Cecillie Surasky is no stranger to being misunderstood, having her faith questioned, and giving the world her two cents. The Philadelphia native was raised in the city of brotherly love, and now she's in the business of joining two seemingly irreconcilable peoples by stopping historically unchecked hatred and some of the worst violence human beings have committed. Surasky is the director of communications for Jewish Voice for Peace, a San Francisco organization that calls for (gasp!) both Israeli and Palestinian concessions in order to bring about long-term peace. As tends to happen to those willing to compromise, Surasky and Jewish Voice for Peace are often the target of organizations and individuals with unyielding opinions on violence, sovereignty, and religion. But she weathers the criticism for what she considers the ultimate cause. "It's like the biggest topic ever!" she says of the conflict. On Thursday Surasky will bring her and JVP's call for peace to Macalester College with a speech titled "Silencing Peacemakers in the Middle East: Anti-Semitism Vs. Criticizing Israel."
CP: What is the single action that the U.S, Palestinians, or Israelis could take that would lead to increased peace?
CS: We believe that if the U.S. suspended our military aid of $3 billion a year until Israel ended its occupation, that would give us the leverage for Israel to back out. Israel should just pull out to its 1967 borders. I don't think people realize that they're just building colonies, houses on land that isn't theirs. It's astounding. Imagine somebody building a walled fortress with green lawns and sometimes swimming pools on your family farm. And there is nothing they can do about it. There is no compensation for people. And the Israelis are not just taking your land—they're taking your water. The very first thing [for Palestinians], no question, is to stop launching Qassam rockets outside of Gaza. That is their primary mechanism for terrorizing Israelis. And I would just say put a ban on killing and harming civilians for both Palestinians and Israelis. The JVP is filled with rabbis, orthodox Jews, former Israeli military—we are from the same family, the same communities, and we might have sat next to them at the same Seder. We are in every single family already, I know it.
CP: What does the American Jewish population at large think of JVP? Do they see you as something of a traitor, or are you seeing more and more American Jews wanting political changes similar to those JVP is calling for?
CS: If you followed us by what the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and other groups show us to be, you'd think American Jews wanted to go to war in Iraq, and want to bomb Iran. We're the largest religious group to oppose the war in Iraq—70 percent of Jews opposed it. A plurality of American Jews say we need to make concessions. There is a huge chasm between what American Jews think and what those who say they represent them think. It's a terrible thing that with some people, especially older generations, even saying "Palestinian" or acknowledging that they exist is very emotional. I have spent time with people of every stripe politically, and we can get to a certain place politically where we agree. Nobody wants Israel to be at war forever. People think they've been fighting forever, but it's a conflict over a piece of land. And that's why it can be resolved. It has taken on religious overtones, no question, but that's not what it's about at the root. Yes, it's an uphill battle because it's such an emotional issue. And JVP is growing, it used to be all-volunteer, and there are other peace groups, too, that are growing.
CP: Are you optimistic that there will be peace in the region within 10 years, or will it take longer? How much longer?
CS: I can't say. In South Africa, for example, we learned that things happen overnight, but as we also learned there, changes can take decades. It's typically American for us to get excited for a few years, and if it doesn't happen, we move on. Palestinians and Israelis have been waiting for a solution for years, and there is no question that it is one of the biggest issues today and it will continue to impact the world until we come together and stop it. Our government has clearly failed us. We have to push them to do the right thing. What we do is important—the U.S. is so important. We're the key to the puzzle. If we said tomorrow that we would not give Israel any money for weapons until they stop the occupation, they would have no choice but to stop. The U.S. supports the worst part of the Israeli government with massive amounts of military aid. It's a sick process that feeds our military industry, then we dump all these weapons on Israel.
Cecillie Surasky's speech is sponsored by the Mideast Committee of Women Against Military Madness and the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Thu., Dec. 27, 7 p.m., 2007