T176. Peacemakers in the Holy Land

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Project Save the World / Talk Show Episode Number: 176
Panelist:
Father Bob Holmes
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired: 1 February 2021
Date Transcribed:
16 February 2021
Transcription:
Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar

Metta Spencer

Okay, Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. And today I’m going to meet somebody that I’m supposed to have known for about 20 years. Father Bob Holmes, it’s okay for me to call you Bob, right? That’s great. Now, somehow, Father Bob, and I have been in the same network of friends for many, many years, and somehow as far as I know, we’ve never met. So we have many friends in common. And the reason is that a lot of my friends like to go on excursions to the Holy Land. And Father Bob takes groups of people I guess every year to Israel and Palestine. And he’s quite a peace activist. I suppose that’s the main, main reason that we know each other sort of, at least by reputation, and today, we’re going to get acquainted a little bit because he’s going to tell me about these trips that I wish I could have taken with him. But I’ve never been able to do. So hello, Father Bob Holmes.

Bob Holmes

Hello

Metta Spencer

hi. Now let’s, let’s get down to business because I am very keen to know a little bit about these wonderful excursions that you lead every year. I guess it’s every year, isn’t it to Israel and Palestine? How long have you been doing that?

Bob Holmes

Well, I belong with the Christian Peacemaker teams. And I’ve been working in our team in Hebron for over 20 years. And I’ve been taking some CPT delegations even right from the beginning. But these ones, the peace and justice pilgrimages have been started in 2006… every year… except 2020.

Metta Spencer

Oh, yes. Yeah, there have been some real changes in a lot of people’s lives. Because of the yes, well, good. So you really must know a lot of people. And let me inquire a little bit about your own work otherwise, because I think your, you’re a Basilian priest are you? priest, and and you what, what do you do when you’re not traveling?

Bob Holmes

Well, I was a Basilian priest teacher for 30 years, then then I got into peacemaking and join the Christian Peacemaker teams. And I was full time at that for three years, most of it in Palestine and Israel. And since then, I’ve been, for the Basilian fathers I’ve been their peace and justice person. And so we now I have a committee that is very active. And so that’s been, my work has been peacemaking.

Metta Spencer

So you do even when you’re not traveling, you’re a professional peacemaker.

Bob Holmes

It’s true.

Metta Spencer

I can’t think of a better calling. That’s wonderful. Okay, terrific. Now, so you’ve been taking these, these people on excursions? And how long do these things last? And where do you typically go? Is it the same itinerary every year? Or do you vary it greatly?

Bob Holmes

Well, we go for about 15 days. And we do have visited lots of various peacemakers. Some of them are Israeli, some were Palestinian, some are Jewish, Muslim, some Christian. And we just tried to really find out on the ground, what’s happening and to see, learn from the peacemakers over there. They’re kind of our instructors.

Metta Spencer

So it’s not the typical, go look at religious sites, kind of tour that most people take in when they go to Israel, and I guess the whole the whole district, but you’re you’re going to look at particular people and meet particular people who are, who are peace workers in their area. So there must be lots of people that we don’t hear about very much, right. Tell me about some of these folks who are some, some of them I think we’ve actually… in Peace magazine. So sometimes, some of the people who’ve gone with you on these trips, have come back full of stories about wonderful people. And, and I have printed a few of these, these reports, but none from you. So we will get a more direct set of anecdotes about some of the wonderful people working for peace in an area where it must be very, very hard to be a peace worker.

Bob Holmes

So I’d like to just show you some pictures and tell some stories. Is that okay?

Metta Spencer

Yeah!

Bob Holmes

I do take a lot of people over to see what’s happening there. And we do meet with a lot of various peacemakers. As we said, some are Israeli and some are Palestinian, some are Christian, some are Jewish, some Muslim. So I want to introduce you to 4 of them. Okay, the first one I want to use Rabbi Arik Ascherman. And he’s like the prophet Jeremiah. He’s a wonderful Israeli rabbi. And he’s been a peace activist since before I went there 20 years ago, and he’s still going strong. And he’s the one who started rabbis to human rights. And they’ve been very, very, very active. And so I love working with him. I’ve been with him on many of his actions, when I was with CPT there. And I always try to meet with him if we can. About two, four years ago, he started a new group of Jews and Arabs in defense of human rights. And I’m not quite sure how it evolved. But that’s the way it is. And now, I’ll just tell you one story. Every November, they help with the Palestinian farmers who are doing their olive harvest. And the reason they have to come he is he brings a group of people, excuse me, using Israelis and some internationals, and some Palestinian peacemakers, and they accompany the Palestinian farmers. And the reason I have to do it is because they often get attacked by settlers. And a lot of these orchards are close to Israeli settlements. And the settlers don’t want them there. And they want them to go away. And you can’t do much because they’re protected by Israeli soldiers, as you can see in the picture below. And they come on like that, when you can see in the forefront of that first picture.

Metta Spencer

Now this lower, excuse me, this lower photo is the settlers who are being aggressive. Is that right?

Bob Holmes

Yes, it was the soldiers who are protecting them,

Metta Spencer

and that the other guys up at the top? Are they also settlers? Or Who are they?

Bob Holmes

Those are all settlers. Yeah. They’re settlers coming down from the settlement to orchard. And they’re really just trying to chase the Palestinians out of the orchard to get, to stop them from harvesting.

Metta Spencer

If they belong to the Palestinians.

Bob Holmes

Yes, yes. But the thing is, the settlers are already on Palestinian land, but they want to expand their settlements. And to do that, they come down and they try to push the Palestinians out of their orchards. And so they can’t, if they can’t harvest their crops, they can’t make any money, and they’ll be enticed to leave, to go away. And sometimes it can be very dangerous. And as you can see here, that top picture is the rabbi himself being attacked by a settler. And he didn’t stand him. And I said, I asked Arik, I said, Why? How come you didn’t get stabbed? He says, I think God intervened. He touched the conscience of the settler. And I was saved. Wow. And the one below, one time I was working with him, and he said, I know that when the soldiers tell us that we have to leave, and we don’t leave, they’ll be arrested. So I’m gonna leave this time. And so he stood in, he was terrific in terms of being a prophet speaking to the soldiers and to the settlers. And when they was asked to leave, he started to walk away and the Israeli police went after him and dragged him back, as you can see. And he’s, I took this picture, and he’s saying to me, Bob, call my wife.

Metta Spencer

See that knife in the top cop type? guy with a knife is going to stab him in the back. Yeah, it’s amazing, he spoke to him, or how did he…

Bob Holmes

And he says, as he said to me, God must have protected me and touched the heart, the conscience of that settler, at the time. Well, it was amazing. Wow. So he’s, he’s a great peacemaker. He’s still going at it. Every week, he’s out there usually on a Friday. Because when —

Metta Spencer

You say he was ordered by the by the, the military or the police to leave and he left but they chased him or something.

Bob Holmes

They chased after him that day. Yeah. And then you can see them carrying him back.

Metta Spencer

What Why did they want to bring him back —

Bob Holmes

I think it’s because he spoke so strongly. And he really, you know, as, as a prophet, he said, you know, what you’re doing is unjust, it’s wrong, and you shouldn’t be defending these people. And then they decided they’re going to arrest him.

Metta Spencer

They wanted to arrest him, did they? Did they arrest him?

Bob Holmes

Yes, they did.

Metta Spencer

And what did they do with him? After they arrested him?

Bob Holmes

Well, they arrested him and several others, two of our CPTers were arrested. Also, they take them to the nearest… police station, actually. But then they just interview them, record what’s going on, and then they release them. Because they’re not, they weren’t doing anything that’s illegal, really, for an Israeli citizens. And the end, even with the CPTers that were arrested, they were released also.

Metta Spencer

you should tell us a little bit about the CPT. I know just a little bit, but I think our viewers don’t know anything most likely. As a Christian Peacemaker team, you have a number of Americans and Canadians and Europeans, I suppose, who,

Bob Holmes

and Australians and Europeans [I actually said Chinese meaning Taiwan], Taiwan, people from all over the world actually. And our, our way, our purpose is to build partnerships, to transform violence and oppression. That’s how we word it until we work with any group that’s suffering from oppression, and we try to extend with them and non-violently work for justice and peace. And that’s what we do.

Metta Spencer

And so, there’s a lot of presence of the CPT in the Middle East.

Bob Holmes

We were only been in Palestine since 95.

Metta Spencer

Now, what how often are there groups there? And what do they do? Well,

Bob Holmes

We use these… you can serve for three months, if you’re a foreigner, because the that’s the longest visa you can get. And as we enter, we can’t really say we’re going to do peacemaking work. So we have to come in as tourists, we get a tourist visa. And usually we have a team of five or six. But under this pandemic, we have not been able to get into the country. So we actually have Palestinian Muslim peacemakers on our team. And they’ve been carrying on the work without us for the last few months.

Metta Spencer

And there was an incident about, like 15 years ago, where some people were captured and held and someone died, right.

Bob Holmes

Yes, that was in Baghdad in when that happened. Jim Loney here in Toronto was one of the the captains. Okay, let me move on to another story.

Metta Spencer

Sure.

Bob Holmes

Can you see it?

Metta Spencer

Yes, I can Bashir and Eve.

Bob Holmes

Yes, Bashir and Eva are both Students University Students in Beersheva in the Negev. And Bashir is a Bedouin. He’s Palestinian Bedouin. And Eva is a Jewish Israeli. And they work together in a group called the Negev Coexistence Forum. And it’s using Arabs working together in a struggle for equality. And what’s happening there is the — the Bedouins after the after the formation of the State of Israel — they were declared nomads, which meant that they didn’t have any permanent cities or villages. And so all of their villages are unregistered, which means they’re not on the map. It means they don’t get electricity. It means they don’t get water. They don’t get any services, except education, which is demanded by the government. So took us to an unrecognized village called Al Araqib. And here we are. And that’s the shake who’s the head of the village and he’s showing us there. They’ve made a copy of the ownership of that land, because they say these villages around recognize, no, they’re recognized, even back in the time of the Ottomans. And however, he’s telling his story. And others said back in 2000, and they ordered them out of the city over the village, they’re gonna, because you’re unrecognized, your village doesn’t exist. So they came in, and they boasted every house, wow.

Bob Holmes

Oh, boy, right away, and they threw up to light bars and threw tarps over them. And the first time I visited was in a year later. And they told us that we’ve been destroyed, we’ve been bulldozed 26 times in one year, every two weeks. Oh, my God. The last time I was there, it was 170 times. A few. A few weeks ago, it was demolished for the 100 and 84th time. They will not go away. They come back every time. That’s why even Bashir took us there, they wanted us to see the resilience. Whoa, now I get arrested regularly, they get fined. They’ve been in courts trying to fight the fact that they own the land. And they have a right to be there. So it’s ongoing. So they’ve taken us to many other villages, too. But I wanted to show you this one especially

Metta Spencer

That is extraordinary. Where do they live?

Bob Holmes

They live in those shacks like that, they come right back up, set them up again. And it usually only about 10 or 15 people stay. They get support from the others who are elsewhere, because they just want to keep somebody on the land. So the

Metta Spencer

Buildings on the right photo, those structures are the buildings that they’re putting up, return.

Bob Holmes

And they get destroyed every couple of weeks. They come in, they get torn apart.

Metta Spencer

How does somebody support them n helping them do this? I mean, do they somebody must pay for the buildings that they put up? I

Bob Holmes

I think, I think they have a lot of support from the Palestinians, especially the Bedouin community. I know, the Negev Coexistence group are helping them the best they can. There are Israeli activists who are very supportive. And so… internationals are brought there quite often. And so they’re, you know, they’re getting a financial support, but they also need some political support. And that’s, that’s why… they keep going back.

Metta Spencer

Well, what would happen? What do what could happen at the best if they got support? Who would support them? And what? How, what’s the most effective way of giving them help?

Bob Holmes

Well, one of the Palestinian — I should say, one of the Israeli activists — when he brought us there. He said to us, you know, when somebody invades your house, you call the police. This is what, here’s the police that are coming to tear your house down. He says, so, “You now are the protectors of this house. Go back and tell your people in Canada, the United States, tell your governments to put some pressure on the Israelis, to recognize that Bedouins are full citizens and have a right to their villages. They should not be… destroyed?”

Metta Spencer

What do the Israeli officials say in in, in defending their activities? How if some, if the police come and knock it down, and they and they’re asked, on what basis they’re knocking these things down? And who, and these Bedouins obviously are people who’ve lived there? For centuries? Yeah. Well, what do they say about who they are and why they don’t belong there?

Bob Holmes

Well, here’s what they’re doing. They’ve created towns, three or four towns in the northern part of the of the Negev. And they say that’s where you belong. And they try to evict them from their 36 villages, and force them to go to these towns. The trouble with the townships, the towns that they go to, is you can’t bring your sheep. You can’t go all of — in a city, in a town. And so they’re doing what happened here in Canada. When the European colonists came in, you know, they basically pushed the indigenous people off the land into reserves. And that’s what’s happening in the Negev. It’s also what’s happening in the West Bank.

Metta Spencer

Oh, okay. Well, maybe we better look at some pictures of other places.

Bob Holmes

Okay, let me introduce you to Sameehah. She’s a Palestinian, a young woman, teenager. And she’s part of the youth of sumud. And there are a group that gathered in the, in the West Bank, in what we call the South Hebron hills. And they’re very, very active. I’ve known her, believe it or not, since she was a child, because I’ve been going there for 20 years, and she’s probably about 18. Now, and the youth are sumud… means steadfastness. The youth of steadfastness, I would say the youth of persistent resistance, like the veterans, and here’s something they’ve done. This is how it began back in May of 2017. In the village of Sarura it was a small village, and a small number of people living there, maybe 30 or 40 people. And the Israeli army decided that they needed a firing zone. And so they evicted the people from this village and several other villages. And that was maybe 15 years ago. And so they were empty. So what the youth of sumud wanted to do is go back and reoccupy those villages, and live in them again. And on this particular day, all kinds of Palestinians from all over, but lots of Jewish Israelis who were peacemakers, and there was a whole contingent of American Jews who came over and… 200 people, you can see them and they repopulated this village, and they began to renovate it so that it could be relived in again, and as you can imagine, their active resistance had a military response. I love that top picture. There’s a Palestinian woman and a Jewish American woman sitting side by side. And her her banner says this “American Jew supports justice for Palestine, tear down the wall, free all the political prisoners return the stolen land.” And you can see below the response of the army was to come in and tear-gas and chase them out. And they confiscated anything they could find. But when they are, when they have to come back, in over a month’s time, it happened several times they’d be chased out and they’d come back. And I’ve been going there now for a couple years and it’s now a year ago 2019. That’s Sameehah you can see her behind the one of the people there, in another you have someone there leading us to the freedom camp. Now. If you look at that bottom left picture, it’s a cave. And actually the people in this town all lived in caves. And you say, well, that’s really primitive. But no, it isn’t… there. They’re cool in the summer, and they’re warm in the winter.

Metta Spencer

And these are natural caves.

Bob Holmes

They’re natural caves. But if you but the stone inside is soft, so you can go in and hollow it out. And you can create rooms and make the ceiling higher and things like that. So that’s what they did in this cave and look on the right when we visited. This was in 2019. And they really rehabilitated the cave, as you can see, and the original family who owned the cave, have actually come back and taken ownership.

Metta Spencer

Wow, lovely.

Bob Holmes

Yeah, and they don’t, they don’t all come back and live there. But they always try to keep some people there. And the youth is, some would try to always stay there too. And of course, they get raided regularly. A lot of the youths… have been arrested and fined, but they come back… it’s called sumud, it’s called persistent resistance. So this young woman and all the youth that are working with her, and I have to say I’ve known quite a few of them because I’ve we had a team in this town that she’s living in. For years. I was on that team quite often and it’s It’s a real nonviolent resistance to the stealing of the land. It’s power- really powerful.

Metta Spencer

How many caves are there

Bob Holmes

— in that particular village six or seven. And they’ve, they’ve already rehabilitated two of them and they’re working on a third right now I think —

Metta Spencer

And what needs to be done to rehabilitate them?

Bob Holmes

to go in and clean them up, expand them a little bit. With hammer and chisel and that sort of thing. And then put a good door and as you can see, there’s a good door, men put on there. And because they’ve been abandoned now for years, so… oh, it’s good. It’s powerful. Okay, one more story.

Metta Spencer

Okay.

Bob Holmes

Here’s this last story I’ll tell you. There’s so many I could tell but this is a good one. This is Sami Awad. He’s Palestinian. He’s Christian. He lives in Bethlehem. His uncle is Mubarak Awad, who was one of the leaders of the nonviolent first Intifada. And because he also had dual citizenship in the United States, they they deported him and banned them from ever coming back.

Metta Spencer

Sami?

Bob Holmes

no, Mubarak.

Metta Spencer

In the US now he’s a friend of mine. I mean… Mubarak does live in the US and has for years, what happened?

Bob Holmes

He was banned in 2001 or 19–. Oh, whenever the first Intifada was on, I can’t remember. It was probably 1980, 1990. Somewhere in there.

Metta Spencer

You know, I should remember that too, because I was at the United Nations. It was across the street from the United Nations. there’s a there’s a building there [Church House] for a lot of the organizations that are, you know, concerned, charitable organizations. And there was a may have been the Quakers, I’m not sure. And Mubarak had just arrived in, in the US from Israel having been expelled, I believe from Israel. That’s right. And he gave a talk and I went to the first talk that he gave.

Bob Holmes

I’ve met him once to the gathering where they were peacemakers we’re having a conference. He wouldn’t remember me. I don’t think so.

Metta Spencer

So somehow, I don’t remember the story of how he got back in. And, in fact, I didn’t remember that he’d been excluded from the US. But I know that his education, he was educated at a, I believe a Christian College someplace in the middle Midwest, in the US, and, and it brought his training in nonviolence. And he was a psychologist who was doing kind of therapy in with the Palestinians, until he realized what what they needed wasn’t therapy. It was political support, you know, he began to, he organized… that Intifada was largely his doing that very nonviolent intifada. It was one of the stories of the things they did the in, inventiveness of how to persist in and organize the community in the face of oppression. It was one of the inspiring stories that I remember hearing.

Bob Holmes

Yeah, beautiful. Well, I’m sure he inspired his nephew, Sami, because he founded Holy Land Trust. And I asked him, Sami, what, what do you call it? Holy Land Trust, he says, because that’s what’s missing. There’s no trust here, between the people. So that’s his work. So we worked with him, CPT worked with them all the time, we did a lot of nonviolence trainings at Bethlehem university with him and with other groups. And we did a lot of very — every Friday, he would take a group out and they would stand, trying to stop the wall being created in in round Bethlehem. But what I want to talk to you about today is this last thing he’s been doing recently, and he calls this “sharing victim narratives and then moving beyond”. And here he’s talking to a group here, I’m in the group and our group is also Jewish people in that group from the States in there, as well — explaining it to us. And he said that, you know, if we can get the Israelis and the Palestinians to, to recognize and acknowledge each other’s suffering and trauma, then we can move beyond it. So he himself Sami, went to Auschwitz for a week. He was there every day. And he saw the young people coming down from Israel. When you graduate from high school with a team, you’re immediately conscripted into the army. So they bring them down. And he’d watched them go in, and they were full of energy and lots of fun and things. And they came out in tears, and sad, and, and then he said, the leaders would sit them down. And he’d say, Now, you know. Now you know why. You have to be armed. Why do we have to have, every one of you has to be a soldier. Because never again must this happened to us. And so we began to realize how the Israelis are internalizing the trauma, and how it explained a lot of their reactions to what was going on. So he wanted to find an Israeli leader, not not one that he already knew who already was a peacemaker, but one who was kind of a rabid settler, but find a way to get someone who could then understand the same trauma that the Palestinians has suffered. And so he was recommended to talk to Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger. I’ve never met him, but he told us the story. And he’s a settler. And he’s rabid. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool settler believes everything about being a settler. So he agreed to meet with him in Jerusalem in a coffee shop. And, and Sammy said, no, I didn’t know how to start the conversation, he says, but it didn’t matter. Because as soon as Rabbi Hanan sat down, he says: “1948, the founding of Israel was a miracle. And 1967 when we took over the West Bank and Gaza, that was the completion of the miracle, in general, but the promise of the land to the Jewish people is eternal.” And Sami said, it’s hard to find peace, oh, my God, where are we going to go? But then he said, “We have a covenant with God, that we are to be a light to all the nations. And then he said, especially the Palestinians, because they’re our nearest neighbor. And he was quite willing to understand the trauma of the Palestinians, the nakba, being kicked out of Israel, three quarters of a million, and then taking in the military occupation of Gaza, and West Bank, which has gone over for 15 years now. And so the two of them were able to get together. And to realize that you have to let go of the trauma narratives, both groups, and come up with a new narrative of living together in peace. Wow. And so they began to talk and they began to get groups together. So I haven’t been able to get back there in the last year or two. I don’t know how it’s going but powerful, powerful peacemakers.

Metta Spencer

Wow, well nigh word. I immediately want to explore the thinking of this man, Hanan Schlesinger.

Bob Holmes

You could Google him and you might be able to find some things.

Metta Spencer

Well, how does he combine these various ideas? If if 1948 was a miracle for him? It wasn’t a miracle for the Palestinians, it wasn’t — nakba — was a disaster. Exactly. So, how does he put those two concepts together? If it was a miracle, why why in In what way? Is he to be a light to all nations? How What does he want to have happen to the Palestinians? I mean — it’s like a complete contradiction in terms. You know, the two ideas are totally contradictory, I would think.

Bob Holmes

I don’t know because I haven’t talked to Hanan and I’ve only talked to Sami Awad. So I don’t know the other side of the story. But the fact that Sami is able to keep meeting with him, and in the end to develop a new narrative and go from here, and you know, Jonathan Kuttab and Jeff Halper, have both written books on, you know, a one-state solution of coming together to live together where everybody is equal, equal rights and equal justice and peace. So I think something will happen. I don’t know if many of you and I will live to see it. But you know, I think that’s the future.

Metta Spencer

Wow, well, this is something that I’d like to explore further, maybe I will have a chance somewhere in one way or another to do that. Maybe I could even reach out to some of these people and talk to them by zoom…sure, let’s see if I could set something up. And that’s certainly something to look forward to. Beautiful. So maybe with your help, I can do that.

Bob Holmes

contact, contact with all of them. I’ve never, I’ve never been in contact with Rabbi Schlesinger, he’s the only one I’ve shown you today that I haven’t had contact with.

Metta Spencer

Well, I would go through somebody else anyway, wouldn’t immediately go to him and say, how can you hold those two ideas? When they’re coming — I would, I would do a little preparation before doing that. So this is a wonderful introduction to the region. I’ve never been to Israel or Palestine. Of course, I’ve traveled pretty widely, but frankly, I never wanted to go there. I just, you know, it was I don’t like to go to a place where I think I’m not going to like the people. You know, and I think I have such strong feelings that there’s that there’s a huge injustice going on there. And I don’t know how I could even you know, hold my tongue, I would have too many opinions. I’ve never gone. I’ve never gone because I know, I may make more trouble than I would solve.

Bob Holmes

Well, if you came on our pilgrimage, you discover that the people we meet with are peacemakers and who are nonviolent, there are lots of people who are not nonviolent. And like Sami Awad has told us that there are Palestinians who won’t talk to him because he’s a sellout [for] talking to the Israelis. And when you talk to them, I’m sure when you talk to Hanan Schlesinger, he’s got all kinds of settlers saying “Why are you talking to those terrorists?” You know, so I mean, it’s, they have hard work, hard work to do.

Metta Spencer

I want to thank you for this and have a chance to, to look at the new full screen. This has been fun. You know, you have to be careful about using that word fun, because there’s certainly, it’s fun talking with you. But it’s very sobering to see the kinds of situations that you’re dealing with. And I want to express my gratitude to you for being able to go into a place and entertain people and to expose people who aren’t familiar with that situation. So bless you. Thank you so much.

Bob Holmes

Thank you very much. And thanks for giving me a chance to speak.

Metta Spencer

Okay, it’s been wonderful and I hope we have more contact. Maybe when the pandemic is over, we will find ourselves in the same room. I would bet anything that we have been in the same room dozens of times, at least over the years without ever actually having anybody point to you and say that’s

Bob Holmes

probably true.

Metta Spencer

Okay, thank you and have a great day. You’re very welcome.

Bob Holmes

Thank you very much.

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