Building Bridges Vancouver
Exciting days in Vancouver! Six local groups recently formed the Palestine Awareness Coalition, coming together to present the now famous four-map poster showing “Disappearing Palestine.” The posters have appeared in several US cities, including New York and San Francisco. They are now on 15 city buses and at one (soon to be two) SkyTrain stations. The Coalition felt so positive about working together with other groups for this effort. Each group has its own mandate and approaches the issues of Israel-Palestine in different ways, but all groups had the common desire for the public to be made more aware of the ever-diminishing land for Palestinians since 1946. All groups recognized that awareness is the seed that’s needed for the plant to sprout and for any positive action to flourish. A grassroots fundraising campaign took place to pay for an initial four weeks of the mural display. We were thrilled with the response and appreciative of the transit authority and ad-makers for agreeing to post the maps.
Each of our six groups had input into the wording placed on the maps, and the final posted copy (as seen above) shows the maps as a clear and graphic historical representation of the ever-diminishing space allotment for the Palestinian people and the large numbers who, as a result, have become and remain refugees. I was so pleased that the Coalition was so thoughtful in their approach to this project, the final product simply telling the facts without blame or venom.
Not unexpectedly, the officers of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs heard about the approval of the murals to be posted. There followed an immediate reaction to stop the maps from going up. These two organizations wrote letters to the transit company and to the local Jewish community stating that the ads were “anti-Israel,” “question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” “distort history,” are “malicious” and are “intended to coincide with the sacred holy days of the Jewish New Year.” None of this was so. They urged their readers to write letters of their own to the transit authority to prevent the postings. While the letter campaign was in full swing, the ads were posted. The transit company followed their own guidelines and stood by their decision.
For two days local and national newspapers, and radio and television stations covered the story. Members of the Coalition and members of various Jewish organizations were interviewed. Many comments favoured the ads and felt that the information was portrayed honestly, simply, and clearly. Other comments said that the transit system isallowing the use of its vehicles “to create disharmony and disunity in our society.” Another said, “You cannot use free speech to libel and slander others.” “You can not use free speech to endanger other groups.”
I read the letter from the Federation and CIJA, and I read several of the negative comments that appeared in the media. It made me feel quite sad to see the almost knee-jerk responses pouring forth. The Coalition worked very hard to reveal facts only. There was no malice involved. There was no distortion of history. However, the interpretation of our coalition’s work was indeed a distortion, out of all proportion. Some responded as if a vicious crime had taken place, as if nothing but lies had been posted, as if the people in the Coalition were inciting hatred or violence. I don’t understand how, in a democracy, like Canada, the Jewish community would want to stifle anyone’s rights. The right to free expression, the right to opinion, the right to inform and build bridges of understanding – this is what we seek. The hanging of these maps on buses and in stations is not a return to Holocaust Germany, where windows of Jewish shops were smashed, where Jews were isolated into ghettos, and shipped on trains to their gassing at Auschwitz. What if someone had raised awareness then? If someone or a coalition of groups had been able to post on public transit the plight of the Jewish people? What if the inhumane treatment and violation of human rights of the Jews had been brought to public awareness and spoken up about without standing down?
I remember my own upbringing around the founding of the state of Israel. What an excitement it was to hear of a homeland for the Jews! I did not learn or know about other people already living on that land. I did not learn or know about their dispersal. I did not learn or know that the beautiful orchards of trees being planted by the Jewish National Fund were atop gravestones in Palestinian cemeteries. I doubt that my family, nor the rest of the Jewish community, knew any of these things. It is only in recent years, when I have opened my own mind and heart to other possibilities, to read, to listen and to inquire, that I have learned otherwise. I went to Israel-Palestine to see for myself, and I discovered the Nakba, the catastrophe, that occurred while we were busy celebrating the founding of the new Jewish state.
It wasn’t easy to accept. Doubt and questions slipped off my tongue. I felt quite defensive, quite embarrassed, to think of such a reality, a people driven out from their homes, where they had thrived, tilled their land, grown their crops and built their cities; a people turned into a refugee population, no longer free to return. I remember meeting with others at that time of awakening, all of us in some way ashamed – ashamed that we didn’t know and ashamed at the behaviour of our people – somehow feeling responsible for what we now knew were acts of occupation and colonization. It is still hard to this day for me to understand such treatment of one human to another, coming from a culture that so values social justice and Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world. Surely, my brothers and sisters know that “taking over” and “kicking out,” imprisoning and putting up walls, destroying homes and digging up trees are the very opposite of our Jewish teachings, the opposite of how we learned as children to get along together, respect each other, share whatever space we may have, and to always speak up for the liberation and freedom of all people everywhere.
My heart goes out in compassion to those in the Jewish community who are not yet able to face what is true and real and right. To act out of fear and ignorance, to blame and condemn those who have opened their eyes and their hearts, to put on blinders as an immediate response to what is seen as threat and encourage others to do the same — this is disordered thinking, disordered action. I am grateful for my Jewish background and my upbringing. I am grateful that I learned to question and that I learned to see “beyond the Pale.” It is from my own culture that I learned to be a critical thinker and to see things for myself.
I applaud the transit company for standing their ground. I applaud the Coalition for its unified effort. I applaud all the individuals and groups who helped to fund the posting of the maps. And in thinking of you in the established Jewish community who are still afraid to be aware, I am reminded of the message in the childhood classic, The Emperor’s New Clothes. It took an innocent child to say, “But he has nothing on!” I say to you, “Open your eyes, look at the maps and see the reality. Palestine is disappearing. Homes are disappearing. Orchards are disappearing. And the Palestinian people, our fellow humans, need to be seen, heard and counted just as any other group of human beings on this earth. Use your letter-writing skills to talk about how to ameliorate the situation, how to find a solution, how to work together for the betterment of all. Seeds of fear and bitterness grow into hatred, separation and isolation. Better to plant seeds of compassion, seeds of understanding that can grow into just, safe and caring communities.