Sunday, August 19, 2007

I have just returned from a three day coexistence gathering with over 1200 Israelis and Palestinians held in the Olive Groves of the Latrun Monastery. Sponsored the grassroots organization Sulha Peace Project, the encounter aimed to use the indigenous process of mediation (Sulha), to rebuild trust and restore dignity between the two historic nations of this land.

It was inspiring and hopeful as it was sad and confronting. On presentation that particularly grabbed my attentionsentation of a movie from the Bereaved Families Forum called Encounter Point
After the film, there was a discussion facilitated by the two brave protagonists.

Ali Abu Awwad was shot by an Israeli settler in 2001. Whilst in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment his brother, Yusef was killed by an Israeli soldier. Ali had spent years in Israeli prisons for actions like demonstrating against the occupation, throwing stones, and being a member of a political party. When Yusef was killed, Ali joined the Bereaved Families Forum to work with Palestinians and Israelis who together advocate nonviolence and reconciliation.
Robi Damelin is an Israeli mother whose son David was shot dead in 2002 by a Palestinian sniper whilst he was manning a checkpoint. Robi is haunted by the loss of her son, and the knowledge that he was posted to defend an Israeli settlement in occupied Palestinian territory to which he was politically opposed. After David was killed, Robi also joined the Bereaved Families Forum.

They stood together after the film and had a very clear message. For many years both Israeli’s and Palestinians have been fed two myths by their respective media.

On the Palestinian side, there is a perceptions that all Israelis don’t want peace. They all serve in the army which inflicts a brutal occupation on the Palestinians. They have never offered to completely withdraw from the occupied territories.

On the Israeli side, the mantra being heard all too often is that the Palestinians don’t want peace and are only interested in driving us into the sea. Even this week, whilst Olmert is trying to restart negotiations, the leader of the Labour Party(which calls itself a leftist party) Ehud Barak repeated this mantra. Why? Meron Benvenisti writes in yesterdays Haaretz:

With the Camp David failure and the outbreak of the second intifada, the Israeli public needed a narrative that would unite its parts, justify its deeds and allow it to deal with a difficult situation while describing the situation as a war for survival. The narrative presented by Barak, in which he offered the late PA chairman Yasser Arafat the moon and Arafat chose violence instead, has become resistant to any contradicting argument, fact or evidence. Barak and his disciples have succeeded in convincing the Israelis that the Palestinian rejection of the generous and unprecedented offers led to the wave of violence, and that the Palestinians are not ready to end the conflict, which is not territorial but stems from their refusal to accept Israel's very existence.

The "there is no partner" formula is what led to the peace camp's destruction. Anyone who dared present a more complex picture was accused of supporting the enemy.

But the pundits' decree is unequivocal: Barak's motives are personal; he is undermining the process out of fear that someone will succeed where he failed.

Hearing Robi and Ali speak about how they have chosen the path of nonviolence was truly inspirational. They travel around the country visiting both Palestinians and Israeli schools sharing their stories and those of the others in the Bereaved Families Forum. Their message of non violence includes an admonition of Palestinian terrorist activities parallel to an equal condemnation of the Israeli occupation and soldiers who, when obliged to do serve in the IDF, act in a way for more brutal than is necessary.

For the path of non violence to work, we need to let go of a number of dreams.
1. That military force alone will eradicate the threat from the other side
2. That the occupation, in any form, can continue indefinitely
3. That Jerusalem can remain undivided

I know many Israelis and Palestinians who will never let go of these dreams. They say the dream of the left is a fantasy. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will always want to kill innocent Israelis. The Israeli government will never dismantle all the settlements. But what’s the alternative? Perpetual war? Continued UN resolutions and Quartet mediated peace conferences were neither side budges from their “red lines?” Unending occupation corrupts Israeli society as much as it harms Palestinian dignity.

Each morning of the sulha, there were sharing circles where we listed to each other’s stories. The pain and anguish was evident. In the evenings both Jewish and Arab musicians including David Broza, Yair Dalal and a Palestinian dance troupe performed and I witnessed something I had never seen before. Israelis and Palestinians dancing wildly together until 2 in the morning. It was like a wedding.

During the closing ceremony, many Palestinians, especially the teenagers, cried. Knowing that this island of peace and mutual respect was going to end the moment they stepped of their busses in Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin behind the wall and humiliating checkpoints.

I left feeling hopeful that such a gathering actually exists. Many of the Israelis present would be considered members of the extreme left , the Palestinians present would be considered traitors. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, Sulha is a grassroots movement. Most people present left convinced that the method I have just described is the best way to achieve peace between our two nations. We are but small minorities, the majority in both countries remain unconvinced.

From little things, big things grow…..

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yamim Kashim Ve Yamim Raim

I was privileged to hear the renowned Israeli Poet and author Haim Gouri today at the Hebrew University Ulpan.

Gouri is most famous for his song Hareut which he wrote in 1949. Two days before Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated he asked for it to be played for him during a radio interview.

It's beautiful words evoke a bygone era when unity and friendship were the raison d'etre of this state. The song is a memorial to the brave soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.

על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך.

כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו.
אך נזכור את כולם

את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את לבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח

They are gone from our midst,
All their laughter, their youth and their splendor.
But we know that a friendship like that,
We are bound all our lives to remember,
For a love that in battle is forged,
Will endure while we live, fierce and tender
After Rabin's assassination the song Hare'ut resounded frequently on Israeli radio. The line in the chorus: "Et Yafim hablorit vehato'ar" was strongly associated with a picture of the young Yitzhak Rabin of those days as the icon of the Palmach generation.

Towards the end of his talk I asked Gouri if when he wandered the streets of Jerusalem as he likes to do often, he felt despair for what this nation has become or hope. His answer was fascinating.

He explained that there are two types of periods in the history of Israel.
Hard days and Wicked days – ימים קשים וימים רעים

The Yamim Kashim were the days gone by when the nation of 600,000 in 1948, doubled its population in six years. There was a dire lack of resources, a siege on Jerusalem, and times were tough in the maabarot (refuge camps filled by mostly mizrachi olim).

יותר רעים מאשר קשים
Today's Israel is more reflective of Yamim Raim than Yamim Kashim. Why? Due to the lack of unity and hatred in this country. Jews have always had their differences, but the sharpness of the conflicts between am yisrael have never been as fierce as they are today. Datyim V Chilonim, Ashkenazim V Sephardim, Orthodox V Non Halachic Judaism.

Gouri continued to explain that the animosity is most intense when it comes to our conflict with the Palestinians. The inhumanity of this conflict is palpable. Only pure wickedness could conjure a political device so malevolent as the suicide bomber. An occupation that lasts 40 years is celebrated with fireworks. Collective punishment, the security fence, ID cards, Separation.

After reading this analysis, despair is a feeling that seems more apt than hope. But not for Gouri. For he sees this as merely a phase in an historic struggle. The Rhine was once red with blood, today there is a European Union were one can travel from Siberia to France without showing a passport. The Catholics and Protestants in Ireland murdered each other for centuries, and this wicked chapter is too now coming to a close. The Middle East will also one day merit its arrival of peace. How? Gouri says only when both sides realize that this conflict will not end by force alone.

סבלנות נרגילית

Patience is a rare virtue in Israeli politics. Sitting by a nargilla as the hours go by in the Old city has taught Gouri something he calls the "patience of the nargilla. "

Talking is the solution. But talking means making hard compromises that none of us want to do.

Tomorrow I'm heading of the Sulha in the Olive Groves by the Laturun monastery. To everything there is a season. I'm ready for the season of listening and patience.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Jerusalem Stories

This evening Carm and I went to see a play in Hebrew called Jerusalem Stories. Directed by Carol Grossman after four years of interviewing and researching, this play put on stage some of the many confronting and challenging life experiences that are common to the citizens of Jersualem. The two actors portrayed six characters, three Israeli and three Palestinian. There was a bus driver who was injured in a suicide bombing, a Jewish woman who joins a tehillim group that gives her strength, a Palestinian older lady who has to cross several border crossings in order to sell her fruits in Jerusalem, an uncle of a young boy killed in the Al Aqsa mosque riots of the second intifada, a displaced Palestinian who reminisces on his childhood playing downball against the Western wall, and perhaps most touchingly, a mother of a 15 year old boy who was killed in a suicide attack in Ben Yehuda St. All the stories are based on real interviews conducted in the years prior. When the actress portraying Miri, (the mother of Assaf who was killed on Ben Yehuda) spoke, the room became chillingly quiet. There was enormous sadness in her monologue, in particular as she described reading in the newspaper that the mother of her sons’ killer was proud of her son, and would gladly sacrifice her other children for a similar cause.

The play is also being performed in Arabic in East Jerusalem. After the show we sat in a circle on the stage and were invited to share our reactions to the play. In a very heated hour of conversation, we talked of how it feels to have the others’ side of the story told so sympathetically, what it is like to live in fear, what we have done to create this enormous hatred from Palestinians, and what some solutions may be. During the course of the discussion, we realized that one of the participants was the real ‘Miri’, the mother of Asaf Avitan
who was murdered along with 10 other youths one Saturday Night on Rehov Ben Yehuda in December 2001.

When Miri spoke and explained who she was, the group fell silent. Her grief was palpable, and even though several years have passed, it is clearly a very raw pain for her. Her contribution to the discussion was in a sense quite aggressive towards the other participants who were mostly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. She hated the way leftist ranted on about the checkpoints and the occupation, as if this somehow justified the motivation of the murders who killed her son. She said, “If I had to live with a giant wall and checkpoints and was greatly inconvenienced each day on my way to work, but all this meant that I could see my son again, I could live with this.” She continued, “So many of you here criticize the wall for the hardship it causes to ordinary Palestinians, but I tell you, had that wall been built around Abu Dis(a Palestinian suburb east of Jerusalem) in 2001, the those two Hamas bombers would have never been able to reach my son and the hundreds of others victims that evening.”
Some tried to respond to this by saying that the harm we cause to the Palestinian is greater than what they inflict on us. She responded by saying “This is not Switzerland or Holland. We can’t have dialogue groups and hold hands and think it will make things peaceful. It’s the Middle East. We are playing with fire here. After 59 years, this state needs firm and clear borders. Only that will make us safe.”