What started as a one-time tour to raise awareness about occupied Palestine is now a seasoned touring troupe of advocates who have added the military occupation of Iraq to their portfolio of speaking points.
The Wheels of Justice Tour is at the end of a weeklong stay in Utah, spending Thursday at the University of Utah. Staff answered questions and sold books alongside the group's trademark bio-diesel bus as it sat on a sidewalk outside the Olpin Union. Another volunteer sold books inside, not far from eight protesters drawing attention to China's control over Tibet.
The group's intent is to offer information from eyewitnesses to the effects of the Gaza and West Bank conflicts as well as a perspective on the ongoing military action in Iraq to offset "partisan politics and sound-bite sloganeering."
A light but steady stream of students walked slowly past the bus to look at its exhibits and speak with the staff. About a dozen people stepped in and out of a meeting room inside the student union where Hannah Mermelstein talked about conflicts between the Israeli government and Palestinians.
Mermelstein describes herself as a Jewish and American woman who dropped quarters in a collection box at her synagogue outside Philadelphia as a child. The collection went to plant trees in Israel. "That has to be a good thing, right?" she recalled asking herself before contributing change to the cause.
Her perspective changed, she said, when she went to the occupied West Bank and saw that the trees were being planted to obscure the remnants of Palestinian villages that had been emptied, their residents scattered to refugee camps.
Mermelstein is new to the Wheels of Justice circuit, though she is a seasoned advocate of the rights of Palestinians in their conflict with the Israeli government.
"The conflict is not about ethnicity, not about religion it's about land," she said, telling her small audience the difference between being Jewish, being an Israeli and being a Zionist. "They overlap, but they are also very different."
Donations keep the bus tour, and Mermelstein, afloat.
The effects of the group's advocacy are hard to measure, she said. "I see things actually getting worse, but I see the resilience of the Palestinian people and ask myself, 'How can I not keep going?"'
The bus tour makes many of its stops on college campuses and plans its fall and spring tours around the academic calendar. The group spent last week in Idaho and was scheduled to leave Salt Lake City on Thursday for Idaho. The schedule also includes a lot of Sunday presentations at churches, mosques and the like."I like the flexibility of it," Mermelstein said of the tour's schedule, which allows her to split her time between speaking opportunities in the United States with her time on the ground in the West Bank.
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