Is Impartiality Possible? An Interview with Ecumenical Accompaniers

In such a highly politicized environment as Israel-Palestine, I have become interested in the concept of the international observer. What can be gained from simply observing? Is it possible to understand both sides of this conflict without polarizing one of them? Can a meaningful political position coexist with impartiality? Is it possible for events in a conflict to change simply as a result of being observed? I spoke to Jonathan Adams and Chris Cox, both volunteers with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

EAPPI: Actions and Attitudes

Funded by the World Council of Churches, the EAPPI brings internationals to the West Bank to experience and report on life under occupation, raise awareness back home, and provide a protective presence to Palestinians. Following the endorsement of the program by the Church of England’s General Synod earlier this month, a wave of criticism has arisen from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Lord Chief Rabbi Sacks, and the Israeli and British media. This criticism varies in intensity, from the statement of Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that the EAPPI is “an inflammatory and partisan programme” that “lacks any kind of balance” to priest-in-charge and Guardian columnist Giles Fraser’s assessment that “where EAPPI is open to challenge is if those who return from 40 days at an Israeli Checkpoint believe that this qualifies them as mini-experts on the entire politics of the region.” Despite differences in register, both these complaints seem to center around the attitudes supposedly embodied by EAPPI volunteers. Anger is directed towards a suspected ‘anti-Israeli’ perspective, and worry towards a one sided view.

With the aim of investigating these attitudes, I interviewed first Jonathan Adams, a retired Anglican vicar now volunteering with the EAPPI in Jerusalem, and Chris Cox, freelance British journalist and EAPPI volunteer based in Hebron. Interestingly both initially came at the Israel-Palestine conflict from what one might call a Jewish perspective. Jonathan’s parents had, throughout the ‘30s, been actively involved in fighting fascism, and he grew up with “a strong commitment to the notion that the Jews needed security.” It was not until 1975 that he heard, through a friend of a friend, about what life was like in a Palestinian refugee camp – an education which gave him the idea that “there were injustices here” and which “tugged at his sleeve for more than 35 years”, until his retirement made it possible to do something about it. Chris became interested in the issue through the medium of literature: the American Jewish authors he studied during his literature MA “immersed [him] in Jewish culture” which led his interest towards Israel and Palestine. He went on to write for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Palestine News Magazine. He said of his involvement in this activism campaign “I was made uncomfortable by the lack of interest in the Jewish historical narrative, which is not to say I equate Israel and Palestine as two equal sides, because I don’t, but I think that if you’re not interested in making space for that Jewish narrative then you end up with something that has removed a lot of the humanity from the situation.”

I went on to ask about the experience of being an Ecumenical Accompanier, trying to get a sense of what they do and what effect they have on the situation here. Jonathan told me about an event that took place in Wadi Hilweh St in East Jerusalem the night before our interview, at which the role of listener more than observer came into play. A settler had left his car in the middle of the road in front of the entrance to the Jewish settlement, temporarily unable to drive in and perhaps wishing to be able to do so as soon as it became possible. Whatever the reason, a traffic jam was holding up the early evening traffic, and the military, when called, refused to ask the settler to move his car, instead pointing their guns at the Palestinians. The situation turned into a standoff between the angry Palestinians and the armed military, and Jonathan felt as they arrived that two or three people there were “on the point of snapping.” As he and his colleagues began asking questions however, “they gradually turned their shouting and anger not on us but towards us. They found they could talk to us…and this began to shift it away from the confrontation with the police towards telling the story, seeing that we were listening…” Jonathan also mentioned the role played by one of the Israeli policemen who was more conciliatory than the others, and helped to calm the situation down.

Is Impartiality Possible?

There are several success stories attached to the EAPPI’s involvement in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The village of Yanoun, which is surrounded by settlements, was down to one family before they arrived - but after a continuous EAPPI presence was set up there, the village population rose back up to eighty people. The effect was similarly tangible in Cordoba School in Hebron, where many Palestinian children had stopped attending due to attacks by the children of settlers, but where the problem was mitigated by EAPPI volunteers accompanying the schoolchildren to class. There is a sense of the EAPPI having a calming effect, diffusing tension by listening and perhaps sometimes forestalling violence by the simple act of ensuring it will not go unobserved. However to many their presence remains controversial. They are here amongst the Palestinians. Is their view then entirely one sided?

Chris Cox was very clear in his disagreement with the practice of caricaturing Jewish settlers in the West Bank, saying that “you can end up partaking in the same reductionism that’s part of the whole problem.” But at the same time he spoke of the difficulties inherent in appearing too friendly with the Jewish population of Hebron: “it would be meaningless for us just to be there listening to everyone and giving everyone equal weighting, because the settler community there has 3000 soldiers to back them up and they’re able to wander around with machine guns, so there’s some enormous structural imbalance there.”

This structural imbalance is the key. Impartiality taken to the extreme is a political vacuum, which is not a useful position. But Chris put a surprising amount of emphasis on understanding the Jewish perspective. He spoke of the religious narrative attached to Hebron, and of one particular Jewish settler, Anat Cohen, notorious for her violent aggression, whose brother was shot and killed by Palestinians in 2001. Chris makes the point that while this does not excuse anything, Anat’s human reality must be seen and understood as much as those of the Palestinians.

Not Experts but Observers

In Jonathan and Chris I found an interesting response to the previously cited worry of Giles Fraser in The Guardian that EAPPI volunteers come back considering themselves mini-experts. Fraser goes on to suggest that “they need also to have danced on the bar in Nanuchka in secular Tel Aviv. And have seen children in Gaza handing out sweets when an Israeli soldier has been shot. And been through the heartache of failed peace and broken dreams.” But the truth is that, whatever you do, there are always more experiences to be had and neither volunteer seemed unaware of this. Jonathan in particular said that “one of my experiences of coming here, in the last five weeks, is everyday becoming more aware of the depth of my ignorance.” He also told of his discomfort when the volunteers are treated like heroes. Not every day is an adventure; sometimes it is quiet and the volunteers wonder what difference they are making.

In the end, the key is not in remaining silent until you have experienced everything from sweets to broken dreams, but in accepting your wider ignorance and truthfully reporting what you perceive. This was the attitude I found in Jonathan and Chris, and sometimes I think this is enough.

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