Volunteer Stories: From Amnesty International to Wales for Peace

Emily Blower is a Wales for Peace Volunteer and Amnesty International Member.  Originally from London, Emily is used to activism being quite visible and she is looking forward to uncovering what activism looks like in North Wales.

amnesty.jpg

The non-profit organisation, founded in 1961 by the London lawyer Peter Benenson. It was a reaction to two Portuguese students who were jailed for seven years for ‘illegally’ toasting to liberty. This news story, like many others, did not make headlines but it did provoke disdain within Benenson. Even worse was the fact that there were not any opportunities within the community to act on this emotion in attempt to make a change.

‘Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a story from somewhere of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government … The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done’

In founding Amnesty International (AI), Benenson has provided people with the chance to unite and act upon what was being previously pushed aside. Fifty years later and Amnesty International has developed into one of the world’s main organisations to battle against abuses of human rights.

There are many reasons why I became a member of Amnesty International, but the most significant factor is that Amnesty is completely separate from political and corporate sectors of work. This gives AI the ability to act without going through the government such as to put pressure upon international governments if they don’t abide by human rights. By having this freedom, AI have their own standards and policies that don’t alternate for any political or economic reason. They hold a clear set of goals and policies that won’t differ if an alternative party were in power or for financial gain. These are the reasons why I firstly became a member.

I re-joined AI due to the growing refugee crisis. I became aware of the extent of the growing refugee problem through an online source, however, I was shocked when there wasn’t any acknowledgment of this on the news and even worse, that this problem was being ignored by our own  UK Government. AI works closely with refugees. From this, I knew that AI was the right organisation as they portrayed the whole picture but there was also a discussion on how we can all unite to change this.

This is also why I am volunteering for Wales for Peace, there are many ordinary people within Wales who share this international solidarity. To discover the fundamental hidden stories of Wales in terms of international solidarity would create a rich history of ordinary people coming together to create something positive and changing. This is important as typically the hidden histories of ordinary people aren’t presented within the media because they are lacking a household name. However, their stories are important; as a united effort Wales has shown support to international topics to lead to a change.

Listed below are reasons why many people, such as myself, have become a member of Amnesty International.

1. Independent Organisation

AI is a non-governmental organisation that acts to end the abuse of human rights. They demand this through gaining justice, dignity and truth for those whom human rights have been breached. Amnesty International isn’t linked with any other organisation, this includes governments, religions and companies. This is good because it gives them more freedom to put pressure on governments, in terms of letters and protests, to stop restricting the rights of people without causing any political, economic or religious outcry. This is important as potential it could prevent the work of AI. Because they are an independent organisation, the criticism from leaders Idi Amin, Ayatollah combined with the Chinese Communist Party would cause enough of a stir for other organisations to stop Amnesty International. Successively through the past 50 years, Amnesty has for gained global political influence. Amnesty’s lobbying led to the UK government passing the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in 2008, and more recently agreeing to make women’s rights in Afghanistan.

2. Long term Project with clear aim

Through not being linked to a corporate and governmental organisation they have complete independence to act accordingly to their policies, which is listed as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A core principle of Amnesty is a focus on prisoners of conscience. This is a person is detained for expressing any opinion that isn’t the same as the people in power. There are also another 5 main other objectives that Amnesty deals with the rights of women, children, minorities and indigenous rights, ending torture practices, the abolition of the death penalty, the rights of refugees and protection of human objectivity. By having these clear principles, they appeal almost universally and this gains a lot of support and awareness for Amnesty. This ultimately leads to making a difference, whether its just for one person or for a community they have been successful in the long run. Over the past several years they have achieved to secure an international Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, the International Criminal Court in 2002, and a global convention against torture in 1984. Amnesty International tackle difficult and complex issues that aren’t ‘quick wins’, year on year they campaigned for human rights in Burma and in the last 12 months of 2015 hundreds of political prisoners have been freed.

3. Evokes ordinary people worldwide to unite to make a change for the better of human development

By the creation of AI people can unite and express an act of international solitude. Through their 7 million memberships there are various roles within the organisation which enables all types of people to act as a way of international solidarity. There is a wide spectrum of AI supporters, varying from ordinary people to celebrities such as Eddie Izzard, Madonna to international Amnesty supporters such as Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai to ordinary people, like me. However, who you are doesn’t matter when we can all strive together to stop future injustices from happening again.

With activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries, AI has been able to investigate, mobilise and change societies for better human development and security. Using their memberships and donations they have industrialised into the world’s largest pressure group allowing them to contact governments, organise protests and publicise human rights abuses in the media.

4. Campaign has proven to work

Amnesty is one of the world’s most influential, non-governmental organisations with a track record of success. Their campaigning work has been proved to be successfully through the use of their members

AI act in different ways. For instance, the form of protesting and petitioning. This has been proved to be effective. They successfully pressured Shell to pay out over Niger Delta oil spills in 2008 and 2009. After two years of pressure and letter writing of Amnesty supporters, Myanmar’s community leader Dr Tun Aung was released in January after being imprisoned for trying to calm down a crowd of riots in 2012. There has been various stories of successful campaigning from Amnesty which has caused significant changes to individuals worldwide.

5. Extensive research that is trust worthy

AI’s research is underpinned in the field but having first witnesses accounts and survivors testimonies with forensic data by using tools satellite images where possibly. They also cross check their research with other network resources and experts to make sure it is watertight. Their research is even valuable for external use, such as international bodies like the United Nations, media reporters and investigators as well as other campaigning and human right organisations. By having trust-worthy sources, people can start to grasp the truth behind these societies. This isn’t possible without AI as traditionally our mainstream medias tend to be biased and therefore they arguably showcase evidence in favour to their own belief such as the BBC and Gaza. Through AI, people can explore this watertight evidence and research and come to their own conclusions.

By being born in London, there are more open opportunities to protests which are publicly shown acts of international solidarity. They are traditionally broadcast throughout the online community and local newspapers This is normally where they gain their mass support.

Since moving to Bangor in North Wales, I have found that this type of action wasn’t as publicly displayed or spoke about among the community. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any act of international solidarity, it was just underrepresented and hidden from the community. Wales has had a long track history of supporting international countries by protesting or gathering support for the cause. Therefore, by complying Wales hidden histories of acts of international solidarity, it has allowed this rich history to be rediscovered and illustrated back to the community to inspire future generations. These hidden histories will be interviews from ordinary people in Wales and what they believe ‘international solidarity’ means to them personally and what acts of solidarity they have accomplished in the Welsh community. It is crucial to discover the hidden histories of ordinary people.

References:

Peter Benenson. (28 May. 2011) “The Forgotten Prisoners”. The Observer

 

Advertisements

The Refugee Miner with ‘Nine Lives’: in honour of Joe Lisak (1926-1999)

Volunteer Jacquie Lisak tells the story of how her father-in-law came from Poland to Wales and cheated death more than once along the way…

Wedding.jpg

Joe and Lorna’s Wedding Day in Lllanbradach on 7th August 1950

 

In 1939, Poland faced the twin horrors of invasion from the west by Nazi Germany, and invasion from the east by the Soviet Union, culminating in one of the darkest, bloodiest and most devastating periods of the 2nd World War. Hitler ordered his commanders to kill, ‘without pity or mercy, all men, women and children of Polish descent or language’ [1] while Heinrich Himmler expressed this, perhaps, more chillingly, in 1940, when he stated ‘all poles will disappear from this world,’ describing the ‘elimination’ of the Polish people as Germany’s ‘chief task’ [2]. Subsequently, the Poles witnessed the horrors of the concentration camp and forced labour camps. Overall, almost 18 per cent of the Polish population or 6 million, half of whom were non-Jewish, were killed in a reign of terror that saw forced evictions, enslavement and mass executions. The Soviet terror unleashed in the east brought yet more horror and cruelty, for both the Nazis and the Soviets were equally intent on destroying Poland’s culture and subjugating its people. A ‘Reign of Terror’ was unleashed under Soviet Union rule in which mass executions, imprisonments and deportations thrived. Anyone, deemed guilty, of ‘crimes against the revolution’ or ‘counter revolutionary activity’, defined as, any pre-war service to the Polish State, could face arrest. Indeed, for the Poles, the end of the war brought no return to justice or prosperity. Instead, new forms of oppression, trauma and injustice flourished under continued Soviet rule [3].

It was against this background that Ignacy ‘Joe’ Lisak from Krzeczow, East Poland fled his homeland and found refuge in the UK. His links with the Polish resistance and his close alliance with activist, Wladyslaw Galka, led to a warning by the local Chief of Police that he faced joining Galka in prison with the inevitable threats of execution, which that might entail. Galka was imprisoned twice, facing execution on two occasions and spent many years in solitary confinement. It seems fairly certain that a similar fate would have awaited Joe, had he not fled. Yet, this was not the first occasion where Joe escaped possible death.

As a young boy Joe was among a group of children playing by the river. They found a box containing a number of small objects, which to their delight, when thrown in to the water, erupted, creating spectacular watery displays. They played happily with these objects, seemingly unaware of the dangers posed by the lethal explosives they had found. Joe left his companions early that day, as by some stroke of good fortune, he had promised to run an errand for his mother. Sadly, his playmates were never to return home and were reported deceased the following day.

Teenager.jpg

 Joe pictured as a teenager, back right, with family

 

Joe’s escape from Poland was a dangerous and difficult one. Like many refugees, much of his journey was made on foot and under cover of great forests. Joe mentioned one detail about his journey, which was quite funny, saying, that after crossing the border in to Czechoslovakia, by foot, he took a wrong turn and ended up back in Poland! On another occasion, he and a companion were confronted by soldiers who questioned their whereabouts. It was important to think quickly and to stifle any outer expressions of fear, to avoid suspicion, so they explained that they had lost their way after attending a house party and asked for directions. Luckily, they were left to continue their journey, without raising further doubt. Joe was never one to discuss this period of his past, often, with his family, whether this was because there were many memories that he would prefer to avoid, or whether he did not wish to burden his family with such memories is unclear. One particular story from his past emerged a number of times when relaxing on weekends, with a glass of beer or his favourite, vodka, he, sometimes, alluded to an incident in the forest where he and his companion faced capture by two Soviet Soldiers. He would mime, with his hand, the pulling of a trigger and speak of burying one of the soldiers, saying that the other soldier escaped. Joe and his companion continued to travel onward, but remained ever fearful of discovery.

Document.jpg

Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued to refugees under the Aliens Order 1920

Joe’s Certificate of Registration issued under the Aliens Order 1920 confirms that he arrived in the U.K on the 5th of March 1948 and gained employment on the 7th of May with the National Coal Board in South Wales, where after the second world War, demand for coal was high and there was an urgent need for coal miners. The vast influx of refugees from Europe provided an ideal source of recruitment. However, refugees were not always welcomed, facing opposition from locals, ‘partly from ignorance and partly from fear of unemployment’ [4]. Indeed, the National Union of Miners (NUM) stated that they opposed, ‘the employment of Poles and displaced persons in British mines’ [5]. However, Joe and his Polish friends encountered little hostility in their local communities and settled in well. In fact, the only person who was ever heard to tell Joe to, ‘get back to Poland, you bloody foreigner’, was his wife Lorna, during the occasional argument, something which his children would laugh about, as it was clear that she loved him very much and didn’t really mean it. On arriving in Wales, Joe obtained lodgings at various addresses locally, including at the Miners Hostel in Ystrad Mynach which housed a large number of European Refugees, many of whom would forge strong bonds, becoming life-long friends. Later when they had settled or married, they would often gather at each others’ homes to eat, drink – vodka being a popular choice, play cards, talk and laugh. It was while lodged at Ystrad Mynach Hostel that Joe met Lorna, from the nearby village of Llanbradach where they would eventually set up home. They were married on the 7th August 1950 and later had six children and 12 grandchildren, including one step grandchild.

Miners Hostel.jpg

Joe, pictured with other refugee miners at Ystrad Mynach Miners Hostel, – lying down at the front, posing with a pipe borrowed from a friend.

In October 1952, four years after his arrival in the U.K, Joe faced another brush with death while working at Bedwas Colliery when there was an explosion. Ambulance man, Evan Williams, described how he found Joe as follows:

‘One man lay back in the manhole. He was a big Pole named Lisak. He must have been working stripped to the waist. The skin was stripped off his body in sheets. His arms, hands and face had been burned. What could I do for him? I didn’t have half enough stuff. I covered him over with coats as he was, and encouraged him to keep still, as I would send him out first’ [6].

One person was killed, and 20 others were injured that day. Joe had severe burns from the waist upwards, including his face and his ears. Although, he retained his hearing after the accident, little remained of his actual ears. Joe spent many months in hospital, enduring operations and skin grafts. Yet, I never noticed his injuries, until I forced myself years later to take a closer look; I believe my failure to notice these things was because his personality and sheer character eclipsed them. After a long period in hospital, Joe returned to work in the mines but did not settle. He became a painter and decorator, his family continued to grow and he eventually travelled to Poland with them for many happy holidays. His children, have many fond memories of him, among them, his, sometimes, very poetic turn of phrase. He once likened his blonde blue-eyed grandson, Daniel, to an ‘angel’ who had come to visit him. On another occasion, his daughter Cheryl was standing by the half open back door that led to the garden. She was smoking a cigarette under the fading evening sunshine. The combination of smoke, reflected light and shadow, falling on her long blonde hair, led him to comment, ‘You look like an angel in a golden cage.’

In his later years, Joe became a school Caretaker at the local primary school. Indeed, he is still remembered by ex-students as ‘kind’ and ‘funny’. Joe survived a stroke but eventually died after contracting a hospital bug at the age of 72. My overriding memory of Joe, is of a man of great character and charm, of smiles and laughter, of a mop of curly white hair and a deep Polish accent, of someone who is remembered with great affection by his family, and all those who knew him.

Older Joe.jpg

Joe as I remember him, pictured outside his home in Llanbradach

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Many thanks to the Lisak family for sharing their memories of Joe.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Holocaust Forgotten website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/poland.htm

[2] ibid.,

[3] Anne Applebaum in New Republic, December 20, 2012 http://www.newrepublic.com/article/111235/evil-after-evil

[4] Ceri Thompson in Glo/Coal, https://museum.wales/media/4619/glo-allpoles.pdf

[5] ibid.,

[6] Durham Mining Museum website http://www.dmm.org.uk/ukreport/9019-03.htm

 

From Budapest to Pontypridd: A Hungarian refugee’s story after the ’56 Revolution

By Anna Rátkai

In October 1956 a group of university students in Budapest decided to hold a demonstration in the heart of the capital condemning the cruel crushing of the Polish revolution by the Soviet regime. However, the word spread quickly all across the city and the protest evolved into something much more significant than a sympathy march. By a quick turn, the demonstration shifted from a focus on the Poles to the economic hardships and tensions that the communist rule afflicted on Hungary.

In a couple days the students’ march transformed into a full-scale uprising against the Soviet regime. As enthusiastic and resilient the protesters were in the first two weeks, it took only twelve days for the Soviet tanks to fill the city. Budapest endured long days of heavy and bloody fighting. The uprising was cruelly repressed, and some participants had no other choice, but to leave their home country – and many would think that this is the end of their story. However, for many, this was just the beginning.

After the uprising, approximately 200,000 Hungarians decided to flee their home country. It is estimated that 20,000 Hungarians choose the United Kingdom as their second home. After the Second World War the demand for coal was rising, and the Western blockade was extremely willing to accept Eastern Europeans running away from their Soviet enemy. According to Campbell, Hungarians were welcomed as heroes in the UK, and people competed to share their homes with them on the nights of Christmas. As Péter Faragó, a Hungarian refugee recalls, not only the locals were incredibly friendly, but the media was enthusiastic and positive about migrants.

Many Hungarians settled in Wales and started to build a new life here, to which the country gave an immense amount of help. This Hidden History is telling the story of Fülöp Tihamér, a 78 years old Hungarian man who settled in Pontypridd, and his friend Ceri Thompson, a native Welsh who grew up next to him.

Hungarian refugees

Hungarian refugees lay a wreath at the War Memorial in Cathays Park, Cardiff in 1958

 

During the Hungarian Revolution Tihamér was only 17 years old, but he was still an active participant in the uprising – he and his brother drove back and forth between Budapest and Vienna to bring back medicine from the well-supplied Austrian hospitals for the injured Hungarians. After the revolution was cruelly repressed by the Soviet government, Tihamér had no other choice but to leave Hungary – and his unpredictable travels led him to Wales. Although at his arrival he was warmly welcomed, getting there wasn’t exactly easy:

Tihamér: ‘They forced us to get off from the trains in Győr, at the border. They knew we wanted to leave the country. Once they even turned the train back, and took us back to Budapest. But then we just took the train again. We didn’t give up. And then they told us ‘You can go wherever, but don’t use the train! Trains are controlled!’ So we had no other choice but to walk. We walked from Győr to Eisenstaedt, that’s how we crossed the border.

Interviewer: ‘You walked with all your luggage?’

Tihamér: ‘Luggage?’ – asked laughing – I had a sandwich with me. That’s all I had when I left the country!’

After arriving to Wales, Tihamér, along with another 96 Hungarians started to work in the mines of Hawthorn and Hirwaun. According to him, it was a great help that the Welsh welcomed the Eastern-European refugees with open arms:

Tihamér: ‘They taught us how to live here, but I don’t mean teaching the language. They taught us where to go to dance, where to find the girls, where to have fun. We were very young after all.’

Tihamér also made long-lasting friendships with the other Hungarians and other Polish people who worked together, as well as with the Welsh. His friend, Ceri Thompson also remembers the Eastern European refugees warmly. When asked, how did Ceri become friends with the Hungarian refugees he simply answered:

Ceri: ‘I was working with them, and to me they were just like anybody else. Just because they don’t speak exactly like you do… It didn’t really matter, I mean, even if someone in the beginning thought something along the lines of ‘Oh, these immigrants are taking our jobs’, that thought didn’t seem to last very long. After a while everyone got along. If you are working alongside someone, you know, you are just bound to become friends.’

When asked whether or not Ceri thinks accepting the refugees benefited his tiny town Churchvillage, he said:

Ceri: ‘There is a world-wide trend of becoming a right-wing supporter. It is the fear of what is foreign or unknown to you. And in a way you can understand why, I mean if someone who was blue walked down the streets, everyone would look at them twice. But in places like Churchvillage we are quite used to different nationalities. And every time I meet people from other countries living in Wales, I feel like it enriches the culture, it does! It’d be bloody boring if everyone were from here!’

Tihamer.jpg

Tihamér and his wife

 

Although the opportunity to work laid down the foundation for a safe life for refugees in Wales, and it also led to the creation of many long-lasting friendships, it was not the only factor that helped the Hungarians in settling. Tihamér, during his interview referred to football as a cornerstone of his integration in his new home country:

Tihamér: ‘Right after I arrived I met the Welsh boys from a local football team. They had shoes my size, so they told me to put them on and show them what I can do. That was it. I was in the team. And when we played, everyone played with everyone. We didn’t care about nationalities. Now that we talk about it, I just remembered that I have gotten a mail like a year ago from one of those guys that I played with in the team. He organized a team catch-up in the sports centre here in Churchvillage. We still keep in touch.’

Interviewer: ‘So as soon as you arrived, you could start working, doing sports, making friends, …

Tihamér: ‘And dance! I also started dancing as soon as I was here. It helped a lot to feel at home. That’s how I got to know my wife! One night me and my friends went on a dancing event and I got to know this Welsh girl and you know… in 4 years’ time we were married.

When asked whether Tihamér thinks he would have travelled back to Hungary if he weren’t taken so good care of he answered:

Tihamér: ‘Well, I can’t be sure of that. But what I know is that only 2 of us went back to Hungary. Only 2 of the 96 Hungarians I arrived with. We were welcomed very warmly, and that helped a lot to settle. Not many people needed to go back.’ – remembers Tihamér smiling.

Wales contributed a great deal to the peaceful settlement of those fleeing Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, and highly benefited from accepting the workforce without which many mines would have had to be shut down. The response to the Hungarian crisis, and the happy memories of a 78 year old man who managed to build a peaceful life around himself with the help of the Welsh locals reminds us all, that a tiny bit of altruism and selflessness might have a life-changing power for the ones in need.

The Centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Britain, Palestine and Israel

By Jane Harries, Cymdeithas y Cymod peace activist, human rights observer and Wales for Peace Learning Coordinator.

Balfour Declaration WCIA Debate Leaflet Oct 2017

The Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff was packed to overflowing on the evening of 18th October 2017, the air thick with expectation. The Cardiff Branch of the United Nations Association (UNA) had brought together two eminent speakers to talk about the historical context and present consequences of the Balfour Declaration – a document whose centenary is marked today, 2nd November.  It was clear we were in for an interesting evening.

So what was the Balfour Declaration, and why should we remember it today?  Does it have any significance for us in Wales?

The Balfour Declaration is in fact in the form of a letter written by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  The key words are as follows:

‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

Balfour_portrait_and_declaration

The first speaker, Avi Shlaim – Jewish historian, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and married to the grand-daughter of Lloyd George – started off the evening with a historical analysis.  He defined the Declaration as a typical colonialist act. The British had no moral or legal right to give a ‘national home’ to Jewish people in Palestine, having consulted neither with the Arab leaders, nor the Jews nor the British population. Nor was Palestine theirs to give.

Behind the scenes there were political motives. David Lloyd George wanted Palestine for the British in order to gain influence over the French and because of access to the Suez Canal.  He also wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire and was willing to engage in double dealing to do so. Overtures were made both to Arab leaders and also to the Zionists, whom Lloyd George regarded as powerful and influential.

Jews had lived scattered across the globe before the First World war but at the end of the 19th century a nationalist Jewish campaign grew up in the form of Zionism, whose aim was to establish a national home for the Jews. Zionism particularly appealed to Lloyd George, steeped as he was in the Biblical passages and hymns of his chapel upbringing. This deep emotional connection may have been one reason why he became influenced by Dr Chaim Weizmann, Zionist Leader in the UK and later first President of Israel. And so Lloyd George’s government bowed to Zionist pressure and issued the Declaration, ignoring other Anglo-Jewish voices at the time, including Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet.

Balfour_Declaration_War_Cabinet_minutes_appendix_17_October_1917

The second part of the Declaration is often forgotten – that is that the civil and religious rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine (over 90% of the population at the time) should be respected.  The British Mandate in Palestine, issued by the League of Nations in 1923, included a responsibility to implement the Balfour Declaration.  The Mandate was, however, essentially pro-Zionist and led inevitably to the series of events we are familiar with today: the Arab revolt of 1936 – 39, the rise of Zionist terrorist activity against the British and Palestinians, British withdrawal from the region, and the foundation of the State of Israel mirrored by the Palestinian Nakba (= catastrophe, mass migration) in 1948.  The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is one of the most entrenched in the world and continues to blight lives today.  This is particularly true for the Palestinians, who have seen their homeland shrink and their human rights whittled away under a now 50-year military occupation.  Even the area which the British government recognises as a future state for the Palestinian people is now occupied by 700,000 Israeli settlers.

The second speaker, Professor Kamel Hawwash of Birmingham University, Palestinian commentator on the Middle East, explained the consequences of Balfour today.  He outlined the effects of the Israeli Occupation for those living on the West Bank, including loss of land, freedom of movement and livelihood, difficult access to education and health care, and subjugation to continuous harassment and violence.  In the Gaza Strip the population essentially lives in an open prison, deprived of many resources we take for granted, including clean water and proper sewage systems.  He then turned his talk to address an unusual question.  The state of Israel is more or less exactly the same size as Wales.  What would be the situation today if the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Wales, not in Palestine?  Using parallel maps, he brought this supposition to life, with swathes of Welsh land having been taken up into the State of Israel and Cardiff a divided city.  This helped us to see the Declaration from a different perspective.

As the evening wore on, there was strong feeling from one young member of the audience that the speakers were one-sided; she pleaded to hear the other side.  A student of Atlantic College, it appeared that she had spent a lot of time listening to the arguments of Palestinian and Israeli students living in her house. So what can we say about the Balfour Declaration that is more balanced and even positive?

The Balfour Declaration was of its time – as Avi Shlaim said essentially a colonialist document – so perhaps it should be judged as such.  It feels obvious from the wording of the document that the author was trying to balance what was felt to be a justified case for the Jewish people to have a homeland with the rights of the indigenous population. The problem is that this double-dealing didn’t work out in practice, with both sides seeing the British as compromising their cause.  And are we really justified in thinking that such a declaration or deal couldn’t be made today – for oil, or influence, or post-Brexit trade deals?

Balfour Palestine Mandate

It is true that Jews have been persecuted over centuries, including in pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a humanitarian global society, we surely would applaud the attempt to offer a safe haven for the persecuted, and the Balfour Declaration can be seen as such. What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that those persecuted may turn persecutors in their turn and deprive the indigenous population of their rights. What would the authors of the Declaration today say to the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 – and some again in 1967 –  many still living in refugee camps across the Middle East?

Balfour - West_Bank_&_Gaza_Map_2007_(Settlements)

Theresa May has talked about her ‘pride’ in the Balfour Declaration and in the creation of the State of Israel, a key ally for Britain in the Middle East.  Whilst rejoicing that persecuted Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found a homeland in Palestine, what do we feel about the plight of the dispossessed? Theresa May’s current government supports a 2-state solution in principle. What does the perpetuation of a military occupation do to the soul and psyche of the Occupier? Surely a conflict that is allowed to go on for so long cannot bring good for either side.

The Balfour Declaration is not a document that people know much about in the UK.  In Palestine it is part of everyone’s awareness – generally recognised as the starting point from which everything began to unravel, leading to a continuous process of dispossession which continues today.  To illustrate this point let me take you back to an August evening in East Jerusalem in 2012. At the time I was serving as a human rights observer on the West Bank and that evening we were called to an incident in Silwan. When we arrived we realised that the cause of the problem was seemingly small: an Israeli settler had parked his car in the middle of the road, preventing people from moving up or down. It was however Ramadan, and just before the breaking of the fast, and tempers get frayed. As we started talking to local residents and the Israeli armed police who had inevitably arrived, the expected question came: “Where are you from?” “Britain”, we said. “Ah, Balfour!” the local resident retorted – and went off into a tirade. The good thing was that once this had blown over he started joking with us, and the tension was released. The settler moved the car, and the incident passed off without any repercussions. This was not a lone incident, however. I have lost count how many times I have had to apologise for Balfour on the West Bank.

Bearing everything in mind how do we, the present generation, view the Balfour Declaration?  On the positive side, we can see it as an attempt to be balanced and to provide safety and security for persecuted Jews. It certainly was instrumental in the events leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  It can also be seen as an essentially political deal – an attempt to favour those who were believed to have influence whilst paying lip-service to the Arab leaders. It is hard to avoid the reality however, that the Declaration set off a string of events in the region which still have repercussions today, resulting in one of the world’s most intransigent conflicts and spelling death, dispossession and poverty for thousands.

Balfour-Israel-Palestine_peace.svg

The Israeli Palestinian Peace Process

Some sources:

The Balfour Declaration – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

The Balfour Declaration – New Statesman, a more critical view: https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/08/arab-palestine-jewish-rights

The Balfour Project  – Lloyd George –  critical view of Lloyd George’s part in the Declaration: http://www.balfourproject.org/lloyd-george/

Avi Schlaim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Shlaim

What is Wales had been offered as a Jewish Homeland – Middle East eye> http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-if-wales-had-been-offered-jews-homeland-palestine-zionist-israel-526573400

Article on Theresa May’s stance – Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/balfour-declaration-israel-palestine-theresa-may-government-centenary-arabs-jewish-settlements-a7607491.html

Chaim Weizmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

Palestine – Israel: Effects of Occupation – an educational pack (from the US): http://www.palestineinformation.org/dig_deep

Jane Harries’ blog from Palestine: https://janeharries.wordpress.com 

A Simple Journey

The final installment of Jane Harries’ blog series concerning her recent visit to  Israel and Palestine. 

Beitar Illit the largest city in Gush Etzion

Beitar Illit: the largest city in Gush Etzion

Friday 14th July.  On the face of it we had a very easy journey to make.  Firstly we would visit R., an Israeli (originally from the US) living in the Gush Etzion settlement and an Alternatives to Violence Project(AVP) facilitator to discuss how she might like to develop AVP workshops in the future.  We would then cross over the Israeli-controlled Route 60 to visit the Palestinian grassroots leader Ali Abu Awad in his compound before returning to Bethlehem.  All these places are within a few kilometres of one another.  The difficulties we had getting from one place to another highlights the complexities of negotiating human encounters in a land characterised by segregation and military occupation.

 

Our journey began when we picked up a taxi from Manger Square in Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories.   When we told our driver that we wanted to go to the Gush Etzion settlement, he was already nervous, and explained to us that he could only take us to the Junction, but wasn’t allowed into the settlement itself.  We explained that we knew this, and that we would be met by a friend from the settlement.  As we set off our driver told us that there had been army incursions into Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem that night, and that a resident had been killed.  This was causing a lot of delays at checkpoints.  Armed with this knowledge, he did what Palestinians are used to doing all the time: he found a way round that avoided the checkpoints.  So much for security, we mused…..

We were dropped off near to the Gush Etzion Junction on Route 60, not far from a settler-only bus stop.  Here there was a group of armed soldiers, who were initially wary of our group: five Westerners – strangers – all with ruck-sacks.  (The Gush Etzion Junction has seen a number of violent incidents over the years, including as recently as November 2015).  We soon got into conversation, however, even if this was at quite a superficial level, and one of them showed interest in what we were doing on the West Bank and Israel, supporting people to deal with conflict better.

We were picked up by R. and taken to her house.  Gush Etzion has an interesting if controversial history.   It is in truth a cluster of settlements comprising at least 70,000 people.  The core of the settlement block is the site of what were four agricultural villages, established between 1940 and 1947 on land purchased in the 1920s and 30s.  These villages were destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and then left outside of Israel at the 1949 Armistice.  After the 1967 Six-day War and the occupation of the West Bank, the villages were rebuilt and reclaimed by Israeli settlers.  The extent of the present settlement, however, far exceeds the original site, taking in swathes of privately-owned Palestinian land.  Israeli settlements on the West Bank are regarded as illegal under International Humanitarian Law (Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and by most of the international community.

I was surprised by how small R’s house is, and found myself wondering how it must feel to live in this gated community, constantly guarded by soldiers and with the knowledge that the legality of one’s existence in this place is disputed by international law.  How could one feel comfortable in one’s skin?  We didn’t go into this, although the elephant in the room remained (for me) during the whole of our conversation.  We sat at the table in their small kitchen drinking coffee whilst preparations were taking place for Shabbat – a lot of chopping and putting things into large cooking pots and the preparation of dough, which R’s small son delighted in and tried to share with us in small balls.  R. shared with us that she had been involved in the organisation Kids4Peace which aims to promote integration and understanding between Palestinian and Israeli children through summer camps, but that she had left because she didn’t feel that the interests and concerns of Israeli Jews and Palestinians were treated equally.  She also expressed interest in developing AVP work in hospitals.

I have no doubt that R. is sincere and really wants to use her knowledge and experience of AVP in some way that will be beneficial to society.  At the same time, this visit raised many dilemmas for me. How can we resolve conflict without looking honestly at its root causes?  R. and her small family – like many others in Gush Etzion I presume – have now put down roots in this place and feel that they belong, but at what cost to others?  If injustice and inequality aren’t addressed, what hope is there for a real and lasting peace?  How can this happen if the two communities never come together, ready to really hear one another’s experiences, deepest feelings and aspirations?  How can it happen without a political solution?  As we re-crossed the busy Route 60 and headed towards Ali Abu Awad’s compound on the other side, all these questions were rankling in my head.

I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Ali isn’t at home.  After a phone call we find that he has gone to a family wedding, so we now face the journey back to Bethlehem in the midday heat. Back out on Route 60 we come across another settler bus stop on the other side of the road.  We know there is no point waiting there to get back to Bethlehem – so close and yet on the other side of the political divide.  A soldier approaches us and asks where we want to get to.  We explain that we want to return to our hotel in Bethlehem.  ‘I wouldn’t go there’, he says ironically, his gun poised ready for potential use: ‘it’s not safe’.  I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

We trudge on a little up the slope and start hitch-hiking, looking out for the cars with green Palestinian number plates.  We have only been there a short time when a rather rickety car pulls up.  When we explain where we want to go, we are immediately invited in.  We pile in and – squashed up together – feel relieved to be in a welcoming space.  During the journey the driver tells us of some of his experiences – familiar stories of hardship and injustice.  He drops us not just anywhere, but right on Manger Square, yards from our hotel.  True, it may not be safe on the West Bank: one might just suffer from too much generosity.

Jane’s own blog can be accessed here.

The News that Everyone Ignores

In the penultimate installment of her series, Jane Harries offers first hand account to counter the media’s association of East Jerusalem with violent mass movement.   

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City

Tensions around the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem had already reached a critical point whilst we were in the area.  On 14th July two Israeli police officers were killed at the holy site by three Israeli Arab gunmen, who later died in a shootout.  But it was the reaction of the Israeli authorities to this event which really sparked off mass protests, in particular the installation of metal detectors around the entrance to the site.  Palestinian worshippers refused to go through the detectors, and instead chose to pray en masse in the streets around the compound.

Although this was reported on the news here in the UK, there was little if no attempt to explain the significance of these events or the sensibilities surrounding them.  In fact the snippets of news I heard on my return were astounding in their shallowness and by the fact that they were misleading – be this unwitting or otherwise.  There was talk about ‘violent protests by Palestinians’ and ‘security’.  UK citizens, well acquainted with the language and dialogue used around terrorist attacks, could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Palestinians are largely violent, whilst the Israelis have legitimate security concerns.  Whilst not wishing to deny either that individual acts of violence happen on both sides and need to be condemned or that there are some security concerns in the area, I would like to offer a more in-depth analysis, backed up by reports of what really happened.

The old city of Jerusalem is of importance to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam because of the religious sites which stand within its walls, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque.   The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount on which the Al-Aqsa mosque stands is particularly sensitive: tradition has it that it is from this place that Mohammed ascended into heaven.  At the same time Jews believe that this is the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The site is also sacred for Jews as this is the presumed location of both the first and the second Temples, the Western Wall being all that remains of the latter.  Some Jews believe that more remains of the two Temples are to be found under the Dome of the Rock and archaeological excavations are ongoing, provoking fears among Muslims that the very foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque could be threatened.  This site is therefore in a way a microcosm of the larger Israeli- Palestinian conflict, in that it is in essence about ownership and the importance of the same piece of land to different religions and populations.  Sensitivities around the Temple Mount also need to be understood as part of the wider political context.  East Jerusalem, previously under the jurisdiction of Jordan, was occupied by Israel in 1967.  Palestinians regard it as occupied territory (as do the UN) and the potential capital of a future Palestinian state, whereas for Zionists Jerusalem is the potential capital of a future Jewish-only state.

In practical terms an uneasy status quo is held in place between the Israeli authorities, who control security around the site and the Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Waqf who control what happens at the site itself.  (In Islamic law, a person may decide to donate a property and its revenues to the public for charitable or religious purposes. This property then becomes a waqf, or holding, in perpetuity). In a region where religion is of the utmost importance and where rival claims to land are so bound up with identity, it is of vital importance that the delicate balance between the Israeli authorities and the Waqf remains undisturbed.  Evidence of what can ensue if this happens can be seen from recent history: the Second Intifada was sparked off by a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

The main element that the media missed, however, was the overwhelming non-violent nature of the mass protests in East Jerusalem.  Despite calls from the Palestinian leadership for a ‘day of rage’ worshippers gathered each day for mass prayers at the security cordons around the Old City, and maintained calm and dignity.  There was very little violence.  Another element that was barely commented on was the fact that Palestinian Christians joined in the mass protests, showing solidarity across religious divides.  This is a reality that belies a narrative that would have us believe that the conflict in the region is in essence a religious one, between Jews and Muslims.  Although religion plays an important role in the region, the crux of the conflict is in fact about the dominance of one society over another, about sovereignty, identity and human rights.

East Jerusalem has once again fallen out of the world news, and no doubt an uneasy status quo has been re-established since the removal of the metal detectors leading to the al-Aqsa mosque.  However, the central imbalance and injustice between Palestinian and Israeli society remains, meaning that peace is at best precarious.

Worshippers gathered at the Lions Gate, at the entrance to the Old City- overseen by security forces.

The devout gather at the Lions Gate- whilst overseen by security forces.

Working towards Non-Violence

In the fourth blog in the series, Jane Harries provides a detailed account of the workshops delivered with the Alternative to Violence Project in the West Bank and Israel. 

Apart from attending the ‘Healing Hate’ conference in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the main aim of our visit this time was to deliver Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with organisations in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.  Despite our best efforts – working through churches and NGOs – this time we failed to gain permission from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza, although we were delighted to hear that our partners there will continue to run workshops on their own, using facilitators we trained last year.  They are also in the process of setting up their own NGO – i.e. AVP Palestine.  All the same we were deeply saddened not to be able to see and support them again – particularly as we accessed reports during our visit about the crisis in Gaza, with the two million citizens living there having electricity cut to as little as two hours per day in the intense heat.

And so we had to develop a Plan B.  For me, this meant being involved in running workshops for groups on the West Bank, based in Wtr, a centre for Culture and Media in the Bethlehem area.  We firstly ran a ‘Training for Facilitators’ workshop with a group who had received the basic and advanced workshops last year.  Secondly, we ran a six day course for another group, taking in basic, advanced and training for all facilitator levels.  This was inevitably the group I got to know best, and the impressions and stories below come from the time I spent with them.  We also hoped to run a taster workshop with students in Ramallah, but this sadly didn’t come to fruition.  At the end of our stay the two Joes moved to Tel Aviv and ran a workshop with professionals there working with an anti-bullying programme in Israeli schools.

IMG_1565

What is AVP?

AVP workshops take participants through a whole group process. Starting with exercises that break the ice and encourage participants to build a positive community, the workshops enable those attending to gain communication and cooperation skills, to reflect on how they react to conflict and violence in their lives and to practice attitudes, skills and behaviours which are more likely to lead to non-violent outcomes.  The course is experiential and interactive and facilitators learn from participants as well as vice-versa.  At the second level, participants identify themes or issues they are struggling with, and these are gone into at a deeper level.  The final stage is for participants to be trained as facilitators, to gain insight into facilitation processes and to practice running exercises.  By the end of the third level, participants are ready to start practising as apprentice facilitators themselves – and so the AVP community grows and adapts to more local circumstances.

Why AVP?

At the beginning of AVP workshops, facilitators conduct a ‘Gathering’ which entails going around the circle and asking each participant to share a thought or experience whilst the others listen.  This has the effect of ‘gathering’ the group and helping them to work as a community.  At the beginning of the workshop we asked participants what they hoped to get from it.  We knew that the group had to some extent been selected by Ali Abu Awad (see the second blog in this series) as prospective community leaders.  The gathering, however, helped them to be more specific. Omar who is a teacher and who runs summer camps for children talked about how, in his experience, teachers can be involved in passing violence on to their charges: he wanted to help young people react differently and to be a role-model for non-violence.  Alla’ was also involved with 15 – 25 year olds and wanted to use the training in his work.  Maisa wanted to use techniques with her students at the university where she teaches English.  Others wanted to use and spread the skills they gained in their families, villages and communities.

AVP in a conflict situation

AVP is in no way a political programme.  It aims to support people, wherever they are, to deal with conflict in their lives in more positive ways.  There is no denying, however, that working with groups from a society under Occupation has an added significance and poignancy.  Testimonies of participants from workshops in Hebron show how skills learnt during AVP workshops have helped them to be more resilient and creative when faced with harassment by IDF soldiers at checkpoints.  AVP can also help to alleviate ‘horizontal violence’ – violence in the home and in the wider community which partly comes from the fact that this is a society under enormous stress.

Despite everything the reality of the Occupation inevitably seeps in and colours the nature of the workshop.  Firstly our very presence as US and UK citizens working alongside Palestinians, supporting them and showing empathy is enormously significant as evidence of international solidarity.  In ‘normal’ circumstances facilitators would aim to enforce an understanding about timings and punctuality.  This proves to be impossible.  Every day the workshop starts late – by sometimes as much as an hour.  This is potentially grating – until we hear why this is the case.  The three ladies from the Hebron area in particular face long delays at checkpoints and harassment on their way to the centre in Bethlehem.  Others arrive upset or shaken by events during the night: a military incursion into their home, the arrest or death of someone close to them.  Every day during the workshop we hear of an arrest or killing somewhere – the ones that never reach the international news.  I have never seen so many funeral processions in Bethlehem.

Early on in an AVP workshop we usually address participants’ perceptions of what violence means to them and where they think it comes from.  This is then followed by a similar exercise looking at what non-violence would look like and what behaviours and circumstances can create a circle of non-violence.  The first part of this exercise went as expected.  When we got to the second part, however, participants were keen to address practically how they could move from violence to nonviolence – reflecting that this is a burning issue in their everyday lives.  The resulting brainstorm brought out several things that participants already do – including creative writing and music.  During an exercise which helps participants to make quick decisions as a group in potentially violent situations, the question came up of what they would do if they noticed a young boy about to throw a stone at the military.  This raised the whole dilemma of the responsibility to protect their community – and therefore stop the stone-throwing – balanced against the question of legitimate self-defence.  The consensus of the group was that they would aim to talk to children and advise them not to throw stones, and that they would also call for outside help.  They are also aware, however, that the Occupation itself is unjust and illegal.

The topics chosen by the group for the Advanced / Level 2 workshop were also significant and reflected their everyday experience.  They asked to address the following:

  • How to avoid violence
  • How to react when in violence
  • How to come back from violence; and
  • How to help someone in trauma.

 

Although the Occupation was, in a way, the elephant in the room this is not to say that there are not issues in Palestinian society itself which cause conflict.  Omar talked about the tendency, when there is a conflict, for people from both ‘sides’ to get involved, so that the conflict gets bigger and more involved.  During a Fishbowl exercise, where 3 participants start discussing a topic, and can then be joined by others from the larger group, the topic of sexism in Palestinian society was chosen.  Younger women in the group in particular bemoaned the fact that it is not acceptable for a man and a woman who are not related to be seen together, also that it is commonplace – and to a certain extent acceptable – for a husband to hit his wife.  The case of a young girl in Gaza who had obtained top marks in her Tawjihi (school leaving certificate) but who had been openly criticised for not covering her hair was raised as further evidence of an attitude towards women which is shaped by culture, custom and sexism.  I wondered to what extent a younger generation who are well-informed by their mobile phones, well-educated and in touch with the external world might be slowly changing more traditional attitudes.

By the end of this workshop what had we achieved?  We had trained a group of potential community leaders who now have the skills to facilitate others and pass skills on to them.  Strong, resilient and creative they certainly are, despite all that life throws at them.  “Life is full of stones,” said Omar at one point, “and we need to be very creative with the stones.”  And then there was Maisa, who by the end of the Training for Facilitators’ workshop had already perfectly understood the difference between teaching and facilitating and was leading her group from behind, putting across a brilliant set of exercises.  In a follow-up meeting with Ali we planned how he would first of all get the group back together to give them some further training in being non-violent leaders; and that they would then run 3 pilot workshops with a women’s organisation, a youth group and in At-tawani, a village in the South Hebron hills which has been the target of continual settler attacks.  The final shorter-term aim is to run AVP workshops with 10 partner organisations.  And so the ripples continue spreading outwards, and we go forward in faith, trusting to our processes.

This all sounds good but in a sense does not express the essence of our experience here.  How to convey the warmth, generosity, creativity and humour we shared during these days together – conveyed in smiles, embraces and small acts of generosity?  It is a connection that burrows deep into the soul and means that each time we leave here some of ourselves.  A consolation is that the connection is not broken, but that precious memories and experiences live on until we return – inshalla’!

IMG_1559