Yesterday afternoon, I had the great privilege of being part of a group that hosted the Parents Circle Families Forum during which 3 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents gave a moving presentation about the personal losses of their children and how that motivated them to fight for a just and peaceful resolution of the longstanding conflict between their peoples. My role was as Chair of J Street Madison and President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, both of which served as co-sponsors along with other churches and peace groups.
The presentation started with a moving video, Taking Steps (click here to watch). Then Israeli Rami Elhanan described his own background: his grandparents died in the Holocaust, his father escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel and Rami fought in the Yom Kippur war.
Then, one day, in 1997, everything changed. His 14 year old daughter, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. While he could have succumbed to anger and hatred, he made a very different and profound decision to use the power of his pain to bring light and hope to others seeking peace in his troubled nation. Rami stated quite eloquently that despite his personal tragedy and the tragedy of so many other families who have been scarred by losing an innocent child to senseless violence, he insists that,
We are not doomed.
Rami used the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank as a metaphor as he believes that the Parents Circle helps to create cracks in the wall and through those cracks, each side can see each other and begin to break down the wall and create peace. As he put it, “our blood is the same color, our tears are made of the same salt water.” As Rami introduced the next speaker, Palestinian George Sa’adeh, he called him his brother.
George’s great-grandfather was the Mayor of Bethlehem in 1860 and his family has resided in Bethlehem for many generations. His dream was to work in the aerospace industry, but since Israeli security will not allow Palestinians to work in that field, George studied aerospace engineering at UCLA. However, when he returned to Bethlehem, he was only permitted to work as a mechanical engineer.
One tragic day in 2003, his family was driving in Bethlehem. George noticed the streets were empty, except for Israeli army jeeps, though he did not know why. All of a sudden, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting approximately 300 bullets into his vehicle, striking George, his wife Najwa and both of his daughters. His 14 year old daughter Christine was killed in the gunfire. George, Najwa and their other daughter survived after surgery and hospitalization.
Approximately 50,000 people attended Christine’s funeral, the biggest ever in Bethlehem, but like Rami, after all those giving condolences were gone, George had to decide what to do with his grief. Like Rami, he chose the path of peace. He believes the region needs strong leaders who will work for peace, justice and human rights, instead of waging war against each other with hundreds of innocent victims. Profoundly, George stated that he and his wife forgive the soldiers who shot them and killed their daughter, as they have no hatred, because, “hatred will kill us.”
The Parents Circle is a unique group as it is probably the only membership group that wants no more members. Rather, they have decided that,
from our pain, we make peace.
Finally, Najwa Sa’adeh spoke of her love for her daughter, Christine, who spoke of her impending death during the year before she died, which puzzled her parents as she was a happy child who only wanted to help others. In fact, she told her parents that when she died, she believed she would be famous. So, now Najwa and George share her story so others can, “feel with us.”
In addition to sharing their stories and demonstrating that despite the greatest loss, they can work side by side for peace, the Parents Circle does a lot to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, from summer camps to professional interest groups. They had received funding from the USAID and the European Union, but that dried up after the most recent so-called knife intifada. In fact, President Obama mentioned the Parents Circle in his speech to the Egyptian people in Cairo, as the only group that gave hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
When they took questions, someone asked about whether they support a particular territorial solution. Rami made it quite clear that the number of states is irrelevant. As he said, “nothing is sacred about a state. The key is respect.”
Rami closed with the following profound and moving statements:
We must work together, not alone.
We are working for the security of our children.
You cannot clap with one hand (an Arabic saying).
You cannot make peace with yourself
We demand that you work for peace and justice.
It is people like these who will overcome power hungry leaders and bring peace to their peoples. After their talk, I let Rami, George & Najwa know that my son was returning to Israel that day to begin his sophomore year at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), and that he does what he can to meet those working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All 3 of them let me know that my son is welcome in their homes and when we visit him next year, we are also welcome. I look forward to visiting them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and continuing to help them break down barriers and work for peace and justice.
If you want to contribute to their work, you can go to this link.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.