On May 12, in the middle of the day, a truck full of coffins was unloaded onto the Maisonneuve sidewalk outside Concordia. A group of around one hundred watched as a few men stacked 65 coffins into a neat pile. These coffins, made of cardboard boxes wrapped in Palestinian flags, represented the Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression.
Eventually, the crowd picked up the coffins and began to march in commemoration of the Nakba – Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ – which occurred 65 years ago. The Nakba was a series of tragic events in which an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were violently ejected from their land by armed Israeli forces; the sole purpose of which was making room for more Jewish settlers and expanding the State of Israel. Palestinians, and their allies around the world, commemorate the Nakba each May, the day after when, in 1948, the State of Israel was officially created. Last Sunday in Montreal, a wide range of people gathered to remember the bloodshed which accompanied the foundation of the state of Israel.
Though the Nakba occurred 65 years ago, many of the participants in the march found it difficult to differentiate past from present. Palestinian marcher Myriam Siraj claimed, “We cannot divide the two, both of them are linked. Remembering is never something you do in the past, you always remember at the present, for the future.” The vibe of the march, with chants like, “Montreal take a side, human rights or apartheid?” reinforced this message: the Nakba is not an event which occurred only in the past, it is an ongoing tragedy in Palestine, since Palestinians are still uprooted from their lands today.
Bill Sloan, from Palestinian and Jewish Unity, stressed that the Nakba, as well as the ongoing occupation of Palestine, should be viewed as a territorial dispute. During the march, Sloan explained, “It’s not about religion. They’re not fighting about which religion is better. They’re fighting about who is going to control the land, the water; that’s all it is about.”
This opinion was shared by another marcher, who had driven to Montreal from New York for the march. Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a member of the international Orthodox Jewish organization Neturei Karta, described the Palestinian catastrophe as a “worldwide Jewish issue.” Marching at the head of the crowd, he claimed, “Our identity [as Jews] has been hijacked by a nationalist Zionist State of Israel. Judaism is a religion, and Zionism and the State of Israel is a mere transformation into nationalism that is simply not recognized by our religion.” He also noted in regard to Israel that, according to the Torah, Jews are not permitted “to steal, to kill, and…even to have one inch of Jewish sovereignty.” Essentially, Weiss espoused the view that to be a truly religious Jew is to stand against the State of Israel.
An organizer of the march, Laith Marouf, brought up the broader imperialistic nature of the conflict. While Marouf decried Israel as an apartheid state that the West supports in order to keep the Arab world in check, he also criticized Arab leaders throughout the Middle East, noting the failure of the Arab Spring in liberating Palestine. Marouf stated, “Last week we heard…the oil Emir of Qatar going to the U.S. and offering to give up more Palestinian land for peace. And this is the opposite of what was expected for the Arab Spring. It was supposed to be more support for the Palestinians from their Arab brothers.”
Yet, despite the seemingly gloomy nature of the march, a strong sense of hope existed among the participants. Speaking about her lifelong involvement with Palestinian activism, Siraj explained, “I do believe things are changing…Before the Second Intifada, I would tell people ‘I’m Palestinian’ and they would say, ‘Oh, you’re Pakistani!’ But now since the Second Intifada [the second Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005], everybody knows where Palestine is, [who] Palestinians are.” This message was mirrored by other marchers, intent on ensuring that everyone is aware of, and not complicit in, the suffering of Palestinians.
As the march drew to an end at Place des Arts, the remaining participants in the march gathered to hear announcements regarding more Nakba-related events in the upcoming week. They smiled and cheered when a dabke (traditional Arabic dance) performance was announced. These smiles persisted when a van drove by the crowd, honking and waving an Israeli flag. In fact, beyond the initial attention garnered by the honking, the crowd acknowledged the van with nothing more than eye-rolls and raised eyebrows.
This concluding incident reflects the focus of Palestinian activists, whose message was made clear throughout the march. The Nakba is not a historical event, it is an ongoing phenomenon. Though it is being committed by Israel, it does not represent Jewish belief and practice. It also is more complicated than just Israeli and Palestinian geo-politics, since Western forces, as well as some Arab leaders in the Middle East, are also meddling in the fate of Palestine. Yet regardless of all the challenges ahead, Palestinian activists and their allies promise to remain dedicated to their cause until Palestine is free. Viva, viva, Palestina!