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It's a fight for peace activists to get heard in Israeli-Palestinian debate

When I was growing up, church taught me to support Israel.

For one thing, scripture supported the existence of an Israeli state. So there was little concern for the Palestinians on the other side of the conflict.

And with media reports focusing on extremist actions from within the Palestinian community, there was little to endear good old church folks to its cause.

So when a bomb went off at a bus stop in central Jerusalem in March, near a shopping area I had visited the day before, I could understand the view of Nathan Simon, a rabbinical college student from Cleveland.

"I don't think this is an extremist faction," he said, blaming the Palestinians for the horrific act that killed a 59-year-old woman. "It's the culture as whole."

But by the time I stood in the shattered Plexiglas at that Jerusalem bus stop, my view of the Palestinians already had begun to change.

I was in Jerusalem as a journalist with a group of performers who traveled to the Middle East on a cultural exchange with the Palestinian National Theatre to perform the play Passages of Martin Luther King. The U.S. State Department organized 10 performances of the play in Jerusalem and on the West Bank over 3½ weeks with American and Palestinian artists. My wife, September, was one of the performers.

A month before traveling to Israel and the West Bank, I had met non-violence expert Michael Nagler, a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was visiting Valencia College in Orlando.

I asked him what purpose would be served by performing a play about Martin Luther King Jr. for Palestinian audiences.

Nagler considered the play a source of inspiration to the Palestinians who already participate in the cause for peace. The play also had relevance for those who had not made up their mind but might consider an extremist view, he said.

"I think what you're doing is trying to reach people who are on the border and trying to get them to move over."

At that moment, still in the United States, I pictured a group of Palestinian activists working underground to promote nonviolence.

But when I reached Israel and the West Bank, I quickly learned that the peace activists did not work in secret but openly, persistently and, yes, peacefully. And it became evident that the conflict is not as black and white as it is often portrayed in the media.

When Hamas or some other militant group fires a rocket into Israel, or a bomb explodes at a crowded bus stop, it makes headlines. But what goes underreported is the work of the Palestinian peace activists, many of whom are Christians.

Which raises the question: How do we make these activists, rather than those who would use terrorist tactics, the face of the Palestinian movement and the voices at the negotiating table?

First you have to learn who they are.

I met many of the nonviolent activists, including Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, where about a third of the Palestinian population is Christian.

Awad's weapons are placards and chants at demonstrations most Fridays in opposition to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank.

"This is the land where we want to establish a state," Awad told us. "Even that is denied."

Because of his protests, the Israeli government refuses to allow Awad to go to Jerusalem, about 6 miles away. (Checkpoints and security walls force circuitous routes that make the short distance a longer journey.)

There also are those in Jerusalem who hold their own protests against the Israeli government, using the same weapons — chants and placards.

Amal Odeidi, an East Jerusalem Palestinian in her early 20s, overheard the Americans practicing freedom songs for the play in the basement of their hotel on March 15. It was the day Palestinians worldwide planned demonstrations against the Israeli occupation.

She invited the American performers to a protest at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. The singers declined, mindful of a warning from the consulate that such events can spin out of control.

Later, I watched her lead dozens of children, teens and young adults in Arabic, chanting: "End the occupation. End the Israeli occupation."

There were no incidents, but Odeidi was frantic because the police were after her. She said she had gone to jail for a year for protesting. She didn't want to go again.

Perhaps one of the most endearing people I met — and I say one because there were many — was the play's director, Kamel Elbasha.

He was refreshingly frank about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After that bomb exploded, there were questions of whether a Palestinian might have been the perpetrator because no group had claimed credit.

In the face of those who argued otherwise, Elbasha simply stated that it probably was a Palestinian. "We're tired," he said.

Elbasha sorts out the issues of the Israel-Palestinian conflict on stage. He confronts them and works through them by weaving the conflict into the text of existing scripts.

In Passages, Elbasha rewrote the script to make it accessible to his Palestinian audience. In his reworking, Passages became a rehearsal of Palestinian actors preparing for a performance of Passages. This permitted him to deal with ideas that were related to the issues of the play but did not appear in the original script.

In one scene, a woman in the role of a Palestinian actor playing Coretta Scott King objects to the American flag on John F. Kennedy's coffin. It makes no historical sense, but it resonated with Palestinians who see the flag as representing a government that they feel unwaveringly supports Israel.

But Elbasha didn't stop there. He challenged Palestinians with an equally generalized perception of themselves held by outsiders. An American playing the director of the rehearsal asks, "What about your image? Terrorists."

Elbasha's personal life shows that it's not just an intellectual exercise for him. He lives the idea of breaking down stereotypes, of challenging social mores and rigid ideologies.

He's an example of the tolerance many suggest the Palestinians lack. Though a devout Muslim who prays regularly, Elbasha married a Palestinian Christian, Reem Talhami. They wed despite the opposition of their families and religions.

It wasn't what I expected, a traditional Muslim marrying a Christian. Don't generalize, I reminded myself.

If I had any doubt about how widespread the appeal of the nonviolence message was among Palestinians, it was dispelled at a conference at the Red Crescent in Ramallah about midway through the 3½-week tour.

The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem brought the American performers to the conference and connected them with dozens of Palestinian leaders in the nonviolence movement.

The activists recounted the months of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the region. It was an inspiration to the gathering and led to questions about how it could translate into a solid nonviolent resistance movement among the Palestinians.

The author of Passages, Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson, said the efforts of those in that room were key to a successful movement. As he had at various times during the trip, Carson noted that violence drives away potential backers, such as women and children. His studies have concluded that "the higher the level of violence, the fewer the people to execute that strategy."

Carson urged the activists at the gathering to continue their effort because "I believe nonviolence is the only way to involve large numbers of people."

Like the rest of the people in the room, I was moved by the call. I watched as tearful leaders joined hands in a circle to sing the iconic American civil rights movement song, We Shall Overcome.

Though some local Palestinian media attended the conference, virtually all of the American news media were absent.

If the next intifada looks more like Selma, Ala., or the March on Washington, it may be because of seeds sown in gatherings such as these that the world knows little about.

Perhaps when there are large numbers of people in the street, someone will pay attention to a face that might not seem as sensational as that of a terrorist but that should have a bigger voice at the negotiating table.

Ivan Penn can be reached at (727) 892-2332 or

It's a fight for peace activists to get heard in Israeli-Palestinian debate 07/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 11:36am]
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