The Lecture Tour in NYC

By EGM Contributor Tim Stoner

The Riverside Church in New York City is located where Harlem and the Upper West Side meet. It is a landmark interdenominational, interracial, international congregation that has been in the city for over 150 years. It is affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches. It is a grand old building that sits as a regal cornerstone in Morningside Heights. Russ Jennings, who works for the theater and Nyack College & Seminary, arranged for us to use the Riverside Theater inside the church to show the film.

We had heard that both President Obama and the first lady were going to be in town, and this spelled serious trouble for city traffic already notoriously congested. To avoid the inescapable traffic jams and be available for NY media, the panelists and a few others left Providence by car and traveled through the night.

The rest of the team took the four-hour bus ride the following morning. When we arrived, in the city it was clear that the early car had been an excellent idea. Traffic was hopelessly snarled and police were waving their arms and whistling at each intersection. We caught sight of soldiers and handfuls of powerfully built men in dark suits with earphones scanning the crowd, and walking in a protective shield around people we did not recognize.

President Obama and the Iranian president were each addressing the U.N. and everybody, it looks like, had shown up to listen. We found out later that Obama had stressed the same theme of equality that is at the core of Little Town of Bethlehem. He warned the delegates that if an agreement between Palestine and Israel was not reached, “Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors. . . . This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences instead of our common humanity.”

Block after block of bumper to bumper traffic and intersections guarded by exasperated police prevented us from taking a left turn and so we arrived at the theater one hour late by our reckoning, (though, apparently early by the venue’s). Understandably, our arrival created a bit of tension.

The auditorium with its velvet covered seats had the look and feel of a theater from another era. It was an evening marked by connections made and re-established. Sami’s sister, who lives in the city, came with her two small children to see their uncle. Rev. Khader.El-Yateem, pastor of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, was also there. He is an extended family member of Sami’s. He couldn’t stay, but left with a copy of the film to deliver to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, with whom he had a meeting that evening.

An inter-faith group from Germany is visiting the city, and could not stay for the film, much to their evident disappointment. They expressed a strong interest in screening it when they return home. The church has a strong and vibrant Israeli/Palestinian group that wanted to show the film to its members. One of the most unexpected connections was when the film’s director, Jim Hanon, was surprised by the presence of the young lady who had been his translator during the filming of The End of the Spear about a decade earlier.

Following the screening, Elik encouraged the students to get involved in nonviolent resistance, saying that “Israel needs to see the reality of the occupation. The general population needs to be forced to experience the dehumanizing factor of violence.” But, he explains, there is pragmatic justification as well for the presence of Americans in the demonstrations: “When there are whites and internationals present, the army will not shoot live bullets.”

In response to a question about the impact of the nonviolent movement, he answers by alluding to the role Little Town of Bethlehem might play. “This movie is describing the buds; the first leaves of something strong and powerful that is growing in the Near East. It shows the power that individuals have to effect real change and proves that the hope for change in the Middle East is not in political parties, but in the hands of the people. Our challenge is to create something real and tangible from these little shoots.”

Sami Awad clarifies the actual goal of the nonviolent movement: “Though we may have a political agenda at the end of day, what we are seeking is not achieving a certain state solution—we want to address the deep-rooted issues that are preventing the best solution for all to be achieved. My goal is not to resist occupation for the sake of resistance, but on order to establish a humane, just society. The tool must be as just and humane as the society it seeks to accomplish.”

“The common Israeli caricature of the Palestinian is of a violent brigand who lives on his sword,” explains Dr. Muli Peleg, professor of political science and communication, currently a Schusterman Visiting Professor at Rutgers University, and an expert in conflict resolution. “This image can be replaced by a wide scale nonviolent resistance movement. It would destroy that false mythology of violent Arab.” As an Israeli, he believes that “The abyss between the sides is fear and mistrust. That is the essence of the conflict. Once fear is conquered, all else will fall into place.”

Since he had lost his sister to a suicide bomb, Elik was asked how was it possible for him, serving in the military, to reject the impulse for vengeance. “I saw others who do not succumb to emotion and hatred,” he explains, “and this showed me a model of rationality that counteracted the incoherent model of revenge.” He makes clear that his choice was not for inaction or pacifism. “We are pragmatists. I am a peace activist, not a pacifist. Nonviolence is now my weapon of choice.”

Therewas  good interaction tonight and a strong encouragement to actual engagement in the struggle for peace. It began roughly, with stress and some strain, but we leave with hugs and laughs. Tomorrow morning we will be in Washington, D.C. for a press conference at the Washington Press Club. So, we will be driving through the night. Not sure I like the sound of that.

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