The Dalles Rev. Loren McGrail, a United Church of Christ minister in Chicago, spoke in The Dalles recently about her missionary work in a country that she, unusually, calls Palestine-Israel.
Most Americans know it as simply Israel, but McGrail is part of a broad movement working to gain recognition of, and reparations for, the estimated 750,000 Palestinians who have been displaced from their homes in Israel since 1947.
McGrail is home for awhile, but plans to return to Israel in September to continue her work with the YMCA of Palestine, a group that has worked for women’s rights there for 120 years.
The latest fundraising and awareness-raising effort of the YMCA is selling dolls made out of olive wood, representing real Palestinian women from various parts of what was historically called Palestine, until Israel was created as a Jewish homeland in 1948, following the end of World War II.
McGrail has spoken to one of the Palestinian woman, Mariam, who is the basis for the “Mariam” doll. The figure has a special embroidered design in its dress that is the design particular to her home village of Bayt Nabala.
Money from the sale of the dolls provides economic, emotional, health and educational support to Palestinian women and girls living in two refugee camps. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Part of McGrail’s mission, she said, is to be “the big listener. They hope by telling me that I will tell others, which is what I’m trying to do.”
Mariam was 16 when she left her village. They left because a “rain of bullets was falling on them. They were being shot at by the Israelis and the British,” McGrail said.
The woman in front of Mariam was shot and killed while she was nursing a baby. “Mariam did not take that baby and she wonders to this day what happened to it,” McGrail said.
The Mariam doll features the real Mariam in her special occasion dress. It is a dress she hasn’t worn much, she said.
“If your life has been full of loss and death, you don’t wear your party dress,” McGrail said.
Palestine was a British protectorate for nearly three decades before it was made a Jewish state. Palestinians are mostly Arab Muslims, and both the Arabs and Jews claim the area as their historical homeland.
The land was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years. In World War I, the British convinced Arabs to help them fight the Ottomans. They did and won, and most of the land came under British control, according to Wikipedia.
Arabs and Jews — each of whom had begun nationhood movements at the end of the last century — began skirmishing against one another by 1920, and each economically discriminated against the other, leading to displacement of both Arabs and Jews.
The area had a majority Arab population, but a trickle of Jewish immigration became a surge in the years leading up to World War II.
Following establishment of Israel as a Jewish nation in 1948, wars between Israel and surrounding Arab nations followed in 1948, 1967 and 1973.
In each instance, Israel gained more land. In some instances, it eventually gave it back.
McGrail said the UCC has long been an advocate of the JustPeace movement, which seeks a peace in Palestine-Israel that is fair to both sides.
“[JustPeace means] it’s not enough to stop killing each other. There has to be work on creating and supporting the conditions for justice,” she said.
And justice includes “ending the occupation. It means equal rights for Arabs with Israel and it means a right of return for Palestinians who were expelled or displaced like in ’48 or ’67.”
The occupants of some 450 villages were forcibly resettled, either within Israel or to neighboring Arab nations.
Under international law, exiled Palestinians have the right to return to their homes, she said.
“People thought they were leaving for a few days. It’s 65 years later.”
In some instances, Palestinian Arab villagers were massacred, McGrail said. She said the site of one famous massacre, where some 150 to 200 Palestinian Arabs were killed, is visible from the exit of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. The museum and research center tells the story of the murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany in World War II.
There, at the museum’s exit, “you are looking out to the massacred village of Deir Yassin,” McGrail said. “The irony is awful.”
In speaking about her work in Israel, she said she’s trying to provide a context for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and for the occupation by Israelis of traditionally Palestinian lands.
During the Six-Day war in 1967, Israel seized lands from Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and the United Nations has designated those lands as Israeli-occupied territories. Israel calls them “disputed territories.”
While some of the lands Israel gained in wars have since been returned, Israeli settlements have been established in other areas.
“These settlements are huge tracts of land taken from Palestinians where Israelis live and have huge factories,” she said.
“These are not agricultural settlements,” said Karl Vercouteren, with United Church of Christ. “These are huge cities.”
McGrail said, “We’re not delegitimizing Israel and its right to exist and to have security. We’re not saying the U.S. isn’t doing anything [about the occupation] because of the Jews here [in the U.S.] It’s truly more complicated than that.”
Her father helped liberate concentration camps at the end of World War II, and it gives her an insight and connection to Jews, she feels. But there is also the reality of what is happening in Israel to Palestinians.
An example is that, like black men in the U.S., Palestinians are overrepresented in Israeli jails, she said.
The United Church of Christ signed the 2009 Kairos Document, which is a document from Palestinian Christians asking Christians throughout the world to do three things. First is “to hear the suffering [of Arab Christians and Muslims] that is happening under the occupation,” McGrail said; second is to see or witness what is happening; and third is to engage in active, non-violent resistance to the occupation, specifically, to support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement.
The call for a boycott movement came from Palestinian civil society in 2007, which was seeking to follow in the footsteps of South Africa, which used economic sanctions to end apartheid.
The Palestinian sanctions effort targets specific products made in occupied Palestinian territories. The list is provided at www.whoprofits.org.
The United Church of Christ joined 14 other churches in December 2012 in asking Congress to withhold military aid to Israel until international law is followed in the occupied territories.
“This is the first time the churches in the US have put their mouths, their bodies, together to say ‘no’ to illegal occupation of Palestine,” she said.
There are rules for how to occupy another country, she said, and Israel isn’t following those rules.
Last November, the United Nations gave Palestine observer status as a state. “That means the rest of the world — except the U.S. — recognizes Palestine as a state,” she said.