Tour Day Four: National Press Club & Georgetown University

By EGM Contributor Tim Stoner

A little before 9:00 in the morning, the team made the short trip from our hotel in Arlington to the National Press Club in “the district.” Nobody had had more than a few hours of sleep, nevertheless, we arrived a full hour before the start of a formal press conference where Sami Awad would be interviewed by correspondent Lacinda Barrow with the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation.

Just after 10:00, EGM’s president, Bill Oechsler, welcomed members of the press and introduced Dr. Mubarak Awad, who served as moderator. Dr. Mubarak is the founder of the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem, and is currently a professor at American University. He is also Sami’s uncle. In the documentary film Little Town of Bethlehem, Sami recounts the story of his uncle’s arrest and deportation to the United States as a direct result of non-violent actions in Palestine.

In his opening comments, Dr. Awad expressed optimism toward President Obama’s recent remarks during the United Nations General Assembly that had called for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within one year. Especially encouraging, he said, was Obama’s hope at the following year’s summit Palestine would be recognized as a member of the United Nations.

Sami Awad, Elik Elhanan, and Jim Hanon fielded questions for more than an hour. Richard Eisendorf, public affairs officer at International Resources Group, noted a lack of press coverage on the nonviolence movement. “It’s the best kept secret in Israel,” commented Elhanan. He went on to explain that this is why Little Town of Bethlehem is such an important film: “it focuses attention on a vitally important movement that is systematically ignored by all sides.”

Later in the afternoon, an advance team from EGM headed across the Key Bridge from Rosslyn, Virginia into Georgetown. Arriving at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, we were warmly received by Maggie Daher who had been instrumental in organizing not just the evening’s film screening, but a special reception for about 50 guests immediately prior. Our host for the evening was CCAS’ director, Dr. Barbara Stowasser. Her energy and passion were infectious and helped set the tone for the EGM team, and especially for the panelists.

Across campus at the Rafik B. Hariri Auditorium, crowds gathered to be among the first to see Little Town of Bethlehem. Poised on the Hilltop, this award-winning, 400-seat auditorium was the “first major building on campus to be funded fully through the philanthropic support of our community,” as emphasized by Georgetown’s president John J. DeGioia at its 2009 dedication.

In her opening remarks to the audience, Dr. Stowasser acknowledged the program’s co-sponsors, the School of International Service at American University and Nyack College and Seminary. She then welcomed the panelists and introduced director Jim Hanon, who in turn provided a brief introduction to the film.

When the lights came back up, and as soon as the panelists took their places on stage, the audience questions and comments started. They were pointed and thoughtful, as one would expect from an audience of engaged students, faculty, and members of the community. They seemed to come in flurries. After a time it was evident that those in the area of public policy and international relations were well represented in the audience.

In one of his first responses to a questioner, Elik made a strong declaration. “Everything I say comes out of a deep love for my country, Israel,” he says. “But I completely reject the dichotomy of either being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The most desirable thing is to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. And definitely pro-Peace.”

Sami stated that “The most basic and important issue facing those committed to nonviolence is empowering people to say ‘enough is enough, we will not give in to apathy and despair, we will engage in actions to liberate ourselves. However, in doing so we will not use tools to dehumanize others or take away their rights to gain our own.’ And then he drew a helpful distinction, “nonviolence attacks the structures that create violence but not the people who utilize violence.”

Elik responded to a question about the success of nonviolence with some of the most striking words yet uttered on the tour. “We are not a success story. We are failures,” he admitted. “We have not stopped a killing, or moved back the occupation.” This prompted him to challenge the audience about the importance of engaging actively in the struggle and once again reinforced the fact that nonviolence is not passive but very, very active.

Someone in the audience wondered about how those in the nonviolence movement could maintain their commitment given their own pain as well as the constant pressures they face. Speaking as a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces and one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, Elik responded, “The thing that gives us the drive to keep going is the solidarity and camaraderie between the most unlikely partners. The reality is we are not all good people. We are bad people. We have killed. But we have changed and in the process we have found our own humanity and in doing so we have found the humanity of the other side.”

In words that brought applause from the audience, he continued by saying that he has been inspired by Palestinian families who have lost loved ones but have chosen to forgive and work for peace. “They have lost more than I and yet take the incredibly courageous step of reaching out to their enemies. As an Israeli, this inspired me. In front of this example how could I do anything less?”

After the formal Q&A ended, dozens swarmed around the panelists to share a personal story, occasional hug, word of encouragement, etc. Nearly an hour later the auditorium was shut down, but people congregated just outside its doors and continued to speak with the panelists, members of the EGM team, and each other.

And not far away, correspondent Lacinda Barrow with the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation could be seen, microphone in hand and camera rolling. Having started the day with interviews at the National Press Club, she was now wrapping up her coverage at Georgetown University. Yes, energy and passion seemed to be in abundance in D.C.

Tomorrow we have a screening at certainly the most inspiring of the tour’s venues, The National Cathedral. We are still waiting for word about where Yonatan Shapira is and what he is engaged in that kept him from joining the tour.

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