Occupation 4

With these words, Jenn Peto, a courageous, young activist told Israeli consular security that there was no way the eight Jewish women who had ruined his day by staging a protest inside the consulate would walk out voluntarily.

The group – women and queer including three Israeli-Canadians and ranging in age from mid-20s to late 50s – had come together in the way of a true movement. Less than two weeks ago, a group of committed peace activists sat around a circle and wondered how best to respond to the assault on Gaza. The idea of a sit-in in the consulate was thrown out and the group immediately recognized the need. Over the next couple of days, word spread to other social justice advocates in the city and a new formation cohered around the action.

The morning of the sit-in, as the wet snow choked the city streets, the sit-in participants and supporters met to make final preparations. We were nervous, expecting to face the kind of security that Israel is famous for. Many doubted we could get passed it and make our statement.

We headed up to the 7th floor in small groups and puffed up our Jewish and white privilege to get passed the bald-headed agent staffing the small wooden desk outside the windowless waiting room. More of our group slowly entered, each person holding on to the pink tab with a number for service at the one of the three windows on the far side of the room. The television silently displayed the carnage in Gaza as we waited to start our protest.

With eight of us inside, and the media on the way, Judy Rebick stood up and announced our intent to sit-in at the consulate in protest of the assault on Gaza. I was most surprised by the reaction in the room: stunned silence. Neither those present waiting for consular services, many of them Israelis, nor the consular staff, immediately reacted, as if the violence on the television was on a different planet and had nothing to do with the State that ran the office we were in.

The shock quickly passed of course and the subsequent reaction of Israeli security was, not surprisingly, a violent one. Telling us to leave immediately, we refused and security went straight for our loudest, youngest voice, attempting to pull her out the door. His attempt was interrupted by Judy who demanded that the guard take his hands off "her daughter." The guard then smashed b.h. yael’s camera, another member of the sit-in group, and as she reached for it, he hit her in the face.

By this time, the RCMP officer was inside the room. The perhaps frustrated but completely silent waiting room audience had also been cleared out. While the guard attempted to claim that we were in Israeli territory, the RCMP officer made it clear that we were not. From then on, the officer sat in the room with the eight of us, seated on the floor in a circle, watched by consular staff behind the windows, peering through pulled blinds. Negotiations between Canadian law enforcement and the Israeli consulate took place in the hallway. I couldn’t help but feel that Canadian law enforcement was protecting us from Israeli security.

What we would say or do once inside the consulate had been an unresolved question in our planning meetings, buried back in the agenda behind concerns about access, safety and media. Once started, though, I’d say the words, chants, songs, testimonies and statistics came out in rhythmic – if atonal – succession. We watched the casualties mount on television and updated our statistics – 700 dead and 3,000 wounded – in the loudest voice possible.

At one point, the staff behind the shutters started to sing "Haveinu Shalom Aleichem," "We have brought peace on you," a painful testament to the depth of Israeli delusion about the violence of occupation, completely coherent with the current message from the State itself: war is self-defense, Israel will free Palestinians, mass casualties of a civilian population will promote peace, etc.

Time loses its content in situations like this. I can’t say whether twenty minutes or two hours passed. It felt like forever and it felt like ten minutes. No doubt, for the dozens of amazing supporters outside, it felt like forever. We were informed by a police sergeant that we would be arrested and eight officers entered the room, one for each of us. Their treatment of us was beyond courteous. We were handcuffed, as gently as possible, read our rights and had our pockets searched. When Judy Rebick commented that she’d never been in handcuffs before, a sit-in participant immediately shot back, "Not even at home?" The officers went beet red. The moment of humour was appreciated by police and protesters within earshot.

Finally, we were led out of the building in our new pairs: one officer and one protester. A paddy wagon with individual compartments was parked at the top of the back parking ramp.

Down the ramp, we could hear supporters shouting "free Palestine" and "justice for Palestine" and we responded, chanting "massacre in Gaza, not in our name." We sat in the wagon for another period of empty time, chanting loud enough to hear one another, "We are Jewish women, not in our name." We were soon released.

The assault on Gaza continues. Since the assault began on December 27, at least 700 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians, and 3,085 wounded. In Toronto, a coalition of groups led by Palestine House is organizing another protest against the assault on Saturday, January 10 at 11 a.m. in front of the Israeli consulate on 180 Bloor St. More voices than ever are needed to call for an end to the injurious, bloody action in Gaza.

Marion Traub-Werner is a scholar-activist based in Toronto and a graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota. She works on questions of gender, labour and social justice in the global economy.

This article also appears in The Activist Magazine.