Born a Palestinian Christian in Jerusalem just months before the founding of Israel, Nora Carmi travels the world rallying support for her dwindling community of Christians in the Holy Land. She spoke to Kasia Mychajlowycz during a June speaking tour of Canada.
KASIA MYCHAJLOWYCZ: Tell me what brings you here as a representative of Palestinian Christians.
NORA CARMI: I have been in Canada on previous occasions also. I cannot miss an opportunity of telling my brothers and sisters all over the world the actual facts of what is going on in Palestine and Israel, with the hope that together we can bring about a change.
KM: What is the situation like for Christians in Palestine? Is it getting better or worse?
NC: I think the occupation is tighter. Even working in organizations within Jerusalem, we are under the scrutiny of the [Israeli] government, and so we really have to tell the truth but be careful about how we act.
KM: What is more difficult now as the occupation tightens?
NC: One is access and motion; it was once much easier to cross from one area to another. There is even a new system of control at checkpoints for cars, so that in itself is delaying more and more our coming and going. The permit system whereby for everything you need to have a permit, even to worship, that is as stupid as anything, frankly. Not only is the permit system against international law, but imagine that you and I are from the same family: you may get [the permit] and I will not get it.
KM: Do you know why that is?
NC: There’s no logic. There’s no rationale. It’s just harassment, humiliation, making life difficult . . . with the intention that people will feel obliged to leave the country.
KM: What do you do to renew yourself and maintain hope?
NC: I’m very much involved in the community on all cultural and social levels. But being part of
a community, and being part of the mosaic of Jerusalem, is a challenging revival day in and day out for me. I am a believer, not particularly a daily churchgoer, definitely, but I feel that faith is translated into action, and it’s within these actions that I find faith.
KM: You started working at the YWCA in 1978. How did you see your life unfolding then?
NC: My children call me the professional volunteer, but my work has been in community building since 1967, 1968. When I started with the YWCA, I wasn’t involved in the public sphere so much as in the educational sphere. I taught young women who had finished high school but did not have the opportunity to go to university. I was happy with that, but that kind of work also took me into refugee camps and other places where I could see the suffering of others. And I had to tell about this suffering.
KM: You helped draft the Kairos Palestine document, a 2009 statement by Palestinian church leaders that condemns the Israeli occupation and calls on Christians around the world to take a stand. How has the response to this document been in your travels, from churches and other groups, including those who disagree with you?
NC: Let’s start with the churches. Right from the beginning of the launch, councils of churches in Europe and Asia and Africa were present, and they gave their general input. The United Church of Canada has also been very positive about the Kairos document. We have not had much response from the Catholic Church, not in Canada. We’ve had some Quaker groups from all over the world that have responded positively. Some churches had questions, about certain parts pertaining mainly to BDS [the document supports a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel], but on the whole I must say that the positive responses were larger than the negative ones.
KM: In May, a United Church working group on Israel-Palestine policy released a report that recommends economic action against settlement products. What did you think of the report when you read it? It stops short of a total boycott of Israel.
NC: I feel that The United Church of Canada has made tremendous steps forward in being openly vocal. When it comes to economic measures, I feel the report is selective, it could go further, but having been at the UCC assembly [General Council] in 2009, I think there is definitely progress. Many people would say it’s not enough. I say we need to let the churches move according to their pace, but as long as they are all moving toward a positive stand, I think that’s good.
KM: In the working group’s report, it says the window for a two-state option is drawing to a close, and the group does advocate for that solution. Do you agree that there is a finite amount of time and that it’s ending?
NC: Yes, yes, I totally agree; Israel makes it almost impossible to have a viable state on the 22 percent of land that we have asked for. So I can understand the United Church position of still asking for a two-state solution, because it’s the only way that you can apply international resolutions that were taken, and to which Israel can be made accountable, which it has not been. I mean, it’s the last chance, the last opportunity, really.
KM: Why is time running out for a two-state solution?
NC: Land grabs, more settlements, more restrictive measures also. With the [separation or security] wall, we will be totally enclosed and encircled. So this in itself is leading to facts on the ground that are irreversible, and then we won’t have anything left.
KM: How are young people in your community feeling about their prospects?
NC: You see a realism and despair setting in on the political level, because it’s not yielding anything. Yet at the same time, our younger people are realizing that the future is in their hands, and they can do something about it. We’ve always said youth are the future; I say the youth are now, and they can really take responsibility now.
KM: Many Christians make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at some point. Is there a favourite spot in Palestine you always recommend to people?
NC: Of course, people cannot not go to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is my city, my hometown, and I love it. But I think when coming on a visit, they have to see it with their inner eyes and not just what they see on the outside. Jerusalem can be very disappointing and very inspiring. If you look at the city in its totality, it has not changed much since the time of Christ. You still have exactly the same patriarchal society, but also you will find the vendors, the listeners, the faithful — and I think that in its richness, it’s something you have to see.
But you cannot come to Jerusalem without seeing the areas where the [Palestinian] homes are going to be demolished. You have to see all that; you have to see the ugliness of the settlements encircling it.
KM: What do you hope to achieve in your visit here?
NC: I hope that by being here I have clearly sent out the message that we Palestinians are in need of support. I hope I can take back the message to my own people that we are not alone; the churches are with us, and will do their utmost so that there will be a just peace in the Holy Land.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s September 2012 issue with the title “I feel that faith is translated into action, and it’s within these actions that I find faith.”