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UFV alumnus weighs in on Palestine

In the first screening of a film and education series, UFV was host to Occupation 101 on October 19. The documentary, directed by Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish showcases the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a historical and political sense.



In the first screening of a film and education series, UFV was host to Occupation 101 on October 19. The documentary, directed by Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish showcases the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a historical and political sense. Through leading Middle East scholars, peace activists, journalist, religious leaders, and humanitarian workers, the film details Palestinian life under a military rule that is aided by the United States government.

Throughout the documentary, Zionism is established as the root cause for the conflict. In relation to Judaism, Zionism as an ideology is a modern construct of the Jewish religion. The central idea and basis of the ideology is the return of the Jewish people to their homeland of Israel. However, considering it is a construct, Zionism has come to include the development of Israel and the “protection” of the Jewish people through military force.

The historic timeline of Zionism documented in Occupation 101 begins in the 1930s, when, after mass immigration due to worldwide anti-Semitism, the Jewish population doubled in the region. After the Holocaust, world opinion swayed in the favour of the Jews.

The United Nations supported their national movement to the region then known as Palestine to establish the State of Israel with the UN partition plan that stated the Jews get 57 per cent of the state while the Palestinians get 43 per cent. The Holocaust enabled the Jews to establish a homeland that was already populated by another group of people for centuries, as their own. Anyone that opposed them would immediately get the label of being anti-Semitic, and after the mass genocide, being known as anti-Semitic was less than ideal.

As a result, Palestinians have been under military rule for decades, treated as second-class human beings. The documentary explains children have faced the most resonant effects, showing them saying that they don’t want to go anywhere, even school, without their parents. There was an example of a child who tried to commit suicide but was stopped by her mother. Imagine, as a mother, seeing your eight-year-old trying to hang themselves because they do not think the life inhabitants of the West Bank are subject to is worth living.

Everything that the Israelis have done to the Palestinians has not been without the support of the United States government, who aid them with $2 billion to $3 billion a year. As Israel’s largest and loudest supporters, the United States spends $10,775 per person in the state compared to only $59 per person in Mexico, Africa, and South America. Israel has been in violation of international laws, and their expanding settlements are against the Fourth Geneva Convention, yet the United States is among a few countries (including Canada) that have vetoed their infractions 40 times now. Elie Wiesel said it best: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Although it must be mentioned that Wiesel himself was supportive of Israel, his words are nevertheless powerful.

Although not featured in the documentary as much, the support from the Canadian government may not make sense on the surface, considering the progressiveness of the Liberals, but ultimately does when accounting for Canada’s alliance with the United States. Canada supporting the Israelis in a conflict that Jeff Halper, a political activist who has been living in Israel since 1973, claims is worse than the apartheid in South Africa, feels wrong. The media in Canada and the United States portray the Israelis as a people simply wanting peace from hostile Arabs, but the fact of the matter is, they are the fifth largest nuclear superpower in the world.

The screening of Occupation 101 was just one of the events that UFV’s Political Science Department has planned, as on November 2 at 3:00 p.m. Colter Louwerse is holding a talk and discussion about current Palestinian realities in room B101 on the Abbotsford campus. In the same room, there will be the screening of the second documentary in the film and education series, ***The Iron Wall, on November 16 at 3:00 p.m.

Philip Sherwood is a UFV alumnus who graduated in 2003 with a BA in adult education. Having travelled throughout the West Bank, Sherwood sat down with The Cascade to talk about his personal experiences and the conflict as a whole.

What was the root cause for your interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The introduction was [that] I travelled in Europe and I met many Palestinians there. European people, who tend to be closer to events, are more politically conscious than [Canadians]. I realized that if I was really interested in this, I should really find out, otherwise I’m just sitting at home in Canada spouting off uninformed opinions. I went for 16 days in March of 2012 and travelled independently. Staying with Palestinian families and going to places like Hebron, seeing and meeting people changed me. They say it happens to a lot of people.

Occupation 101 made it clear that Zionism is the root cause for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Could you elaborate and give your personal opinion on the ideology?

Zionism, in my view, is a secular political ideology. It advocates that assimilation is impossible and that Jews need a homeland because they’re never going to be safe and accepted and be able to flourish in a non-Jewish society. The idea was fine, about having a homeland, that they deserve [one], and that they’re a people, a nationality. Where it became a problem was when the [Jews] decided that they wanted this homeland in their historic land, which was populated by the indigenous people. To have a Jewish homeland, you have to have a significant, overwhelming majority, so, what are you going to do about the [Palestinians]? Zionism is a colonial settler enterprise; it’s westerners and people from outside the region who have come in and said, “We want the land and we want to dispossess the people who are there.”

In witnessing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first-hand, what do you think you have gained as a person?

I think I’ve gained an appreciation of human rights because we live in Canada and I’ve visited places where human rights are not respected. But I’ve always seen it from my position of white privilege, where [being] white gets me a pass in the area and I can leave anytime I want. We have these rights in Canada and we take them for granted. Also, an appreciation of how important human rights are, and when you see them flouted and ignored as I saw in Palestine, you see how horrible it is. I hate the duplicity as well, the double standard that Israel is a liberal democracy, yet you go there and it’s not. It’s great if you’re Jewish but if you’re not, it’s very racist.

Out of all of your experiences in Palestine, what would you consider to be your favourite?

I went to Hebron on a day tour, social justice tours run by progressive Israelis in Palestinian partnership. [Hebron] is a flashpoint, the brutality of the occupation comes into focus there. We met an activist who lived in this H2 area and he took us to his cottage, and we had falafel sandwiches and talked. He lived right beside a settlement. During the talk, he said “Give us our rights and we’ll negotiate,” and that really resonated with me. In the West, we are saying that if the Palestinians jump through all of these hoops, then we’ll give them human rights. It really stuck with me. It’s like Nelson Mandela said, “The jailer and the prisoner cannot negotiate, only free men can negotiate.” How can [Palestinians] negotiate? They have to be given their rights and equality, and then negotiate.

I spent an afternoon at Birzeit University, in the middle of Palestine, the West Bank. I just wanted to go to there. I was staying in a guest house in the village next door and ended up with these three university girls. One of them was assigned to show me around. One of the girls said that I had seen more of [her] country than she has. She invited me back to her mother’s house and she told me their stories. You don’t plan these things. I work as a personal historian; I help people write their memories. I was listening to her talk and someone who is 50 years old in [Palestine] has seen so much [more] than a 50-year-old here would have lived through. They’ve all got stories, and they’ve all suffered horribly. A lot of them have a great dignity and I marvel at them.

The personal experiences are the ones that remain me with me, not necessarily all of the facts and figures. Those personal encounters stay with you. They are essentially the face of why we speak out and advocate, [we’re] doing it for people like them.

Is there an aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that you think hasn’t been touched upon enough?

The complicity of the Canadian government. The American government and their involvement with the Israeli government is well documented, they give billions of dollars every year. Politicians fall over themselves on who can grovel the most. The complicity of our politicians is a story that I think needs to be highlighted. They’re progressive [but] why are they quiet? There’s an expression that we say that people are “progressive except Palestine” — P.E.P. For example, Stephen Harper was a neo-conservative but Trudeau is more deceptive in the sense that he presents himself being somewhat progressive and yet on this he’s not, and the same with Mulcair, who is supposed to be committed to social justice.

What advice would you give to a person interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wanting to travel to Palestine for the first time?

Go! Travel independently. Don’t go on a holy land tour. You could do all of that and miss it all; you’re just living in another world. For example, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, it’s where Jesus was born. Israeli tour buses will just zip through the checkpoints; they go right through without any hassles. They’ll drop you in a major square, which is right beside a church. You’ll take a tour of the church where Jesus was supposedly born, you buy a few souvenirs, and you get back on the bus. You don’t even know or have contact with Palestinian Christians.

My advice would be to go and travel independent, and stay with Palestinian families. There’s one agency that is very good for that (Green Olive Tours), and they’re just day tours. They deserve an awful lot of credit. It’s safe. It’s not like here, but it’s safer than a lot of cities in America. There’s not random violence.

The other visitors in the West Bank are from all around the world and they are fascinating. You meet all sorts of really interesting people and you meet those who are committed, who are working there as volunteers. It makes you want to up your game big time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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