In November 1997, Sabeel Board Member Cedar Duaybis met with a group from the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa just as they were finishing their visit of the Occupied Territories in Jerusalem. After hearing of their experiences imbued with their shock at the cruelty of the occupation and how it was affecting the Church, Cedar serenely asked, “So now you’re stuck with the truth; what are you going to do about it?”
At the time, that was perhaps a most provocative question for this unassuming group, which included the Bishop of Ottawa, John Baycroft. Yet so begins the story of Canadian Friends of Sabeel.
At the Christmas Eve midnight mass the next month, Bishop Baycroft preached an innocuous sermon on his experience in Bethlehem. The main newspaper in the capital, The Ottawa Citizen, published the headline, “Bishop Slams Israel’s evil.” Predictably, it drew widespread criticism in the letters to the editor, from the Israeli Embassy and the Lobby including the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which didn’t hesitate to provide directives on what is appropriate for preaching the Gospel!
In any event, Bishop Baycroft reiterated he had nothing to apologize for, and standing his ground decided to call for a conference in Ottawa on Justice and Peace in the Holy Land. A key turning point in the conference occurred when a CJC representative invoked the Holocaust in a question to the panel, which brought a hushed silence until panelist and Jewish theologian Dr. Marc Ellis responded that the Israel lobby would not silence those who felt compelled to give voice to the truth about Palestine.
Accordingly, out of the conference workshops, participants decided that an appropriate initiative was a solidarity organization to accompany Sabeel. The mandate of CFOS has primarily focused on support to Sabeel Jerusalem on a partnership model, and through education and advocacy in Canada.
Planning around CFOS structure and programming was eclipsed by fast moving events on the ground and consequently, the most enduring structure of CFOS became the National Steering Committee, later the Board. The Board has met on a monthly or quarterly basis, mainly by telephone and occasionally in face-to-face meetings.
Almost all of us were in our 30s at the time, now in our 50s! They included Monica Lambton (still in her 30s, forever young) who is still on the Board, and who volunteered at Sabeel in the early ‘90s, and myself, who served at the same time as Director of the Jerusalem office of the Middle East Council of Churches (’92-’95) and Anglican Vicar of Gaza. Several Board members then and since have served in the Occupied Territories, including well known people who had done so for many years, such as current members Kathy Bergen and Cathy Nichols.
The 1998 conference was supported by FOSNA, and we began as a chapter of FOSNA but quickly struck out on our own. I have also been a Board member of FOSNA since its founding, and recently we have developed a closer relationship with them to our mutual benefit.
Also that year, Sabeel issued the 50th anniversary commemorative Photo Exhibit of al-Nakba with Canadian assistance. FOSNA produced 10 copies and gave us one, which we moved around the country. When the Canadian Jewish Congress complained that it was displayed in the rotunda of Toronto City Hall, Canada’s largest circulation paper, The Toronto Star, wrote a positive piece on the exhibit, quickly putting Canadian Friends of Sabeel in the public eye. The mayor then responded critically, forcing him to have a meeting with us and the Canadian Arab Federation at which time he issued an apology.
CFOS worked with Sabeel to develop the renewed 60th anniversary edition of the photo exhibit in 2008, updating it for the 65th anniversary, and then digitizing it as a free download http://necefsabeel.ca/?page_id=1107 .
In 2000, shortly after the photo exhibit controversy, the second Intifada broke out and as CFOS Chair, I was called upon to do much public speaking, including on Parliament Hill which received some media coverage and exposure for CFOS. I was also invited to travel with United Church minister Rev. Tad Mitsui to Palestine on a fact-finding mission and to deliver a message of support from Canadian church leaders to Palestinian church leaders. When the news of the church leaders’ support for Palestinian colleagues was leaked to the CJC, they successfully sabotaged the letter, leaving us waiting in Jerusalem for a letter that never arrived. This proved to be embarrassing to the mainline churches and left the Arab community upset. A CFOS arranged presentation by Fr. Assaly and Rev. Mitsui to this community strengthened solidarity links to Canadian Christians and Arab-Canadians but relationships with the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC)—which at the time was responsible for any official church leaders’ letters—were damaged.
At around this same time, Inter-Church Action hosted a round table on Palestine. The CCC President, the Most Rev. Archbishop of Calgary, was present, as were Canon Naim Ateek and Jean Zaru from Sabeel. The truth about CJC systematic silencing surfaced, and reshaped the Middle East work of the Canadian Churches, isolating it from the influence of the Israel Lobby as the CJC was the Jewish partner in the national Christian-Jewish dialogue.
In retrospect, this became the watershed moment of waning influence of the Lobby in the churches. After a series of ‘difficult’ moments exposing the CJC over subsequent years, the 40 year old official national Christian-Jewish dialogue was suspended, freeing the churches to address honestly the justice issues raised by the Palestinian churches and organizations.
A couple of years later, we held a conference in Toronto and published the proceedings in a book, Stuck with the Truth, and later a video by the same name. This drew a lot more interest in our work. While there was much work, including a daily e-news service before the days of high-speed internet, our next conference was in 2005 in Toronto. This was an international gathering for NGOs on Sabeel’s “Morally Responsible Investment” document. We brought together 150 NGOs from Canada, the US and Europe to consider the question of what was quickly becoming known as BDS.
In those years CFOS hosted several speaking tours of Canon Naim Ateek and other Sabeel leaders from Palestine. This helped develop relationships at several levels between the national churches, Sabeel and the Jerusalem churches. As a result, the Canadian churches and Church Related Organizations (CRO) became Sabeel’s largest funder for a few short years. This came to an abrupt halt in 2009, in a national political scandal when the Canadian government falsely accused Kairos Canada, the ecumenical justice umbrella, of anti-Semitism in its work in Palestine. It then defunded Kairos (and several other CROs and even governmental organizations) supporting progressive justice work in Palestine and Israel.
Due to the circumstances, and in response to the Kairos Palestine document, CFOS convened the Canadian churches and CROs, the broadest meeting of such groups in Canada on the issue of Palestine, and have been doing so around a table in Toronto ever since, in what is known as the Forum. This provides us all an opportunity to coordinate and support one another’s work on Palestine, and out of which came initiatives towards BDS.
For the past five years we have been able to maintain a half- or full-time position of a Programme Coordinator. Our new Coordinator is the multi-talented Sharone Daniel, who, is also leading our Organizational Development. Our major project this year has been the North American “Seeking the New Jerusalem” conference in Vancouver http://necefsabeel.ca/?page_id=973 , sponsored by CFOS, FOSNA, and the Presbyterian, United and Anglican churches of Canada. Several initiatives have come out of this, including an upcoming round table on Divestment to help the churches explore the issue.
Also, two exciting programmes emerged as part of the CFOS effort to develop a concept we coined a couple of years ago – Authentic Christian Pilgrimage (ACP). While we have dreams to internationalize the concept that helps churches understand what authentic Holy Land pilgrimage entails, these two initiatives have set us on course. At last year’s Kairos Palestine conference in Bethlehem, a dynamic speaker from Ireland, Gearóid Ó Cuinn outlined a project of Irish Lawyers for Human Rights, to educate pilgrims on the reality of the Holy Land by using consumer law to require tour operators to properly describe their trips. This means no more “Jerusalem (or Bethlehem), Israel” or unidentified trips to settlements. After their success in Ireland and penetrating into the EU, Gearóid addressed the Vancouver conference by Skype, which launched a similar initiative in Canada. The Americans are watching our project to see if it can then be implemented in the USA.
Recently, for our annual James Graff Memorial Lecture, we hosted Sara Roy speaking on Gaza, with over 200 in attendance. The audio is available on our http://necefsabeel.ca/
This is a prelude to a national speaking tour of a Gazan we expect to organize in 2016 with the Canadian churches. Over the years, CFOS has developed some meaningful partnerships in Gaza, and at a minimum been able to tangibly express solidarity through these painful years.
In terms of advocacy, we have experienced in Canada a decade of darkness with a government pandering to populist evangelical sentiment on Israel. However, CFOS is currently in the midst of a campaign to have Canada vote intelligently on November 25 on the annual package of resolutions at the UN on Palestine. We have asked the new Foreign Minister for a meeting with us and the churches. Every indication is that the new government sworn in last week intends to overturn much of the legislation and practices of the previous decade, including pulling our military out of Iraq and Syria even in light of the terrible events in Paris. Hopefully a new government brings a new day and hopes to restore Canada’s credibility in and throughout the region. We look forward to again dialoguing with them.
And mostly we look forward to the exciting mission and programmes we are called to by virtue of our Christian faith. The opportunity to further ministries of justice and peace in solidarity and partnership with our partners in Palestine continues to energize and empower us.