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Welcome to Friends of Sabeel DC Metro Area.
Report on our April 27, 2013 Spring Workshop, Palestinians in DC Speak to the Churches
Sabeel DC Event Features 8 DC-area Palestinians Sharing Their Stories, Advocating for Justice
by Paul Verduin, Co-chair, Sabeel DC Metro
“I WAS OVERWHELMED by the event, so well planned and carried out,” enthused one conferee. “It was an honor to participate,” said one of the eight Palestinian American panelists. “Congrats on a successful, powerful, and well-organized event,” she was quick to add. “Thank you for such an excellent event,” said another presenter. “Sabeel DC Metro is truly doing great work!” “This was your best program ever,” added many who attended.
They were all praising Sabeel DC Metro’s Second Annual Spring Workshop, “Palestinians in DC Speak to the Churches,” which took place April 27 at Wesley Theological Seminary, located next to American University in Washington, DC. Organizers reported at least 95 people were in attendance at the all-day event.
Featured on the program were eight local-area Palestinian women and men, all of them American citizens and accomplished professionals who were either born in Palestine or Israel, or have spent significant portions of their lives there and in the Middle East region.
But more notably, all eight of them are diligently and passionately working in creative, innovative ways to further the cause of a just peace for the Holy Land’s people, for the restoration of their human rights and freedom (including the right-of-return for those exiled from their native land), and for a speedy end to the decades-long and patently illegal military occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories—the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
The spring workshop event also featured an exhibit of abstract paintings and drawings by local artist Bud Hensgen graphically depicting the Separation Wall and other Occupation subjects. A selection of recent books on the Palestine-Israel theme was offered for sale by the nonprofit Potter’s House ministry.
Palestinian Speaker Line-up
The Saturday event’s Palestinian speakers were Tarek Abuata, Philip Farah, Hanan Idilbi, Nadia Itraish, Paul Noursi, Mai Abdul Rahman, Grace Said, and Ghassan (G.J.) Tarazi, all of whom reside either in Washington, DC or its Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Well-known activists Tarek Abuata and Grace Said are both members of Friends of Sabeel-North America’s board of trustees. Tarek also does nonviolence training for groups and serves as the Palestine coordinator for the Christian Peacemaker Teams, while Grace Said also serves on the steering committee of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network and works locally with the Washington National Cathedral’s Palestine Israel Advocacy Group and several other DC-based advocacy boards and committees.
Panelist Nadia Itraish serves on the board of Friends of Tent of Nations-North America, the U.S. support group for Tent of Nations, Daoud Nassar’s peace center near Bethlehem. Hanan Idilbi is on the board of Interfaith Peace Builders, a well-known nonprofit group organizing trips to Palestine and Israel. Mai Abdul Rahman is a prominent writer, blogger, speaker, organizer and activist who founded the American Palestinian Women’s Association. Economist Philip Farah is a founder and co-chair of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace (WIAMEP) and has addressed audiences across the U.S. on Middle East peace and justice issues. A former school principal, educator and professor, Ghassan (G.J.) Tarazi has served as executive director of United Palestinian Appeal and is currently planning the November 8-10 national conference, “Waging Peace in Palestine and Israel,” to be held at Calvary Baptist Church in DC. And finally, Paul Noursi has been active with a wide variety of organizations working for peace and justice in the Palestine-Israel region, including Virginians for Middle East Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Five of the program’s presenters—Tarek Abuata, Philip Farah, Paul Noursi, Grace Said, and Ghassan Tarazi—are jointly the founders and steering committee members of the new Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP), an organization initiated last year as “a non-sectarian, ecumenical alliance of Palestinian American Christians that seeks to provide a clear voice and presence in faith-based communities in the U.S.,” according to a flier the group distributed at the Sabeel DC Metro event. “American churches, church bodies, and church-based organizations can and ought to play a leading role in advocating for a just peace among all people in the region,” the group states on its flier, and this is why they agreed to accept Sabeel DC Metro’s invitation to partner with them in presenting the April 27 event.
“Get to know Palestinians…”
“Being in relationships” with Palestinians is key, Ghassan Tarazi told conferees during his opening remarks. “Get to know Palestinians…put a face on Palestinians,” he urged. Though G.J.—as he’s known to his friends—was born in Beirut just after his parents fled from Jerusalem during the 1948 Nakba, he admitted to his listeners that he came to his Palestinian identity rather late in life. “Even in 2001 I didn’t associate with my Palestinian roots,” he confessed. This in part was due to prejudices he encountered after his family emigrated to the United States. As a college student right after the 1967 “Six Day War,” for example, G.J. had to endure mean-spirited jokes denigrating Arabs and their ignominious defeat at the hands of the Israeli military forces. But after 9/11 Ghassan started to talk with his father and learn of his family’s earlier life as Palestinians in Gaza, and in Jerusalem where his father clerked for the British mandate authorities.
As the program’s Palestinian panelists continued “sharing their personal stories and their passion for doing justice,” Philip Farah revealed that as a young man in East Jerusalem he was among those “beaten up several times…tortured, really.” Tarek Abuata vividly recalled how once as a 12-year-old child in Bethlehem, while riding with his father in the family car, an Israeli policeman stopped the vehicle, accosted his father roughly and took away his father’s green Palestinian I.D. card. “I remember how I felt,” Tarek said. “Confusion and fear, with a gun pointed at my head.” Very shortly thereafter his parents moved to Houston, Texas, and when Tarek enrolled in college several years later he began to read Edward Said. “Who the hell are those people [the Israeli authorities], taking away our lives,” he began to wonder.
Eventually, after college and law school, Tarek helped start the Christian Peacemaker Team’s project in Hebron and at Tawani in the South Hebron Hills. Once, while working in Tawani, an Israeli soldier threw Tarek’s American passport in his face. But a bit later Tarek courageously confronted the soldier, and revealing his early experience of humiliation with his father in the family car many years before, hectored the soldier on the long-term results of speaking to Palestinians in an insulting and denigrating way, humiliating them and making them feel afraid and ultimately resentful. Tarek asked the soldier not to speak to Palestinians in that way. “I will do what you asked me,” Tarek recalled the soldier saying. “We must carry our hearts with us,” Tarek reminded his audience.
Besides vividly recounting the stories of their families’ lives in pre-1948 Palestine and later, and illustrating these accounts with poignant photo-slides from family albums, panelists Philip Farah, Paul Noursi and Grace Said all expressed a bit of hope from the fact that, in our present day, a growing number of progressive Jewish Americans—and even Jews of conscience in Israel—are working passionately for a just peace and the imperative of bringing the cruel, unjust Occupation to a halt. Anna Baltzer, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Jews involved in the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign were cited as examples of this Jewish awakening. The growing role of the churches was also pointed to as an important ingredient in hope. G.J. Tarazi recalled that when influential Palestinian Christian pastor Mitri Raheb is asked, “What’s your hope?” he replies, “Hope is what I do, not what I feel.”
During the program’s practicum on “Building a Biblical Foundation for Doing Justice,” conferees were asked to write down their definitions of justice. While many creditable definitions—including conferee Charles Spencer’s “faith in action”—were supplied, conferee and veteran activist Jim Vitarello went right to the biblical heart of the matter with his reply, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The parallels to this maxim in the Hebrew scriptures and the Muslim Koran were quickly pointed out by others. “Justice based on human relationships is what we’re talking about today,” G.J. Tarazi summarized, and in his power point on this subject he highlighted many passages in both the Old and the New Testaments underscoring the importance of justice in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Reaching even beyond the faith-based obligation to “do justice,” Philip Farah revealed that in his work for a just peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, “love your enemy has become absolutely real for me.”
Giving Palestinians Hope
During the afternoon panel presentations, Hanan Idilbi, whose family came from Acca in pre-1967 Israel, described the work of Interfaith Peace Builders, which organizes tours to the Palestine-Israel region for Americans. “It takes courage to speak to local audiences [here at home],” she admitted, “but it helps if you can see the reality on the ground [in the region].” “Palestinians have hope because of our being there,” she added. Hanan also emphasized the importance of taking African Americans on trips to Palestine and Israel, as Interfaith Peace Builders has recently done on two occasions. People involved in the Civil Rights Movement see the Israel-Palestine conflict differently,” she said.
Panelist Nadia Itraish, born in the West Bank but largely American-raised, talked to her audience about the work of Daoud Nassar’s Tent of Nations peace center in the Palestinian countryside a few miles from Bethlehem and emphasized the importance of “the narrative as a weapon.” “Take control of that narrative as our advocates,” she urged. “Wrest control [of it] out of the grip of Israelis and their supporters.” Nadia stated that Friends of Tent of Nations—North America is seeking speaking engagements for Daoud Nassar’s spring and fall U.S. speaking tours.
Mai Abdul Rahman, the afternoon’s third woman panelist, spoke with empathy to her attentive audience by admitting, “The road to justice is lonely.” She also reached out to listeners who are sympathetic toward the Israelis by saying, “If you care about Israel you’ll work to end the Occupation.” Mai brought home the interconnectedness of Israelis and Palestinians with the anecdote that “when an Israeli child catches a cold, a Palestinian child sneezes” and vice-versa. Offering a suggestion to her mostly Christian audience about how to advocate for the Palestinians in church settings, Mai added, “Talk to people in your church… talk from the heart.” “Every progressive movement in the U.S. succeeded when the church got involved,” Philip Farah reminded conferees. He added that when, in 2012, the Presbyterian Church and the United Methodist Church passed boycott resolutions and considered adopting divestment policies, “the media got involved.”
Philip and Ghassan teamed up on the afternoon panel in announcing that their new group, the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, will soon “launch a campaign” asking people to invest in nine Palestinian West Bank villages—Susya and others—in the Masafer Yatta region of the South Hebron Hills. These nine villages, they said, have a combined population of about 1,000 people—including some 452 children—that are facing imminent, total demolition by the Israeli Occupation Forces in order to make way for a weaponry firing zone. PCAP is inviting American individuals and churches to participate with Palestinian, Israeli, and other groups in an international coalition banding together to support the people of the Masafer Yatta villages in their resistance to forced displacement. According to an informational flier PCAP distributed to each conferee, funds are being raised to build a school, install a solar panel system for the school’s electrical needs, and rehabilitate five cisterns that the school will need for its water supply. The campaign asks local church congregations to raise funds to pay for either a school room costing $1,380, the solar panel system costing $3,000, or a cistern costing $4,000.
Inviting DC Palestinians to Speak in DC-area Churches
Sabeel DC Metro’s Spring Workshop’s scores of conferees ended the day by reciting aloud a prayer adapted from one attributed to Desmond Tutu, and by joining hands in an immensely wide circle for an energizing Palestinian Dabkeh line-dance expertly led by panelist Hanan Idilbi. Reaction to the Spring Workshop event? The next morning, during the “joys and concerns” portion of her Sunday church service, one enthusiastic conferee was heard to announce to the gathered congregation, “We simply must invite these Palestinian presenters to come and speak at our church!”
Sabeel DC Metro is engaged in continual outreach by participating in local conferences, panels, and film screenings that help bring the full story of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to a wider public. Please contact us if you are planning an event and would like suggestions about speakers and other resources.