One of the hallmarks of democracy is the ability of people to connect with the legislative process through their elected officials. Unfortunately, all too often, the political sphere seems completely disconnected from our everyday lives and the issues we are passionate about. Choose Hope, an advocacy summit hosted by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and Millennial Voices for Peace (MVforPeace), gave students and young professionals the opportunity to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, practice advocacy, and interact with their congressional representatives.
The summit participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of awareness about the conflict. Many had travelled to Israel/Palestine with churches or on educational trips and were looking for ways to get involved from the US. One of the participants, Shelby Mathis, had stayed in Israel/Palestine for a month in the summer of 2015. “In my time there, I saw a lot of things that made me uncomfortable and a lot of things that made me really hopeful,” she said. “Since I’ve come back, in the last two years I’ve been trying to find ways to deal with some of the struggle, the Palestinian struggle and the Israeli struggle, but also how to elevate the voices of hope.”
Other participants came to the conference looking to engage with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the first time. Danielle Chun first heard about the summit from the Office of Social Justice of her denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. “Being able to listen to firsthand stories from Palestinians as well as all the different sides that are involved in this issue has been a learning experience for me; I think it’s been very eye opening,” Chun said. “It’s been a very hopeful experience to know there are so many groups and people who are advocating for peace in the Middle East. I do think [peace] is something that can come about in our lifetime, and so it was encouraging to be a part of that opportunity to be involved.”
The first full day of the summit was dedicated to hearing from a wide array of speakers with connections to the conflict: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian voices. The keynote speaker of the morning, Yousef Bashir, shared about his experience growing up in Gaza. When he was around the age of 15, his house was taken over by the Israeli military. Bashir’s father strongly believed in nonviolence, and insisted that the family would not leave the house as an act of peaceful resistance. One day, Bashir was shot by an Israeli soldier as he was exiting the house. He was taken to an Israeli hospital and treated by Israeli doctors. Bashir began to see the conflict differently, and dedicated himself to understanding the Israeli side and pursuing peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. Summit participant Hava Zuidema found Bashir’s story especially compelling: “I liked how he talked about forgiveness, and how he forgave the Israelis even after everything his family went through. I thought he was inspiring,” Zuidema said.
Following Bashir’s keynote presentation were several panels about different avenues for advocacy – Christian engagement, campus engagement, and creative engagement. Mathis enjoyed the panel on creative engagement the most, especially hearing from Bshara Nassar, whose family farm, Tent of Nations, Mathis stayed on when she visited Israel/Palestine in 2015. “What I take from Bshara, in terms of creative engagement, is that it doesn’t have to look a certain way,” Mathis said. “I think we all have gifts and talents that we can put to good use. For me personally, that is being an artist and a graphic designer vocationally, getting gears turning on how to best use those skills and talents to help promote peace in the region.”
The panel on campus engagement likewise provided thought provoking perspectives and dialogue. Panelist Rachel Stryer works with J Street U, a Jewish campus organization that is a part of J Street and advocates for a two-state solution. Youval Yadlin works with OneVoice and Seeds for Peace, organizations that promote dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the pursuit of peace. The panelists discussed the challenges of working in campus environments that have become increasingly polarized. Although pro-Israel and pro-Palestine views are often portrayed as mutually exclusive, Stryer and Yadlin gave a different perspective – one that strongly supports the security of Israelis, as well as self-determination for the Palestinians.
The second day of the summit was a time to practice advocacy and engage with elected officials. The day began with a briefing in the Capitol by the mayors of Bethlehem and Wadi Foquin, who both shared about challenges they faced in the West Bank. In the afternoon, summit participants were split into groups based on which states they were from, and went to their respective congressional offices. Each group presented the Millennial Voices for Peace Statement of Principles, which describes a holistic approach to peacebuilding and a commitment to the well being of both Israelis and Palestinians. Participants also advocated for the continuation of aid to the the West Bank and Gaza for humanitarian assistance.
The chance to speak with representatives or their staff was something many of the summit participants were doing for the first time. “Meeting my members of congress today was empowering,” Chun said. “Being at the conference and being coached [by CMEP staff] through different stories and how we could approach the issue was very helpful beforehand. While we were [visiting the congressional offices] it was good to see [the staffers] as people who would listen to us as their constituents.” Another participant, Amber Reed, felt the same way: “This was my very first time doing something like this,” she said. “Honestly, I’m not super involved in politics or in the know with who my representatives are, and so that was really cool to match faces to names I’ve heard, and empowering to get to talk to them, share my story, and just be personal with them.”
The summit ended with a round-table discussion of the previous few days. Although the summit brought to light the complexity of the conflict, the discussions, panels, and advocacy also brought hope. “The most impactful thing while being here is seeing how many people have a heart for this part of the world, and all the diverse ways that people are contributing to making peace in the land,” Reed said at the end of the conference. “It’s really encouraging and hopeful and inspiring.”
The Choose Hope Summit was organized by Molly Lorden, CMEP’s Millennial Engagement Coordinator. If you are interested in learning about future opportunities for engagement, Molly can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Churches for Middle East Peace will be hosting its next summit in Washington, D.C. June 17-19, 2018 – And Still We Rise: Transforming U.S. Policy Toward a Just Middle East. And Still We Rise will focus on the contributions and leadership of women peacemakers, but both men and women are encouraged to attend. For more information, visit http://cmep.org/werise2018/.
The next summit specifically focused on Millennial Advocacy will be in Washington D.C. from January 12-14, 2019.