“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick.”
I wasn’t intending to write this particular post, but every time I sat down to write this week I could only think of one thing: Gaza.
These last few days it has been as if the very air around me has grown more and more dense with polarized opinions and even more polarizing images of the Israel/Palestine conflict. On Facebook questions about the nature of revenge provoke passionate, vitriolic debates with no end. More and more fuel is being thrown on what is already a blaze: both the actual one that is occurring on the ground, and the blaze set alight in our hearts.
I visited Israel/Palestine in 1988, a year into the first Intifada. Being in my early twenties I fostered what can now be considered a naive optimism that the Palestinian uprising, by drawing international attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, would force leaders on both sides to come to a peace agreement. We are now 26 years on and the death toll continues to rise. It’s enough to make you believe that peace is simply an impossible dream.
Yet, despite what we see in sensationalist mainstream reporting, many on both sides of the conflict continue to dream and work together for peace. They refuse to condemn future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children to a life full of fear and hatred. Many of them have experienced the loss of loved ones first hand and they know that no child, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is born into this world with a gun (or a rock) in their hand. They know that it is only by being dropped into a world of violence that violence becomes the default option. Lately, with the ever increasing cries of retaliation and revenge it has become hard to hear their voices.
The Parents Circle Family Forum
After the murder of his 19 year old son Arik in July 1994 by members of Hamas, Yitzhak Frankenthal founded the Parents Circle Families Forum in 1995. Initially the group provided support for Israeli families who had suffered bereavements as a result of the ongoing conflict, but in 1998 they began to hold meetings with Palestinian families in Gaza. Since 2000 the group includes families from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
PCFF’s most important ongoing work is their ‘Dialogue Meetings’. These offer a group of individuals the opportunity to hear the personal narrative and message of reconciliation of one Palestinian and one Israeli, with the aim of encouraging mutual understanding and a willingness to embrace dialogue as an alternative to violence. For many this is their first contact with the ‘other side’.
In response to the latest outbreak of violence the PCFF has started holding a daily vigil for peace from 6.30 to 10pm every evening in a courtyard in Tel-Aviv, and on July 7 the Israeli daily paper Yedioth Aharonoth published open letters from five bereaved mothers, all members of the Forum, to the newly bereaved Palestinian and Israeli mothers.
Robi Damelin, who lost her son David writes:
“We understand that the pain of a mother losing a child is the same no matter where she comes from, what colour her skin is and to whom she prays at night. The tears falling on the pillow are the same colour. We cannot allow the violence to continue. Let us raise our voices together to stop this senseless killing. Stop the violence, stop the horrific rhetoric. No-one has the right to use our beloved children as pawns in a battle that can never be won.”
Their ‘Crack in the Wall’ Facebook page which acts to create a ‘crack’ in the proverbial and literal wall has more than 23,000 members and provides an unprecedented social network for Israelis and Palestinians to connect.
Hand in Hand
Hand in Hand is the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It was founded in 1997 by two Israeli educators, one Arab and one Jewish. Across four bi-lingual schools Hand in Hand educate about 1000 Jewish and Arab children — Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze from 20 different communities — together in the same classrooms. “When Arab and Jewish children learn together, they break the cycle of negative stereotypes and learn to relate to one another with mutual understanding and respect.”
Since July 6, the Hand in Hand community has been holding regular marches to show that there is another way. On July 23 they held their fourth march in Jerusalem where the students held a huge sign that read ‘We refuse to be enemies’.
Jewad Boulus, Hand in Hand’s Board Co-Chair: “It is precisely when such days of darkness envelope us in every place, that the voice of Hand in Hand needs to stand out and draw to us those who are sane. It is a human instinct to choose life.”
Combatants for Peace
Bassam Aramin got involved in the Palestinian struggle as a boy and at the age of 17 was convicted to 7 years in prison. There he entered a conversation with an Israeli prison guard that led both to start seeing the other not as the oppressor, but as another human being with the same needs for safety and identity.
In 2005 he co-founded Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli’s and Palestinians who had actively taken part in the conflict, but “after brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon sights” decided to put down their guns, and to fight for peace. He has not picked up a weapon ever since. Even when in 2007 his 10 year old daughter was shot dead by an Israeli soldier while standing outside her school with some classmates.
“Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”
Combatants for Peace together with several other groups including the Bereaved Families Forum, Meretz, Hadash and Breaking the Silence will be organizing a demonstration against the war in Gaza in Tel Aviv on Jul 26.
These are a mere handful of the countless groups working on the ground to change the narrative of attack and counter attack, of historic wrongdoings and revenge, to one of peace and reconciliation for the sake of current and future generations.
I believe we have a duty to those working for peace to take care in choosing the stories we tell. Every story plants a seed, and it can be a seed of hatred or a seed of reconciliation. We can choose to share posts about the Sderot ‘cinema’, where some Israelis watch the bombing of Gaza sitting in deck chairs eating popcorn, or footage of some Palestinians dancing in the street when Hamas hits its target, or we can choose to share the stories of people on both sides committed to tackling the profound complexities of historical violence and displacement.
While we may condemn the actions of the Israeli government or Hamas, we must always bear in mind that the acts of a few leaders do not by definition represent the will of all the people. How many British people supported the invasion of Afghanistan? How many US citizens the invasion of Iraq? How many of us wanted to bail out the banks, support fracking, or have even heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? Yet all these actions are done in our name by so-called elected governments. To believe that leaderships that resort to violence represent the majority of their citizens is to ignore the blunt and corrupted instrument that our democratic system has become. We may have the right to protest, but, as we have seen time and again, governments have the prerogative to ignore.
Every tale of hatred and vengeance undermines the emerging structures of hope that have the potential to break the cycle of violence. Every story of forgiveness speaks of something that may seem unfamiliar to our mind, but which our heart is aching to hear: peace is possible.
The Parents Circle Families Forum website: http://www.theparentscircle.com/Content.aspx?ID=2#.U9H6pLGkukw
The open letters to bereaved mothers: http://www.theparentscircle.com/MediaPage.aspx?ID=1155
The Crack in the Wall Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/crackinthewall
Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel http://www.handinhandk12.org/
To see what the Hand in Hand community are doing in response to the violence see http://www.handinhandk12.org/news/hand-hand-continues-respond-ongoing-violence-continual-updates
You can read about the work of Combatants for Peace here: http://cfpeace.org/
To find out more about the demonstration in Tel Aviv: https://www.facebook.com/events/336129229884611/
If you wish to make a financial contribution to the peace effort: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/emergency-fund
Families of Slain Israeli and Palestinian Teens Turn to Each Other for Comfort: http://forward.com/articles/201500/families-of-slain-israeli-and-palestinian-teens-tu/
Loving images of Jews and Arabs co-existing in peace: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/jews-and-arabs-refuse-to-be-enemies/
Please feel free to share any news of positive initiatives for peace on this page.