Speech Delivered by Ronit Avni in accepting the Circles of Change Award from Seeking
Common Ground, October 22nd 2010 in Denver, Colorado
Erin Breeze, Executive Director of Seeking Common Ground, with 2010 Honorees:
Rashaad Fortune, Daniel Mackintosh, and Ronit Avni
Good morning, everyone. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here with you today to celebrate Seeking Common Ground’s many achievements. I have been a fan of the organization since 2003, when one of your alumnae, Joline Makhlouf, began working with me to produce Just Vision’s first film, Encounter Point, which you just saw a trailer of. Since the film’s release in 2006, Joline and I have interacted with thousands of Israeli, Palestinian, American and broader Arab audiences. [We were even on Oprah together.] She embodies the values championed at SCG: respect for others, the ability to grapple with complex, divergent viewpoints and a commitment to widening the circle by giving back.
Like SCG, the focus of my work -- first as a human rights defender and later as founder andexecutive director of Just Vision -- has been to support ordinary people who act when government officials lack the courage, wisdom, authority or legitimacy to do so. Too often we expect our politicians to set the world straight and allow ourselves to remain bystanders within our own communities and lives. In the face of mighty armies, of economic and environmental meltdowns, we often feel too small.
Yet history reminds us that power is fleeting, hierarchies ephemeral, the status quo - unreliable. Whoever imagined that the Soviet Union, like Rome, would be a footnote in history? Or that Daniel and Rashaad would be working as they are in the wake of apartheid? Several years ago FW de Klerk pulled me aside and said simply “Politicians follow.” The question I’m interested in – is - who among us – the nongovernmental actors, the ordinary people - will lead? Who will become the next minor earthquake, shaking the world, slowly - at first - but whose aftershocks will transform our lives?
As a young child studying Jewish history, I was always captivated by voices of conscience. It was their legacies that we celebrate – not the rulers who seemed from my history books to be endlessly engaged in ethnic cleansing, libel, discrimination or worse. The righteous farmers or courageous bureaucrats who bothered to protect their neighbors, to shelter refugees, to feed the emaciated.
Fast forward to the year 2000 when I came across musician Peter Gabriel’s organization, WITNESS. Gabriel’s idea was simple yet compelling: break the isolation of human rights defenders by providing them with video cameras to document rights abuses and mobilize the world to action. Drawn to this vision, I joined the team after volunteering at B’Tselem and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. I began training human rights advocates to use digital media and film to bolster their efforts. The job was thrilling. I felt like the luckiest person in the world – to be able to apply my artistic leanings and human rights experience to something concrete that spoke to me on an ethical level - was incredible. I worked alongside landmine victims in Senegal, clandestine women’s rights groups in Afghanistan under the Taliban and afro-indigenous collectives in Honduras.
Yet as an Israeli citizen working in downtown Manhattan after September 11th and the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada -- I began to feel my own backyard was burning. I felt compelled to act in response to what was being done in my name.
Thus began the arduous and arguably obsessive process of interviewing more than 475 Israeli and Palestinian peace builders and nonviolence leaders in order to find out what they needed and how I could best support them. The response I consistently received was that they felt invisible and thus ineffectual. They sought access to likeminded individuals within their own societies and abroad. They wanted the media to tell their stories, and they needed others to join them.
This is how Just Vision was born.
As I put the pieces in place to launch the organization, I came across a book called “States of Denial,” by professor Stanley Cohen, a Jewish South African criminologist who helped found the first human rights organizations in Israel in the 1980s. In the book, Cohen examines how people deny, deflect, stifle and delegitimize information that threatens a community’s sense of safety or well being -- even if the information is accurate. Cohen argues that it isn’t about whether we are aware of an injustice or not, what matters is how we process the information. He expresses what SCG already figured out, and what I had understood from my elementary school history lessons:
that knowledge most often doesn’t lead to action.
The question is, what -- if anything -- does?
In the early days of Just Vision our diverse team set about conducting and publishing interviews with dozens of Palestinians and Israelis who work to end the conflict without arms. We inquired about their journeys and about the experiences that made them the civic leaders they are today. We asked about their lessons learned, their hopes, challenges and fears. These interviews can be found on our website and are currently being compiled by a Palestinian-American professor into a book.
As a documentary filmmaker, I seek out and relish these turning points – the moments that should have been unremarkable, when the status quo could easily have prevailed, where the world might have gone about its usual business -- but didn’t. Instead we find the bereaved parent who seeks out reconciliation rather than revenge; the former settler or soldier, or prisoner who opts to defend the rights of another rather than hide behind an ethno-nationalist cloth. A minor earthquake, a crack, a small miracle.
Encounter Point, our first film, tells a handful of these stories. The underlying theme is that if these people – who lost loved ones, homes, and liberty – could come together, could challenge their own assumptions, could move their families so as not to occupy another people, then the rest of us have no excuse. Encounter Point’s release opened thousands of doors to its subjects, who were suddenly invited to speak before parliaments, thought leaders, and clergy in the Middle East, North America and beyond. Suddenly Just Vision was connecting millions of viewers to these civic heroes in order to amplify their message. As we toured, audiences would ask us what they could do to create concrete change on the ground. People yearned for examples that gave them a sense of hope, of possibility, of agency.
Just Vision’s latest film, Budrus, tells one such story. Let’s run the trailer for a moment.
A Palestinian agricultural village faced destruction during the height of the second intifada as Israel began building a barrier through the village that would not only separate Israelis from Palestinians, but would also cut the villagers off from their olive trees and lands. The Palestinian Authority was not reacting and so one ordinary person, a regular guy, a dad named Ayed, decided that he couldn’t afford to wait; that if he sat around his trees would disappear and the fabric of his community would unravel. So he organized. First the men – from all political factions – and convinced them to adopt an unarmed strategy. Together the men were - failing. Bulldozers uprooted trees and the community despaired. But then – again – another ordinary person. A girl of 15, who happened to be Ayed’s daughter (or perhaps not) asker her dad, in true teenage fashion, where are the women? And so she brought together the women of the village to participate. Without giving away too much of the story since we are opening here in Denver tonight and I want you all to come and see it at the Starz cinema, this girl seized her moment. An ordinary moment indistinguishable from all the previous days of marching, of chanting and of demonstrating nonviolently. She jumped in front of the bulldozer and, like the students at the first lunch counter sit-in, she did the mundane in the face of the extraordinary: she opened her biology book and sat.
The earth shook in the fields in Budrus, but not because of the bulldozers. This small quake is spreading across towns and villages in the West Bank today. It continues to rumble as Israelis join their fellow Palestinians, risking their lives and facing arrests, detention and fines to protect lands, water sources, olive orchards and human dignity… It rumbles as Abdallah Abu Rahmah a villager from neighboring Bil’in sits in a prison after being sentenced to jail for doing exactly what Ayed did to save his lands… and it is rumbling even now as we tell their stories, and encourage others to follow this nonviolent path characterized by steady acts of righteous defiance.
Just Vision’s mission is to tell these stories seldom heard on the nightly news. Of ordinary people who, in the face of militarism, militancy and political backpeddling, demonstrate true moral courage.
It’s striking that - the recent Chilean mining story notwithstanding - we need not face impossible odds to inspire others, and to create seismic circles of change. Our individual and collective moments of truth may be far more subtle, more mundane and more ubiquitous than we realize. The lunch counters and busses of our lives may be our classrooms, our homes, our fields and our places of worship. Each provides opportunity to challenge what is and to offer a more just and expansive vision for the future.
I am honored to accept this award. May we all go from strength to strength.