I wrote this piece following a three day MCC conference in Ottawa, Ontario on the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict. A shorter version of this piece was published here.
On the first day of the MCC Ottawa conference, MPs and government officials explained to us all the reasons why Canada will not pressure Israel to end the military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.
On the second day, we spread forest green blankets on the floor of Knox Presbyterian Church.
“Remove your shoes,” MCC staff Joanna Hiebert Bergan and Jon Nofziger instructed us, “and step onto your land.”
I’ve never been comfortable with ‘heart’ exercises, or practices that are meant to provide an emotional experience alongside an intellectual one. The policy talks had brought me to the edge of my seat, and left me wanting more. Yet when Joanna and Jon invited us onto the blanket to begin what is known as the Palestinian Land Exercise, my first thought was that someone had misspelled “Jerico” on the label under my toes. I worked hard to repress the need to share that observation.
The exercise began with an invitation for participants to step onto the blankets and find a spot somewhere in historic Palestine between Lebanon and Sinai, Jordan and the Mediterranean. As events unfolded – the 1948 War, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the continuing occupation – the blankets were slowly folded up until most participants were crowded together on tiny patches of green in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Of the 30 conference attendees who had begun as symbolic Palestinians in the exercise, only a handful had avoided expulsion as refugees, death, or incarceration.
The chronology of events is interspersed by the stories of historical and contemporary Palestinians that are read out by participants in the exercise. Some cried as they listened to the stories of displacement and struggle, others, like the three Syrian women who recently came to Canada as refugees, seemed distinctly haunted. It was meant to be a powerful, emotional experience, and for many it was. Yet I was tired and bloated, with a gnawing ache in my lower back, and a low-grade annoyance with the way in which the Holocaust kept being referred to as the ‘climax’ of anti-semitism. I watched one participant struggle to keep her feet within the green of the West Bank as Jon Nofziger rolled out a ribbon representing the separation wall between the Bank and Israel proper. Stepping backward, she planted one foot squarely within a red felt rectangle symbolizing one of the many ‘kibbutz’ settlements which are slowly dissecting a potential Palestinian state.
My role, I knew, was to participate as fully as I was able, and to keep my mouth shut. The church, like the proverbial village, needs all kinds, and therefore an MCC conference, like a Sunday service, must appeal to many different constituencies. In fact, I think that this recognition of diversity is one of the strengths of MCC more generally; it has made balancing head and heart, hard policy, grassroots advocacy and traditional theology, into a well-practiced art. It is one of the reasons that MCC is so respected in Ottawa, and why our speaker list raised impressed eyebrows among political insiders.
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the heart’s role in geopolitics recently, especially as I’ve become more aware of my great blessing in growing up in a sleepy Canadian city among an undivided family of almost-middle class standing. I was reminded of this as I watched on of the Syrian women quietly take a friend’s keffiyeh (the black and white head scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism) and wrap it around her own head in a gesture of solidarity. As a PhD student, I’ve spent much of my life in the classroom where debates around the Middle East are abstract and esoteric. This woman reminded me that for some people the Middle East is home.
Despite these real consequences for people from the region, it has recently become fashionable to avoid conversations about the Israel Palestine conflict, to consign the topic to the closet of social fauxpas alongside the abortion debate or (until recently) gun control. Many feel that the debate has become so polarizing, the situation so intractable, that no good can come from such discussions.
As always, this position is most popular among those who benefit from the status quo. As Israeli Jews further infiltrate the West Bank, establishing facts on the ground that will be difficult to roll back, they are relying upon the presumption that the conflict cannot be solved. As Canadian policy continues to maintain that any potential solution needs to be the result of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it ignores the obvious reality that Netanyahu’s Likud government isn’t negotiating in good faith, and doesn’t want real progress towards a two-state solution. As long as the Americans keep transferring billions in military aid to Israel every year, as long as Trump maintains his unwavering pro-Israel stance, as long as the world refrains from economic sanctions, and as long as the Arab Middle East remains weak and divided, the status quo will continue to favour the powerful over the oppressed.
There is no easy solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Yet that is no reason to assume that we have no responsibility for what is happening right now on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. The military occupation is illegal under our current international laws, it is unjust, and it is a barrier to shalom. Therefore, it is our responsibility as Christians to engage in non-violent resistance to the power of the sword held over the Palestinian people. There is a way for both Jews and Arab Palestinians to live together in the Holy Land, and Christians must continue to struggle towards that frail but beautiful possibility.
I am proud that MCC is willing to instigate conversations as part of its theological mandate to seek peace and justice around the world. I am proud to see the influence that the small advocacy office has in Ottawa, and to hear the passion and wisdom of my fellow students from across Canada as they discussed and debated with MPs, CEOs, and academic experts during the conference. I am not always a ‘heart’ person, yet there are moments when I am fiercely proud to call myself Mennonite.
For all my doubts, I am glad I stepped onto that green blanket. I am glad that MCC has both the sensitivity to listen carefully, and the bravery to speak truth to power. This conference forced me to engage both my heart and my head, and reminded me that throughout Jesus’ ministry he did the same.