For what turned into the most emotional experience of the trip, the group had gathered into a Hebrew University International School’s classroom. We first met with two individuals, Moira Jilani and Rami Elhanan, from the NGO Palestinian Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace. This organization is responsible for bringing together families –Israeli or Palestinian – who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Joint activities, education, and public meetings, all are resources for this organization to demonstrate that reconciliation between the two nations is possible.
It was in the fluorescent-lit classroom that Rami and Moira shared with us their heartfelt stories. Moira is a mother of three, originally from Barbados. She moved to Houston, Texas when she was ten-years-old. She met her husband, Ziad Jilani, at the University of Houston, where he was studying to be a pharmacist. When he proposed to her, he said three things: he will eventually return to Palestine, his children must be Muslim, and he will never be divorced. When she asked about the possibility of multiple wives, he claimed he was a poor man and that even though the law would allow for him to have four wives, he was in love with her, and that was that.
On June 11, 2010, Moira said goodbye to her husband for the last time. He had gone to Al-Aqsa mosque to pray while their three daughters, Hana, Mirage, and Yasmin, stayed home with Moira after having just finished their final exams. The family had plans to go to the beach when Ziad got back. At 1:30 PM, Moira called to inquire the whereabouts of Ziad. She assumed he had left his phone in the truck when she received no answer. Half an hour later, her niece came to the house; her face red and filled with tears. Moira screamed Ziad’s name. Her niece told her that she should come to her mother-in-law’s house next door, and although Moira was only dressed for the beach, she ran down the street. 500 men were gathered outside and confirmed what Moira feared to be the truth.
There were three customary days of mourning. In that time, Moira received thousands of people at her house to support her and pray. Although she only knew a few hundred of those who came, she explained that it was customary for everyone to come out when someone is shot and killed in Jerusalem. For the most part, Moira had only heard that her husband was killed for his “terrorist actions.” Knowing that Ziad was neither a political activist nor a violent individual, she yearned for the truth. Three days later, Moira met Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist known for her reports on Palestinian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza. It wasn’t until Amira asked if she could go and discover the truth that Moira was able to find out what actually happened that day.
Amira found out from eyewitnesses that Ziad had been in his truck, coming back from prayer, when there was a demonstration causing a traffic jam in Silwan. Protestors from the demonstration threw rocks that shattered his windshield. When he attempted to get out of the situation, the side mirror of his car bumped into an Israeli soldier, who fell down. Israeli soldiers suddenly started screaming at him, calling him a terrorist. They started shooting wildly, hitting a young girl waiting for her father outside of a butcher’s shop, another elderly man nearby, and Ziad. Much later, when Moira walked into the Israeli High Court of Justice court room to for a hearing about the two border policemen who killed her husband, she told them that she expected nothing from the courts. She said that it was clear she was considered a second-class citizen in this country and that justice would not be found by these judges for the man who shot her husband. Approximately 30 people – friends, family, and neighbors, some who had come all the way from the US – showed up in court to support Moira. There were both Palestinians and Israeli members of the Parent’s Circle present. Moira looked back to this time and said that even though she did not get justice against Ziad’s killer in court, the hope she received from the support of these people was a different kind of justice. When one of our group later questioned her if she felt anger, Moira claimed that she does not believe in revenge. She has seen the soldier who killed Ziad, and he is a much different man now than he was before. She said, “God is doing His thing to him, more than I could ever do.”
After hearing Moira’s story, we were all deeply touched. This was a woman who had suffered so much, and was still able to tell her story over and over again, without shedding a single tear. In Amira Hass’s report on the Israeli news website, Haaretz, she wrote that Ziad was shot and left lying on the ground. Even when he was still alive and still not a threat, Palestinian eyewitnesses claim they saw Israeli soldiers shoot him in cold blood and hit one of Ziad’s family members for trying to help him. What hurts even more to read, is that the Israeli media at the time was reporting that this was a failed, vehicular terrorist attack in which the terrorist was killed. If you care to read the article, you will find many more inconsistencies with what you might think is proper law throughout the investigation of Ziad’s death.
Nevertheless, Moira ended her tale with a glimmer of hope. She talked about the women’s group, Steps for Peace, and how she was welcomed in for a “jamming session” hosted by an Iraqi Jewish Israeli woman, during which women made jam, ate Iraqi food, and shared recipes. Moira lightly joked about how difficult it was for Palestinian women to give up their recipes, but how important it was in this moment to share. Not only were these women sharing recipes, but their stories. The key, Moira claimed, was simply to sit over food and share stories.
We then heard from Rami, a Jewish Israeli. He smiled as he told us his name and leaned over, gesturing to Moira. He said, “This is my sister. She is one of the closest people to me, even closer than some of my family, because we have shared pain. She is a leader. She is a light in the dark.” Rami was born in Jerusalem, a 7th generation Jerusalemite. His mother, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, was also born in Jerusalem. His father spent one year in Auschwitz After his liberation from the death camp was later nursed to health by his mother, and that is how Rami came to be there today. He introduced himself by saying this: “I am an Israeli, I am a Jew, but first and foremost, I am a human being.”
Rami explained that 42 years ago, he was an Israeli soldier fighting in the Yom Kippur War (1973). He lost many friends in the war and when he had finished his service, he was bitter and angry and wanted to detach himself from the pain. He went to art school and became a graphic designer. He married, had four children, and 23 years ago on Yom Kippur, welcomed his daughter, Smadar into the world. Rami smiled as a spoke, telling us how amazing she was – she swam, played piano, danced, was filled with happiness. He was working as a graphic designer at the time for anyone who would pay him, left wing, right wing, it didn’t matter. He had completed his goal and was fully detached from the atrocities of the outside world. Nineteen years ago, on September 4, 1997, two Palestinian suicide bombers took their own lives in Jerusalem along with the life of 14-year-old Smadar. Rami said that it was the beginning of very long and cold night – one that continues to this day.
Rami explained that there are seven days of mourning in Jewish culture, called shivah. During this time, he questioned what to do. He told us that revenge was easy to feel, natural even. But he had to stop and ask himself, “If I kill the whole world, will she come back? Will killing anyone ease the pain?” For almost a year, he tried to go back to his normal life as if nothing had happened. He recalled the day when a very stereotypical left wing-looking Israeli man named Yitzchak Frankenthal invited him to talk about peace amongst a group of parents who had lost children. This man had also lost a son to Hamas. At first, Rami was angry at this man for even suggesting peace was a possibility, but curiosity got the better of him and he eventually agreed. Palestinians came to be with him, crying for his loss and their shared pain.
This was the first time Rami had ever seen Palestinians as human beings. It was this moment that convinced Rami to devote his life to spreading his message, “We are NOT doomed. We can change it and end this cycle. We MUST talk.” Rami explained that he believed people can learn to listen. The price of the other way, he claimed, was much too high. He then told us of their one great ally, which was the power of shared pain. He said that people could use it to bring darkness and destruction or to bring light. And just a little bit of light can get rid of a whole lot of darkness. He told us that we all bleed the same blood and feel the same pain. Even though the Jews are a people with 3,000 years of victimhood and fear of extinction runs in their DNA, he refuses to use his victimhood to victimize others. For a race that never forgets, he claims, reconciliation is the only hope.
The Parents’ Circle/Family Forum’s website has dozens of stories just like Moira and Remi’s. Some are written as letters, while others are warnings to families who may have not yet suffered. After a while, unfortunately, the stories begin to blend. Every loss was an unexpected bomb in someone’s life and a transformative period for each family. The how’s and why’s almost stop mattering because the sense of loss is the overwhelming force that drives each story. However, out the of pain and the suffering, there is one shared pain that with it comes one shared message: hope. Moira and Remi emphasized their demand for us: not to necessarily be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, but pro-peace. Through dialogue and understanding the humanity of the other side, there is hope for these two nations. All we have to do is share.
Afterwards, we spoke with Maya Kahanoff, who, along with a Palestinian co-researcher, took on the role as evaluator of the dialogue work of Parents’ Circle/Bereaved Family Forum. She began by speaking about her daughter. When her daughter was in 11th grade, she went to see the concentration camps as a part of a school trip. When she returned, she asked Maya how something like that could have ever happened. It was a question that we had heard at Yad Vashem and many times afterwards, and it is a question I am sure we will continue to hear. It was this experience as a mother that made Maya interested in the work between Israelis and Palestinians. She continued with statistic from the Bereaved Family Forum’s Dialogue Encounters for Youth: 1,400 Israeli and Palestinian youth, 63 dialogue programs, and one transformative process.
In general, Maya said, the Palestinian youth enter with anger while the Israeli youth are ignorant. While there are many narratives heard in these dialogues, the Israelis are often unaware and are hearing these perspectives for the first time. Maya claimed that this ignorance was a defense mechanism and talked about an Israeli “siege mentality,” which is a shared feeling of victimization and defensiveness. She told us that it is this sort of mentality that prevents dialogue, and it is this mentality that leads to apathy. In the Israeli society, apathy has led to a lack of trust, narrow perception, black-and-white judgements, and the blocking out of the suffering of others. To that end, Maya argued that empathy is necessary, which does not entail agreeing, but simply being willing to feel for the pain of all.
Maya repeated the message of Rami and Moira, and told us to try to understand, but not necessarily to choose sides. In her graduate-level course, Maya also tries to teach her Palestinian and Israeli students to respect the pain, empathize, and especially to be more reflective and critically analyze the information given to them. She told us about a particularly religious student who gave a presentation on an NGO that involved religious Jewish settlers talking to Palestinians and how, although she was skeptical at first during the presentation, she was reminded afterwards of the importance of including everyone’s perspectives.
Maya then spoke about the Holocaust. She acknowledged the existential threat we have heard about since our first day from Dolev and the powerful role it continues to play in Israeli society. She spoke about how the Israeli government often uses these powerful emotions to intensify the fear of the people and abuse its influence. Physically, the Israelis are stronger. Through resources, land, economy, international aid and support, the Israelis are the stronger party. However, mentally and psychologically, the situation is more difficult. She told us that from what she has seen in her class, it is important to discuss pain and create opportunities for attitude change so that both sides stop dehumanizing one another. Dehumanization only leads to the legitimization of killing. Maya ended her talk in a similar fashion as Moira and Rami: with hope. The only way to break the apathy, she claimed, was to raise hope even when the political leaders were using fear. Peace building requires this. She would know firsthand. According to her evaluation, 77% of the participants of Dialogue Encounters for Youth said they had an increase in their positive impression of the other side.
The take-away message was the same as many we have heard before in this course. Respect the other side, empathize with the pain, critically analyze everything you are told. Something that was particularly fascinating about Maya’s evaluation, that we have also heard in other talks, was the non-linear transformation in perspective. She described two phases. First, there’s euphoria. There is a sense of revelation that there is a completely new side to this conflict. Then (and this is the much longer phase) there is contradiction, and here you move forward and backward and hopefully forward again. This phase involves constant debate between what to believe and what to change about one’s beliefs. It isn’t easy, and one doesn’t have to agree with everything you hear from the “other side,” just respect the pain and empathize. In Maya’s words, “See others, but then see yourself in the others’ eyes.” Only then can the peace building begin. She noted at the end that in her view the most powerful work takes place behind the scenes, not in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue sessions, but in the sessions for Palestinians and Israelis separately and in the interior work that each participant undertakes.