I remember one particular night in about 1990 on the US/Mexico border almost like it happened just last month. The wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were almost over, though the death squads and paramilitary forces were still as brutal as ever in their repression. The flow of refugees escaping for their lives had slowed considerably, as the first wave of those targeted had mostly been killed or had already fled, and the Tucson refugee support group was smuggling a few of the remaining, high risk folks or their family members across the border each month, as opposed to the high numbers each week we had seen at the height of the US-backed wars earlier in the decade.
One night at about two a.m. we received a phone call at the house for young adult volunteers who worked in the church-based Sanctuary movement. One of the young women in our group was in northern Mexico, trying to bring a Salvadoran who had received a death threat and his wife and child north by bus through the US-funded checkpoints of northern Mexico that were trying to intercept Central American refugees before they could enter the United States to seek asylum.
All she had time to say from her pay phone in that tersely-worded phone call was “they checked the bus – we had to run – I’ll call you when I can.” We spent a sleepless night awaiting the next call, strategizing our next moves with too little information, second guessing the decisions we had made earlier, and sharing off-color humor in an unconscious attempt to blow off steam as we waited anxiously for news.
I thought about that night as we met earlier this week with a group of young, Jewish-Israeli activists who came to meet us in our hotel in East Jerusalem. They had an easy way with one another, with self-deprecating humor and thoughtful, honest analysis about their shortcomings. They were savvy and creative as they wondered what to do next to resist the violence of the Israeli Government in its unlimited construction of new Jewish Settlements and continued confiscation and/or destruction of Palestinian homes. It reminded me of our close friendships and camaraderie back in the dark days of our government’s complicity in the Central American Wars.
Like the Palestinians of Bil’in whom I met this week, these young Israelis know the personal costs of resisting the repression of the Israeli military occupation. One young woman served a prison sentence for refusing to serve in the military in the Occupation of the West Bank. Another, a musician, had his hand intentionally broken by Israeli police to keep him from drumming during a large demonstration of Jewish and Arab Israelis that took place to keep the Israeli Government from confiscating the homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and giving them to Jewish Settlers. All four have been arrested repeatedly, and each has dedicated his or her life to holding their government accountable for its illegal actions.
Those of us in the nonviolent, faith-based movement for justice in the US would do well to remember these acts of courage as we struggle with our own next steps. Too often we have found ourselves negotiating with the Capitol or Park police in Washington for an acceptable arrest. “You stand here,” we are told, “And we will arrest you when you cross this line.” In one demonstration I helped to plan against the war in Iraq, one of the officers helpfully brought signs across the street in front of the White House to hand to activists who wanted to be arrested but who weren’t carrying signs that made them arrestable. Plastic cuffs, a ride in the back of a paddy wagon to the police station, a few hours of inconvenience, a modest fine or a summons to court, and we’re back on the street and headed home.
Of course, not all the arrests have followed this pattern. Plenty of activists in the Occupy Movement pressed against real boundaries, and prisoners of conscience have served serious time in jail for demonstrating to close the school of the Americas. Code Pink has been leading our movement with great creativity for about a decade, and they have often taken serious risks. Environmentalists, often led by Native Americans, have walked and paddled thousands of miles to bring attention to environmental degradation that threatens us all. Still, it feels to me as if our movement in the US has been largely domesticated.
Jim Corbett, a mentor to many of us in the Sanctuary movement for Central American refugees, coined the term “Civil Initiative” to describe what happens when citizens take responsibility together to uphold human rights and international standards of law when their own government is breaking those standards. He believed that nonviolent direct action, grounded in communities that are open and transparent about their actions and deeply honest in holding one another accountable, is the best way to change entrenched, institutionalized, and government-sanctioned violence. “Be the Church,” Jim might say, “Don’t count on your governmental leaders to make choices that will honor your values for you.”
We in the United States are complicit in this Occupation. Our tax dollars support the Israeli government to the tune of four billion dollars a year, most of it paid for by contracts that come right back to defense companies and other corporations in our own country that profit from the Occupation. My pension is invested in companies like Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar which offer machinery and technology that has been evident as I have traveled throughout the West Bank.
We would do well to remember the price that those young Israeli activists have been willing to pay to hold their government accountable for the actions it is taking that violate basic human rights. We should ask ourselves what options Palestinians will have left without genuine solidarity in the international community from people like us if we choose not to take similar risks for a nonviolent resolution to this conflict.
Rifat Kassis, a personal friend and the coordinator of Kairos Palestine (a Christian Palestinian plea for action) told our group last night that he believes we are called to do this work not for him or for his people, but for our own souls as we seek to be faithful to the Gospel. Those moments of genuine risk twenty-five years ago remain the deepest moments of community, and of living my faith, that I have ever had. Hmm, perhaps a lesson for a church in decline?
Yalla! Adelante! Loosely translated – “Let’s move!”