I am grateful to author Michael Riordon for introducing me to a quote that beautifully sums up the importance of his latest book, and others like it.
“Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.” - John Berger
One can only hope that the stories of countless Palestinian and Israeli activists shared in this book will go towards the emergence of an overall narrative of victory against forces of oppression that have come to symbolize the intractable conflict in Israel/ Palestine.
“I’m aware – I think all of us are aware – that what we do is a drop in the sea,” says Pnina Feiler, a Jewish activist with Physicians for Human Rights who travels with a mobile clinic to aid Palestinians whose ability to access medical care is severely limited. “I don’t know how much it helps, but I do know that if you do nothing it doesn’t help at all. It’s very important to show solidarity with the people who are under occupation.”
Feiler is one of dozens of Jewish activists we are introduced to in this book. They are committed, caring people who are determined to restore justice in the Occupied Territories through peaceful means.
People like Ruth Hiller, the founder of a group called New Profile which challenges the heavy militarization of Israeli society, beginning from the moment at age 16 when young men and women are inducted in the army.
The group’s creation came about following Hiller’s own experience supporting her son’s refusal to serve in the army at 16. For three years, they fought the state and finally won; her son was dismissed for being a pacifist, considered “‘unsuitable for military service’”.
The organization she founded would go on to offer critical support for those who realized the pain and suffering inflicted by the Israeli military was at odds with their ethics. Like Haggai Matar who would go to prison in 2002 for refusing to serve in the IDF. “I realized that I could not join the army, and instead of getting out via some personal issue, quietly, with no fuss, I would have to refuse, and make a point of why I refused: the issue isn’t me; it’s you, the army, what you are doing is wrong,” he tells the book’s author. He was freed from prison in 2004, after which he joined New Profile.
We meet other Israelis who are working ardently towards a fair and just solution for the occupied territories. Meir Margalit, for example, is a city counselor in Jerusalem who has been trying to help the 700.000 Palestinians struggling in East Jerusalem. Margalit describes a general Israeli population uninterested in understanding the plight of their neighbours. “Apparently most Israelis prefer not to know what is happening in East Jerusalem, but the city’s leaders would do well if they rethink their policies before the huge explosion – of which we’ve seen just a short ‘trailer’ in the past few days,” he says referring to the constant conflicts at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. Margalit’s input into a Jerusalem master plan meant he was able to convince other politicians to include more land for residential use – essentially saving a few more homes from demolition, and ensuring a few more families will have a place to live on their ancestral lands.
It is these small, but significant gestures that make a difference. Jeremy Wildeman, a Canadian volunteer in the West Bank, created a video conference program to allow students to talk to other students abroad so that they can express and share their experiences with the wider world. He has also started English classes, working with a Palestinian named Salem Hantoli who wanted to support the international volunteers in the city of Nablus. Together they created an organization called Project Hope, using funds gathered from Canada, the US, and Europe which offers English language instruction to Palestinians.
Beyond the determined NGOs, legal challenges against the ongoing expansion of the settlements remain a key concern for activists who want to challenge its legality.
Dror Etkes, former activist with Peace Now, coordinated its Settlement Watch project. Through research and aerial photographs, Peace Now could show the public exactly what the Israeli state was actually doing, despite its denials. “If we accomplished one thing,” says Etkes in retrospect, “I would say we forced them to put out less misinformation about their deeds.” Etkes went on to do similar work at Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights group.
Riordon introduces us to many Arab and Muslim activists as well, including Yousef Jabareen, an Arab-Israeli lawyer. Riordon describes how Jabareen accumulated both academic credentials, and political acumen throughout his youth. He eventually won a scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in civil rights and international law at Washington’s American University. He returned to Israel and became an advisor for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where he spent years fighting state-sanctioned discrimination, winning, but after too many years of struggle. As Riordon notes, “as long as Arab citizens of Israel were unable to influence policy, they would be stuck fighting one costly case after another while the system remained intact and immovable.” Jabareen continued to seek educational advancement, and would later found Dirasat, the Arab Centre for Law and Policy which seeks to address education and local government.
But beyond waiting for legal redress, people like Palestinian businessman Nasser Abufarha decided that Palestinians needed viable trade in order to survive, and potentially thrive. Despite unimaginable obstacles including repeated agricultural devestation and the transportation challenges, Abufarha established Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestine Fair Trade Association in order to produce, market, and distribute Palestinian olive oil products. Robert Massoud, a Canadian Palestinian, also works to sell Palestinian olive oil and other fair trade products through the label “Zatoun”, supported primarily by volunteers around the world. Both Massoud and Abufarha understand the importance of maintaining Palestine’s viability as a state.
“You’re trying to be heard, to tell your story and make your case, but in the uproar of hype and spin and fear-mongering, you can’t be heard. This is what Zatoun is meant to address,” says Massoud. “We don’t have access to the levers of media, nor to the politicians, but we do have access to the grassroots, to people.”
Riordon presents Abufarha’s stand as “the other half of the same argument”. “The Israeli strategy is to deny the existence of Palestine, to make us disappear behind the wall, erasing us from the map and from the public mind. Having the name “Palestine” on the bottle or package, right there on the shelf, this is an assertion of our existence, and buying these products is an act of resistance against the erasure that policy-makers continue to promote. For us, this is what separates what we’re doing from charity. We are doing an exchange based on equity.”
These Arab, Palestinian, and Jewish activists work to create a vastly different narrative of the picture on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Riordon deftly illustrates this through sensitive interviewing and careful attention to detail. Rather than the ‘us versus them’ mentality that media and politicians easily bandy about, the reality is as complex as it is hopeful for those who cling to the belief that peace is possible.
There are so many more people to meet in this book, so many more dreams begging for realization. Riordon deserves much credit for bringing these stories out; he gives us due cause to believe that justice is indeed “imminent”.