Tag Archives: Parents Circle – Families Forum

There’s nobody to talk peace with (even when you’re speaking to them)

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Peace Square (Bereaved Families Forum), Jerusalem, June 5 2016

The simplicity of the slogan of the Bereaved Families Forum, “It won’t end until we talk,” is already an answer to the simplistic and often repeated phrase “there is nobody to talk to,” (ein im mi l’daber). (The forum’s slogan rhymes in Hebrew: zeh lo y’gamer ad shen’daberI wrote about this slogan in the context of the 2012 war on Gaza). Reassuring themselves in the certainty that talking and dialogue is pointless, Jewish Israelis often convince themselves that while they want peace, “they” (the Others, Arabs, Palestinians) do not. It can hardly be an entirely comforting belief, because it condemns the citizens of the Jewish State to be at war, “to live by the sword,” for the foreseeable future. Inevitably, that means there will be more bereaved Israeli as well as Palestinian families. But we humans are peculiar creatures, so sometimes it makes more sense to us to repeat the trauma of personal and collective loss, to enfold it in a tragic narrative of good versus evil, the peaceful versus the belligerent, the victims versus the perpetrators, than to break through the loss. What could be more horrifying than to think that perhaps our loved one was lost because there was something we didn’t do, especially when that something was as simple as talking to your enemy. So it’s better to insist that there’s nothing that can be done.

Perhaps that is some of the feeling that I could hear in the anger of one of the people who passed by the Peace Square set up by the Parents Circle Families Forum in the German Colony neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. The tent, which I’ve written about previously from a distance, was part of a series of events to reclaim Jerusalem Day in the name of tolerance.  The day marks the “reunification” of Jerusalem when Israeli forces conquered (or some would say “liberated”) East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, and has become a festival of the national religious settler movement whose idea of liberation is one of exclusive Jewish control.

Two members of the forum, Rami Elhanan and Roni Hirshinzon, were there to explain the work of the Forum, to answer questions, and once again to open their hearts and tell the story of the loss of their children to the conflict. For the most part, the discussion in the shade of the small park among those who had chosen to come to the event was quiet, somewhat curious, respectful. But not everyone who chanced by and stopped wanted to listen, or even to take note of whose banner marked the square. Foremost among them was Mr. Shouty, who succeeded in rousing other sceptical and critical observers to shout among themselves and close down the discussion.

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Rami Elhanan sitting with a picture of his daughter Smadar and his friend Bassam’s Aramin’s daughter Abir, both killed in the conflict.

Mr. Shouty (for the sake of this blog I’ve absorbed the statements of some others into this one character) had all the regular answers to the Forum’s slogan, all of which add to “there’s nobody to talk to” (ein in mi l’daber). We are only here because we’re strong. If they had the power, we’d all be dead. They vote for Hamas. If the Peace Square can’t be held in the open air in Hebron, that shows we’re the peace lovers and they aren’t.

I was less prepared to hear Mr. Shouty’s brutal put down when Roni told him he’d lost two sons in war: “And did you hand out sweets?” With one sharp rebuke, he dismissed the loss of Palestinians in conflict to dehumanized celebration of the sacrifice of martyrs. We are bereaved, he said in other words, but they are so consumed by hate that they don’t feel loss. Maybe it would have made some difference if a bereaved Palestinian had been there to voice her own pain, but I doubt Mr. Shouty would have been any more ready to listen. To talk.

Earlier a woman had passedby and rebuked “us” for airing Israel’s dirty laundry in the international public, clearly without knowing who “we” were. I asked Rami how he felt that someone could be so dismissive even as he asked her questions. He talked about how much harder it is when he goes into classrooms and the kids shout at him, but that all he hopes for is one hint of acknowledgement from someone at the back of the room – a glance that suggests that he has made once crack in the wall of enmity, that he might have saved one drop of blood. So Rami, Roni, and other member of the Forum keep on talking, hoping that someone will listen, even when they are being shouted at by people who won’t let them talk. They cannot know which small crack in the wall (the title of the Forum’s Hebrew and Arabic community Facebook page) will open the floodgates and stop the last drop of blood from flowing.

Standing together, standing in one another’s shoes

IMG_20160605_234815For this first time (June 3, 2016) I’ve been able to participate in the monthly Palestinian-Israeli “Freedom March” held at “machsom haminharot,” an Israeli checkpoint on Route 60 to the south of Jerusalem, just by the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The march is organized by a coalition, in which Combatants for Peace are a key partner, called “omdim beyachad” in Hebrew (standing together). The group has operated since an upsurge in violence in October 2015, offering a clear alternative to the usual pattern in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians each increase their antipathy to and fear of the other.

Being who I am, I had already seen video clips and photos of the event posted on social media, and was expecting the colourful cloud of balloons in the hands of the marchers when our bus from TDSC00067el Aviv arrived at the meeting point. The protest procession crossed the main road slowly, but did not block it, and amid the shouting of slogans and the displaying of placards, found shelter from the sun under the monumental concrete overhang of the separation barrier at this point.

DSC00079The protest ended with short speeches (translated into Hebrew and Arabic) by MK Aiman Oudeh, the charismatic leader of the Joint List, Leah Shakdiel, a long time feminist and social activist who represented the religious peace group Oz v’shalom, and representatives of Combatants for Peace. But I won’t talk today about the content of the speeches, the formulation of slogans (also translated and transliterated between Hebrew and Arabic), or even the ritual of releasing the balloons from under the concrete canopy into the freedom of the skies.

Instead, I want to focus on another part of the protest, the performance of a short scene in which Palestinians and Israelis role played soldiers and themselves in a typical encounter at a checkpoint, an encounter which involves verbal and physical violence, detention, constriction, humiliation, pushing people to the ground. The performance ends with a call for non-violence, to the applause of those who had gathered round the scene. An upper level of the walkway by the separation barrier served as a stage, and some but not all  of the demonstrators gathered together to watch – although it was difficult to hear. Yet, the point is not the production or acting quality of this performance.

DSC00094“Standing together” itself performs the vital political position of “refusing to be enemies” at a time of hightened tension, and in the context of a conflict to which no political resolution can be seen on the horizon. Combatants for Peace, along with other groups participating in the freedom march, such as the Bereaved Families Forum, and the Jewish-Arab parliamentary bloc Hadash, have performed this partnership, including acts of co-resistance, for years now. Combatants for Peace has also turned consistently to the “theatre of the oppressed” as a key element of its activities, often in more rehearsed ways and in settings in which the audience could participate more easily. They have documented some performances, and I have written about one I saw a few years ago.

In the setting of the demonstration the performance has particular significance. We can stand together, we can march together. But we can do so meaningfully better when we have learned to stand in the shoes of the other, whether through role play or dialogue or hearing each others’ stories. Combatants for Peace is a partnership if Israelis and Palestinians who have seen how their armed force and violence of the other feel from the point of the other. They stand together by seeing themselves from the other stands, When you have stood in the shoes of the other, and experienced with them what it’s like to commit or be subject to violence, then standing together just feels a whole better than standing against each other.