The Globe and Mail, March 17, 2007.
TEL AVIV -- Some friendships are cemented by unspeakable pain. That's what binds members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who've lost close family members and who're committed to going beyond grief to a better future.
Recently, more than 100 Forum members spent a day at Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum, and a day in the empty expanse of Ekbeba, a Palestinian village, in what is now Israel, that was destroyed by Israeli
forces in 1948. This two-day experience is the first step in a process they call “Knowing is the Beginning” – and participants' stories speak
volumes about their courage in undertaking the journey.
Here's a sample:
Khaled Abu Awad lost two unarmed brothers in incidents with Israeli soldiers. Then, two years ago, his 15-year-old son was critically wounded
by Israeli forces firing at an unarmed demonstration in their village. Khaled is outspoken in his Palestinian nationalism and his demand for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza – yet, he believes that
confronting the truth of the Holocaust an accepting the Jewish right to statehood strengthen his claim.
Rami Elhanan's 83-year-old father survived Auschwitz to start a family in Israel. Ten years ago, his life was shattered again when his grandchild,Rami's teenage daughter, was killed by a suicide bomber in downtown Jerusalem. Rami feels that his personal journey away from what he calls the “exclusive victimhood” of some Holocaust survivors to understanding Palestinian victimhood reinforces his commitment to finding the way to live together by mutual agreement.
Roni Hirshenson, who lost two sons in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, talks emotionally about the potent “pain cocktail” he felt seeing Palestinians weep at Yad Vashem and witnessing Khaled's father point to the now disappeared sites of his boyhood in Ekbeba. Personal loss,national trauma and narrative, says Rami Elhanan, all blended into empathy, tears and a powerful human embrace.
In a decade of advocating reconciliation (often against harsh critics in both communities), Forum members shied away from jointly confronting their respective national traumas.
They feared losing the trust they've developed because, unlike the bridge-building capacity of shared personal grief, talking about national
wounds and narratives often creates distance and alienation.
But now, they're breaking the taboo and opening up questions about core national traumas.
For example, to Israelis, and Jews in general, nothing is more odious than the claim that the Holocaust is exaggerated or the comparison of
Israel's occupation practices to Nazi action against Jews. And, yet, that's what some Palestinians believe – or, at least, say.
For Palestinians, nothing triggers a more visceral reaction than to hear Israelis' denial of what Palestinians refer to as al Naqba (the
catastrophe), in which hundreds of villages were destroyed and their residents rendered refugees during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. And yet, Israelis minimize such claims, arguing that Palestinians distort the
facts. Most Israelis and Palestinians feel that facing the other side's pain betrays and dilutes the legitimacy of their own claim to statehood
in a disputed area. They retreat into defensiveness and shut down the conversation in what becomes a zero-sum battle over victimhood – with room for only one winning narrative.
That's what the Forum members are trying to change. Their premise is that facing and feeling the other's pain – without judging or comparing it to one's own – is a necessary step to building a future together rather than continuing the pattern of a destructive past.
They acknowledge the risks involved. First-hand exposure to the “other” narrative pierces the comfort zone and protective armour of denial and prejudice, but doesn't promise understanding. So far, the Forum's experience demonstrates that sharing personal grief is a powerful step toward reconciliation, but now they're testing if their experience of facing national trauma together can build an even bigger bridge. And if anyone has the chance to break down such barriers, it's individuals and families who've paid the ultimate price and sacrificed the most.
They're encouraged by early reactions.
The idea for this latest experiment first surfaced when a Palestinian member of the group wanted to see for himself whether the Holocaust
actually happened. Other Palestinians balked, while Israelis hesitated to confront Palestinians' attachment to disappeared villages.
But after the visits, when Yaacov Guterman – himself a Holocaust survivor and bereaved parent – acknowledged the tragedy of Ekbeba but said: “I was in that Hell [the Holocaust] and this isn't the same.” His words were greeted with quiet respect by Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In a world where Holocaust denial is still propagated, the capacity of Israelis and Palestinians scarred by war and loss to unflinchingly face truth together is laudable. The Families Forum's power has always exceeded its numbers. If it can harness national narratives in the cause of mutual understanding, that's a cause for hope in this part of the