Profiles in Peace and Justice

When a group of Israeli peace activists, including Uri and Rachel Avnery, created Gush Shalom in 1993, it came at a time of great upheaval in the Occupied Territories. Since then, the volunteer organization has grown to include some 450 core activists and a circle of 1,400 supporters. It has coordinated hundreds of demonstrations, rebuilt Palestinian houses demolished by the government, and worked tirelessly toward the peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state. The Avnerys and their colleagues have been regularly arrested and frequently abused by Israeli soldiers and police.

Today, the situation in the Occupied Territories and throughout Israel is once again in a perilous state. Yet Uri Avnery remains unbowed. “I was born an optimist and will die as an optimist,” he said in a recent interview. “The present is but a stage–albeit a sad one–in the inevitable march toward peace and conciliation. After 55 years of a struggle for Israeli-Palestinian peace, I can see the immense progress we have made. The present throws us a long way back, but we shall move ahead again.”

Steadfastness is a thread that connects all the winners of the 2001 Right Livelihood Awards, presented at the Swedish Parliament last December. In addition to Gush Shalom, the jury recognized Trident Ploughshares, a British anti-nuclear weapons group; Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian professor and former Roman Catholic priest who was one of the founders of liberation theology; and José Antonio Abreu, who created the Venezuela National System of Children and Youth Orchestras.

“The jury has chosen these recipients from the many outstanding people and organizations who were nominated for this year’s awards in order to show positive ways forward at this time of grief, fear, and insecurity,” said Right Livelihood Awards founder and chairman Jakob von Uexkull. “It is imperative to recognize that the only remedy for terror is justice and reconciliation and the promotion of human rights–civil, political, economic, social, and ecological–for all peoples of the world. This is what our award recipients this year, in their different ways, have committed their lives to doing. Theirs are examples from which we can all learn much.”

Since its first mass action in 1998, Trident Ploughshares and its founder, Angie Zelter, have pursued a nonviolent and “fully accountable” mission to disarm the Trident nuclear missiles (about 50 of them) in the United Kingdom’s arsenal. The group has damaged equipment on submarines, put a missile-related research laboratory out of action, and coordinated dozens of demonstrations, all the while creating such a rational case for disarmament of the missiles that a court acquitted Zelter and two of her colleagues in the research laboratory incident.

“I have to conclude that the three [defendants] were justified in thinking that Great Britain in the use of Trident . . . could be construed as a threat and as such is an infringement of international and customary law,” a British judge ruled in the 1999 case. “I have heard nothing which would make it seem to me that the accused acted with criminal intent.”

Leonardo Boff’s hope when he began preaching liberation theology was to meld the political realities of Brazil with the spiritual needs of his parishioners, a move that brought down upon him the full weight of the Vatican in 1985 and again in 1992. Boff responded by leaving the Franciscan order and throwing himself into fulfilling his vision of social justice and community. An emeritus professor of ethics, philosophy of religion, and ecology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Boff remains active as a lay priest in communidades de base, or base Christian communities, where the teachings of Christ are fused with a radical social gospel. There are now some 100,000 of these grassroots organizations operating throughout Brazil; their leaders work closely with trade unions, political parties, and community organizations.

With a Ph.D. in petroleum economics, José Antonio Abreu may not seem at first glance a likely candidate for these awards, but the 62-year-old Venezuelan is also an accomplished composer and organist. And in 1975 he created the Symphony Orchestra Simon Bolivar and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra, which has grown into one of the most remarkable political and cultural movements in the world: the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela.

Explicitly devoted to poor children, the organization now includes 110,000 Venezuelans in 102 children’s orchestras, 55 youth orchestras, and a network of choirs throughout the country. Using music to reach and elevate the poor, the organization has been called “a social movement of massive dimensions that [uses] music [to] make the social integration of different Venezuelan population groups possible and supports the strata with low income.”

The winners will share about $200,000 as part of the award, the 22nd annual presentation of what is often referred to as “the alternative Nobel Prizes.” Established in 1980 “to honor and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today,” the Right Livelihood Awards were endowed by Von Uexkull, a philatelic expert, with the proceeds from the sale of his rare postage stamps.

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