By: Tiffany Goskey
A couple of Tuesdays back, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sandra Ruch, an international human rights activist, Coordinator for the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, and a member of the Gaza’s Ark Steering Committee. Since 2004 she has been heavily involved in human rights work, advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people. Her involvement in social justice activities started with helping new immigrants become established in Canada. But, it was her experience in Palestine that sparked her passion for anti-occupation and anti-Zionist activism. Her involvement became very personal as the events she witnessed conflicted with her views on Judaism at the time.
All her life Sandra was a Zionist activist, leader of a Zionist youth group at the age of 13, and later in life as a member of a Zionist organization and Hebrew school teacher. After WWII in Europe Israel became the safe place for the Jewish people to reside. Essentially, Zionists believe that Israel should be there for the Jewish people – and they don’t see this as a racist statement. Sandra wholeheartedly believed in this rhetoric as well.
Sandra was born 8 years after Israel became a country and so this perspective made sense to her. She believed that the army was there to protect. As a woman of faith, she thought the Israeli government was following the principles of Judaism: healing the world, acts of loving kindness, and obligations of charity. Additionally, the Ten Commandments are fundamental in Judaism – such as condemning killing.
This understanding was drastically altered when Sandra lived in Palestine for 2 years. While there she witnessed a total disregard for human rights. She saw crimes against humanity; murder and theft by the Israeli army. Sandra saw it personally – she can speak about the things she experienced. She was appalled by the human rights violations and the lack of respect for humanity. While this is the catalyst for her work – she would fight for anything that disregards human rights and disrespects humanity. She has focused on this area because it is directly related to her personal experience living in Palestine.
Her work and life is now for the Palestinian people. The ones displaced in the diaspora and in Palestine. But, this dedication has created a riff with her siblings as they no longer speak to Sandra. She has lost much of her spiritual family as it has been difficult to find a temple for support. Many Zionists cannot understand why she engages in this type of work. These events coupled by Sandra’s two year absence have been very trying on her family.
Although, many within the anti-occupation community have become her new brothers and sisters, she acknowledges the sacrifices that must be made in order to continue with her work. She is not afraid to be arrested – but outside of the activist community it is sometimes difficult to understand this level of commitment.
When asked what the most important element is in whatever you are working on, be it activism or something entirely different, Sandra believes you should follow your own heart. You must do what you need to do. Live authentically. You can never please everyone – so you must do what you think is right for yourself, and the rest will follow. Sometimes life is not an easy road, but when you overcome the barriers, and stay on the journey, your life will be meaningful and full of hope.
Sandra’s triumphs are in every aspect of her work. These triumphs have fueled her passion and continual commitment to this cause. Starting a project and seeing it through to completion is certainly a personal triumph.
In 2005, Sandra worked with the Women in Black, a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence. They had a conference in Jerusalem and about 700 female participants from around the world attended. It highlighted the occupation but didn’t make the news. However, it was such a powerful and meaningful experience for Sandra.
The next triumph came when the movement planned the Gaza Freedom March and 1500 people came to Cairo to attend the march. The Egyptian government locked them down – but the movement worked together. It was a catalyst for the movement. Then after the massacre on the Mavi Marmara– the movement went to the street and started a hunger strike in front of the Israeli consulate in Toronto. Every media in Toronto came out to cover it; it was a great awareness event. Did it take 9 people to be murdered? It seems that this is unfortunately the case, as nonviolent movements with the same goals failed to get the word out about the atrocities in the past. Within a month, the movement announced the inauguration of the organization, Canadian Boat to Gaza. While the massacre on the Mavi Marmara occurred in May 2010, the Canadian Boat to Gaza was announced two short months after, in late June 2010, exceeding their fundraising goals by $100,000 by reaching the$400,000 mark.
With the team and funds secured, the next step was implementation. Sandra went to Greece, figured how to buy a boat, and hired a captain who happened to be the first one to break the siege. Then she arranged for 47 volunteers to attend. She coordinated the logistics while in Greece – hiring lawyers, listening to Greek partners – there were a lot of sleepless nights worrying about the decisions made.
Through these experiences Sandra has learned that every person must truly believe in the work they do. Then connect with people who have strengths in different areas to build upon your passion. She states that they were the only boat to get out of Greece. They made it to Turkey and then sailed to Gaza. This time they are going to refurbish and build the boat in Gaza – which is why Gaza’s Ark is such an apt name for the project. Gaza’s Ark will carry local trade items, and distribute them to the world for sale. This is to help the local people work around the occupation and be able to feed their families from their earnings.
Essentially, the issue is that Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade for over five years. This means that the local fishers cannot feed their families or fish for trade. According to International law – Palestinians would have the rights to 12 nautical miles from shore. The Israeli government would only allow 6 miles. But, since the massacre, it is only 3 miles. This water is overfished, polluted, and their infrastructure is collapsing. Now the fishermen are putting high powered lights on their boats to attract the fish. But, it is dangerous and one person has been electrocuted. The Israeli army has been known to shoot anyone within 1 in a half mile off the shore.
Is the United Nations doing anything? Not really. According to Sandra, John Ging from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has made statement after statement but not much has been done. The Gaza’s Ark team know their boat will be captured again. But, it’s the statement they are trying to broadcast to the world – to demonstrate how Israel is not supporting the Palestinian people and instead is making up their own rules. For example, the Tahrir was in international waters when it was captured last year. It was brought over to Israel. The authorities made their team say that they entered Israeli waters illegally when they didn’t.
If someone is interested in getting involved – Sandra suggests checking out Gaza’s Ark website http://gazaark.org/ and endorse the project. Then donate to support the funding of the boat. Are you willing to go to your MP to state you don’t support this? She says “that it is important to get the message to the political leaders as that is where the power lies. You make sure in every election – you vote. Then – join the team. Get on a committee. Find out where your strength is – and join us. You will find great pleasure in working on something that you are passionate about”.