honour… All the power of Great Britain can’t compensate me and my fellow compatriots for the death, injury, loss of land and enormous suffering that came upon us and continues to bring pain to us due to the Balfour Declaration and other oppressive policies of your predecessors . . . I seek no apologies and no compensations. And as a Palestinian Christian, I offer you and the British people total pardon . . . A first step would be for Britain to recognise an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Once your government takes this courageous act, many reluctant European countries would be encouraged to follow suit. Already 138 countries including the Holy See recognise Palestinian Statehood.’ In response to this challenge some will doubtless still take pride in Balfour but some will prefer to take pride in the grace and pardon to which Awad bears testimony.
Nakba asks questions not only of Palestinian wounds but of Israeli intentions. Jews of non-Zionist persuasion have long had difficulties with Zionism’s political intentions of a Jewish national homeland. A much respected Jewish insight was that Zionism is not integral to Judaism and that Zionistic activity injures Judaism by combining religion and nationality. This belief now appears to have been largely overtaken by the assertion, as supported by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, that Zionism should be seen as an integral part of Judaism from its very dawn.
Zionism’s dream of Jewish national self-determination was achieved with the birth of the State of Israel. Nakba commemorators might see this as the political reality for which they must settle, however great their people’s pain in its coming to fruition. But the evidence around them of continuing colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories suggests that neo-Zionism or Nakba Mark 2 now prevails. For the neo-Zionists the Israeli State is but a stepping stone towards Eretz Israel/Land of Israel and its intended embrace of Judea and Samaria – euphemistic terms for the occupied and annexed territories of West Bank and East Jerusalem – that are to be incorporated within new, extended and illegal boundaries.
What irony that at a time when many Palestinians recognise the internationally agreed boundaries of Israel the neo-Zionists do not! A greed that gorges on land grabs is calling into question the achievements of Zionism as the adequacy of Israel’s boundaries is disputed. Do the neo-Zionists with their delegitimising of the established boundaries also partake in the ‘anti-Semitism’ attributed to others who are of this persuasion? Does not this illegal expansionism threaten both Israeli and Palestinian hopes for justice and peace? And if neo-Zionism’s intentions are as much ‘an integral part of Judaism’ as are those of the realised Zionist dream, then what is happening today in the Occupied Territories by way of illegality and injustice must also be seen as an essential and integral part of Judaism. Surely this cannot be?
As the major Israeli political discourse is now one of redrawing and extending Israel’s boundaries, is Judaism’s spiritual discourse now to fully align itself by endorsing Palestinian dispossession and denying Palestinian statehood? If so, it is no wonder that Nakba has been called ‘an extended present that promises to continue in the future.’
When analysing the ‘Holy Land’ it is customary to talk of the two narratives, Jewish and Palestinian. Yet in many ways the two narratives are now joined at the hip. In Shoah and Nakba two distinctive people share a history of calamity and catastrophe. Both present a powerful challenge for the international community to actively oppose the policies of hate that breed and allow ethnic cleansing. For Shoah commemorators it’s a case of never again! For Nakba commemorators it’s a case of will it never end!
Brian’s talk was preceded by a repast of Hummus and Fattoush Salad. Afterwards thanking Brian Tony Pearce’s Vote reminded us that Palestinian prisoners had just entered their second month of Hunger Strike.
Jim Zacune introduced us to Mazin Qumsiyeh, Professor and (volunteer) Director – at the Palestine Museum of Natural History and the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University, and read from The Cactus and the Cucumber.
There is something uniquely spiritual, yet uniquely primeval, in people connected to a land. Even for those of us who work in a sophisticated and mobile culture, simply to get our hands into the earth, or to walk around our gardens, is a pleasure.
We biologists recognize this as an unbroken link to our pasts, the time when hunter/gatherers became farmers. A hundred thousand years of evolution are more powerful than a lifelong incubation in an industrialized society and in our rat race of work and more work.
For Palestinians, our connection to the land is part of our fabric. After all, for more than 90 percent of us, agriculture was our livelihood from time immemorial. Our culture is imbued with agrarian terminology and instinct, and 69 years of living as occupied persons and refugees has neither obliterated nor diminished this instinct…
One friend recently brought back a picture of a plant growing inside a container at a refugee camp in Lebanon. If you look carefully, you can see the container is actually an empty cannon shell. Taking a piece of war, this Palestinian refugee turned it into a planter to connect him with his agrarian past…
In Palestine between 1947 and 1949, more than 450 villages and towns were destroyed and their trees demolished. In 1967, the inhabitants of more villages, such as the biblical town of Emmaus, were moved. Emmaus, which was halfway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea, was destroyed after the 1967 war and today is the site of a national park.
Israel uprooted hundreds of thousands of olive trees, over 800,000 in the West Bank alone. Yet there are still olive trees left, proud and stubborn, some old enough to have existed at the time Jesus walked this land.
But the story of the cactus is the most interesting. In Palestine, village fields used to be demarcated by cactus plants. When these were bulldozed, starting in 1947, an interesting thing happened: The hardy cactuses grew back. It is simply impossible to thoroughly remove all the roots. Thus, in Israel, in many places long abandoned, cactus grows in rows in the same places it was planted hundreds of years ago by the hands of the natives. Tough on the outside, tender inside, and with beautiful yellow or pink flowers, the cactus has become a metaphor for Palestinians and is in many of our national songs and poems.
We cling to the hope and the certainty that, just as happened in South Africa, we shall someday live together in this small place called the Land of Canaan/the Holy Land. Jews, Christians, Muslims and others all did live together for hundreds of years before Britain and the great powers adopted Zionism. Then the rains that filter through the soil in which my grandfather and his Jewish friend are both buried will also nourish new fields of sweet cucumbers, olive trees and thriving cactus.
Stay human and come visit us!
Ref. firstname.lastname@example.org for Mazin Qumsiyeh’s Human Rights Newsletter
Suha Salameh from Nablus was unable to be with us and in her place Angela read a closing poem, Home by Yasmeen Amer.
Home is in my mother’s sweet kisses
Home is in my grandmother’s lovely prayers for me when I leave the house
Home is in my father’s proud eyes
Home is in my sister’s right advice
Home is even in my brother’s teasing
Home is in between two mountains Eibal and Jarzim
Home is in Nablus
Home is in the valley
Home is where my family is.