Blessed Are the Peacemakers
When I was invited to a lunch in honor of Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin, two members of the Parents Circle Families Forum and activists for reconciliation in Israel/Palestine, I wasn't sure what to expect. The event, hosted by the Telos Group and author Dale Hanson Bourke, offered a preview of the film, One Day After Peace, in anticipation of a screening that was held this past Wednesday, February 6 at the Carnegie Institute of Science.
My knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been limited to news reports and the stories of friends who were either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Having never been to the area myself, I went into the lunch curious. I came away deeply changed.
One of the most gut-twisting scenes in the film One Day After Peace, is an encounter between former Minister of Law and Order in South Africa, Adriaan Vlok, and the mother of a boy who died as a direct result of his policies during apartheid. Each month, Vlok delivers food to the mothers and widows of boys who were lured to their deaths because of their involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. At one such delivery, Susan recognizes Vlok and instantly breaks down in a heart-wrenching moment of grief. Vlok watches her and then later goes to her to ask for forgiveness, to which she honestly replies, "I can't do anything." Vlok is then shown washing her feet and praying for forgiveness.
One Day After Peace explores a grieving mother's journey for truth as she seeks reconciliation with her son's killer.
In March of 2002, David Damelin, a beloved son, dedicated student, musician, cook, and somewhat reluctant Israeli reserve officer, was shot and killed by a sniper in the West Bank. His mother, Robi Damelin, has devoted her life since then to promoting reconciliation through the Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF), a group that brings together 600 Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children due to the seemingly unending conflict in the area. In the film, Damelin, a native of South Africa who moved to Israel in 1967, visits her homeland to see how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work could be applied to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Along the way Damelin examines her own motivations for seeking reconciliation as well as her struggle to forgive her son's killer. What results is a brutally honest exploration of truth in reconciliation, the power of forgiveness, and how grassroots efforts are changing the way that Palestinians and Israelis understand each other.
At the core of the Christian faith (to which I subscribe) is the concept of unconditional forgiveness, but what does that really mean? Exhortations to forgive our debtors, as our debts have been forgiven are well-worn. But as anyone who has sought reconciliation with someone who has hurt them knows it is not easy to plumb the depths of one's pain in search of forgiveness. It feels natural to hate our enemies and seek revenge, to exact payment for the wrong done to us. If anyone would say otherwise, they are probably not being honest with themselves. One Day After Peace documents this all too human struggle in many ways: a conversation between Damelin and her surviving son about amnesty for David's killer in exchange for Gilad Shalit's release; Damelin's own tearful admission of frustration and anger when the sniper condescendingly agrees to meet with her.
Yet, as Ginn Fourie, a South African mother whose daughter Lyndie was killed in an attack by the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (or APLA, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress in South Africa) states in the film, forgiveness set her free. Her pursuit of reconciliation with her daughter's killers led to a relationship with Letlapa Mphahlele, the former Director of Operations for the APLA, who ordered the attack that killed Lyndie. Together they created a foundation in Lyndie's honor. As Mphahlele has pointed out as well, Fourie's forgiveness softened his heart and changed him forever.
Forgiveness has the power to set free, to change hearts, to restore humanity, but it is costly. Because every injustice-even if it's small- requires some sort of remediation. Whether you bear the injustice yourself or you exact revenge, a cost is incurred. Is it another life for the life that was taken? Or do absorb the pain of loss a second time and lay down your rights for the sake of reconciliation? As Bassam Aramin, the other guest of honor stated so eloquently at the lunch, "it seems like a weak thing to seek reconciliation. But it's much easier to throw a grenade."
Bassam Aramin is not just another grieving parent seeking reconciliation. Aramin is also a former freedom fighter* who was imprisoned for seven years at the age of 17 for his part in a conflict with Israeli soldiers. While in prison, he was made to watch Schindler's List. His first reaction was one of joy at seeing his enemies persecuted. But as he watched, he began to weep as he understood the deep fear of the Jewish community and their efforts to prevent a second Holocaust from ever occurring.
While in prison, an Israeli guard took a liking to Aramin and took him under his wing. Although there was no dialogue between the prisoners and their guards, friendship grew between the Israeli and the Palestinian. When the guards lined up their Palestinian prisoners to be beaten, this Israeli jailer threw himself over Aramin to protect him.
These experiences changed Aramin and when he heard about Israeli "refuseniks" (reserve soldiers who did not want to serve in the occupied territories), he wanted to meet them. Aramin found that it was very easy for to find common ground with them. In 2005, he founded Combatants for Peace. On January 16, 2007, his faith in reconciliation was tested when his 10 year old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier. He has refused to seek revenge in her name.
Aramin and Damelin are both involved in PCCF. This gathering of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families promotes reconciliation on the grassroots level. In a memorable scene from One Day After Peace, Damelin and a Palestinian woman named Bushra donate blood to each other, under the premise "would you kill someone whose blood was running through your veins?"
The group does not expect, as Damelin acknowledged, "for everyone to be like Martin Luther King." Yet the group has been successful in slowly changing unhelpful and destructive narratives. According to Damelin, "we see our history through our own eyes. Dialogue helps people see other's histories," and that eventually changes hearts and minds. PCFF hopes to create a framework for peace on the grassroots level, and to prepare people for macro change on the policy level.
Changing destructive narratives is not limited to just Israelis and Palestinians. Damelin advises against being "pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. You are just importing our conflict into your country. Instead, be part of the solution." This means supporting the creation of a neutral lobby to Congress, putting the message out to elected officials, and supporting the work of peace-seeking groups like PCFF (for more information on how to do that, see below).
One way that PCFF hopes to change destructive narratives is through a film called Two Sided Story that documents a project in which 27 Israelis and Palestinians share and listen to each other's personal stories. The film asks the questions "Will the group, in spite of the gaps and the natural tendency to stick to their former views, accept the reality that is reflected in the mirror of their colleagues? The same colleagues who outside are allegedly defined as their enemy?"
Many Israeli youth have never met a Palestinian. As Damelin and Aramin speak in classrooms and engage in narrative dialogues, they have slowly seen how perceptions change. One Israeli settler has said "when I see Arabs at the mall now, I see them through different eyes."
The PCFF reaches out to all parties-Israelis seeking peace, right-wing settlers, the Orthodox community, Palestinians, etc. "You can't be selective about who you reconcile with," says Damelin.
Damelin's words struck me at this point. As a Christian, I believe that I do not have the right to choose who I will show love to or forgive. But from my experience I know that it often takes years of surrendering my desire for vengeance to God in order to know the freedom that forgiveness brings. What these families are doing through PCFF is no small thing. It is no less than an act of God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."
*I recognize that this term is extremely loaded and that some may not agree with our usage of it, but it is a part of Aramin's narrative and I want to respect that.