Reflections on the School of the Americas Watch Convergence/Encuentro
Nogales, AZ and Nogales, MX, Oct. 7-10, 2106
Deborah Mayaan (JVP-Tucson) on coordinating the Jewish Voice for Peace presence at the Convergence
Here in Arizona, many of us have been connecting the militarization of the US-Mexico border with Israel/Palestine. We live under the shadows of the surveillance towers built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Israelis have trained not only Border Patrol agents, but also forces in Central and South America, contributing to the violence at the root of forced migration.
JVP-Tucson first connected with the School of the Americans Watch (SOAW) when an SOAW delegation attended our inaugural binational bilingual seder on both sides of the wall in Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Mexico in April, 2016.
In attendance at the seder was Beth Harris, member of JVP-Ithaca chapter who serves on JVP’s National Board. The SOAW delegation was seeking local connections in Arizona, because this their year their annual convergence would be held not at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the location of the School of the Americas, but instead at the border, to draw attention to border militarization and the root causes of migration. Beth suggested that JVP-Tucson, the chapter located closest to Nogales, take the lead on connecting JVP folks to the Convergence/Encuentro. Twelve JVP chapters endorsed the Encuentro, and JVP members came from Tucson, Austin, Albuquerque, San Jose, Baltimore, and Ithaca.
Friday, Oct. 7: Vigil outside an immigration detention center
We had planned a JVP gathering for Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, but our plans changed when the planned vigil outside the immigration detention center in Eloy, AZ was changed to a later start so that more people who were working a full day could attend. As dusk started to descend, members of Puente – the migrant justice group that organized this vigil event for the Encuentro – began passing out candles that looked just like the candles commonly used for Shabbat. Beth led us in the blessing for the kindling of nerot for Shabbat.
Saturday morning, Oct 8: veteran led march to the wall
The march was led by Veterans for Peace. Some of us started in Nogales, AZ and others in Nogales, Mexico. We met at the wall. Those on the Mexican side included veterans who had served in the military as undocumented immigrants, and had then been deported to Mexico. JVP-Tucson has benefitted from the work of two Israeli veterans, neither of whom could be at the march, so I wore a Veterans for Peace “Power to the Peaceful” t shirt to represent them and other Israeli vets who work for peace. At a certain point during the march, I recognized a voice behind me and turned to greet Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOAW, who I had met on his visit to Tucson prior to the Encuentro. Veterans for Peace has several styles of Ts, and he and I laughed to find that we were wearing the same one.
Saturday Afternoon Workshops
On Saturday afternoon, Sharat G. Lin and Silvia Brandon Pérez led a workshop on “Unequal Economies, “Free” Trade, Border Walls, Labor Migration, Policing, Remote Sensing and Mass Incarceration: The Israeli Connection.” Sharat G. Lin writes on labor migration and the Middle East. Silvia Brandon is an activist and writer on similar issues. The workshop was presented by San José Peace and Justice Center, Ecumenical Peace Institute & South Alameda County Peace and Justice Coalition.
As someone with a tech background who works in health care, I found it very moving to hear Sharat Lin speak about his work on improving accuracy in medical technology through signal-noise issues – until the company he worked for was bought out by Elbit Systems, and that work was applied to military technologies.
I appreciated Silvia’s redefinition of economic migrants as political refugees, reminding us that their children might starve if they did not migrate for work.
During the Q & A time, a Tucsonan sitting near the front made a sweeping statement expressing concern over the priorities of the local Jewish community. I raised my hand and when Silvia called on me, I addressed the person by name and referenced how we had just worked on an event together. In this “who am I, chopped liver?” moment, I simply affirmed that Jewish Voice for Peace too is part of the Jewish community. I had met Silvia through working on the planning of the interfaith service but had not heard her identify as having Jewish heritage until that moment, when she seconded what I said and spoke of how her grandfather would approve of her being a member of JVP.
A second Saturday afternoon workshop, led by Todd Miller, discussed border militarization practices in Palestine and the US/Mexico border. Todd Miller is a Tucson author of Border Patrol Nation, on connections between this border and Israel/Palestine. Todd and Gabe Schivone returned a little over a week before from a trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, thanks to grants from the Sparkplug Foundation and the Peace Development Fund, through the Southern Arizona Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Network.
It was standing room only – more than 150 people filled the room and we had to turn more away. Todd spoke of the thickening of the border, of the 100 miles in from the border as a constitution free zone, and how Israel and the US are sharing worst practices of border militarization.
Torah of justice study
In terms of planning, we learned the challenge of putting too many things into a day. In the early stages of planning, I put out a suggestion for Torah of justice study, and Alan Wagman from JVP-Albuquerque responded with rich thoughts that flowed for him. Unfortunately, we lost the opportunity to publicize this well. And those of us, me included, who were very interested, needed to rest and/or set up for the interfaith service during the time slot this had late in the afternoon. I really appreciate Alan’s graciousness, his willingness to proceed with moving forward with this study as a stand alone event we can offer by webinar or teleconference, and his humility in showing up to drive people and schlep things.
Saturday evening: the bi-national interfaith service
Liberation theology strengthens many border activists here, and I am thankful to be part of the wave of developing more opportunities for faith-based activism within JVP.
Early in the planning of the service, a Jewish member of the planning team, who opposed JVP, spoke privately to local faith leaders and faith-based immigration groups, seeking to disconnect the US/Mexico border issues from those of Israel/Palestine. She and some others on the planning committee then pushed repeatedly for Jewish representation to be from a Reform rabbi. I could only keep showing up and saying, “JVP was invited to be the rep,” thanks to assurance of our place from Maria Luisa Rosal, field organizer wtih SOAW and support from JVP.
When I met with members of the JVP Rabbinical Council I thought it would simply be for input into the collective teshuva/repentance, but it evolved into strategy and them offering of spiritual support. It was also easier for me to stay grounded when Beth Harris attended service planning meetings after I reached out for support.
I was thankful when Elaine Cohen from JVP – Austin responded to my call to co-lead our part of the interfaith service. She read in Spanish and I read in Hebrew. I practiced blowing shofar to prepare for the service, but I was dismayed that my tired throat could only produce feeble sounds. However, someone who had never heard a shofar loved it so much. It reminded me of the teaching that “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (G.K. Chesterton). So that we have the courage to step up and do things at whatever our skill levels, and we learn.
Faith leaders from other traditions recognized the teshuva as a powerful contribution. We were living our prophetic tradition and sharing the strengths of our ancient spiritual practices of healing. This was possible because of the collaborative efforts of national network of JVPers who came forward to share leadership of the service and other activities for the weekend. I am so grateful for everyone’s leadership and the many skills they brought – we were able to offer our segment of the service as fully bilingual (in our case trilingual) on our own, rather than lean on the already overstretched SOAW bilingual collective for translation or interpretation.
We are still debriefing the service, but to me the hardest thing was the lack of representation of one of the two local Native nations, the Tohono O’odham, whose unceded land we were meeting on. Two reps had been asked but did not think what they would offer would work in the short segments for the different traditions. The planning committee did not involve anyone from the local Native nations.
I think in some ways I was so focused on JVP, with defending our place in the convergence from those who wish to silence the conversation on Israel/Palestine, that I did not risk being even more vulnerable, potentially more marginalized, by speaking from my perspective as someone who also has Blackfoot lineage. But in our service planning debriefing I did reveal that and offer to be a liaison to the local Native nations for any future planning, so that we start off in the right way. It is easier to take that step now that JVP has a good track record.
And I also see how I had too much on my plate when others who had committed to working on coordinating JVP at the SOAW dropped out, and in some ways I functioned in the mode of a person just showing up to get a job done in a group dominated by white middle class people, leaving behind the parts of my self that do not fit, the parts that feel shame from experiences of being asked what I am, or having experiences of poverty and working class as well as middle class privilege. Those parts have the potential to offer what is most deeply healing, so this leads me to slow down and work for the inclusion of all within JVP and the groups we collaborate in.
Sunday, Oct. 9: direct action at a border patrol checkpoint
I took this day as a belated Shabbat, but in talking with Beth Harris the next day, I’ve come to reflect on the diversity of roles in direct action. Some roles are committed to riskier action, and choose to risk arrest. Some roles stay at a distance and give support by their presence and chanting and serving to help with practicalities if members holding high risk roles are arrested. Other roles stand in between, and can choose to take on more risk, or fall back to join those with less risky roles.
I have people in my life who support the work of JVP, but are uncomfortable being “on the front lines.” I’m thinking about the effect communicating that all roles are necessary, that people can play different roles instead of feeling some pressure that only the very brave have a place. As well as financial donations, there are a range of tasks that do not involve being in the spotlight and some don’t involve being out in public with the group. Various people may choose their involvement at different times–listening, editing, making suggestions, organizing spiritually nurturing gatherings, making soup, being the photographer – all of these roles are critical.
Monday, Oct. 10: Not Columbus Day, but Indigenous Peoples Day–Chukshon (The O’odham name for the area that Tucson was later built upon)
Knowing I would be going to Indigenous Peoples Day later, I chose to put on a JVP “Palestinians should be free” T-shirt before driving Elaine to the train station. The coffee shop next door was a perfect place to set up my laptop and sort through and crop photos. Engrossed in my work, I forgot about the shirt until a traveler asked me about it. I was a little nervous with this big man (I am a small person) looming over me, but when I gave a basic explanation, a great conversation started. While his church did not have a policy on divestment like many of the mainline denominations now do, it was great to experience one of the evangelicals who are also ready to examine the narratives they have been taught.
Indigenous Peoples Day itself was a fairly small gathering after the crush of people in Nogales, but I enjoyed walking with Beth and her friend IxChel. It felt good to support the fledgling event, and be part of the change not only with regards colonization in Israel-Palestine, but also here where we live.