Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Working for peace after they kill your son

One of my peace heroes is Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle (www.parentscircle.org). I first heard her speak in June 2010, and then again a couple of weeks ago. You can find her story in the excellent film “Encounter Point” (www.encounterpoint.org). I will briefly highlight her story and some of her key points, as I understand them and as they speak to me.

Robi is from South Africa, and from the beginning of her time in Israel she and her family were peace activists. It came time for her sons to serve in the army, which was a conflict for them as a family. On the one hand, they did not want to be part of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, they want to build a better Israel, and thought, “we can be different – we can be soldiers who treat the Palestinian people with compassion and respect, as human beings.” And so they served.

And one day, her son David was assassinated by a Palestinian sniper at a checkpoint. And she suffered the awful grief and dying that belongs to a parent who loses a child.

She talks about being faced with a choice, a decision – “Do you seek revenge, or do you try to stop other families from experiencing the pain? What path will you go down, and what will happen to you, based on what you choose?” She got involved in the Parents Circle, and began taking steps to try to stop the violence, to stop other families from experiencing the pain she now must live with.

Robi talks of her struggle to come to grips with how to relate to the man who killed her son. How it took her months to be able to speak his name. How she decided to write him a letter in prison (which he responded to viciously, in a total rejection of her overture to relationship). How recently she has written him a second letter.

She talks about how she used to speak of “forgiveness,” but that she now feels that she doesn’t really know what the word means. “How can I forgive this?” (She mentions having recently heard a definition of “forgiveness” as “giving up your just right to revenge.”) She prefers to talk about “understanding” (the other person, what they did, why, what his pain is, etc.). One of our group offered a definition of forgiveness which included God, and she asked, “but what about nonreligious people? Do you have to be a spiritual person to want to forgive?”

She talks about trying to help Israel become “a democracy that can be an example to the rest of the world.” There are terrible problems in Israel like domestic violence and road rage, because “you can’t occupy another people without it changing your moral fiber and character.”

One of the major issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that both sides have a victim mentality.  For Robi, the act of writing the first letter to the killer of her son, was “giving up being a victim,” and that was important for her because “being a victim destroys your life.”

In the midst of the conflict, one of the things they (the Parents Circle) try to do is to bring people together, to build relationships (my understanding is that they were the only group involving both Palestinians and Israelis that kept meeting the whole time of the second Intifada). A key problem, she says, is that “we do not know each other.” People need to meet, and listen to each other’s narratives, learn each other’s history (and each other’s version of their shared history); need to move from sympathy (where they share the same pain) to empathy, truly entering the world of the other, understanding them. We need to reclaim an understanding of each other’s humanity – we so often lose our humanity through fear.

Some other statements she made, in sharing her story with us:
  • “The worst enemy of the Palestinians is the fear of the Jews” (i.e., the fear that Jewish people have, of the Palestinians, for their safety, etc.)
  • “Checkpoints create more hatred than safety”
  • “It does not help anyone [for you outsiders] to be pro Palestinian or pro Israeli. If you can’t be part of the solution, just leave us alone! Don’t create new problems and divisions” (e.g., creating a pro Palestinian or pro Israeli group or movement in the U.S.)
  • “It’s not a religious conflict, and sometimes religion gets in the way of solving conflict”
  • In talking about interreligious dialogue and relations, learning to stand together and work together, she made a comment, “It doesn’t matter what you believe in – it matters who you are.”

One of the things I find myself looking for, whenever I visit Israel or the Occupied Territories, is any source of hope. Robi is from South Africa, and was involved in anti-Apartheid activities when she was younger. Having been out of South Africa for some time, and recently returned, she sees what has happened in South Africa as a “miracle.” And the last words I remember this self-professed “not very spiritual” woman speaking are, “we need a miracle.” If it could happen in South Africa, why not in Palestine?

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