This Palestinian Muslim and Israeli Jew both lost their kids to the 'other side'. Now they work together for peace
In front of an audience of hundreds in London today, Robi Damelin, an Israeli Jew whose son David was killed by a Palestinian while serving in the occupied territories, told a bereaved Palestinian Muslim how much she loved him.
Bassam Aramin, whose daughter was shot in the back of the head at the age of10 by an Israeli soldier, responded with his own words of forgiveness and reconciliation.
From the Parents Circle, a joint Palestinian Israeli organisation of more than 620 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict, they are in London to tell their remarkable stories of forgiveness and reconciliation as guests of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
Quoting the Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi, Aramin said they are both out 'beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing', meeting in a field 'when the soul lies down in that grass' and 'the world is too full to talk about'.
These two paid the highest price for the conflict that still mars the Holy Land. Yet they are not enemies.
'We choose another way to survive together,' said Aramin. 'We decided we will never give up because we are fighting for our lives.'
Taught to hate Jews from early childhood, at 17 he was sentenced to seven years in an Israeli prison where he set to, learning Hebrew, in order better to know his enemy. Then one day they were shown a film about the Holocaust. He said he had been looking forward to seeing his enemies tortured. But after a few minutes, he started crying. By the end, his view of Israelis and Jews was completely changed.
From there he went to do a Masters on the Holocaust at the University of Bradford. 'Generally, Palestinians do not believe in the Holocaust because we do not know anything about it. It is very easy to hide and not to know if you don't want to,' he said.
He described in heartbreaking detail how he lost his 10-year-old daughter to Israeli border police. She was shot in the head from behind at a distance of 20-30 metres. She was his third child of a total of six. ' Many more Palestinian than Israeli children have been killed since 2007,' he said.
Yet he was able tell the Israeli soldier who shot her that he would forgive him – because he loves his children. 'The revenge and fear is the motivation to continue this bloody conflict.' For the sake of their families' future, he and the other members of Parents Circle want to change the dialogue hatred to one of respect and partnership: 'We want to prove we are real partners and we can live together in peace and civility.'
Also a founder of Combatants for Peace, made up of soldiers on both sides who have laid down their weapons, Aramin said accepting that he will never meet his daughter again is not easy. 'At the same time, you make peace with yourself. You discover the nobility and humanity of your enemy so they are not your enemy any more.'
Robi Damelin told an similarly heartbreaking story. When her husband told her their son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper, one of the first things she said was, 'You may not kill anyone in the name of my child.' She said: 'The pain of losing a child does not ever go away. It is there in your heart, it is there when you go to sleep in the night and wake in the morning imagining you had dreamt it.'
David, a gifted musician, was studying and teaching at Tel Aviv university, when he was called up to serve in the occupied territories in the reserves. He did not want to go but went anyway, because he believed he owed it to his students, many of whom were also about to be called up. It was his second time of service in the army. The first time, he had been made an officer.
'I knew very soon that the man who killed David didn't kill him because he was David. He killed him because he was the symbol of an occupying army. That is not an easy thing to say but if we want reconciliation we have to say the truth,' she said.
'I realised when I looked into the eyes of bereaved Palestinian mothers that we shared the same pain.' Together, she realised these parents could achieve change. She and others in Parents Circle now travel widely. 'This is not just a message for Palestinians and Israelis, it is for all the world.'
When they caught the man who killed her son, she found out that when he was two, he saw his uncle killed violently by the Israeli army. She wrote to his family, and came to realise that she did not have to be a victim. Looking into understanding the nature of forgiving, she has worked with Black Lives Matter, with the mothers of murdered police in the US and more.
Damelin, who grew up in South Africa in the anti-apartheid movement, said it was a 'horrible price to pay' but the difference between now and then is that now, 'people listen to me'. She said: 'Losing David was impossible for me but this is the best way I can commemorate my child, by educating, by getting other people to understand this is possible.'
She added: 'We beg of you not to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinine because what you are doing is importing our conflict into your country.' This would just lead to even more hatred. Instead, people should be be pro-peace or pro-reconciliation.
Rabbi Helen Freeman, principal rabbi at the West London Synagogue, said that although both Aramin and Damelin are physically small, they are spiritual giants. She said that all who heard their stories were 'touched and moved' by how they had overcome the desire for vengeance in the desire to build a better future.