Monday, October 19, 2015

Combatting Hate at the Festival of Faiths

On Saturday, September 19, I was part of a panel on the topic of "Combatting Hate" at the first annual Festival of Faiths. Organized by youth affiliated with the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, the Festival of Faiths is intended to teach others about different faiths by people who practice them through information tables, panel discussions, and performances.

The Combatting Hate panel consisted of myself speaking as a Jewish person, as well as representatives from the local Muslim and United Church of Canada communities. It was moderated by a Unitarian Universalist minister.We discussed hate crimes in Edmonton and what everyone can do to help prevent such things from happening: ways to build interfaith understanding in our diverse society.

I was not sure what format the panel would take prior to the event, so I prepared some notes in the event that I had to give some sort of introductory talk. As it turned out, the panel was a discussion led by questions from the moderator, then the audience. I did, however, refer to my notes at several times when responding to questions. Here are my notes - I was clear in making it known I was speaking as a lay person. The event was hard-pressed to find a rabbi because the event was held on the Jewish Sabbath (steps are being taken to prevent this from happening next year).

1. There are no specific Jewish teachings on hatred and racism I am aware of.
2. We can look at the Old Testament, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, which shows that we are all connected, we all come from the same beginnings, and as thus are all equal.
3. There are passages in Isaiah and Proverbs that deal with how we treat people, but again, these are not specifically Jewish (other religions follow the Old Testament also).
4. However, one of my favourite, and best known, comments on how we treat each other is actually from the Talmud (oral law which was later codified in writing). The story of Rabbi Hillel - a rabbi who lived around the same time as Jesus. The story goes that a non-Jew came to Rabbi Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach the man the entire Torah in the same time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel's response: "What is hateful, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary." (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
5. So, as a Jewish person, I find a solution, or preventative measure, against hatred is for us to dialogue and learn from each other about what our faiths and cultures really mean, to recognize the true teachings from ones that only serve the purposes of political leaders or others who seek power or operate on greed and envy, who use faith to try to reach those aims.
6. As a Jewish person, I feel we each need to lead by example, and to learn from our history. We are as prone as anyone to being perpetrators of hatred and prejudice. My mother told me stories of teachers at her Yeshiva (Jewish day school) expressing anti-Arab sentiments. There are Jewish jokes about the stupidity of non-Jews, for example.
7. There is a misinterpretation as to the meaning of Jewish people being the "Chosen People." It has been used against us, and by us to be against others. It doesn't mean we are special or better - it means we were chosen to receive the Torah. So, we need to also have a good understanding of our own faith and culture.

Here is a video from the discussion - the battery in my camera died before the Q&A started:

Here is a sound file of the entire panel discussion, including the Q&A:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Article on Women and Activism

At the end of March, an article I wrote about the challenges of being a woman involved in activism was published by FLURT, a website for and by young women. Confessions of a Female Activist was part autobiographical and part inspired by my female comrades in the struggle.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Write the Power: Writing Workshop

I led a writing workshop on May 20 as part of the "Writing Quarters" series organized by E4C called "Write the Power: Words on Activism." Below are my notes, as well as the work I created during the writing exercises.
Writing Quarters
“Write the Power:” Words on Activism

I. Introduction (10 minutes) a. Introduce myself: Community/alternative journalist; activist; led a workshop last year on community journalism
b. Go around table and ask for introductions; why are you here?

II. Writing Prompts (10 minutes writing time each; sharing optional: 10-15 minutes each)
a. Slogan/Chant: Pick a social cause and write a 1-2 line slogan or chant.
(Examples: The people united will never be defeated.
Whose street? Our streets. Who decides? We decide.)

b. Poem/Song: Pick a social cause and write a verse or two of a poem (any style) that could be done as spoken word at a protest.

My example, inspired by protests against Bill C-51:

The clock is ticking
Human rights fading
Government taking
Our freedoms, our voices
Leaving us no choices

This is why we're fighting
To keep the fire igniting
Stand up and be counted
Take the power back

c. Meditation on “The Ideal World:” Activism is ultimately about making the world a better place, regardless of the cause. Describe the “ideal world” in verse or prose.

My example:

John Lennon's famous words "You might say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one" really resonated with me from the first time I ever heard the song "Imagine." I like to think of myself as a dreamer and my dream involved a world without war, hunger, or homelessness. Where people treat each other with respect and are not afraid to love. Changing the world means changing the world around us. It starts with the people in our daily lives and then hopefully creates a ripple effect. That is my dream, a dream of universal love leading to a more loving universe.

d. Open prompt: Take any of the three pieces created during the workshop thus far, and build on it. (write more slogans; a few more verses of the poem; expand the “Ideal World” theme.

I expanded the spoken word poem I wrote on Bill C-51:

Take the Power Back

The clock is ticking
Human rights fading
Government taking
Our freedoms, our voices
Leaving us no choices

This is why we're fighting
To keep the fire igniting
Stand up and be counted
Take the power back

There can't be justice
When all of those amongst us
Are hit with a label
Called terrorists, unstable
Can't gather without suspicion

Don't let them have that ammunition
Stand up and say no
Chart the direction we will go
Take the power back

Once our rights are lost they're gone
Don't let them think that they have won
We've got to stand up,
Stand and be strong
Make a right out of this wrong
And take the power back.

III. Conclusion
a. Encourage participants to stay in touch; share work on my blog.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Speaking Out Against Bill C-51

May 30 was the Third National Day of Action Against Bill C-51. Since it looks like the bill is going to pass the Senate, the emphasis of the protest was to encourage people to vote the Conservatives (who introduced the bill) out in the upcoming federal election. I spoke at the rally on behalf of Independent Jewish Voices.

My name is Paula Kirman. Take a good look at me: I am a peace activist whose activities trying to advocate for a better world make me potentially a criminal guilty of hate crimes. You see, I am the Alberta representative on the steering committee of Independent Jewish Voices of Canada. We are a grassroots group of Jewish Canadians who believe in working towards a just resolution to the conflict in Israel/Palestine. We are, of course, in favour of legitimate criticism of the government of Israel's actions. Because of this, our spokesperson has said that he believes that he and other members of our organization are under surveillance. But that is not enough for the Harper government.

According to a May 11 CBC News report, the Harper government is planning to use hate crime laws against Canadians who advocate boycotts of Israel in support of the rights of Palestinians. In 2014, hate speech laws were amended by the government to add the category of "national origin" to those protected under the legislation. This was widely seen as laying the groundwork to criminalize criticism of Israel.

The government's need to make such an amendment to advance its efforts to criminalize support for Palestinian rights indicates that it could find no legal basis upon which to accuse Canadians of racial or religious hatred, already protected in hate-speech laws.

In January of this year, Canada's then-foreign affairs minister, John Baird, signed a "memorandum of understanding" with Israeli authorities in Jerusalem, pledging to combat BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions), referring to it as a form of “new” anti-Semitism. Even more recently, Conservative Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has called for "zero tolerance" of criticism of Israel and that Canadian hate laws could be applied to those campaigning for BDS.

We find this ludicrous as BDS is a legitimate, peaceful, and non-violent way to express protest towards the government of Israel. It requires not doing something, not being complicit, and encouraging others to not do something: to not purchase goods from Israel, particularly those produced on disputed or occupied land. This is not much different than when I was in high school and there were boycotts against South Africa, which was still under apartheid. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu has described Israel as an “apartheid state” and has said, “We learned in South Africa that the only way to end apartheid peacefully was to force the powerful to the table through economic pressure.”

IJV supports BDS in cooperation with the United Church's Unsettling Goods campaign, which also supports BDS. How many of you are members of the United Church of Canada? Now you are potentially criminals also, for the same reason.

IJV, in a press release, has asked that the government explain what “zero tolerance” for criticism of Israel actually means. Thus far, we have not gotten a clear response, nor has any other individual or group who have asked a similar question.

Bill C-51 would take the criminalization of dissent even further. Bill C-51 is an assault on our right to freedom of speech, thought, and conscience. Its definition of advocacy or promotion of “terrorism offences in general” is basically whatever Harper wants it to be. It has no defences for legitimate expression of political or religious thought.

It is designed to silence us, to instill fear about speaking out, to be afraid of indefinite detention and arrest without warrant. It creates a police state in Canada where CSIS can be “legally” authorized to conduct black ops and dirty tricks, including entrapment. It invades our privacy and allows CSIS and the RCMP to “share” information - as they did with Maher Arar.

The aim is to silence dissenting voices. I used to consider myself lucky to live in a country like Canada where we could be free to criticize the government without repercussions. Those days are sadly ending. Bill C-51 flies in the face of Canadian values of freedom and diverse opinions. The Conservatives are anti-Canadian – not protesters.

Why are Israel's critics being slammed? I believe this is a political move by Harper in anticipation of an election to try to court the evangelical Christian and right-wing Jewish vote. What can we do? There is an election coming. I've never been one to tell people how to vote, but we need to vote the Conservatives out. The Liberals, who supported Bill C-51, are no better. Vote for a party that will repeal Bill C-51 and, while perhaps not agree with everything each and every one of us may espouse, would at least protect our freedom of speech and expression. Once human rights are taken away, they are difficult to get back.

So, once again, take a good look at me – one of the faces of Harper's enemies - and hear me when I say that we are heading down a slippery slope and we have the power to change things. We did it in Alberta and we can do it federally. We have to.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bill C-51 and Women's (and Everyone's) Rights

On March 8, International Women's Day, I spoke on behalf of the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism (ECAWAR) during the IWD Forum here in Edmonton. Much of my short speech focused on Bill C-51, the "Anti-Terrorism Bill," which, if passed, would potentially limit our freedoms as activists to assemble, to criticize the government, or even comment on global issues. The text of my speech is below, as well as a video (the introduction at which I blush).
International Women’s Day came into being after the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910 in Copenhagen, Denmark, passed a resolution to establish International Women’s Day as a day to agitate for the rights of women to take part in the political affairs of their countries and their rights as workers. It was inspired by the growing struggles of women for their political and economic rights, including the establishment in the U.S. of Women’s National Day in 1909 in honour of the women garment workers’ strikes in 1908. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for women's rights and world peace.

At that first conference and since, the demand for peace has been a prominent theme of IWD, along with anti-discrimination, equality, anti-sexism, and anti-violence against women. In the year 2000, the official UN theme was Women United for Peace. The following year, it was Women and Peace: Women Managing Conflicts.

As Canadian women in the peace movement, we still have many things to be concerned about.

We have a federal government which is engaged in war and aggression, trying to impose puppet regimes and so-called “Canadian values” on non-Western countries, often under the guise of supporting the rights of women and girls in those countries, instead of respecting those countries’ rights to self-determination. We say: Not in our Name!

U.S.-NATO wars and intervention have led to literally millions of deaths in the Middle East and elsewhere, including hundreds and thousands of children. They have destabilized countries, led to failed states such as Libya, and contributed to the arming and proliferation of ISIS. The standard definition of insanity is to believe that doing the same thing will have different results. We call for troops out of Iraq and no attack on Syria, for the peaceful resolution of disputes, not war. Canada Needs an Anti-War Government!

Now, we face a serious threat within our own country as activists. Workers’ strike struggles, the fight of First Nations for their rights, minorities, and in particular Muslims are targeted by the impending legislation of Bill C-51 (also known as the “Anti-Terrorism Bill”), which is the Harper government’s response to Canadians’ desire for change.

Bill C-51 makes promotion of terrorism a criminal offence. What does that mean? Consider that the Harper government claims that the Palestinian resistance in the Middle East is terrorism and wants to criminalize any “promotion” of their resistance. Yet thousands upon thousands of Canadians feel duty bound to defend the Palestinians’ right to be and to express their own right to conscience.

Bill C-51 gives sweeping powers to CSIS, which many people say will permit it to operate as a police state without oversight. By claiming not to include strike struggles and political dissent while adding the word “lawful,” C-51 allows all manner of activities to be called “terrorist” - including illegal strikes, marches without a police permit, and acts of civil disobedience. Our march today without a police permit could be included.

Bill C-51 is also a direct assault on the rights of First Nations to defend their lands and it must not be allowed to pass!

We cannot permit such an assault. Let every one of us take an action - participate in a picket or rally; talk to your co-workers, families, other women; call and write your member of Parliament. Join the work to defeat Harper in 2015!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall . . .

Last Saturday, March 7, I attended a rally called "Tell the Tories to Look in the Mirror," or, simply the "Mirror Protest." The rally was called by the Alberta Federation of Labour in conjunction with Better Way Alberta to hold Premier Jim Prentice accountable for a statement he made that Albertans should "look in the mirror" to see who is responsible for the province's current budget woes. This inspired me to write a post on Facebook which quickly started being shared around, and I was asked to read it at the rally. Here is the text of that note, as well as a video of me reading it.
I Looked In the Mirror This Morning

So, Conservative Premier Jim Prentice is telling Albertans that if they want to know why the province is in trouble, we should look in the mirror.

I looked in the mirror this morning. Here is what I saw.

I saw a woman in her early 40s who was not able to secure a career in her chosen field: as a junior high Language Arts teacher. You see, I really wanted to be a writer or a rock star, but I picked teaching because it was "stable." Most of the people in my university class never got teaching jobs either.

My lack of employment was due to Conservative cutbacks to education in this province.

I saw my mother shuffle by in the background on her walker. She just spent a couple of months in and out of hospitals that are poorly maintained and understaffed. Many of the nurses were very obviously overworked through no fault of their own. Patient care suffered as a result.

Alberta's health care system is in shambles because of Conservative cutbacks to health.

I saw my phone go off with a message from my partner. He works in the tar sands. Yeah, one of those people who have supposedly benefitted the most from the "Alberta Advantage." And yes, he makes decent money, when he has work. As soon as construction on a job is complete, he is laid off again with no guarantee of another job. When work is not steady it makes things like planning for the future (buying a house, etc.) difficult. Perhaps this is why there is such a high rate of suicide, depression, and divorce amongst tar sands workers.

The province's finances and oil industry have suffered because of the Conservative government not collecting royalties and because of the flat tax system which allows the most wealthy not to have to pay more taxes.

But hey - look on the bright side: working self-employed hours I have plenty of time for activism against the Conservative government. And my parents don't mind me crashing with them. After all, we're Mom's primary caregivers.