EAPPI around the world: UK and Ireland

EAPPI is a world-wide network.  Our EAPPI national coordination offices in 26 countries work hard to recruit EAPPI human rights monitors and coordinate their advocacy when they return home.  Today, we continue our series in which we get to hear from these dedicated supporters of EAPPI all over the world.

EAPPI UK and Ireland shares about a new initiative whereby Israeli families and EAs get to meet together on a human level.

EAs and Israeli families enjoy a picnic together, as part of the Haifa initiative. March 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

EAs and Israeli families enjoy a picnic together, as part of the Haifa initiative. March 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

What is the Haifa Initiative?

EAPPI UK and Ireland has set up a pilot initiative whereby EAs and members of a synagogue in Haifa spend a weekend together. 28 EAs have taken part so far. They stay with an Israeli host family connected to a synagogue in Haifa. The aim is to meet on a human level and hear about each other’s lives and experiences.

The Israeli host families get a briefing paper in advance that explains that the programme works nonviolently to end the occupation and is underpinned by principles of international law and human rights law. The EAs get a briefing paper on the synagogue, the educational centre it’s part of, and the motivations of the families involved.  Here the UK/Ireland National Coordinator reflects on the initiative, which will be evaluated at the end of 2014.

Israeli families and EAs gain a deeper understanding

“When I see the look in an EA’s eyes, I have to believe what they tell me…..even if I don’t want to,” commented one Israeli Jewish woman who hosted an EA for a weekend in Haifa in 2013.

She was expressing her dilemma: should she believe what an EA was telling her about what they had seen in the West Bank?  It just didn’t fit with what she thought she knew.

Many Israelis find it hard to understand why some in the international community are critical of their government’s policies. Many Israelis have never been to the West Bank and are prevented from visiting by laws and the separation barrier. But when EAs become house guests for a weekend the Israeli hosts graciously put themselves out of their comfort zone to hear some of the realities of an EAs’ work.

EAs also say that meeting Israelis in Haifa on a human level has helped their understanding – of the pride Israelis have in their country; of the fear they experience in a way that is real to them; of the dilemmas facing parents as their children do their military service. Of course EAs also meet Israelis in the West Bank, but these are more commonly in agreement with EAPPI work, because they are likely to be members of Israeli peace and human rights organisations.

The power of meeting on a human level

In EAPPI UK and Ireland we have always been interested in finding ways for people to take seriously what EAs have experienced.  Our particular question to the Jewish community in the UK and Ireland has been “What helps you hear what we have to say?” and we have had some very helpful discussions. Our starting point, of course, is to give attention to listening to others, even when we don’t necessarily agree with them.  EAs report that telling UK Jewish audiences that they have spent time listening to ordinary families in Haifa makes it more likely that they will be given space to tell their stories about what’s happening in the West Bank.

It is no surprise that there is a huge range of views about the occupation in Israel. EAs are clear about the damage that it does to Palestinian society and they suggest that it damages Israeli society too. This is not easy for the hosts to hear, but both the families and the EAs each commit to hearing the perspective of the other.  This is demanding work. It is rare for each to agree with the perspective of the other, but mostly the synagogue members and the EAs agree that is it worthwhile to talk and meet on a human level.

EAs are learning that they can talk frankly and although they might be met with dismay, and sometimes disbelief, it seems that mostly their hosts prefer their speaking to their silence. Some of the most interesting feedback has come from young people about to join the Israeli army, who are very interested to hear about life in the West Bank.

The experience could be summed up in the words of one EA after her time in Haifa:

“We are all just people who have an interest in what is happening in Israel and Palestine – from whatever perspective. We need to talk to each other. What’s the worst that can happen?!”

Read the 1st post in this series: EAPPI around the world: Australia

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EAPPI around the world: Australia

EAPPI is a world-wide network.  Our EAPPI national coordination offices in 26 countries work hard to recruit EAPPI human rights monitors and coordinate their advocacy when they return home.  Today, we begin a series in which we get to hear from these dedicated supporters of EAPPI all over the world.

Rod, of EAPPI Australia, shares his personal story of involvement with EAPPI.

The Sunset over Gaza. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

The Sunset over Gaza. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

Tell me how you first got involved with EAPPI

My first visit to Israel-Palestine was in December 2007 with a delegation of Australian Heads of Churches, sponsored by the Jerusalem Heads of Churches.  As well as many meetings in Jerusalem, we visited Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin and Ramallah, and were briefed by various human rights groups including EAPPI accompaniers who led us on a tour of Hebron and the al-Arroub refugee camp.

On my return to Australia, there was significant opposition to our public statements from the local Jewish community, and it became clear that I should respond in a measured and peaceful way, not only with words but in actions.  At the same time, an investigation group commissioned by the National Council of Churches in Australia was developing a proposal to create a national EAPPI presence in Australia.  This was approved in March 2008 and I was invited to join the new committee.

Six years later I am still here, better informed, better equipped, and more passionate than ever to seek justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

What has surprised you most about working with EAPPI?

EAPPI representatives from many of the 26 countries visit bedouin villages in the Northern Jordan Valley. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

EAPPI representatives from many of the 26 countries visit bedouin villages in the Northern Jordan Valley. September 2013. Photo: Rod Benson.

First, it is so inspiring to witness volunteers from remarkably different national, religious and ethnic backgrounds joining together to provide accompaniment for powerless and voiceless people who struggle every day against sometimes overwhelming hardship and injustice.

Second, I like the clear focus of EAPPI’s mission to provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace.  We don’t provide financial aid, or material support, or engage in education and training.  We just do accompaniment, and no other agency does this.

Third, an enormous amount of work is done by the ecumenical accompaniers, and by the dedicated staff based at the Jerusalem office, with quite limited human and financial resources.  I am very grateful to those who stretch budgets and work diligently and sacrificially to ensure that the field programs continue to operate, problems are resolved, numbers are crunched, and justice is served.

What’s your personal philosophy on what should be done to end the Israeli occupation and achieve peace in Israel and Palestine?

Peace will come when there is no more need for the Separation Wall, the segregated roads, the existential fear of violence and reprisal, and other symbolic and actual barriers to freedom and harmony between people.  The situation today is complex and in my opinion has deteriorated since my first visit in 2007.

We must always insist on non-violent means to end the occupation and achieve peace.  Diplomacy, advocacy, economic measures of pressure, education, aid and development, art and sport, accompaniment, modeling alternative communities – all have their place in the pursuit of peace.

The future lies with the children, and it is they who must renew hope in the hearts and minds of disillusioned parents and grandparents, and dare to imagine that another world is possible.

What do you find the most challenging about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

It seems clear that both Israelis and Palestinians perversely rely on the ongoing conflict in order to assert and give shape to their personal and political identity.  Neither side shows any credible sign of willingness to commit to peaceful coexistence, despite the enormous power imbalance that exists in the region and the terrible human cost of occupation and subjugation.

What do you wish other people knew about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

I was raised in a religious community profoundly committed to Christian Zionism.  I wish my Christian friends could see the fallacy of such an approach to theology and geopolitical history, and instead become champions of justice and peace, expressing their faith through service with groups like EAPPI.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about joining EAPPI?

If you are passionate about justice and adventure, I cannot think of a more rewarding investment of your time and savings than as an ecumenical accompanier.  The experience will change you, inspire you, and equip you to be and do what you never imagined possible.  The people of Israel and Palestine need you.  Go!

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister in Sydney who works as Ethicist and Public Theologian at Morling College, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.