Olive oil on popcorn, anyone?

Palestine’s olive trees may seem a long way from the cornfields surrounding Ankeny, Iowa. But on a recent crisp fall weekend, a major conference organized by  AFSC’s Iowa staff and focusing on US policy in the Middle East brought the two lands closer together in spirit.

During a recent trip to Gaza, AFSC’s partners repeatedly asked Michael Merryman-Lotze, AFSC Program Director for Palestine-Israel, to “not present Gazans only as victims, but rather to make clear that they are average people with normal hopes, dreams, and fears,” he said.  The partners emphasized that the crisis in Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis, but rather a political crisis resulting from Israel’s continued occupation.

Gazans told him, “Don’t give us more humanitarian aid. We don’t need food.  We need political action that will help us build our country and achieve our rights.” Gazan journalist and author Laila El-Haddad repeated these sentiments nearly word for word during her keynote address at the Iowa conference.

Michael who also attended the conference, said, “This is an excellent example of how the conference provided participants with both messaging shaped by AFSC’s on-the-ground experience and the information and skills they need to help move forward US-based education and policy change efforts.”

With offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, AFSC works to uphold human rights and humanitarian law, build equality between Palestinians and Israelis, counter militarism, and end Israel’s occupation of the Palestine territories. AFSC’s position on the conflict and how to achieve a just peace is shaped by its belief in an ethic of reciprocity: what holds true for one side in the conflict should hold true for the other side.  This means that AFSC has consistently supported the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to self determination. 

In her earlier keynote address, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies  shared her optimism about improved prospects for redirecting US policy toward a greater emphasis on human rights and international law in Palestine-Israel. Now is an excellent time to push policymakers toward ending the $30 billion in military aid which the US intends for Israel over the next ten years, she emphasized A number of other experts led participants in a series of workshops, including one on Grassroots Organizing by Jennifer Bing of AFSC ‘sChicago office. Bing described a successful “Mock Congressional Hearing” and a bus ad campaign, both of which invited the public to be on the side of peace and justice in the Middle East.

Poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi from New York shared several powerful dramatic readings over a lunch hour. Remi is editor of Poets for Palestine and the author of Poetic Justice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine.

According to Kathleen McQuillen, AFSC’s lead conference organizer, participants are developing a statewide network in Iowa to consider next steps, such as connecting the issue of US S military aid to Israel with the “Occupy” movement sweeping the nation. Other ideas include offering a student-organizing tour and supporting churches as they consider  divestment  strategies targeting Israel’s illegal occupation.

Meanwhile, pass that tasty popcorn!