We have driven through the night from New York City and arrive at our hotel in Arlington, Virginia at around 3:00am. Not the most pleasant hours to arrive in a new town. The air conditioning on the buswas set on maximum overdrive and I had nothing with which to ward off the persistent gales of hyper-cooled air. Not quite teeth chattering cold but right there on the margin. I asked nicely, once, but after a brief respite the bus driver (a surly fellow) turned the switch back on to “Full Blast.” Not a whole lot of rest that trip.
After checking in we have all of 3 hours before we need to rouse ourselves to put on our “game gear” to travel across town to the National Press Club in Washington, D. C. We arrive at the historic center of American journalism at 9:00am and Sami Awad does an interview with MEBC (the Middle East Broadcasting Corp.)
An hour later, director Jim Hanon, Elik Elhanan, Sami and his uncle Dr. Mubarak Awad hold a press conference attended by several members of the press. It is a small group since 99.9% of the press corps is in still in New York covering President Obama and the Iranian President’s speeches at the U.N.
Dr. Mubarak serves as the moderator for the panel. He is the founder of the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem and is currently a professor at the American University in Washington D.C. He expresses his support of President Obama’s speech two days earlier calling for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within one year. Especially encouraging, he says, was Obama’s hopeful expectation that at next year’s summit the new state of Palestine would be introduced and recognized as a member of the U.N.
The reality is that nobody else on the panel holds out much hope that this will actually occur. In fact on several occasions already, Sami has expressed his opinion that since neither leader is coming to the table voluntarily the chances for peace are precisely nil He also believes that the type of courageous statesmanship required to actually bring about peace is, at the moment,utterly lacking.
Sami explains his pessimism with the Palestinian leadership: “The sad reality,” he explains, “is about the problem of funding. We have a Palestinian Authority that, regardless of appearances, is not independent. They are the biggest NGO (“non-government organization” – what international non-profits are called) in the region. Which means it is fully dependent on outside money for its existence .As a result the politicians in the establishment have to follow the money.”
He has made this point before, but never so bluntly. He explains that this emasculates the Palestinian leaders and not only so, it provides incentive for those in power to continue the status quo so they can maintain their privileges and continue to enjoy their financial benefits. .
In response to a question about why the nonviolent movement fails to receive much press coverage Elik agrees calling it “the best kept secret in Israel.” He explains that this is why the film LTOB is so important because “it focuses attention on a vitally important movement that is systematically ignored by the media on all sides.”
Later that evening we are at Georgetown University, at a VIP pre-screening event organized by Dr. Barbara Stowasser, Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at the school. The event is well organized as evidenced by the scores of human rights activists and influential academics in attendance. And the middle-eastern food is the best we’ve had on tour. Of special note were the breaded lamb cutlet appetizers which are cooked to perfection. Chef Ramsey would have pronounced them delicious. I draw the line at four.
Dr. Stowasser introduces the film and panelists to the more than 120 at the Rafik B. Hariri Auditorium on the GU campus. She tells them that the center and its co-sponsors, the School of International Service at the American University, and Nyack College and Seminary in D.C., are “delighted to sponsor this film that addressed this volatile issue so effectively. She explained that “this event dovetails with our objective of providing fair and balanced information about the Arab world by drawing attention to an important movements developing in one of the region’s most enduring conflicts.”
As is becoming customary, following the showing of the film Elik is the first to speak. “Everything I say comes out of a deep love for my country Israel,” he says. “But I completely reject the dichotomy of either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The most desirable thing is to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian–and definitely pro-Peace.”
Sami states that “The most basic and important issue facing those committed to nonviolence is empowering people to say ‘enough is enough, we will not give in to apathy and despair, we will engage in actions to liberate ourselves.” He then makes a crucial clarification: “However, in doing so we will not use tools to dehumanize others or take away their rights to gain our own. Nonviolence attacks the structures that create violence not the people who utilize violence.”
Elik responds to a question about the success of nonviolence with some of the most striking words of the tour. “We are not a success story. We are failures,” he admits. “We have not stopped a killing, stopped construction of the wall or moved back the occupation.” This prompted him to issue a strong challenge to the audience about the importance of their active engagement in the struggle.
Sami wants to clarify the motive behind peaceful resistance. As a Christian he is consistently alerting the audience to what is going on inside the peace activist as well as what is the root cause for the oppression being confronted. “It is not about showing I am a better human than the other or that I am more humane thanthe other,” he says,”We engage in dangerous direct action, not for our ego but for the sake of creating a future for all sides that is reallyworth living.”
Another questioner wondered about how those in the movement maintain their commitment in light of their own pain and the pressures that are brought against them. Elik responds, “The thing that gives us the drive to keep going is the solidarity and camaraderie between the most unlikely partners. The reality is, we are not good people, we are bad people. We have killed. But we have changed and in the process we have found our own humanity and in doing so we have found the humanity of the other side.”
In words that bring applause from the audience, given the loss of his own sister to a suicide bomb, he continues by describing how he has been inspired by Palestinian families who have lost loved ones but have chosen to forgive and work for peace. “They have lost more than I and yet take the incredibly courageous step of reaching out to their enemies. This inspired me. In front of this example how could I do anything less?”
The questions come in flurries. They are pointed and thoughtful, as one would expect from an audience of students and practitioners in public policy and international relations. There is also an electricity in the air. Interest and momentum seem to be building as we make our way across the East coast.
Tomorrow we have a screening at certainly the most impressive venue to date, The National Cathedral in downtown D.C. Still no word on where Yonatan is or the nature of his secret peace mission.