Palestine: a time for peace, a time for action

Jan 18, 2016 by

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As 39 students from across the U.S. and Canada entered the Church Center for the United Nations, my colleagues and I happily welcomed each of them to the Mennonite Central Committee U.N. Office’s 20th annual Student Seminar, “Palestine: A Time for Peace.”

This three-day event created a space for students to ask questions and dialogue with experts from around the world.

Speakers addressed seemingly impossible questions: How can we achieve peace in Palestine? What role can we play as Anabaptists? How can the peoples of Palestine and Israel simultaneously attain justice when the stakes are so high for both?

The seminar involved students from nine Mennonite colleges and one public university and hosted speakers such as Jona­than Kuttab, a leading human rights lawyer in Palestine and Israel; Beth Heisey Kuttab, president of Lancaster (Pa.) Interfaith Peace Witness and former director of relief and social services for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency; Mel Duncan, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce; Bob Herbst, a civil rights lawyer and leader in Jewish Voice for Peace; and Riyad H. Mansour, the Senior Ambassador of Palestine to the U.N.

Kuttab explained the conflicting Zionist and Palestinian narratives — an approach that became all-important as speakers discussed issues of occupation, human rights, exceptionalism and the value of empathy. Trends emerged stressing the necessities of reconciliation, humanization of all people, a willingness to understand each other’s suffering and a swift, united push from the international community for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

“People say you are the future,” Duncan told the students. “No, you are the present, the now, and you have to claim that.”

He encouraged students to think constantly of new ways to create peace, envision change and create dialogue.

“The only war that matters is the war against imagination,” he said. “All other wars are subsumed by it.”

One of those creative solutions was described by guests from JVP, an organization of Jews who affirm their culture and faith but condemn the occupation of Palestinian land. They explained that their condemnation of the government policy of establishing Jewish settlements on Palestinian land was not a rejection of their Judaism but an affirmation of their faith and the teachings of the proph­ets. JVP encourages all Americans to use nonviolent strategies to create economic and social pressure to end the occupation.

For many, the presence of Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador, was the seminar’s highlight. He spoke about Palestine’s needs and priorities, theories of change and plans for negotiating a political peace. His presence made the search for solutions more real and immediate.

The seminar concluded by further moving from theory to action as we video-called an MCC partner organization, Al Najd Developmental Forum.

Rafat Hassouna and his colleagues spoke live from Gaza, where they typically have electricity for only six hours a day. They spoke of the realities of Palestine, how ADF works with Palestinians and how to advocate for their cause. The team requested that each person “push for peace in your own systems.” The mood in the room was a readiness to do just that.

Kolton Nay, a recent graduate of Goshen College, is a Mennonite Voluntary Service intern in the MCC U.N. Office.

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