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Jews for Palestine

May 31, 2008

Jews for Palestine

Remembering the Nakbah

by Lia Tarachansky

Members of Naturei Karta, an organization of orthodox and traditional jews, protest in Ottawa outside a fundraiser commemorating Israel's 60th anniversary. Photo: Philip Neatby

On May 15, the State of Israel turned 60. Celebrations around the world were held to mark Israel's Day of Independence. Remarked also for different reasons, this day has made a global impact under its other title, "the Catastrophe," or Al Nakbah in Arabic. It is mourned as a day that commemorates the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as a result of which Israel is today a Jewish majority state.

Resistance to these celebrations has also taken place across North America under a campaign entitled “No Time To Celebrate: Jews Remember the Nakbah.” This activism demonstrates a growing Jewish presence within the movement to oppose Israeli policies, the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. In Canada, this presence was strongly felt on March 29 when over a hundred representatives of various organizations joined at the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadian's (ACJC) conference. The aim of the conference was to create an effective and justice-oriented strategy for future collaboration of jews critical of Israel's policies.

A jewish stance in solidarity with Palestinians is particularly significant, given recent remarks by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Reminding the world of the Holocaust, Harper announced that Israel was "threatened by those groups and regimes who deny to this day its right to exist." Despite Israel’s refusal to acknowledge a Palestinian state, in deed if not in word, Harper further emphasized his alliance with the State of Israel by calling it "one of the most successful countries on earth... Israel truly is the ‘miracle in the desert.’”

"The source of Israel's strength and success,” continued Harper, “is its commitment to the universal values of all civilized peoples: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law." Post-Holocaust Jewish settlers in Israel, according to the Prime Minister, have "led the world back to the light."

Such flamboyant support stands in stark contrast to Canada's historical record of siding with the majority of the world, whose national representatives have consistently voted at the UN General Assembly for an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

During a teach-in held in Ottawa days before the anniversary of the Nakbah, Diana Ralph, Coordinator of the ACJC conference, reduced much of Harper's statements to little more than myths. Ralph broke down the logic in Harper’s speech, which proposed that all criticism of Israel was equated with anti-Semitism, that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, and that Arab and Jewish people hate each other.

“If this is a beacon of light onto nations,” said Ralph, referring to Harper’s position on Israel's settlers, “I think we need to turn out the lights."

Ralph's support for human rights in the Middle East went hand in hand with the outcome of the historic ACJC conference. The ACJC body has made a remarkable move in declaring its support for "a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people" and opposing "any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its own solutions on the Palestinians."

The organization further recognizes the world's repeated calls for Israel to respect international law, particularly the 2004 International Court of Justice's ruling on post-1967 affairs in the region. The ICJ ruled that the so-called “Annexation Wall,” as well as the West Bank settlements, were illegal and demanded Israel pay reparation for "all damage caused by the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, includ[ing] in and around East Jerusalem."

Such international decisions have been amplified worldwide by opposition to the celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary. In San Francisco, 20 Jewish activists were arrested while protesting their local community centre's celebrations of Israel@60. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and dozens of other cities across the continent, organizers put together street theatre shows, die-ins, educational and media events, mournful vigils, and peaceful disruptions, all in solidarity with Palestine.

Around 70 Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Canadians, and allies attend a protest outside of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on May 20th Photo: Ryan Davies

In Canada’s capital, Not In Our Name (NION): Jews Against Israel's Wars, which represents pro-justice Jewish voices in the Ottawa community, has linked with many others to form what has become the Ottawa Palestine Solidarity Network (OPSN). On May 8, over 70 community members and activists joined to mourn outside the Ottawa Civic Centre where the local Israel@60 celebration took place. Continuing their visible support for understanding the real history of Israel/Palestine, OPSN held a teach-in on May 18 that posed the question of whether the 60th anniversary of the State's inception was indeed something to celebrate.

Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian refugee, presented the history and fallout of the 1948 Nakbah. She spoke of the 500 villages that were destroyed in the lead-up and in the midst of the 1948 War of Independence, a war that displaced 750,000 refugees. Today, the West Bank hosts over 500 checkpoints; the Israeli State controls all Palestinian access to water, land, and employment; and an “Annexation Wall” now segregates communities from each other. In places such as Qualqilia the wall completely surrounds entire villages, while the checkpoints reinforce a segregation system. Israeli-only settlements are interspersed in the West Bank among Palestinian farms, connected to one another and Israel-proper by Israeli-only roads which are heavily protected by walls, fences, and armed soldiers. Effectively, Sabawi explained, the Nakbah Catastrophe has never ended.

Ralph followed Sabawi's short history with a talk entitled "Which Side Are You On?" which emphasized the importance for Jews to stand for justice in Palestine. Ralph’s message was further amplified by Rabbi Dovid Feldman, who drew from the Old Testament to argue that traditional Judaism rejects the idea of Zionism. The philosophy of zionism, to which the creation of the State of Israel has been attributed has, according to Feldman, been countered by Jewish leaders since its very inception at the end of the 19th century. Rejecting the celebrations of Israeli Statehood, Feldman stated, "Every Israeli Independence Day, we have a day of fasting. It is a day of mourning."

Concluding the teach-in, Mazen Masri, a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and a PhD candidate at York University, spoke about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Arising from Palestinian civil society, the BDS campaign began in the summer of 2005. The campaign calls for tactics similar to those which contributed to the official end of South African apartheid to be applied to Israel. The BDS campaign calls for the boycott of Israeli businesses by individuals, the divestment of international corporations from the Israeli economy, and the enforcement of sanctions by governments against the State of Israel until its apartheid policies end.

Days later, on May 20, a fundraiser held at the National Arts Centre (NAC) was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and hosted by Israeli Ambassador to Canada Alan Baker, who was also the guest of honour. Baker has been under strict in recent weeks after making remarks that have been called discriminatory and racist against Muslim and Arab people. Baker argued that Canada should limit immigration of Muslim people on that grounds that they may alter Canadian demographics as well as Canada's overt support for Israel. In response, almost a hundred protestors crowded the doors of the NAC, including over twenty Haredi religious Jews as well as dozens of Israelis, secular Jews, Palestinians, and other supporters. A mock check-point was constructed and activists, dressed as soldiers, with the inscription "Israel Offense Forces" attached to their uniforms, controlled access to the entrance. Organizers billed this as a mild demonstration of the daily humiliation and delay to which Palestinians are subjugated.

In Toronto, on Sunday May 25, the UJA Federation’s annual ‘Walk with Israel’ was held. Advertised as a fundraiser for “programs for children and youth in Israel with a specific focus on those in Sderot and the Western Negev,” the event drew thousands of participants as well as approximately three dozen protesters. Holding a silent vigil on the outskirts of the Walk, the protestors were met with discriminatory remarks such as “go back to Jordan.” Some parents even stopped to demonstrate to their children that the men and women who were dressed in black to commemorate the Nakbah, were forever Israel’s enemy.

“I would kill another 800,000 of you!” one man yelled, referring to the 1948 ethnic cleansing.

In Israel/Palestine, 21,915 black balloons were released over Jerusalem to represent the number of days since the beginning of the Nakbah. Spearheaded by the Badil Resource Centre in Ramallah, the idea was part of an international campaign called "Justice is the Key to Tomorrow." The organization's website explains the reasons for which thousands worldwide have mobilized in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

"How can you celebrate?" the site asks. "The establishment of the State of Israel sixty years ago was a settler-colonial project that systematically and violently uprooted more than 750 thousand Palestinian Arabs from their lands and homes... These celebrations, by definition, insult our history, violate our rights, and deepen our oppression. They also render the path to justice, freedom, equality, and sustainable peace based on international law longer than ever before."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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