TODAY is the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. It is also two months since the Hamas attacks on Israel and the commencement of the bombardment and occupation of Gaza by the Israeli government and their military.
Rather than lighting the first light on the menorah this evening, Sue Pentel will be attending a candle-lit vigil at 6.30pm outside the offices of the NIO on Chichester Street, Belfast to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.
Sue is a member of Jews for Palestine – Ireland, as well as the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee. She grew up in north London in an orthodox Jewish family, attending synagogue each Saturday and Hebrew classes on Sunday. The majority of her neighbours were Jewish; the extended family lived in the area and had done since her paternal grandparents fled Jewish pogroms in Latvia and Ukraine. She is married to a Belfast man.
I met Sue at the Gig for Gaza in St Comgall’s on Divis Street last Friday night. She’s a tiny woman with a big presence. She introduced me to Nawal Slemiah, founder of the Women in Hebron collective which supports 150 women in eight villages across the occupied Palestinian territories to generate an income whilst maintaining and passing on traditional skills and crafts.
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In the occupied Palestinian territories, many women find themselves raising their families alone because their husbands have been killed or imprisoned by the Israeli government. As well as that, there are those whose income from agriculture has been decimated due to land seizure by settlers or whose husbands are forced to work in Israel and could not always guarantee they would be allowed to pass through multiple checkpoints in order to get to work. The collective was set up in 2005 and makes embroidered items, leather goods and jewellery.
Over the last two months many of us have tried to understand Jewish and Israeli attitudes to what is happening in Gaza and how some people can justify the actions of Netanyahu’s government whilst others are vehemently opposed.
It should go without saying that the terms Jewish and Israeli are not interchangeable, but I’m going to say it anyway.
When I asked Sue why she is such a vocal and active supporter of the Palestinian cause, she told me: “Zionism was always there but it was not a massive influence on me as a young Jew. The Judaism I grew up with was one which was very much on the side of the oppressed. I began to really understand what was happening in Israel and Palestine in the 1980s and '90s. There was a fundamentalist revival in the Jewish community in England around that time and, whilst it is important to respect people’s faith and values in both your family and community, that fundamentalism became inextricably linked with unquestioning support for the state of Israel that I was uncomfortable with.”
Sue described how the defining moment for her was the realisation of the inequality between the Jewish Israelis in illegal settlements and the indigenous Palestinian people.
“What I learned from the holocaust was that you should always stand up for the oppressed. I took a pride in the tradition of Jewish people who, for example, stood against the Vietnam war and apartheid in South Africa. My uncle fought the fascists in Cable Street in London in 1936.”
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It is a natural progression for someone who protested against the Vietnam war, was part of the anti-apartheid campaign and a supporter of the miners' strike to become an activist for Palestine.
The warmth of the friendship between Sue and Nawal is a throwback to a time when Jewish and Palestinian neighbours talked together, lived side by side and helped each other out. Back in that time before Israel was sustainable only because of the occupation of Palestinian lands, the expansion of settlements, the building of walls to create ghettos and the installation of hundreds of checkpoints.
Those, like Nawal and Sue, who remind us of the humanity behind the horror, shine a light brighter than any menorah ever could. May that light shine across Gaza this Hanukkah.