About Marilyn Garson

Gaza disrupted what I thought I knew about conflict, humanitarianism and our shared humanity, as it challenged the content of my beliefs.  I was a 50-year-old professional, and I thought I had figured these things out.

I grew up in Halifax, Canada.  My father’s dinner table rested on the Jewish foundations of debate and responsibility.  I absorbed his lessons with my three older sisters, although we would put them to different use.

One of my sisters remembers seeing me parked before the TV as a child, watching the Vietnam war unfold.  I was drawn not by the violence but by the villagers’ sudden, irredeemable losses.  Their shock looked looked the faces in Ma’alot: it wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Vulnerability made us human.

Cambodia was my magnet.  What made some villagers into the Khmer Rouge, and what became of the villagers who survived their epic crimes?

I left Canada in 1986, immigrated to New Zealand, and began to seek out the villagers of my childhood.  From 1998 – 2015, I worked primarily with communities trapped by war, socially and economically excluded within their own societies.  My colleagues have been whole people, of whom our news wants only a fragment.  I met them through their aspirations, and we designed social enterprises around their abilities:  Cambodians with disabilities and former child combatants (1998 – 2001), homebound Afghan women (2005 – 2010), and others.  In an American company called Overstock.com, I helped to launch Worldstock.com (2001 – 2003), using large e-commerce to create jobs for global artisans.

Along the way, I felt the nature and conduct of war changing.  I saw how Western, neoliberal donor states were changing their response to people like my colleagues.

In mid-2011, I had an unexpected chance to move to Gaza.  Gaza intrigued me for secular, professional reasons.  Someone built a wall, and I could never resist looking behind an errant wall.  Gaza is an anomaly:  the neoliberals knocked down every other barrier to trade, except that wall.  

And then, as an absentee sort of Jew, that wall was vestigially mine.  In Afghanistan, I had learned to distinguish Islam from Middle Eastern politics (only 15% of Muslims are Arab).  Judaism was a positive conversation-starter in my Afghan offices.  I would have liked to approach Gaza the same way, but I look too much like one of my sisters, who is active in Zionist politics.  Reluctantly, I withheld my Judaism from my Gazan colleagues.

I worked for 20 months as Mercy Corps’ Economic Director.  Then, following our study of the employment potential of IT, I worked a further 28 months as a consultant to the office of UNRWAs Gaza Director, Canadian Robert Turner.  We piloted the social enterprise that now operates independently as the Gaza Gateway, or GGateway.  I left Gaza in September 2015.

 For four years, I led teams of young Gazan parents.  They were all bilingual, with graduate degrees.  We employed dozens of recent university graduates.  We worked with aspiring, professional Gaza:  businesses, job-seekers, artists, freelancers and start-ups.  The walls of Gaza do not confine a single, undifferentiated enemy object.  They conceal a life-loving, complex society that treasures education and family.

Resistance is Gaza’s unifying civic virtue, and under pressure, Gaza coheres like contact cement.  But those walls press many forms of resistance into absurd proximity; those who sacrifice everything today, and those who protest by living each day meaningfully in inhuman conditions.  The walls empower the violent factions, who monopolize force in a closed space. 

 The wholeness of Gaza jostled with the stories that Jews and Israelis usually tell.  I studied by night, trying to respond as a Jew and a human being to the conflict and the Occupation. 

 I had skin on both sides, and that kept me from thinking that the conflict was simple.  We, as a civilization, have codes to clarify the conduct of conflict, minimize its harms, distinguish and protect non-combatants.  International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law are equalizers, because we all have people to protect. Human rights unite us in defining everyone’s rights as minimum elements of justice.  To understand such an asymmetrical conflict, laws assign responsibility in proportion to harms.  These became my framework, to transcend the sides – because, when I crossed into Gaza and looked back at Israel, I did not change sides.  I saw the futility of the sides. 

In 2014 – 15, I worked on UNRWA’s task force, updating the systems that allocate relief food.  Imagine yourself within a locked gate, formulating the fair distribution of 40 – 65% of the caloric needs of 800,000 food-insecure human beings.  I found myself wrestling very personally with the ethics of apportioning scarcity behind a wall.  The ethical problem is not the algorithm.  The problem is the wall that gives rise to poverty and hunger. 

 What is a wall that allows one powerful ethnic group to confine a weaker one?

I always rejected the prison metaphor, which overlooked the society within Gaza’s walls.  We accept prisons as permanent institutions in our societies, because we assume that individual prisoners have committed a crime.  We manage their time-limited confinement, because prisoners still have rights. 

In Gaza, babies are born into open-ended confinement.  That kind of wall implies that a whole ethnicity is permanently dangerous; so dangerous that it is less than human and undeserving of the most basic human rights.

‘Prison’ is too humane a category for that kind of wall.  That wall surrounds a ghetto.  ‘Ghetto’ acts differently on us.  I, as a Jew and as a person, am compelled to protest the existence of any ghetto wall, no matter who built it.  That is part of my assignment – that is part of Never Again.

  I oppose the walls of Gaza because I am a Jew.

I chose to remain in Gaza through the war of 2014, as part of the team that protected and assisted a civilian population in mortal danger.  Dehumanized and locked into the battlespace, Gazans were terribly exposed.  Israel’s strategy of wholesale civilian displacement, its massive destruction of homes and infrastructure mocked protection and nearly overwhelmed assistance.  I have told part of my recollection here

 I worked one further year in Gaza, and left in September, 2015.  Since then, the walls have locked me out.

Too many people died while I lived in Gaza.

 

 

Israel

Gaza

Killed in conflict

80

2612

Injured in conflict

1044

13,105

Population, 2014

8,300,000

1,816,000

Source

Wikipedia

OCHA

 

They continue to die.  

At home, I have begun to write and speak.  I am conscious of the privacy of my former teams, who did not then know they were working with a Jew.  With their agreement, I have begun by telling the story of “I”.  “We” still have a transformational story to tell.

When Copernicus discovered the real relationship of sun to earth, nothing and everything were changed.  For me, Gaza reconfigured the conflict that way.

I had not always thought that Israel was right, but I had always mapped the conflict with Israel at its center.  Surrounded, Israel fired defensively outward at hostile objects.  Gaza was one such object, until it acquired faces and stories and families and fears and talents.  Then, the IDF began firing in, into encircled neighbourhoods and cars and windows.

When you transpose Gazans’ lives onto your own, you begin to view the military choices differently.  You cease to tolerate the use of overwhelming power against neighbourhoods and schools.  A neighbourhood is not a battlefield, and Gaza is not Hamas.

That is, of course, exactly the transformation that the walls seek to preclude.  They make it harder for us – Jews and others – to see Gaza as itself (and they make it harder for Palestinians to see out).  We need to make a conscious, constant effort to humanize Gaza qua Gaza; to recognize Gazans as folks with every human value and emotion and capacity, including the capacity to resolve this conflict.  In addition to being simply reprehensible, the wall makes resolution least likely.  We humanize Gaza as a step toward getting rid of that wall, and improving the odds of resolution.

Israel is no longer the content of my religion.  When I distinguished my religion from Israel, Judaism was filled with practice and prayer, ethic, poetry, the music of the law, and mystery of bringing it into daily life.

When it is not cloaked in my religion, what are my obligations to Israel?  What is my responsibility for the things Jews do in the name of a Jewish state?  What is the content of this Jewish state, given that a majority of the people under its control are not Jews?  Whether we like it or not, we Jews are part of the Occupation.   Our silence and indifference and inaction are not neutral.  They are enablers, and we know it.

We have to talk about this, re-think it and resolve it.