About Marilyn Garson
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.
I parked myself in front of the TV as a child, watching the Vietnam war unfold between cartoons. I was drawn not by the violence but by the villagers’ sudden, irredeemable losses. 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, and further socially and economically excluded within their own societies. I met my colleagues 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. 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 was active in Zionist organizations. 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 UNRWA’s 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, and are told. 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. I turned to International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, which value the humans equally, even as they face grossly different dangers.
In 2014 – 15, I worked on UNRWA’s task force, updating the systems that allocate relief food. Imagine yourself behind a locked gate, devising systems that will distribute 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, which produces avoidable poverty and hunger.
What is a wall that allows one powerful ethnic group to confine a weaker one?
I have always rejected the prison metaphor, which overlooks the whole 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. The blockade wall classifies a whole ethnicity as dangerous – so dangerous that its members are less than human. They no longer deserve the most basic human entitlements.
‘Prison’ is too humane a category for that kind of wall. That wall surrounds a ghetto. I, as a Jew and as a person, am compelled to protest the existence of any ghetto wall, no matter who built it.
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.