Member Testimonies

Reflection

I am usually pretty comfortable speaking publicly, but I won’t lie… I’m feeling pretty nervous about doing this… addressing what is quite possibly the MOST polarizing, MOST incendiary topic of them all; the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Please be gracious with me.

Why me? — I married an Israeli.

2002… exactly one year after 9-11. The events of 9-11 and the war on terror that followed brought me passionately into the world of geopolitics and social justice. I became increasingly interested in the Middle East and in Israel-Palestine. My daily reading routine was commondreams.org, The Guardian; Democracy Now....

I went to Thailand. I had formed my world view, but I was going out into the world to learn more; see more; be more. I was looking for love — for someone different; someone who would shake me up; teach me things; challenge me.

My third day in Thailand, I met Rinat, the petite Israeli beauty; who at 18 became a Gulf War veteran during her compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force.

The first day took the normal path of courtship; a song, a dance, a drink, a walk on the beach, a massage… that was about it. After less than 24 hours we parted for different Thai islands, exchanged emails, and kissed each other goodbye… Soon after our encounter, she returned to her life in Israel and I started my new life in Thailand. We chatted via MSN and emailed daily.

Here’s me… progressive, left leaning, west-coast-hippie-pacifist. I wrote to her:

“First, let’s both agree that we may not see issues the same way… and let’s agree that we have two completely different perspectives on the situation; me, being an outsider with no experience, only knowledge I gather through — and you, having grown up with the conflict and having lived in terror (I almost hate using that word because of its over-use in the past year). Now let me also say that I LOVE talking about these things with you because you teach me so much — and it lets me know you better as you speak of your personal experience. If I say anything that drives you to anger… well, I hope that doesn’t happen…”

Well, it happened… quite a few times… enough to build a formidably strong foundation for our relationship; not based on common beliefs, but based on mutual respect for our differences and the effort and interest we showed in seeking to understand those differences:

So, Rinat… the IDF levelled an apartment in Nablus, home to 10 families and 150 people in it yesterday… tell me about that?
What about the massacre at Sabra & Shatilla?
Apartheid wall. Security fence. Apartheid wall. Security fence. It should be built on the Green Line! It’s land grab!
Did you hear about Rachel Corrie??

and so it went on...

And in response I received replies, often thousands of words long, explaining her view of the conflict, her interpretation of history, her personal story — and with every email, we fell more deeply in love. I listened, and learned what it was like to live in fear during the height of the Second Intifada: To always be avoiding large crowds; deciding which bus, cafe or square might be a less-likely target of a suicide bomber; the horrible anxiety of waiting in line; the trauma caused by the setting-off of benign fireworks… and what it is like to fear for the very survival and existence of your country, and your people.

… and before we were even married, I got a taste of these things first-hand; in 2005, the night of Rinat’s stagette there was a bombing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv just a few blocks of where we were partying. Years later in November 2012 I went to my in-law’s wedding in Ashdod with tensions extremely high as the numbers of rockets fired from Gaza reached unprecedented numbers. The next day Israel commenced their relentless bombardment of Gaza and the assassination of Ahmed Jabari. Our next two weeks were spent taking cover; in the apartment stairwell; during a patio brunch in Shenkin; on the highway as every car frantically pulls over and passengers run to and fro to find shelter. We witnessed rockets being intercepted overhead, and felt the frenzy of cell phones ringing as loved ones checked in on each other.

During the most recent conflict, things became pretty tense in our house. Reading the posts on Facebook can stir the strongest human emotions. I know this was particularly difficult for Rinat, as she viewed the very worst of anti-Israel rhetoric from people she has considered to be “friends”. And she suffered the numbing virtual silence and rejection of Facebook, procuring just a handful of likes — almost always by Israelis — on her posts in support of Israel. And what of me? Considering the safety of my family in Israel and my upset with Israel’s heavy-handed use of violence is hard enough… adding having to determine whether to ‘like’ my wife’s posts on the situation was almost too much. I couldn’t do it — even when much of me agreed with some of her posts. I couldn’t align myself so strongly. I won’t take sides as long as both perpetuate violence. // Rinat decided that she would attend one of the pro-Israel rallies. This seemed out of character — she had never had this desire during the previous Gaza conflict or the war in south Lebanon — but for whatever reason, perhaps partly due to her alienation on Facebook (and at home), and what she perceived to be a pro-Palestinian bias around her, she decided to attend the rally. When she told me, we made eye contact and in a split second, had a silent conversation… my look said, “you know I can’t go with you” and she replied “I know, but I hope you’ll respect me and my decision to go”... and then we continued aloud with her saying, “so, you’ll stay with Noa?” — very challenging indeed. I told her that she should expect to hear terrible things from both camps and urged her not to get sucked into the vortex of anger. I encouraged her to be an instrument of peace. She nodded knowingly.

I have not given up on my pacifist principles nor my commitment to aiding the oppressed. I have plenty of condemnation for the actions and policies of the state of Israel... but what I once thought was a cut-and-dried matter, will now only illicit the simple response of “it’s complicated”... and if anyone really wants to take the next step in the conversation, I will quickly take a centrist (or Devil’s Advocate) position and debate all comers; in my online community of football fans, many with conservative leanings, I more often speak up for the Palestinian cause. In my liberal progressive communities, I’m more often trying to invite staunch opponents of Israel to resist dehumanizing Israelis by diminishing their well-founded fears and security concerns as being an evil desire to oppress and control. Certainly their actions are not justified; but they are explainable. Without understanding, there can be no peace.

What we need is compassion. Compassion for the inherent worth and dignity of every victim of terror, every sufferer of oppression, and even every aggressor, every martyr, every zealot, every bullheaded politician, every terrorist (state sanctioned or rogue).

People directly affected by the conflict will no doubt align themselves with one camp; this is understandable and tolerable. But as outsiders, viewing the situation with our ideals and principles, opining from afar, never having donned a gas mask, seen a rocket intercepted overhead, done military service at a check-point, lost a loved one… we’d be best to do more seeking of perspective, and directing our efforts to being the bridge for peace to occur. Neither side needs any more combatants… once anger fuels our activism we are only throwing that fuel on the fire. Once we so firmly align ourselves with a side, the dehumanization begins. Counting women, children, civilians, soldiers, combatants… all of the data carefully manipulated to show ‘the truth’ — from one side.

When someone says “1000 rockets have been launched at Sderot,” the response lacking compassion jumps to comparing atrocities; to counting dead; it plays the best rebuttal in defense, saying, “those rockets have never even killed anyone!” The compassionate response reflects on what it must be like to be a family in Sderot; a parent at work, with a child in school, as the sirens go off, day after day.

To be a true peacemaker, we must force ourselves to see all sides; to empathize, to sympathize; to understand; and to be able to articulate the positions of both sides to both sides, without inciting anger, suspicion, mistrust or hatred. Aligning oneself in the center does not mean being apathetic or cowardly. It can be strongly activist and truly committed to peace — having the courage to speak up for either side, giving reasoned, well-articulated responses to those at the extremes. Where was this group during the rallies? Who was standing in the centre of the road, inviting people from either camp to join them in dialogue, peacemaking and understanding. This is where ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’, and ‘the interconnected web’ meet. The bridge to peace starts in the space-between, and it is where the building must begin.

A couple days after the Israel rally we were at Nathan Phillips Square, enjoying a free concert… Noa befriended a boy with her dancing (just like her parents!), and Rinat and the mom ended up in deep conversation. She was a Palestinian. They shared their common dreams for their children, and their disdain for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. They hugged each other warmly, teared up a little, and wished each other peace and safety for their families. In that moment, their connection did a little to increase the sum total of love and justice in the world...

— and so may we all.

Aboriginal Awareness Group and the Pow Wow on June 21

When I became an advocate for Aboriginal issues, few people around me knew anything about these issues. I’m not an Aboriginal person, and I do not claim to know a lot or even anything... but I have had the privilege to learn from and work with many Aboriginal peoples during my journey discovering myself as an ally. Part of this journey has included becoming a member, and now the chair, of First’s Aboriginal Awareness Group. The goals of this group are to raise awareness and provide education of the current circumstances of First Nations peoples to members of First. Another goal is to learn more about Aboriginal cultures and spirituality through inviting Aboriginal speakers and attending Aboriginal events in the community.

One of the community events we promoted last year was the annual Pow Wow held by the Native Men’s Residence. My family and I decided to attend. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I arrived I immediately felt welcomed. The park at St. Clair and Bathurst had been transformed into a fair ground– there was a huge area for performances and tents everywhere- for food and goods, for drummers and a beautiful tee pee. There was even an MC who walked us first timers through everything: there are some activities that anyone can participate in, there would be a series of songs and dances, and photographs were permitted at all times, except during certain ceremonies, and he would let us know when these occurred.

One of the advisors of the Aboriginal Awareness Group (AAG), said to our group, that although we are raising awareness about Aboriginal issues, many of which are very serious, it is important not to forget about the beautiful parts of Aboriginal cultures. This pow wow was a chance to witness this beauty. Despite ongoing oppression faced by Aboriginal peoples, ANYONE is welcome to come and enjoy this display of spirituality and culture. It was beautiful.... the costumes, the dancing, the drumming, the singing, the art and jewellery displayed... the energy exhumed to produce the whole event. I was so happy to be a part of it.

There’s a large emphasis on building relationships in Aboriginal cultures; that’s why I find it so interesting that my own relationships felt nurtured while attending this event. One of the reasons I enjoyed the pow wow so much, was because I felt like it offered me a chance to spend time with my family, and grow closer with them. Since then I have also come to realize that my own interest in Aboriginal issues, has inspired my family to take an interest in these issues.

I now consider the pow wow a family event. Please join my family and I, and the AAG in attending this year’s pow wow on Saturday, June 21st! Bring your family and come see what it’s all about.

While Estelle and I were at the library last week, she scurried out of the children’s section and started pulling the grown-up books off the shelves; an impulse beyond her control. Estelle got into the self-help aisle and pulled out Self-help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to Snake Oil Peddlers Who are Sapping our Nation’s Soul. “Heavy reading for a toddler!” an elderly man said, passing us in the aisle. Then, an Anne Lindbergh’s book fell open in my hands, and her writing reminded me of this place, surrounded by all of you:

How wonderful islands are! Islands in space, like this one I have come to, ringed about by miles of water…The past and the future are cut off; only the present remains. Existence in the present gives island living an extreme vividness and purity. One lives like a child in the immediacy of here and now. People too become like islands in such an atmosphere: self-contained, respecting other people’s solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of another individual.

A couple of weeks ago there was the 10K run along Yonge Street. I didn’t know about the run and I got caught up in a mess of traffic downtown that I finally had to turn around and not arrive at First, for the service. In the car, Chloe, my daughter who is seven, had tears streaming down her cheeks; she was angry. “Who made the decision to let these people exercise in the street?” she asked. “Was it the mayor? The mayor who was caught cigaretting, eating drugs and drinking beer?!”

I tried to pull out a silver-lining to turn the morning around. I realized the anxiety and disappointment Chloe was feeling matched my own. The hour of solitude I enjoy here has become something I rely on. This is especially true, on a day we are celebrating this one and only place of ours: The Earth. The changes that will be required of us, to continue to enjoy the varied experiences of nature, species and forest, that we may hope to pass on to other generations, means changes in the way we have traditionally thought about consumption and energy. It is hard to calm that pull within me that wonders to what length we have a responsibility toward nurturing the scars of the Earth. Writer Paul Taylor asks whether environmental ethics could ever override the fulfilment of human ends, as we drive many forms of life to extinction.

Standing up here is something many people take turns doing. Public speaking has been described by Mari Ruti as a moment where our Singularity of Being can be expressed; where our body may derails us; we may start blushing, stammering and losing our thread of thought. Public speaking can become a moment when our otherwise well-controlled, organized self, intrudes on an inner-self that has bottled up feelings ready to burst through. So, although my arms are not flailing about, my singularity of being is impatient to make itself known up here. There are so many life-enriching reasons to jump head first into supporting any Earth day movement that interests you. Communities will dissolve the distance of their closeness by working together on projects that are healing, not stripping the Earth. I hope to work with many of you, towards that goal.

 

The Lives of Girls and Women

Good morning. My name is Janice Tait. I am 84 years old so I’ve seen a lot of changes in my life around the status of girls and women. Today as part of International Women’s Day, I reflect again, as I do every year on where we’re at.

With the theme of knowing for this month, I’ve been thinking of what we know and don’t know about the lives of girls and women in Toronto today. We know that women are not represented proportionally to our numbers in the halls of government, corporations, the media or academe. What we don’t know is how to change this within the next 200 years.

We know that almost half of the girls in Toronto high schools are sexually harassed (CAMH, 2008) in one form or another. What we don’t know is what this does to their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Nor have we been able to stop it so far.

We know that the police report that their studies show that only 6% of girls and women report being raped. (Police Services.com) What we don’t know is how safety and caring for women and girls who have experienced rape can be brought about. University of Ottawa is a recent example!

We know that York University has difficulty recognizing the principle of inequality when it rears its head. Witness the decision to cater to a student who didn’t wish to work with women. What we don’t know is what it would take to make it clear to the citizens of Toronto that religious belief does not trump equality between men and women.

We know that women make only 70% of the pay of men. As Marilyn Waring argues in her book, “If Women Counted”, What we count is what we value”. Forty years ago, when I worked in the federal public service, we talked endlessly about “Equal pay for work of equal value”. What we know is that nothing has changed. Women’s work is still undervalued.

On the bright side, we watched the Sochi Olympics display for all the world to see that the girls were just as good as the boys. Equality in physical performance was obvious in spite of girls having a womb! I wondered what the girls and women in Saudi Arabia thought as they watched those performances.

What we know today is that girls and women are not safe on many of Toronto streets at night. What we don’t know is what it is like to feel unsafe in your community, to be afraid to walk home alone at night.

Knowing what we don’t know may spur us to seek answers to some of these threats to the lives of girls and women. Taking time to become informed is surely the first step. As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power” When we know something in depth, it can be a springboard to action, to pick an issue and work for change.

I know that it is unacceptable that girls and women should live in fear in Toronto in 2014.

Pete Seeger: A life passionately lived

Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919 in Patterson, New Jersey. He died Monday night, January 27, 2014 in NYC at age 94. Friend, teacher, preacher, roll model, mentor and hero to many generations.

Tuesday morning, Margaret and I were sitting at our breakfast table, enjoying our morning coffee, reading the Globe and Mail and talking about “things” when CBC radio broke in with the news that Pete Seeger had died Monday night. When we finished our regular ritual, I went upstairs to send Shawn and Dallas an e-mail, asking if we could pay tribute to Pete Seeger during today’s service through words and song. Then I cried. Why?

Because I’ve lost a best friend, albeit at a distance – one, who has always been there – one, whom I’ve known my entire life – one, whose career spans all my time on this earth. The folk ballads he sang filled our house when I was young. His songs: against the War in Viet Nam; and supporting civil and human rights and racial equality during my teens and early twenties, echoed and reinforced my parents’ values and ideas, which eventually became my own. He taught me that it’s not sufficient to have good values but that these values have to be given public voice and action.

He loved his country, my first country, in spite of its shortcomings, and worked to make it a better place.

He sang with unabashed joy and passion, and sometimes vehemence. He would just throw his head back and let ‘er go. I can see him standing on stage, banjo in hand, tapping his left foot.

I love his music. It has always been meaningful and singable – even by me – in the car, around the campfire, in the shower, where I do some of my best vocalizing, and at the inevitable sing-a-longs at his concerts. He was a master of getting the audience to let go of their inhibitions and sing with gusto.

For those of you who are not familiar with his considerable body of work, Pete Seeger was a folk singer and song writer extraordinaire – America’s balladeer – from the time he dropped out of Harvard with his banjo in 1938 right up to 2013 when he led a rousing sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” at the Farm Aid Concert in Sarasota, NY. An incredible 75 years.

In 1941, along with Woody Guthrie, he founded the Almanac Singers whose repertoire included sea chanteys and pioneer and pro-union songs, such as “Talking Union”.

In 1949 he formed The Weavers, the US’s preeminent folk singers, with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They were prolific, singing traditional folk songs as well as social action ballads. Some of their great hits were: “Goodnight, Irene” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”, Woody Guthrie’s “So Long It's Been Good to Know You”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wimoweh”.

In 1953, all four were named as Communists and blacklisted by the music industry. The group soon disbanded, although The Weavers made several comebacks and new albums in the ‘60’s.

In 1955 Pete Seeger was investigated by the McCarthy Commission – the House Un-American Activities Committee – refusing to plead the 5th amendment (the right against self-incrimination), as it would suggest he had something to hide, and refusing to name names of friends and associates. Instead he invoked the 1st amendment (the right of freedom of expression).

In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress for these actions. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1962.

Of course, all of this just added to his cachet among his many fans.

His repertoire also included songs: promoting international understanding and environmental stewardship, especially his beloved Hudson River; and, against war, militarism, the death penalty; and most lately, the climate of terror that existed after the attacks of 9-11. Always with passion and hope in a better future.

He taught and showed us how to care.

Some of his other signature songs included: Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Guantanamera, We Shall Overcome, Last Night I had the Strangest Dream, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Whose Side Are You On?, Little Boxes, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and If I Had a Hammer.

He was an active Unitarian attending congregations in Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley, where, until this fall, he would often provide the music.

Now he is gone. His music lives on. His spirit and legacy remain within each of us.

He demonstrated that the song is mightier than the sword.

The words he inscribed on his banjo said it all: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

So long Pete…it’s been good to know you…