Hedy Epstein, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, has stolen our hearts. At four feet-ten, she is a giant. Her gentle smile lights up every room that she enters, and yet if you saw her on the street, you might not immediately sense her power. Unless you paid close attention, you would just see a sweet little old lady.
When she came to Cairo, Hedy decided to undertake a fast in support of the people of Gaza, a particularly apt form of protest given the inadequacy of both the supply and type of food the people there have access to. Malnutrition is endemic in Gaza, and children’s growth is stunted; people frequently go hungry.
Inspired by Hedy, thirty others joined her fast, beginning on December 28. Today, the fasters held a press conference on the steps of the building housing the Egyptian journalists’ union. Some of the thirty will continue to fast, others will stop now. They released this statement:
We are thirty activists from around the world, inspired by Hedy Epstein, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who initiated a hunger strike in Cairo for the opening of the borders of Gaza to the outside world.
We recognize that the Palestinians of Gaza continue to hunger for food, shelter, and most of all for freedom.
We continue to hunger for justice for Gaza and all of Palestine. At this time, we announce that we will feast when Gaza feasts.
Until that time, each of us will choose the time to end her/his fast and again take food.
Our pleasure in that food will always be mixed with the pain of Palestinians.
We call on all people of conscience from around the world to renew their resolve for peace and justice in Palestine.
My friend Keren, Jewish like Hedy, has talked about how personally difficult it is to work for justice in Palestine when your dearest community will not support you, even actively opposes you. Hedy, too, has struggled with this problem, Keren told me, when members of her own family rejected her. And yet, she takes this strong, brave action, risking her health and accepting shunning from loved ones in order to stand up for those who are oppressed.
On this final day of the Gaza Freedom March, I have reflected on the experience—did we accomplish anything? We have all been inspired–by individuals of conscience like Hedy, by the sense of international friendship and solidarity that has pervaded these days here, even by the observable impact of our practice of nonviolence on the young policemen. There has been media coverage of our multiple protests here, and so we have raised up the issue of Gaza around the world, although coverage in the mainstream media has been limited, especially in the U.S. We have made lasting connections with one another, and so a nascent international movement, initiated by the South African delegation, is forming to combat the apartheid system in Palestine, a system with many similarities to what once existed in South Africa.
Most people will leave Cairo either tomorrow or the next day, returning home to their various countries. A few of us are staying on, however, hoping that we can, in a few days, get into Gaza after all–not to participate in a march but rather to offer our service as volunteers. If we are successful and cross into Gaza, we know that we will be greeted with love by the people there. We received this e-mail yesterday, written a few days ago, from the youth of Gaza:
We are still waiting for everyone to cross and share his/her feelings with us, but even if Egypt keeps you out, your work in Egypt is critical. Egypt is one of the perpetrators of the blockade, and we so appreciate all the solidarity protests you have conducted at great personal risk throughout the great city of Cairo, at every important "nerve center." You showed your support of Gaza and Palestine loud and clear, waking humanity up to the 1.5 million persons in Gaza who have been suffering for the past four years.
So please don’t stop fighting, no matter what happens. With your help, we will achieve peace and justice. We are marching for freedom together.
We are still waiting for the Gaza Freedom March to cross from Cairo and we are against the Egyptian government’s decision! Welcome to Gaza and to a Happy New Year without blockade, settlements and occupation!
As for me, I have never spent a more memorable New Year’s Eve than last night, when I went to the French Embassy where the 200-strong French delegation was still camped out. Marching on the sidewalk between rows of small tents, with a couple of hundred riot police standing guard at the curb, the French, wearing paper New Year’s Eve hats, chanted, “Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas! Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas!” Gaza, Gaza, you are not forgotten! And, “Gaza, bonne annee, oui! Gaza, bonne annee, oui!”
Happy New Year, Gaza.
May 2010 be the year that the blockade ends and freedom comes to Gaza and all Palestine.
Jean Athey is a grandmother from Maryland.