“If they hadn’t taken us, where would we have gone?”
I’ve heard this question, once posed by my uncle in Taiwan, echoed countless times by Jewish and Israeli friends over the years.
“Where would we have gone?”
“Who would have taken us?”
In the wake of World War II, after the First Israeli-Arab War (sometimes referred to as Israel’s War of Independence or the Nakba), the Israeli government passed a law known as the “Law of Return.” The law gives Jewish people, defined as those with one or more Jewish grandparent–and their spouses–the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. Jewish people from all over the world who had experienced generations and generations of oppression, violence, and systematic exclusion, removal, and rejection by the lands they called home, flocked to the newly formed state of Israel. These people settled in the land, a geographical region which has been known as Palestine going back to the 5th Century BCE, displacing more than 700,000 of the people who were already living in that land who had been there for thousands of years who called themselves Palestinians .
This region of Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea has been referred to by various names over the millennia and has been conquered, ruled, and occupied by countless imperial regimes. While these geopolitical entities have come and gone for those thousands of years, the people of Palestine have remained and endured, including Arab populations of various religious and ethnic backgrounds (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Druze, Samaritans) and indigenous Jewish populations known as the Mizrahim or Mizrahi Jews. The Law of Return was an important core feature of establishing the Jewish state that the founders of the modern State of Israel envisioned.
Readers who are familiar with my work—whether my documentary film HuanDao or my writing about Taiwanese identity— may know that my father and his family immigrated to Taiwan from Myanmar (Burma) under the auspice of a nationalist program created by the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Republic of China to offer citizenship to ethnically Chinese diaspora from around the world to settle in Taiwan. The process of “return” that Jewish people can make to claim Israeli citizenship is known as “Making Aliyah” and over the years it has become a helpful shorthand for me when talking to my Jewish friends about how my family ended up in Taiwan using our version of “making aliyah” and our “law of return.” My parents met in the 70s as camp counselors on the program colloquially known in our community as “Love Boat”, but formally known as “Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission” (OCAC) Youth Study Tour (the program has seen many changes in its 50+ years of existence but this was the name of the program when my parents participated in as counselors and when I participated as a teenager in 2006). Love Boat is similar in its soft power mission and vision as the more widely known Birthright Israel (or more often referred to just as “Birthright”). My existence and that of my siblings is in fact due to these nationalist projects of the KMT. I am the literal offspring of the ROC’s nationalist identity program.
When I interviewed my father for my documentary “HuanDao” about ten years ago, he told us that when they lived in Burma, he and his family had papers that said, “No Country, No Land.” My paternal grandfather was murdered by local Burmese people when my father was nine years old, leaving him, the eldest of five children, to take on responsibility at a young age for the care of and survival of his family. My grandmother and her whole family left a small village in Yunnan, China near the border of Burma and China during the Chinese Civil War and trekked fifty miles across the border to seek refuge in Myitkyina for what they thought would be a short time until the war ended, only to marry, have children, and make a home in that land. It was due to the ROC government’s repatriation program that my father, grandmother, and his three surviving siblings relocated to Taiwan to start a new life. Shortly after, my grandmother helped about half of her surviving thirteen siblings also immigrate to Taiwan. When I visited Myanmar with my father for the first time back in 2019 (his first time back since he left almost 50 years ago as a teenager), I quickly realized that most of my family that had stayed in Myanmar had died from war, famine, or disease and the majority people who had survived were the ones who had fled to Taiwan. Many of my Jewish or Israeli friends exist because someone in their family line took refuge in Israel–the rest of their family lines having perished in the Holocaust, the ones who survived eventually going to Israel or the United States.
“If they hadn’t taken us, where would we have gone?”
When asked about his experience as an immigrant by a producer on my documentary, my father replied, “I didn’t feel like an immigrant. I felt like I was coming home for the first time in my life.” Words again, that I have heard echoed in so many Jewish and Israeli friends whose family made their homes in Israel. I do not think it would be a misrepresentation of my father’s worldview to say that to him, the ROC (Taiwan) represents the true China and the only China he has ever called home. It was this hope of Chinese nationalism and a shared identity upon which I was raised and grew up hearing. We were proud to be Chinese. My father, who had grown up as a minority in a country that did not accept them, where they had been denied citizenship, where it had been illegal for them to start schools to teach us our language, raised his children in another foreign country–the United States–where we were a minority to be proud of who we were, our culture, our history, our identity, and our language.
The Danger of a Single Story
As a consequence, I have never been ashamed of my ethnic Chinese heritage or my Asian face, even growing up as I did in the Midwest and spending most of my adult life in the American South—without a lot of Asian people around.
But as I got older, I realized that the narrative and story that I had been raised on was one-sided. It erased the fact that these repatriation programs happened while under military occupation –martial law, oppressing the people who had been already living in Taiwan for hundreds, if not thousands of years, before my family arrived. It was not until adulthood that I learned about White Terror and the 228 incident. My father, who had grown up not being allowed to learn his language–Chinese—in school, was brought to Taiwan by a government that made it illegal for Taiwanese people to speak and learn their own languages and forced them to learn and use Mandarin Chinese.
Last year, I visited the Green Island White Terror Memorial Park for the first time and looked at the walls upon which were inscribed the thousands of names of people who had been murdered in White Terror, incarcerated in Green Island’s political prison, and died in that same prison. I sat in weekly Bible study for four years learning from Taiwanese independence activists like Tsay Ting-Kuei, committed to nonviolent resistance, who were imprisoned for their work trying to end the KMT government’s oppressive system of martial law and to usher in a new democratic government or who were blacklisted from returning home to Taiwan for years. The people that once were referred to as terrorists and communist spies by the KMT are many of the people that helped build the Taiwan that I know, love, and am proud of today.
The narrative that has often been put forth about anyone who identifies as a Palestinian is that they are a terrorist because that is the only way they are often referred to in the media. All the Palestinians that I have met and befriended over the years are generous, hospitable, peaceful, loving people who are using all the tools at their disposal to fight for a just future for their people and their neighbors, to end the violence that is most often waged against them rather than by them–but they have suffered under the reductionistic labeling where anyone who challenges existing structures of power is called a terrorist.
I categorically condemn the attack that Hamas launched on October 7, 2023 killing 1400, injuring almost 4000, and taking 199 hostages–among whom were peace activists working to end the occupation in Palestine and the friends and family of people important to me in my life. That being said, groups like Hamas that use indiscriminate violence cannot be counted upon to be faithful or sole representations of the work of Palestinian liberation. As we often have to do in the Taiwanese community, it takes critical thinking to distinguish between those who claim to care about our community’s plight and those who are masking their thirst for power and violence in the name of our freedom.
So many people came before me, making sacrifices and doing the work to give Taiwan the present we have today, that we are working so hard to build upon and preserve the future for. And I am committed to that same work of building a better system, one that doesn’t attempt to guarantee my “freedom” at the expense of others–one that dismantles a system that has given me an unjust and unequal advantage.
“Not In Our Name”
Over the thirty one years of my life, many of my closest friends have been Jewish Americans. Something about the stories and struggles of our people and our families rang true. I have been their first hand confidants of their very real experiences of antisemitic violence and discrimination and they have been the confidants of my experiences of racism and Anti-Asian violence. As we have all grown into ourselves, I have listened and heard so many of them talk about the wrestling they have had to do—understanding the fear and the trauma they, their families, and ancestors have experienced that have led to their support for the state of Israel– existential fears, concerns, and traumas that are not invalid, just like those of my father and his family. But we have also recognized that our valid fears have led to disproportionate and unjust responses that are doing the same harm to others that were once done to us. In response to the Hamas attacks on October 7, the Israeli government launched a ‘complete siege on Gaza’ dropping over 6,000 bombs on the 17.4 square mile area, cutting off food, water, and electricity to the 2.3 million people living in Gaza, half of which are children, all of whom are unable to flee, evacuate, or seek refuge elsewhere. This is on top of a blockade that has restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza by Israel and Egypt since 2005. This infographic updated on October 19 says that in Gaza at least 3478 have died and over 12,000 have been injured since October 7, the actual numbers of which have inevitably increased by the time you are reading this article.
This is why this week I participated in demonstrations and marched with If Not Now, “a movement of American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all Palestinians and Israelis” and Jewish Voice for Peace “a progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organizing a grassroots, multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of U.S. Jews into solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle, guided by a vision of justice, equality, and dignity for all people.”
I follow the lead of my Jewish siblings who are saying, “as the survivors of genocide, we say no to this genocide in Gaza.” The future that we want is not about us versus them, but working together because our liberation is bound with one another. The time has come for us to lay our bodies and lives down to say, “Not in Our Name.” These are values and commitments to repentance and justice that I share with these Jewish siblings, rooted in our personal stories and the deep wells of our traditions of faith. Our families and other members of our communities may say that this is a betrayal, that we are self-hating, but the decisions we have made to be in solidarity come out of the lessons, the values, and the histories of our own communities.
Video of crowd chanting “Ceasefire Now! Never again for anyone! Never again is now!” at Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now #CeasefireNow Action National Mall Washington DC October 18, 2023 (Video from author)
On Monday’s action, I joined over a thousand American Jews and allies to shut down all the exits to the White House—condemning Israel’s war and siege on Gaza, Israel’s apartheid system, and the United States’ support of it. Before we marched over to the White House, the organizers gathered us to tell us the plan and to teach us a few songs and prayers we would be doing that day.
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
ָ עוֹל ֶם חֶסד יִָבֶנה
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
Olam Chesed Yibaneh
I will build this world from love… yai dai dai
And you must build this world from love… yai dai dai
And if we build this world from love… yai dai dai
Then G-d will build this world from love… yai dai dai
We all discussed our different comfort levels with one another about the level of participation and civil disobedience we were ready to do that day. I filled out a jail support form and wrote the number of a lawyer on my arm in case I was arrested. Whenever I joined up with a group of protesters in their prayer shawls, stars of David, and kippahs standing shoulder to shoulder, the person next to me would look me–this stranger and Christian Gentile– in the eye, smile, and offer me their hand or arm. This gentle and warm offering I would accept, placing my hand in theirs, with a small squeeze, then we would look ahead, take a breath, and sing, chant, and pray together in Hebrew and English. Together, we recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for those Israeli and Palestinian lives that were lost the last two weeks without a question of a minyan.
Without shame, with hope, and with love– we held the line. If someone felt uncomfortable they could step aside, if someone was afraid we would come alongside them, if someone needed food or water, a marshal would bring it to them. To me this is the most radical choice we could make. This is the world we want to build together, honoring each other’s humanity, in love. This was us each bringing forth to offer what we could from our faith, our tradition, our identity, and our community for the shared vision of peace and justice. Occasionally a marshal would come by and ask if anyone who was willing to be arrested would come to another exit, and I watched as dozens and dozens of friends volunteered, putting their bodies on the line.
We did this for seven hours, ending with an hour straight of nonstop singing and chanting “No more genocide. Not In Our Name. Ceasefire Now” in front of the press tents for the chance that our voices would be in the background of every second of press coverage and briefing of all the news outlets there that day. The sun set on a perfect fall day as we rocked back and forth, our voices rising in harmony as a holy peace offering while a hundred police officers stood before us staring us down, passing out zip cuffs and preparing their weapons in anticipation of an escalation of violence that never happened.
Video of IfNotNow organizers leading protesters in singing “Ceasefire Now” and “Not in Our Name” in front of the White House in Washington DC October 16, 2023 (Video from author)
My Jewish and Israeli friends are speaking up all over the world to say that the oppression of Palestinians must end because in order for them and their loved ones to find a viable future and path forward, Palestinians must be given the full rights of statehood and citizenship, of education, employment, and movement instead of being relegated to live in a system of poverty, checkpoints, and without means to participate in their own self determination, government, and civil society. The Palestinians whose land was taken by Israeli settlers, must have these returned to them. I join the countless Israelis and Palestinians who are calling for a political response to end the violence rather than a military one, one that can sustain rather than lead to more bloodshed.
I watched how America’s “War on Terror” response to 9/11 created more terrorism and violence, how the bombs we dropped did not make us safer. The real way to end terrorism is to fight poverty, end economic inequality, to provide education, healthcare, and most importantly– a system of governance that actually allows people’s participation in their own self determination. One of the best strategies to end Hamas is to end the occupation and free Palestine.
This is what solidarity for me—as a Taiwanese American Christian— looks like. Which is why I spent this week going to the White House and Congress to say support the #CeasefireNow resolution. This is how I fight for the lives of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel-Palestine and how I fight for the lives of my friends and neighbors here in the United States who have been the victims of antisemitic violence and Islamophobia, who have already seen an uptick in violence and hate crimes in the last two weeks that will surely only increase as the inflammatory rhetoric of the war continues.
At Wednesday’s action, I held a banner that said “Ceasefire” for about five hours as we marched down the National mall to the buildings of Congress while 500 Jewish protesters— including two dozen rabbis— occupied the House building in an act of civil disobedience and were forcibly removed, then arrested by Capitol police. In the meantime, ten thousand of us rallied in support outside of the congressional building, all to show our support for a ceasefire and de escalation resolution that has been brought forth in Congress that will also supply aid to the people of Gaza.
On one side of me was an American Jewish woman and on the other side of me was a Palestinian woman whose family is currently in Gaza. I asked her how they are doing and she told me they text her one word each day to let her know that they are alive, but they are running out of food, water, and trying to preserve their phone batteries. I tried to show the care to them that was shown to me at Monday’s demonstration. As we chanted and sang together, sharing food and snacks, I heard how the Palestinian woman’s voice was drowned out by the large and loud white non-Jewish Americans behind us who decided to take the opportunity to yell at Republican congress people and heckle the police. She whispered to me, “we need to keep things positive, peaceful, focused, about love, our shared humanity.” Agreeing, I tried to redirect the crowds with her as she returned to our chants, by adding my voice to hers, “Let. Gaza. Live. Let. Gaza. Live. End. Genocide. End. Genocide. Free. Palestine. Free. Palestine. Ceasefire. Now. Ceasefire. Now.” Sometimes people joined in, but most of the time we were drowned out by those behind us who seemed more interested in proving something than stopping the war and saving the lives of her family. I felt relief when the Jewish song leaders had repositioned the band and PA and resumed leading the singing and chants again and put all I had left in my disappearing voice to join in.
As I shared with The Guardian last year, the perspective of the people who live in Taiwan is often erased on the global stage in favor of oversimplified hot takes that only serve the warmongers and armchair political theorists who profit off of our suffering. But the same is true when I have been engaging the words and perspectives of the survivors of the Hamas attacks, the families of those who have been killed or taken hostage in Israel, and Palestinians who have been on the receiving end of this assault on Gaza. Many of us outside of the Middle East might not be aware that a right wing coalition government in Israel has spent the last year consolidating power and dismantling the judicial branch of the government, or that hundreds of thousands of Israeli people have spent months coming out to protest every Saturday for the last year. [alt article option by AP]. The families and friends of those taken hostage have been desperately demanding that the government seek a political solution, while the IDF indiscriminately bombs Gaza–making no attempts to rescue the hostages, but instead using them as political leverage to justify razing Gaza to the ground.
For some Jewish people and Palestinians, I know my call for a ceasefire is not enough, and will be seen as a concession or compromise that erases the generations of violence, hatred, and pain that they and their communities have experienced but for me, this is the only way I know how to faithfully acknowledge the fullness of humanity and the reality of violence that all these parties have experienced. It is not about comparing one group’s suffering and pain to another’s but attempting to sit with the discomfort of a pain of such a large magnitude that it threatens to immolate us all if we truly engage with it.
Tikkun Olam – A Call to the Work of Repairing the World
A shared commitment to transitional justice, an end to settler colonial ethnostates, and liberation for us all. This is why as a Taiwanese American activist, as a member of New Bloom, and Christian minister I am working together with Jewish people, Israelis, and Palestinians to say, “Ceasefire now.” The loss of life has already been so high; let us not add to it by pouring on the gasoline that is the US military industrial complex to an already raging fire that should and needs to be decided through the political self determination of Israelis and Palestinians and all the people who call the land from the river to the sea home.
To fight for my own future, I am fighting for a free and democratic Taiwan that is not only for waishengren but for the indigenous people who have had their land, language, and culture stolen from them by my people, for the Hakka and Hoklo who have been marginalized and pushed to assimilate into a Mandarin hegemony, and for the 新住民 (“New immigrants”) that have come to make their home on this island nation.
Ironically, Biden has attempted to legislatively link the fate of Taiwan, Ukraine, and Israel together in a recent aid package–suggesting that Taiwan and Ukraine have with Israel a shared geopolitical fate, never mind that Taiwan and Ukraine share more in common with Palestine than Israel in the struggle for existence. Yet, while “Great Powers” play out their own imperialist proxy battles using our homes for playgrounds and lives as pawns in their chess games, we will not allow ourselves to be reduced and dehumanized in the struggle. We will reject identitarian essentialism to reach out with a smile, a warm hand, some food and water, and a welcoming song. And as a Taiwanese American person who’s struggle for independence is being used by President Joe Biden to leverage military aid to Israel I also join together with my American Jewish siblings in saying, “Not in My Name.”
The money, resources, and military responses available to the state of Israel are undoubtedly unequal to that of Palestinians who are economically isolated and have had a long history and struggle for diplomatic recognition of their statehood (not unlike the military resources, diplomatic influence, and economic power of China when compared to Taiwan) but their human dignity and right to live, work, and love is not unequal. And I think for us as Taiwanese people, we can understand the politics of something as simple as the names we choose to use for a place–Israel? Palestine? The Levant? Taiwan? Formosa? Province of China? Republic of China? Or that to name the existence of an identity for a country that people claim does not exist is taking a political stance whether that is saying, “I am Taiwanese” or “I am Palestinian.”
The world cannot be simply divided into the binary of oppressors and oppressed, victims and perpetrators— it is not to say that oppression does not exist in the world, but if we only deign to acknowledge the humanity of those whose suffering is most intelligible to us, we will never stop playing the cruel game that erases one people’s suffering for the benefit of our own simplistic narratives of others. Those who are victims sometimes oppress others and those who oppress are victims sometimes too. If we attempt to evade accountability for our actions by pointing to another way we experience harm and oppression, we will never make a more just world that weeds out the roots of our oppression. This is why it has been so crucial for me to live into restorative justice, healing justice, and the messiness of transitional justice— so that we might break these cycles of violence and turn away from the mistakes of the past. For those who have hurt me in the past, what I have desired more than anything is repentance, not revenge. We do not want to be defined by our trauma to be victims forever, but to see that pain and suffering composted and transformed into a rich soil that we might fertilize a beautiful garden and feed all that are hungry.
“Mourn the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the Living”
I am joining the chorus of voices of Israelis and Palestinians who have seen their loved ones taken hostage, bombed, injured, murdered, disappeared, and imprisoned to call for a ceasefire, and to call for a political solution rather than a military response to this Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and the untenable status quo of the apartheid system in the Israel-Palestine.
It is not for us to dwell in fantasies of the past, to create alternative timelines in our minds where the wars that led to the formation of these settler colonial ethnostates (Israel and the ROC) never happened. It is for us whose family stories are inseparably entangled with these histories to look to the present and future to work for the creation of new governments and systems that can correct the problems of the past. We do not get a choice in where or to whom we are born, but we do get a choice in how we choose to act in response to that.
To which I want to close with the words of a prayer Marah Sarji, my classmate and friend, a feminist Palestinian liberation theologian and activist, led us in last week at a vigil for Gaza at Princeton University, “All we ask, is for the walls of apartheid to fall, and that everyone will be free and safe, from the river to the sea.”
Video of IfNotNow organizers leading protesters in singing “Lo Yisa Goy,” while protestors join together to dance a Palestinian Arab folk dance called Dabke in front of the White House in Washington DC October 16, 2023 (Video from author)
לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גוֹי חֶרֶב לֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.
Lo yisa goy el goy cherev lo yil’medu od milchamah.
Nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2)
About SueAnn Shiah
SueAnn Shiah (@sueannshiah) is a Taiwanese American musician, filmmaker, community organizer, ethnomusicologist, and public theologian specializing in identity formation, racial justice, gender, and sexuality. Her first feature length documentary HuanDao follows her journey of discovery, identity, and belonging in a two week bike trip around Taiwan. She released her debut solo album of reclaimed hymns, “A Liturgy for the Perseverance of the Saints” in June 2018. In 2020, she joined the leadership team and editorial board of Taiwan’s New Bloom Magazine and became a guest columnist for News Lens International. In addition to her own creative and theological works, she collaborates with others in a variety of capacities as an artist manager, producer, audio engineer, songwriter, podcast producer, and creator of liturgy. She has a B.B.A. in Music Business with a Production emphasis and a Chinese minor from Belmont University, a Masters of Arts in Musicology from National Taiwan University, and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
 Shay Hazkani (2019). Dear Palestine A Social History of the 1948 War. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-1-5036-2766-6.