Eyewitness Palestine: The Intersection of Justice and Faith in D.C.
By: Olivia Vita
July 26, 2018
Eyewitness Palestine (EP) was founded in 2001 as Interfaith Peace Builders (IFPB). EP is unique in its approach to justice work in Palestine in that it produces personal, on-the-ground reports from delegations of ordinary people from all over North America. Each trip to Palestine and Israel focuses on various themes. The Olive Harvest delegation is a recurrent trip, and there are others that focus on topics ranging from immigration to incarcerated populations to African heritage.
The organization was originally founded as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest peace and justice organization in the United States, in response to calls from Palestinian and Israeli activists to send consistent delegations to the region. EP became an independent nonprofit in 2008 and has since led over 60 delegations to Palestine and Israel. What follows are reflections from staff and delegates on topics ranging from activist culture to their involvement in EP to sources of personal inspiration.
What is unique about their approach to justice work in Palestine?
“When we look at IFPB as an accountable organization, it’s an organization with a mission statement that says each delegate has a responsibility to share the information and the narratives that they learn on the ground in their communities and within their professions. It’s basically my role to support and remind folks and give them the tools so that they can make a better reality and continue to do so right after the delegation and many years after the delegation. The accountability is really important, because if we just listen to people’s stories and come back and feel sorry for them and don’t do anything about it we actually victimize them by making them share their stories again. Rather than really supporting them and giving them a platform to amplify their voice and their realities. It’s our responsibilities as visitors not to be just tourists, not to just keep these experiences to ourselves, but to really share them and to try to alter the political reality and the everyday reality of folks on the ground.” —Nadya Tannous
Delegates and staff alike remark that what Eyewitness Palestine brings to the table is both a hands-on approach to engaging Palestinian rights and the fight for justice within Palestine and Israel, as well as the opportunity to connect skills and concepts learned there to community care back in the homes of delegates. The line between the personal and the political is not only blurred by the work of Eyewitness Palestine but is engaged mindfully to show the interdependent relationship between the two in caring for one’s community. In structuring the case study, I knew I did not want to present it in the typical format used in sociology and other fields within the humanities. I wanted to capture a snapshot of the life and the love that goes into the organization’s work. I believe this could not be better done while still relying on the written word than by exploring the intersection of personal commitments to justice, hard skills, and real needs of the world found in the people I interviewed.
What motivated you to get involved in Palestinian advocacy and EP specifically?
“I’ve been Palestinian my whole life. And a child of diaspora, I was born in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and I was raised in the Bay Area, and I was raised in my heritage. Growing up especially post-9/11 in America, it was important for me to start to contextualize what it meant to be Arab and what it meant to be Palestinian in the United States, in particular. My entry point into Palestine justice work was about empowering myself, my loved ones, my community, and inshallah my family back in the blad (country) in our national project and for Palestinians at home for justice. My entry point into IFPB was that I was approached to apply after going on the delegation in 2013, and it was specifically a youth leader in the grassroots organizing delegation. But it was an open delegation so we were meeting with youth leaders, so I was one of three Palestinians on that trip and it was amazing for me to be able to go. At first, I was wary of going with IFPB, but I ended up going because I knew Jake; I had known him at that point for several years, because he was one of the founders of my campus’ SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine). Small world.” —Nadya Tannous
Nadya Tannous is the education and advocacy coordinator of Eyewitness Palestine. Tannous is in charge of delegation and delegate trainings, as well as providing support to delegates upon returning home. Some of her duties include editing op-eds written by delegates, connecting people to media outlets, helping organize presentations, checking to make sure statistics are updated, and other one-on-one support. Reverend Joi Orr is on the board of Eyewitness Palestine. Orr came to know the organization through a colleague of hers, also a clergyperson, who had done a presentation on his trip to Palestine like the ones described above. Hearing about the injustices she was “passively promoting or participating in as a U.S. taxpayer,” in her words, motivated her to travel with the group to Palestine and learn more about the occupation.
“I heard about [Eyewitness Palestine] through the co-founder of Dream Defenders, Ahmad Abduznaid. We met at the 2016 Palestinian Film Festival, and some of the Palestinian activists and organizers saw me there and asked me what my interest was and so I told them. He was one of the first people they put me in contact with and so we stayed in touch, and he wanted to get me to Palestine. He knew that since I was a D.C. resident, [EP] was the best local organization to work with.”—Jaquial Durham
Malak Fakhoury, also a board member, became engaged in Palestinian activism like Tannous through heritage and was introduced to Eyewitness Palestine through her mother and sister. Fakhoury is part of Eyewitness Palestine’s Communications Committee on the board. This is the section of the organization responsible for handling the rebranding of Interfaith Peace Builders as they switch to the name “Eyewitness Palestine.” Part of her job is to spread word about the organization and help to get the new name out there. Seeing her mother’s enthusiasm and commitment to the organization’s mission and work attracted her to join shortly after her mother joined the board. The last interview I conducted was with Jaquial Durham, a friend and colleague from the D.C. area studying at Howard to become a university professor. Durham’s background knowledge on justice work stems mainly from black liberation frameworks and pan-Africanism, and after learning more about Palestine, he sought to learn from the source by going on one of EP’s delegations. Listening throughout the interviews, each story was extremely unique and yet woven together by the common thread of striving for justice, seeking understanding, and deep care.
Where does your sense of moral and social responsibility come from? Has your religious/ spiritual upbringing shaped or influenced this in any way?
“My morals definitely come from my religion, from Islam. Part of this is acknowledging that all Abrahamic religions come from one source. So, in this way I was raised to not think in exclusive terms so Palestine was never an us versus them conflict to me, not a Muslims versus Jews conflict. I don’t see what is happening in Palestine as a whole as religious but inherently political as Zionism was a political movement, and nothing in the Bible gives the orders to do what is being done. While my family is Palestinian and thus I’m connected to Palestine through my background, I’m also connected through my religion because empathy and interconnectedness are at the center of Islam. Thus, I am called by my religion to be involved in social justice, to not only pray but to be intentionally involved in every aspect of life.”—Malak Fakhoury
“Well, I guess I would consider myself a progressive Christian. So, my religion, my beliefs, these are all understood through a lens of justice to see where is justice lacking and what can be done about that. I guess that’s one of the reasons when I first heard about the program, and about Israel and Palestine, about the occupation, and all that’s going on, I was compelled to learn more and get involved. It was so clear as to how much injustice was happening. That’s an interesting relationship [between moral responsibility and spirituality], I would say. I think I grew up in a pretty typical black church that wasn’t super conservative or super radical. But in the black church’s tradition, there is an emphasis placed on the Exodus story and on the Exodus narrative. What I’ve come to learn is how problematic that story can be because of who is telling it and in what context. In the black church’s tradition we talk about God as [unclear word] within the context of the narrative of chattel slavery, but when we talk about the state of Israel the story gets a little twisted and is used to justify an illegitimate nation-state. There is a tendency for U.S. American churches to have an affinity with the nation-state of Israel and to not pay too much attention to the wrongs that it has perpetuated.
I actually first learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I was working at People for the American Way. They have a department called ‘Right Wing Watch’ and they track radical right folks and all the crazy things they say. One of the guys in charge, I think his name was John [unclear], he was a Christian pastor and he supported Israel because he believed that Christians needed to support the state of Israel because that was a sign of the second coming of Christ. There is this really strange, dynamic relationship between American Christianity and not the intensely religious folks in Israel but the political nation-state of Israel, which is interesting and very problematic.”—Reverend Joi Orr
What challenges have you experienced in your work with EP or in interfaith and/or social justice spaces as a whole?
“I have a history of activism from college, I was heavily involved in Students for Justice in Palestine as well as Muslim Students Association (MSA). During my time there I wanted to reach out to Hillel and see if a connection could be forged. Our SJP didn’t want to because they thought it would be normalizing, but MSA was open to the idea. So, I planned interfaith dinners and held events between Hillel and MSA. The rabbi would come and was very nice. But it was frustrating because everything would be going fine and then something would happen in Gaza, and the rabbi and students would start defending Israel and get very emotional. It was like there was a misconnection between politics and religion, as if this is what God would want to be happening. So that was one challenge. It was disheartening to be rejected after hosting so many dinners, not to brag, but to be the only ally they had only to be let down in the end. Another challenge was being blacklisted on Canary Mission.”—Malak Fakhoury
Do you feel your trip with EP was transformative in any way? If so, can you tell a story that illustrates this?
"It was transformative for sure. Before the trip, I was more so focused on the academic side of resistance, however, going there and being more-so ‘boots-on-the-ground,’ I got to see the things I had been reading and writing about for years. The transformation was in that it made me take my studies and writing more seriously. One experience I think of is visiting the African Quarter in Old City Jerusalem. As I’m walking and heading to the African Quarter, I ran into and got to meet the leader of the African Quarter, Ali Jiddah. I had the opportunity to speak with him about Afro-Palestinians and the movement, and how their existence became present within Jerusalem. Just his words and philosophy on Palestinian freedom were transformative. I got to spend time in his home to sit and talk with him; he showed me around the Old City. Seeing people who look like myself being doubly oppressed because they are not only Palestinian but also black was itself a transformative experience. It allowed me to take a different approach and to think differently about the movement.
There are five generations of Afro-Palestinians within the African Quarter. However, there are more Afro-Palestinians in Jericho, and over 32 percent of Afro-Palestinians live in Gaza. A lot of the Afro-Palestinian women in Gaza have some form of leadership role in the Gaza Strip as well. The one thing I took from Ali that was most moving and inspiring was that in the United States, people of color lack two things: organization and unity. He was incarcerated in 1982 and learned English, Hebrew, and of course he already knew Arabic. He also owns a tourist attraction company within the Old City to take people on tours to see what they wouldn’t see on an Israeli tour. He’s extremely funny and extremely knowledgeable on history and what’s going on. He’s a revolutionary. He calls himself the Denzel Washington of the Old City. He’s someone that if you go there, you have to meet him. He’s just a beautiful human.” —Jaquial Durham
“One thing that I think of is an older Jewish woman on our trip. She broke down crying every single day and would say how she couldn’t believe that she had been lied to her entire life. Ultimately she ended up leaving early not out of resistance to the program but because of the intensity of the experience for her.” —Malak Fakhoury
Three themes stuck out most after conducting these interviews: black-Palestinian solidarity, the role of religion in society, and the boundary between good and bad dialogue. I separated out what I felt were the most powerful quotes on each subject which every interviewee touched upon.
Strengthening Black-Palestinian Solidarity
“Black and brown solidarity has been going on for decades, but I think there has definitely been a resurgence after Ferguson. Folks in Palestine were tweeting about how to avoid the pepper sprays and different tactics that the police were using. As you know, there is cross-training between the American police and the Israeli military. Here—I’m in Georgia—I believe the program is called the Georgia Police Exchange, or something along those lines. The police, as you know, are being more militarized; they’re learning tactics from Israeli police, and black and brown communities bear the brunt of police violence. And that includes Native Americans—one of the things we don’t talk about because populations are so small and there’s a lack of representation in our institutions is that when it comes to police violence and police shootings, they bear the heaviest of that force.” —Reverend Joi Orr
“The most similar parallel would have to be that of Native Americans and Palestinians under the experience of ethnic cleansing. I teach religious classes to 8- to 13-year-olds and over Thanksgiving I was talking to them about being mindful of the history of the holiday. Just until very recently, a few years ago I believe, we were celebrating Columbus Day as a country—Columbus, an ethnic cleansing colonizer. And then as for the African-American experience, I would say the most similarity is in civil liberties being taken away and having disproportionate power exercised over them for no reason. The police brutality, of course, and the injustice in the courts are continued forms of slavery and are similar occurrences in Palestine. One thing I think of in particular is prison and recidivism. Both in the United States and in Palestine, it is extremely difficult to reintegrate into society as certain liberties are stripped like voting, it is hard to get a job, and so on.
I went to college in Florida. Our SJP actually became known for 10,000 signatures in favor of divestment [from companies benefiting from Israeli occupation], the highest number of signatures recorded nationally. Through this we made conscious effort to connect with student organizations around campus sitting down with the Hispanic Student Alliance and figuring out which causes overlapped with their community, sitting down with our Black Student Alliance and doing the same. For example, D4S is used both in the state’s surveillance of the black community in the United States and of the Palestinian community in Palestine. We also had meaningful discussion over the difficulty members of our community struggle with in terms of the prison system; being easily targeted and criminalized, and then the difficulty of reintegration into society post-imprisonment.” —Malak Fakhoury
Religion and Society
“Religion is unwanted societally. I don’t mean that it is secular so much as religion is simply unwanted. Most in the United States and West view it as somewhat antiquated or irrelevant for the ‘modern world.’ Religion is not for isolated worship but is how you live your life. Religion to me is acknowledging intelligent design of the world and universe through studying science; it shows us the layered organization of nature and the patterns that exists. These are both signs of the creator. You can explain a phenomenon and know how it works technically, but the mystery still remains as to its origin. It reminds me of the verse that says everything submits to the will of God whether it wants to or not, i.e. the mind rests, the body sleeps. To anyone who has been in love, you know that you can’t see a paper bag floating through the air without thinking of the person you love. For someone who knows God, that is what walking through the world is like. If there was anything I would want young people to know it’s that your life has a purpose, and that the world was created for a reason.” —Malak Fakhoury
Good Dialogue, Bad Dialogue
“The trouble with interfaith is that it can sometimes be seen and treated as a pacifier. Some say it ‘feeds the stomach, not the soul.’ I think the issue is that it is done on an elementary level where nothing really can get done. The goal is tolerance rather than the work. People are also not willing to be marginalized, to sacrifice their social status when supporting unpopular causes. Back during one of the invasions of Gaza, celebrities like Selena Gomez began tweeting about it and her manager and others reprimanded them saying that it wasn’t in their contracts to make political statements. It was not in their contract to be human.” —Malak Fakhoury
“In the black community, we talk about the issue. When we talk about education, we talk about how bad kids are [for example]—which is a bad term to use, I like to use [the word] ‘challenging’—we’re not focusing on the issue. What I’m learning about in my History of Black Education class now is why black kids act the way they act. They are functioning off a system that is meant to produce the outcome that they’re producing. Which is the system of white supremacy, which is one hell of a drug. We have to be deconstructing the system that is producing these results; otherwise we’ll keep asking the same questions we’ve been asking forever. And I have to catch myself with my education to make sure I don’t just become a member of the bourgeoisie, forgetting I was a child once myself. James Baldwin said, ‘If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.’" —Jaquial Durham
Eyewitness Palestine showed me what it can look like for an organization to both have a focused goal and to operate with solidarity as central. Reading the blog post reflections of delegates demonstrated a hope that exists in day-to-day life and work that I knew from personal experience but expanded my understanding of its possible impact. After working with and researching EP, I have so many questions about media outlets and the way information is shared. The same problem persists in Palestine which existed almost 70 years ago today, and the same problems persist in the United States from centuries ago. With an abundance of black and Palestinian intellectuals, artists, and businesspeople vast in foci and specialty, I refuse to believe the persistence of injustice is due to the truth not being spoken. It is no longer a question to me of individual understanding but more so of representation of nuanced points of view. I wonder as to the extent of the detrimental effect boiling events and identities into hyper-simplified soundbites has on our political and spiritual wellness as individual communities which make up the larger globe.
Through partnering with EP through the Berkley Center at Georgetown, I learned that I, too, have marketable skills that are both practical and can contribute to a world I want to see and that I want my children to see. Sitting down to edit my resume or write a cover letter for positions, I now feel more equipped to say what I am good at and what I would like to learn without feeling as terribly inadequate or as excessively proud. The Doyle Fellowship also showed me that it is possible to have a job doing both what I enjoy and which aligns with my morals. In connecting me further to the nonprofit community within the D.C.-metro area, it has left me curious as to the interpersonal dynamics to which organizations owe their success and the keys for establishing and maintaining a nonprofit sustainably.