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International Quaker Working Party
When the Rain Returns: Toward Justice and Reconciliation in Palestine and Israel American Friends Service Committee, 2004.
THE Society of Friends (Quakers) has a long-standing interest in the Israel-Palestine area, arising in part from educational work started in Ramallah in the 1960s which gave rise to a small Palestinian meeting of Friends. The clerk, Jean Zaru, was the Palestinian member of a 14-person Working Party which wrote this useful report. In addition to the educational work, Quakers as all peaceworkers have lived under the shadow of Israel-Palestinian tensions at least since 1947. There is probably no geographically-specific dispute over which passions flair as easily. In many countries, there are active pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups who demand 100% support for their position. The wars in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo have killed vastly more people than all the Israel-Palestine conflicts without creating such passions and polemics even among specialists on Africa. Thus, it is very difficult for outsiders to play an active peace role in Israel-Palestine without being suspect of biases, religious-based prejudice or imperialist intents.
Quakers, largely from the USA and the UK have made repeated efforts at understanding the situation, in part because the USA and the UK have played political roles in the area and may do so again. These efforts include: having international affairs staff in the area, cooperation with like-minded Mennonites, dealing with the Middle East in seminars organized for diplomats, and in reports drawn by Working Parties. When the Rain Returns is the third I have on my ‘Middle East’ book shelf along with the 1969 Search for Peace in the Middle East and the 1982 A Compassionate Peace: A Future for Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. It is useful to look at all three at the same time to see how problems continue and change over time. There is always a hope that changes for the better are possibilities and despair at the continuation of tensions, hate and injustice.
Thus, doors are relatively open to Quakers, few ask 'What are you doing here?' The list of people interviewed in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel-Palestine is an impressive cross section of government officials, academics, religious leaders, and political activists. A number of the people represented groups working for peace and reconciliation, as the Report states ‘In lifting up the voices of those Palestinians and Israelis who work against imposing odds for justice and reconciliation, we hope to help fashion a new discourse about peace in the Middle East: one that speaks of love not hate, of reconciliation not revenge, of hope not despair." The spirit of the Report is a quote from Katherine Whitlock "The call to love and justice is a joyous call to resistance and transformation. We are called to resist unjust beliefs, structures, and practices in ourselves, our communities, and our society. We are called to transform by example the corrupt ethic of dominance and supremacy that declares some categories of people superior or subordinate to others.’
However, both Israeli and Palestinian society are marked by divisions in which many people feel superior to others, men over women, long-settled Israelis over Russians, orthodox over secular - and the reverse in each case. Palestinian society is also divided by class, religion, political grouping. Israelis feel superior to Palestinians who respond in equally harsh ways. In fact every possible dividing line is used as a reason for regrouping and hostility.
Yet there are signs of hope. As the Report notes ‘In the Palestinian community, we met many individuals who continued with a great sense of commitment (and considerable grace and good humor) to try to ease the burdens that Israel's repressive rule had imposed on their families and their communities who tried to ensure the survival and spread of humane values in a society riven by pain and flashes of intense anger, and who brainstormed with each other and with us on ways to bring about a stable and hope-filled peace with their neighbours the Israelis.’
‘In the Jewish-Israeli community we likewise met many women and men who were working tirelessly to find ways to put a workable peace process back on track, to reach out to their Palestinian neighbours, and to rebuild the inter-communal ties that had been frayed so badly by the events of the second intifada.’
‘We noted that for many of these peace activists, from both national communities, upholding their support for the values of peace and equality often meant posing a strong challenge to their own societies (and facing a strong challenge from) the dominant discourse in a surrounding society where hate-speech often seemed far more prevalent than support for peaceful values. We salute the courage and dedication with which these activists continue their work.’ Thus as the Report asks ‘What can we, who live outside the area of the conflict, do to support the work of the peace activists in Israel and Palestine? What can we do to organize in support of a just peace in our meetings, our congregations, our communities? What can we do to build relationships with other like-minded people to publicize the work of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, or to steer our national governments into wiser and more peace-oriented paths?’
Steering our national governments into wiser and more peace-oriented paths will be no easy task, but the Quaker Working Party gives us some of the tools. There is a good bibliography and a useful list, most with websites, of groups working for peace. It is hard to know how fast and in what direction the wind is blowing. We need to follow events carefully, to encourage steps of reconciliation, to prevent fanatical voices from setting the agenda. We need to look beyond national decision-making to see what is being done at the European level and within the UN system.
The Middle East - Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, Iraq and Iran - is a complex and confusing area, and there is a strong temptation to say 'I have heard it before'. Yet our inattention will not make the area go away or calm down. We need to increase our attention and our action. The rain of the title is the water needed to make the soil green, or as Martin Luther King said ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’