Saturday, April 07, 2007
This is the second of three installments of a talk given to the Pointes for Peace group in Detroit on Tuesday, April 3.
The area in front of the White House is a global street corner. Every day, dozens of tour buses bring visitors from around the world to see where the President of the United States lives and works. American tourists also bring their children to see this icon of America. And there’s always a parade of what I came to call "suits" going in and out of those well-guarded gates of power. Not to mention the local, national and international media who swarm around the place like worker bees around a hive.
During my 18-day vigil--what I came to call my "Lebanon Peace Initiative"--tens of thousands of persons from this country and around the world read my signs. Countless numbers made comments in passing, and at least 100 stopped to talk to me, many at great length. These encounters moved along a continuum from peace-filled exchanges of opinions to heated rants where my only words were, "I'm so sorry you are suffering." My encounters with people from Israel were the most difficult and, at the same time, the most rewarding.
I soon discovered that, without knowing it, I had signed up for an 18-day immersion course in "nonviolent dialogue." And I was the only student in the class. For it quickly became apparent that most of the other activists--and there are ALWAYS people holding up signs in front of the White House--engaged in debate not dialogue when confronted with negative responses to their signs. Debates that often degenerated into arguments.
I refused to go there. If someone took issue with the message on my sign--which many did--I would silently listen to their complaints. Often they would accuse me of not knowing what I was talking about, of meddling in something that was none of my business since I was obviously not Lebanese, and of only taking one side by not showing the suffering of the Israeli people too.
When confronted in this way, I would smile and turn my sign to the side with the photograph and say, "I'm here for them, my family in Lebanon." Sometimes people would accept this explanation; other times they challenged my calling these obviously Arab Muslim people, my family. I wouldn’t argue the point, but would simply say that I love them deeply, and to me, they are family.
Another comment I often heard--primarily from Americans and Israelis--was that I should have a sign that said, "Hezbollah out of Israel." As time went on I learned to respond by inviting them to make just such a sign and join me out there the next day. I'd be honored to have them stand beside me. And I meant it.
But I also knew and clearly expressed the fact that it was the Lebanese people I was representing, a people I loved and whose voices I felt needed to be heard. Especially now. For it soon became apparent that, except for a few organized protest rallies, I was the only person standing vigil in front of the halls of power whose sign even had the word "Lebanon" on it.
The day I'd arrived in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a resolution 410-8 supporting Israel in its attacks on and invasion of Lebanon. And I'm proud to say that my Congresswoman, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, was one of the eight. The following day, the Senate passed a similar resolution 100-0. The morning of my third day in DC, I awoke to the news that the President had just approved sending an emergency shipment of bunker buster bombs to Israel, bombs they would be using in attacks on Lebanon.
More than ever I felt my presence was needed in Washington, if just to give some balance to what seemed to me was a one-sided view of this war.
So day after day I took my sign and scooted from my hotel over to the White House, or to the Senate and House Office Buildings. I'd park wherever I felt there would be the most foot traffic, lift up my sign, and sit there in the blinding heat. For, as Fate would have it, Washington, DC was in the midst of a heat wave with temperatures in the 90s and occasionally topping 100. I generally stayed at my post 4-6 hours a day.
There came to be a rhythm to my work. I would remain silent unless someone stopped and wanted to talk. Whenever someone made negative comments in passing--which happened frequently--I would simply smile and let them go on. Occasionally I'd ask if they wanted to stop and talk. They never did.
A couple of times, activists who had come over to talk with me, responded badly to negative comments that were made. These confrontations quickly turned into arguments. After unsuccessfully trying to stop, I would scoot away and find another place to park. Minutes later, they would come up shamefaced and apologetic. I would accept their apology, but make it clear that they would not be welcome to stand with me unless they could respect how I did things. And then I would tell them how I would have handled that encounter, had I been allowed to do so.
Through my smiles and body language, I did my best to encourage people to stop and talk. I found that Americans were more comfortable with what I came to call "drive-by sniping" than stopping to engage in dialogue, while Europeans were eager to talk.
And I was interested to see that 100% of the Europeans I met, agreed with my sign. The Washington Bureau Chief for the London Daily Telegraph stopped by one day to interview me, and expressed surprise that I was the only one out there for Lebanon. He said the people in the UK were very upset about this war.
But, out on the streets, I heard all points of view.
The dozens of Israelis I met--even though they had strong reactions to my message--always stopped to tell me how they felt. I'd listen without interrupting and try to find someplace where we could meet, a place of common concern. In practically every case, that concern was that we wanted those we loved to be safe.
When the speaker had said what they needed to say, I would thank them for sharing their concerns with me. If they hadn't already mentioned it, I would ask if they had loved ones who were in harm's way at home. I would then show them the photograph of my family and express our commonality, the place where we could meet--that we all wanted our loved ones to be safe.
Now where we usually differed was how we felt that "safety" could be achieved. Every one of the Israelis I met--with the exception of one young man who identified himself as a Buddhist--believed that war was the only answer; that Hezbollah had to be destroyed even if it meant the country of Lebanon would be destroyed with them. They showed little concern for the hundreds of innocent civilians being killed in Lebanon, but were totally absorbed with the danger of Hezbollah rockets hitting innocent victims in Israel.
This was striking since the total number of Israeli civilians killed during this 34-day war was 44, while the number of Lebanese civilians killed reached 1,187 according to the most conservative estimates. But numbers didn’t matter; what terrified the Israeli people was the sense of being under threat within their own borders.
For I discovered a deep-seated fear among the people who live in Israel, a fear that the Arabs who surround their country want nothing more than to kill them and take over their land. For this reason, self-defense is at the top of their national priorities. And the only means of self-defense they believe will keep them safe is military.
During my 18 days, there were three instances where my attempts to enter into nonviolent dialogue failed. In each of these cases, the rage was too far out of control for dialogue to be possible.
In what I came to call my Final Exam, on the last hour of my last day, I was surrounded by eight Israeli men and boys, one of whom was a Jewish settler who had had to be physically pulled by Israeli soldiers from his home when the West Bank was cleared of settlements. This man was literally crazy with hatred. Hatred unlike any I have ever seen before...and he was right in my face.
But I didn’t allow myself to be intimidated. I continued to hold up my sign and did my best to respond to his rage in a way that would open the door to dialogue.
And for a few seconds, I would succeed...only to see him fly off into another cycle of hate. To be honest, this was the only time I felt at risk of physical harm.
When I requested he give me a few minutes to speak, I told him I loved him even though he was expressing a great deal of hatred towards me. I brought up Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, and encouraged him to consider the use of nonviolent resistance instead of war and killing to change things. But he couldn’t hear me, his mind and heart were closed. Hatred was all he knew, at least on that day.
Finally I could tell his rage was escalating the longer he was allowed to express it, so I called a halt to our encounter with the words,
"I think we’ve gone as far as we can go today. It's now time for us to stop talking. I hope that you and your loved ones will be safe."
After a few more nasty remarks, he and his friends left.
Two Palestinian-American young men came right up to me afterwards and said they had been watching how I'd handled that encounter. They wanted me to know I was not alone, and that they appreciated all I was doing for them and their people.
As I say, that was my final exam. And I'm relieved to say I passed. But the cost was high. It took me weeks to recover from having been in such a toxic environment. Hatred is like that. But it is no match for love. That much I know.
to be continued...