Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Families Forum : Part 1 - An Israeli Story (2006)

The Families Forum / Parents Circle is an organisation consisting of several hundreds of bereaved families, half Palestinian and half Israeli. The Families Forum has played a crucial role since its inception in 1995, in spearheading a reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians. The Forum members have all lost immediate family members due to the violence in the region. They campaign - very effectively - for peace and reconciliation and to promote the cessation of acts of hostility and the achievement of a political agreement

In 2006, two members of this organisation (Robi Damelin and Abu Ali Awwad) undertook a speaking tour of the UK, including two talks in Nottingham. BFTF was lucky enough to attend, record (and later transcribe) one of these events.

This is the first of four related posts. The others can be accessed via the links below:
Families Forum : Part 2 - A Palestinian Story (2006)
Families Forum : Part 3 - The Project (2006)
Families Forum : Part 4 - Q&A (2006)
If you only read two posts on this blog, please make it Parts 1 and 2 of this series.

More Information on the Families Forum - Parents Circle can be found here:
UK Friends of the Bereaved Families Forum
Main Families Forum - Parents Circle Website

An Israeli story

My name is Robi Damelin. I come from Tel Aviv and I lost my son David. He was a student at Tel Aviv University and he was studying for his masters in the Philosophy of Education. I don't suppose anyone can really understand what it is to lose a child. It's beyond anyone's comprehension actually because I thought that I understood and that I had empathy because there are many families in Israel and Palestine who have lost children and I make these kinds of visits but afterwards I apologised to other bereaved parents because I realised that I didn't understand what they were talking about and that my life would never be the same. And then I decided, 'What would I do with all this pain?' There are many choices that you can make.

When the army came and knocked on my door, the first thing that I said, which is really weird because I only heard about it afterwards was 'You may not kill anybody in the name of my child' and I suppose that that was already the beginning of the path that I was going to take.

All my life I have been working for causes of co-existence, you have probably already picked up the fact that my accent is South African. I came to live in Israel in 1967 and in those days, if you had said to me after I had fought in the anti-apartheid movement all through my life - my uncle was Nelson Mandela's lawyer - if you had said to me that blacks and whites would sit in the same room and look for a way to reconcile I would have said that you were insane. In fact this miracle actually happened and it is a miracle of South Africa. It isn't that South Africa is now this wonderful land of pink dreams - it's not. There is a lot of crime but when you think of the alternative of what could have happened there then you begin to realise that it was the miracle and I think the miracle could happen for us as well.

After David died I didn't know what direction my life was going to take. I didn't know that I couldn't go out on a path of revenge because in fact there is no revenge that you can take that will bring him back. Who would I kill? Who would I blame? Where does the anger come from? Did the sniper kill David because he was David? He killed him because he was a symbol, because if he had known David he could never have killed him.

The process of forgiving and reconciliation is a long and very painful one. It's a very personal journey that has a tremendous rippling effect. You will never know where it's going to take you. You see when you do this work there is a sense of having to know whether you are being completely honest. I spend a lot of time looking for anger and whether I was being genuine about what I was saying. And then the big test arrived.

The big test was that they caught the sniper that killed David. I though 'what am I going to do with all of this because if what I am saying is what I mean, then I have to go on a path to see whether I can find a way to reconcile and that's almost impossible. I was very influenced by the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa. I watched the movie, which I highly recommend to anybody, called "The long nights journey into the day" - it's not "a long days journey into the night". It's a documentary about the truth and reconciliation commission and discovered I could identify and I suddenly realised that by giving up on this anger or by looking for a path to reconcile, in many ways you stopped being the victim because you know, all the anger and the connection to the person that perpetrated the crime is really being under some kind of power that they have over you. It's so hard to explain because its something that much more "experiential" and not so much something that I can quantify and explain to you. So I think that in many ways if I read you the letter that I wrote to the family of the sniper, it might give you an insight into this path, because the path is not only personal, it has a rippling effect.

The rippling effect of forgiving is quite incredible. When I looked at South Africa I really realised that this is what they were doing, because it wasn't only for the mothers, the people who had lost children, it was also for other people to see that it was possible and it was looking for the humanity on the other side because we only see evil and good, we don't see grey in the middle. We just see bad and good and we don't see the story of the sniper - which we will come to - we don't see why people do these mad violent things. Look, I'm not a rainbows, flowers, bad poetry sort of person, but I do see the possibility. I do see that giving up would be the most terrible thing. It's quite extraordinary because when you see people who are the least likely of anybody you could ever meet in Israel or Palestine to go on this path and suddenly they are talking with once voice, it has an extraordinary effect on people. It brings a sense of hope and that maybe they can make a difference in their own communities.

We were in the university this afternoon and I was so moved by the meeting because there were Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Palestinian, Palestinian Christian in the audience and we finished after an hour and they threw us out of the lecture hall and we all went to the cafe because they wanted to continue talking. We sat and spoke and I discovered that these kids had never ever spoken (to each other). A Palestinian had never spoken to a Jewish student. They started to stand in a group and they started talking to each other and taking each other's Emails and they decided that they were going to have a dialogue group. I got them to get off the politics and they are all going to tell their personal narrative for the first three or four weeks to get the empathy because you see, we are not a political organisation. Of course we are all political people but we are not affiliated to any political party and that is really very important for us because we don't want to be labelled as anything, and their are various opinions within the parents circle in any event.

So these kids suddenly discovered the humanity, they were talking on another level altogether and they promised me that the first few meeting would be to get to know each other.

There were kids there from Gaza. I know what it is to live in Gaza but I promise you that the kids in this meeting had never heard the pain of a kid living in Gaza, never heard his fear for what would happen to his parents if something happened.

And the Jewish kids would start to tell their stories about where they came from and why their parents left Lithuanian and how they got here and what happened to them and how they feel as a minority group.

It's so extraordinary when you tell that personal narrative. You can get off the history because we all live in our historical narrative. 1948 is the war of independence for the Jews and the state of Israel and it's the 'Nakba' (Catastrophe) for the Palestinians. And so we all read history as we wish. Look at the Balfour Declaration - you will see the two sides interpretation. Everything is seen through your own eyes. Now, when you know someone else's narrative - it doesn't mean you have to agree with it - but at least you know.

I mean, we live probably from here to where those cups are away from a Palestinian - and we never sat down to have a conversation.

Nobody knows the pain of the other. Nobody understand why Israel started and why all these people ran away and why it is a necessity to have a state at all.

Nobody sees the pain of the Palestinians. Nobody knows what the daily life is of having to cross a roadblock, of having the humiliation of having to always show papers, of having to ask permission to come to Israel.

Where do we have the empathy, this joint empathy, where we can look at both sides and say 'they have a shared pain'? You see, for Ali and I to sit together, we do share a pain- it's the deepest pain that you can have. We have also paid the highest price to say what we say and we are very lucky in that from many points of view the people in our communities are willing to listen to us because neither of us can be doubted as being loyal to their own countries - but still wanting a moral solution. So I think I'm going to read you the letter and I really ask you not to take sides. Please do not be pro-Israeli, please do not be pro-Palestinian. Just open your heart to a message that might bring a sense of empathy because where are we now - Nottingham? - you can have all these wonderful opinions but your children are not dying and your children are not standing at roadblocks. And you don't have to make these terrible decisions on a daily basis of what to do, and how to live your life and how to be moral. I know that you have had a little taste now of veils and crosses and everything to do with religious symbols. I am not all religious but I promise you that if someone said tomorrow morning that I could not wear the star of David I would go out and buy a star of David the biggest size I could find and I would walk around with it hear (on my chest) because you are pushing me into a corner - tell me I can't do something and I immediately feel threatened and that's when I'll immediately do it. So don't tell me I can't wear a veil, or I can't wear a cross or I can't do this. Come and talk to me. Come and tell me why it's painful. Come and explain why you are frightened of my symbols. Come and talk to me about labels and then maybe I won't feel so threatened that I have to wear a big symbol.

Do you know how many Muslims in the US started to wear the veil after 9/11? One needs to ask oneself why. Did they feel threatened? Was it suddenly having to announce your ethnic identity?

I was brought up in a very non-Jewish environment, in a convent believe it or not - nobody believes that when they know the way I behave! - and there were two Jewish kids in the whole convent and I was going to be Catholic because I thought it was much more romantic. I liked all the symbolism. When you are 13-14 it is much more sexy! But, just don't threaten me. Just accept me and talk to me and ask me why I feel the need now to show my symbol. Why is so important that I go off to my British Airways job with a large cross on my cravat? Why am I doing that? What makes it necessary for me to show you who I am?

Robi reads the letter she wrote to the family of the sniper who shot her son:

"This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin and I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.

I know he did not kill David because he was David. If he had known him he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 yrs old and he was a student at Tel Aviv University doing his masters in the Philosophy of Education. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had a compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians. He treated all around him with dignity. David was part of the movement of officers who did not want to serve in the occupied territories but nevertheless; he went to serve when he was called to the reserves.

What makes our children do what they do? Do they not understand the pain they are causing? Your son by now having to be in jail for many years and mine who I will never be able to hold and see again. Or see him married. Or have a grandchild from him.

I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death and the pain of his brother and sister and girlfriend and all who knew and loved him.

All my life I have been spent working for causes of co-existence, both in South Africa and here. After David was killed, I started to look for a way to prevent other families, both Israeli and Palestinian, from suffering this dreadful loss. I was looking for a way to stop the cycle of violence. Nothing, for me, is more sacred that human life. No revenge or hatred can ever bring my child back.

After a year I closed my office and joined the Parents Circle Families Forum. We are a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have all lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We are looking for ways to create a dialogue with a long-term vision of reconciliation. After your son was captured I spent sleepless nights thinking about what to do. Should I ignore the whole thing or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing to try and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation. But it is not easy for anyone and I am just an ordinary person, not a saint

I have now come to the conclusion that I would like to try and reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe but I know that in my heart it is the only path that I can choose. For if what I say is what I mean then it is the only way.

I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people. He is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state.

But I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace. Our lives as two nations are so intertwined. Each of us will have to give up on our dreams for the future of the children who are our responsibility.

I give this letter to people I love and trust to deliver. They will tell you of the work we are doing and perhaps create in your heart some hope for the future. I do not know what your reaction will be. It is a risk for me, but I believe you will understand as it comes from the most honest part of me.

I hope that you will show the letter to your son and that maybe in the future we can meet. Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way, through mutual understanding and empathy, to live a normal life, free of violence"

Thank you

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