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Palestine wilderness

Palestinian protest
Photo: AFSC

Note: Tory Smith is an intern working for AFSC’s Wage Peace and Israel/Palestine programs. He is a Quaker. He presented this piece as part of a panel of faith-based activists at the Justice Conference hosted in Philadelphia in February.

In this post Tory explores the ways in which pacifism can be carried dogmatically without an authentic connection with the people most marginalized by a particular situation. He also explores how knowing a person’s story changes what you see, and that single incidents of violence are understood differently when you understand the structural violence and the daily impact such systematic violence may have on people you care about.

This piece may be troubling for some and does not reflect AFSC’s position on the conflict in Israel/Palestine. As Tory has examined his own assumptions about pacifism and violence, he has come to understand both differently as he identifies and expresses solidarity with Palestinians who face daily structural violence.  

I post this here because Tory provides a perspective that is helpful to consider: How do we as Quakers embrace a pacifism that truly calls for the transformation of systems? How do we find the strength to love when we have really, deeply understood the depth of oppression? His questions below are well worth reflection and consideration, and I hope they will inspire conversation.          

In Peace, Lucy

The first time I went to Palestine, I was 18. It was 2006, and I was on a trip with Baltimore Yearly Meeting to visit Ramallah Friends School. That first experience was marked by violence: the second Israeli-Lebanon war started two days after we arrived. One of my strongest memories is smoking on a roof while hearing rocket fire and explosions to the north, knowing that war—the organized mass murder of people my age or younger—was happening around me.

I came back convinced I had it all figured out. My commitment to the Quaker ideal of peace, something I was raised with, had always been a defining feature of my identity. My father is a conscientious objector; I had participated in protests against both the Afghan and Iraqi wars as they were starting, which was a hard position to take in 2002 and 2003. When I finished high school, I applied to a college that had a peace and global studies program.

I have strong convictions, and those convictions come from a spiritual place within me. You could say that I was a disciple of Jesus’s “turn the other cheek” principle. I didn’t question my belief in nonviolence, a belief that was strict and filled with a righteousness and dogmatism which can only come with a lifetime of your environment confirming your convictions.

That changed when I returned to Palestine again in 2011 and went to a valley in which there are two different worlds: a rural Palestinian village called an-Nabi Saleh, and an illegal, Jewish-only Israelli settlement called Halamish.

One of the first people that I met in Nabi Saleh was a 12-year-old Palestinian. He’s a funny kid—he demands cigarettes from anyone within his reach, is a fan of the Barcelona soccer team, is obsessed with WWF wrestling star John Cena, and has this crooked little grin that is equal parts mischievous and disarming.

I didn’t know all of this when I saw some 19-year-old Israeli in uniform blast him in the face with pepper spray, just for showing the soldier his fist.

It was a Friday. There are always demonstrations on Fridays in that village, and in many others inside of the West Bank, villages that have almost been wiped out by the peace-process and the “security” needs of the settlements in the West Bank. Millions of lives have been swept up in the continuation of the oppression of the Palestinans, on both sides of the Green Line of 1967, cutting across national and religious identities.

When I saw his friends hurl rocks at the soldiers and the soldiers turn their guns on the villagers, opening fire with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets, my ignorance of the entire situation led to my dogmatic pacifism reinforcing his oppression by judging his understandable anger at daily, persistent, pervasive acts of oppression.

I didn’t know that his father had had to flee the village, because an international journalist had irresponsibly and erroneously reported that he was the leader of the popular struggle of the village. I didn’t know that his house had been slated for demolition by the Israeli military because his family had made an unauthorized expansion on the house. I didn’t know that his cousin with Down syndrome was hit with a tear-gas grenade on his own roof.

That trip changed me. It up-rooted my righteous pacifism and threw my beliefs into the wilderness.  I’ve seen Israeli soldiers being hit by rocks, and felt my heart lift as a result. I had conversations with Palestinians who had been part of the popular struggle to liberate Palestine, and have had them tell me that until they are able to kill Israelis with the same impunity that Israelis kill Palestinians, their voices will never be respected in any meaningful way. “Bullets will be the only thing that will do anything for us.” I don’t know if I think they’re wrong.

My time in the wilderness is not over, and I intend to stay a while. One of the most important conversations I’ve had in my Quaker wilderness is around “love your enemies.” What does that mean? What is love in the circumstance of a relationship of abuse of that love? Do we have an obligation to do no harm, turn the other cheek and love them regardless of the abuse? Or does loving them, really loving them, involve tearing apart the whole belief system of the abuser, doing damage to their ability to harm themselves by harming you, doing the violence of tearing down the way that they conceptualize themselves and their relationship to others? What are we as followers of someone who was born in an occupied land 2000 years ago, who grew up in a time of resistance to that occupation, called to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I hope I leave you with the right questions, because we are ultimately all responsible to each other, if not in this world, then in the next.


About the Author

Tory Smith is an AFSC campus organizer on Israel/Palestine and a researcher on drones and unmanned aerial vehicles in Philadelphia. He has lived in the midst of the Israel/Palestinian conflict during the 2011 Arab Spring, and he has a degree in peace and global studies from Earlham College.

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