By Emily Weisberg / Palestine Monitor
Dozens of writers, activists, students, filmmakers and human rights organizers came to Olympia, Washington USA over the weekend of April 8-9 for the 5th annual Peace Works conference, organized by the Rachel Corrie Foundation.
The Rachel Corrie Foundation, began in 2003 following the killing of 23-year-old Rachel by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, seeks to continue her legacy through community building and the promotion of human rights activism. Created by Rachel’s parents Cindy and Craig, the foundation began the Peace Works conference in 2006 to “bring people together to address issues of war, racism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and oppression of individuals, groups, and peoples.”
The conference was held at the Evergreen State College, which Corrie attended before her death. Workshops and lectures were offered on a variety of current Palestine-Israel issues including water rights, diminishing borders, displaced villages, the recent onslaught of racist laws, home demolitions, ethnic cleansing, class struggles, colonization, trivialization of memory, and the success and challenges in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The conference featured writer and poet Alice Walker on Friday evening, a sold-out event during which Walker discussed her own trip to Gaza with the Corries in 2009.
Abedalhadi Basheer, a student from Deir al-Balah, Gaza, attended to speak about the ethnic cleansing and apartheid rule that he and his family face in their own country. Basheer, who came to the United States four months ago as a PhD student under a special scholarship from Washington State University, said he has seen some Palestinian solidarity since coming to Washington, but that much of Gaza’s story is left out.
“I’m a student, I also have a message,” said Basheer, who met the Corries on one of their trips to Gaza after Rachel’s death. He believes Rachel is a symbol of hope, and that her message is critical.
The Corries were unable to make it to the Peace Works conference this year, due to the ongoing trial in Israel over their daughter’s death, a case that the Corries initiated in 2005. The Corries flew to Haifa to resume the trial in March, with court sessions beginning April 3rd.
Though unable to be there in person, a video-chat was set up with the Corries so their friends who had flown in for the conference from all over the world could speak with them.
“Three-quarters of the witnesses who have testified this week have done so from behind a screen,” Cindy Corrie said of the most recent court proceedings during the video-chat. Since the beginning of the trial, Israel has allowed the state’s witnesses to hide their identity even from Cindy and Craig. “When you hear their voices, but cannot see their facial expressions, it is really dehumanizing.”
The opposite was true of Peace Works, with long time friends and new acquaintances sharing everything from laughs, to personal stories, to organizing tips and hurdles. Noah Sochet, a former Olympia resident came back to town for the conference to reconnect.
“The Corries are amazing,” Sochet said, regarding the foundation and all its work. “Peace Works is the best place – the only place – to share skills, problem solve and build coalitions.”
Sochet emphasized the role of Olympia in the Palestine solidarity movement, as well as the movement’s diversity.
“Olympia has a powerful history with activism,” he said. “The work being done here are highlighting values that are so in line with Jewish values. It makes me really proud to be a Jew in Olympia.”
There has been a lot of backlash recently from the mainstream Jewish community in the Pacific Northwest regarding Palestine solidarity work being done in Olympia. Local Jews who participate in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions work received death threats and hate mail. The Peace Works conference is quick to refute claims of anti-Semitism, hosting workshops led by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Jews in Diaspora, Sochet said, especially the many Jews in attendance at Peace Works, “are leading the push to rethink and redefine who we are and what role Israel plays in our life.”
Like Sochet, those in attendance at Peace Works see the work imperative to the civil rights struggles of our day. Alice Walker, who played a role in the African-American Civil Rights movement, agreed.
“[The BDS movement] is like the grandson of Martin Luther King, the granddaughter of Rosa Parks,” Walker praised during her talk on Friday evening.
Peace Works comes at a time of great change, both in Olympia and around the world. As attacks on Gaza have increased in recent days, and in the small town of Olympia, the anti-BDS movement grows more vehement, conferences such as Peace Works help to build community and bring people together for progressive change.
“This is a revolutionary time in the Arab world and elsewhere,” said Egyptian journalism Sharif Abdel Kouddous, opening the conference on Saturday.
“There are times people will always look back and remember. This is one of them.”
Emily Weisberg is a Pacific Northwest-based photojounalist, studying photography and Middle Eastern studies at the Evergreen State College. She specializes in capturing people interacting with their environment, and has worked on several multimedia documentary pieces.