How the Elders captured a glimpse of Israeli apartheid

Following the recent visit to Israel/Palestine by The Elders, an Israeli lawyer, Emily, Schaefer, wrote this detailed report on her experiences with the group to a select list…  (but she has given permission for publication). She helped organise The Elders visit to a Palestinian village:

Dear friends, family and comrades,

Yesterday might just have been the most exhilarating day of my life so far, and more importantly one of the most historical days for the Village of Bil’in. About a week ago I received a call from a colleague of mine asking if I might be available the next day to meet with the “advance team” of the Elders to take them to Bil’in and “convince them” to bring the Elders there on their 4-day visit in the region. She asked me to coordinate with Mohammed and Abdullah from the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements (aka my dear friends), and p.s. it’s top secret! She had me at “the Elders.”

The Elders are a relatively recent phenomenon, started by Nelson Mandela and funded primarily by tycoons Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. The idea behind the group is that in traditional societies it is the elders who advice and take care of the society and ensure its progress, but that the world today needs that at large. So the mission of the group is to bring influential and experienced former prime ministers, presidents and world leaders to parts of the world experiencing conflict and strife and to attempt to pool their wisdom to find a solution. The Elders are made up of: Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Jimmy Carter, Lakhdar Brahim, Gro Brundtland, Fernando H Cardoso, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and Muhammad Yunus, with Honorary Elders,Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

This visit’s delegation consisted of: Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson (two personal heroes), Jimmy Carter, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland, and Fernando Cardoso, and they were accompanied by Richard Branson and Jeff Skoll (another funder, founding president of Ebay and film producer).

Our first meeting was a huge success, and not only did Mohammed, Abdullah and I convince them to bring the Elders to Bil’in (a change in their plans to go to Gaza, which they managed to arrange through video conference), but the CEO of the Elders invited me to be the person to brief the Elders on the village and take them there! I was beside myself (and subsequently nervous for an entire week).

Two days later I was giving the American secret service (for President Carter) a tour of the village and an explanation on the local security situation (replete with my commentary — I discovered I absolutely cannot talk about security in the West Bank without being sharply critical and often even cynical). Because President Carter has to have uber-pumped up security, especially in the West Bank — and by this I mean a motorcade of 12 black Suburbans and secret service planted all along the journey — and therefore couldn’t ride with the rest of the Elders and me for my briefing on the road to Bil’in, I was asked to have a special meeting with President and Mrs. Carter in their hotel suite in Jerusalem on Monday. Again, beside myself.

That in and of itself was an incredible experience. It honestly felt like having tea with my grandfather, even the way President Carter would drill me with questions in a sharp but caring manner. He is incredibly informed about the region and asked intelligent questions. He especially wanted to get to the heart of the matter about the so-called “settlement freeze” that Obama is pushing for. I told him that so far new building has been frozen on the ground and plans have not been approved but that I doubt highly that plans are not being drawn as we speak. But more importantly, I stressed, is ridding the West Bank of settlements period, and I explained how there are still plans for many existing settlements to expand. President Carter referred to some of his meetings with Obama and was trying to brainstorm what he could do. Mrs. Carter immediately turned to the Carter Center’s Director of Human Rights, who had also joined our meeting, and said, “let’s schedule a meeting for you and I with Michelle.” But of course the main focus was the non-violent resistence movement, and I asked President Carter to speak about Bil’in whenever possible as an example of the “enemy” Israel isn’t talking about.

Yesterday was the big day, and I’m still in shock and disbelief and have a permanent smile on my face. I met the Elders at the World Bank office in East Jerusalem and had 40 minutes to speak to them about Bil’in, its history, and its message, and then to answer questions. I opened by telling them that “to me the message of Bil’in is hope — hope that the occupation will end; hope that the power of the people raising their voices still can, and in some cases may be the only thing that will, make change; and hope that when this conflict comes to an end, which I have to believe it will, it is places like Bil’in that will have preserved our collective humanity and our ability to coexist.” I told them that there are plenty of examples of non-violent and joint Israeli-Palestinian-international movements around the West Bank, but that Bil’in has become the symbol because its struggle has been consistent and creative. I gave them the history of the village, the movement, the “other non-violent resistance” — the court battles — and then I told them the price that the village is paying, both in terms of its lives (including the killing of Bassem Abu Rahma at a demonstration in April by the Israeli army) and its wellbeing (the mass arrests over the last 2 months of over 25 villagers conducted through nighttime raids several nights each week). (I must admit that at some point I was distracted for a second and had to turn to the group and say, “I’m sorry, it’s just that this is my first motorcade!” There were many laughs and a few even piped up and said “mine too!”)

Desmond Tutu knows non-violent protest (and arrest for it) better than most people on this planet, and Mary Robinson knows international human rights law. But we all had a very lively discussion after my talk, and the questions ranged from discussing legal tactics to asking me about Israeli public opinion. At one point, when I had been talking more about those killed in various protests in different villages, including children, Desmond Tutu asked me: “Emily, when you go to Yad Vashem’s hall of children and you hear the names read of Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust, and then you hear about Palestinian children being killed from Gaza to Nialin, what does it do to you?” I answered him very honestly and personally. I told him that I don’t make direct Holocaust comparisons because I don’t usually find them useful or effective in this conflict. But I said that having the Holocaust in my family’s history informed my identity from a young age, and it has made me accutely aware of suffering and oppression of others. I believe that those who know persecution should be especially wary of persecuting others.

Richard Branson asked me if I have been penalized for speaking out and doing the work I do. And I explained that people often ask me this, and from their questions I have become even more accutely aware of my privilege in this conflict (and of course in general), as a white, educated, Jew I have the right to speak my mind, to demonstrate, and at worst to be arrested and tried with due process. I explained that I view this privilege as a responsibility to act on behalf of those who, for no other reason than their birth to different parents, do not benefit from these freedoms. I talked about the unsettling experience of returning from the Canada speaking tour with my dear friend Mohammed, where we were equals, returning unequal but demonstrating in Bil’in shoulder to shoulder, and then watching him sit behind glass with shackles on his ankles while I entered the prison freely and sat on the air-conditioned side of the room, later to be asked to rate its facilities. Even when there weren’t questions, I felt the approval and support in the group’s nods.

When we arrived in Bil’in we first went to the site of the demonstrations, including a symbolic grave for Bassem. Getting off the bus I was handing out business cards, as I had suggested that they be in touch anytime for any reason, when Mary Robinson came up to me. I thought I accidentally forgot to give her a card, but when I handed her one she said, “no, I just want to hug you. Thank you for your work.” I was aghast and must have stuttered out my response which was just gratitude for her work. Desmond Tutu put his arm on my shoulder when he had stepped down to the ground, and said in his adorable South African accent, “Emily, you’re great!” I told him that my best friend from law school, also a human rights advocate, has said for years that he is the number one person she wishes to meet. It was his turn to stutter and look away and make some comment about how he’s old now and then change the subject. It was a sweet moment. President Carter got out of his car and shouted across several people to me “Emily!” with his arms wide open to hug me. I had to cover the fact that I almost shouted back “Jimmy!”

As we approached the demo site and the wall, Abdullah gave a short talk about the Popular Committee and the struggle in Bil’in, giving the group a visual of what happens at the demonstrations and where the settlement is in relation to where they were standing. Afterwards the Elders were asked to stand by the wall and give a statement. President Carter emphasized that both the land on which they were standing and the land on the other side of the wall is Palestine, and that all the settlements must be removed. Then Desmond Tutu, as I stood right next to him, talked about the power of people like Ghandi, Rosa Parks, MLK and the heroes of his own struggle against the Apartheid to eventually bring justice and equality. He spoke about Apartheid times and about how after all the blood, tears and strife, “in the end we won our freedom, and we won our oppressors’ freedom as well.” This was when I let the tears I had needed to shed all morning come out ever so slightly. I couldn’t hold in all the extreme emotion of the day anymore.

We gathered in the Village Council building and heard from other members of the Popular Committee and residents of the village, as well as from Shai Pollack, a longstanding activist and the maker of the film, “Bil’in My Love,” filling in my briefing with their powerful stories. Mohammed stole the crowd, as always, as he talked about what it means to choose non-violence and why a joint struggle with Israelis.

When it was time to say goodbye, I was saddened. But then I turned to Abdullah and Mohammed and over coffee we tried to process it all. And I realized I had never seen either of them that giddy and excited. And all I could feel was pride in Bil’in, gratitude for the visit, and honor that I got to be part of that day, and that I get to be part of this struggle at all.

There were several articles published today about the visit, and here are links to some of the main ones in the New York Times and Haaretz (Israel’s NYTimes).

For some reason, the Hebrew version is different from the English Haaretz, so I will just translate the last paragraph of the Hebrew for those of you who won’t be able to read it, and say that I’m floored:

(In an interview with Desmond Tutu and after talking about his dismay at many things he discovered are happening in Israel, including the banning of Ethiopian students from a school in Petah Tikva): “That said, he [Desmond Tutu] pointed out that during his visit he met with many wonderful young Israelis and Palestinians that warmed his heart. He was particularly impressed by by an Israeli lawyer named Emily Schaeffer, who assists Palestinians in demanding their rights and regularly participates in demonstrations against the separation wall. According to him, people like this strengthen his faith that as in South Africa, here too both peoples can change the situation and live peacefully side by side.”

If there were ever a time when Bil’in (and maybe even me) needed a boost of energy and a reminder of why they put so much at stake with so little to show for it, it was now.

In gratitude, hope and solidarity,

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common