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Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin organizes forum for Palestinians and Israelis to share stories of losing loved ones.

The Jewish Advocate December 25, 2009

Palestinian, Israeli share stories of losing loved ones

By Elise Kigner, Advocate Staff

They speak around the world as part of reconciliation campaign.

It may seem hard to believe that they were in the same room, let alone hugging.

But last week, Robi Damelin and Mazen Faraj, an Israeli and a Palestinian who each have lost family members in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, spoke to a group of Americans about choosing reconciliation over revenge.

Faraj, 32, grew up in the Daheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. In April 2002, he said, his 62-year-old father was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier as he went out to buy food. Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinians were battling near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Faraj said that he knew others who had dealt with similar tragedies by choosing the "violent way." That was not his way, he told an audience of 100 at a talk last week hosted by the Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "I will never choose revenge."

Faraj and Damelin are members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, which is composed of more than 500 Israelis and Palestinians who have lost relatives in the conflict. Appearing in pairs, an Israeli with a Palestinian, they give lectures around the world, sharing their personal stories and urging reconciliation.

A month before Faraj 's father was killed, Damelin's 28-year-old son, David, an IDF soldier, was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. 'You may not kill anyone in the name of my son," Damelin said she told Israelis afterward.

"I understood that [the sniper] didn't kill David because he was David," she told the Boston gathering.

After the sniper, Ta'er Hamad, was arrested in 2004, Damelin wrote him a letter about her desire for reconciliation. Damelin didn't hear back from him directly, but this fall, a Palestinian newspaper printed his response to her. According to an excerpt that appeared in the Israeli paper Haaretz, Hamad wrote: "She doesn't know the iron fact that her son not only took part in the torture of my people, but stood at the head of the perpetrators of the killing and murder. . . .You must remove your hands from our land and from our people, and if not, it is our duty to kill the murderers."

In her talk last week, Damelin explained how she rationalized Hamad's harsh words. "I don't think he wrote the letter. It came from the political person who was in jail."

Regardless, though, she added: "He wasn't on a mission to free Palestine. He wanted revenge, and one day he will learn that there is no revenge."

Damelin said she wrote back to Hamad, explaining that her son was not violent. "Is it possible that there was an element of personal revenge, as you had seen your uncle violently killed by Israeli soldiers as a child and had lost another uncle in the second intifada?" she asked him in the letter, which also was printed in Haaretz.

Damelin said that when she lectures in Israeli and Palestinian classrooms, she finds in both a lack of understanding of the other side. She said in some Israeli classrooms at most only one student knew a Palestinian or spoke Arabic, while at least 70 percent had traveled overseas.

In a lecture in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian girl told her, 'Your son deserved to die." Damelin asked her to tell her story and learned that she had lost a family member in the conflict. In the end, Damelin said, the girl cried, and they hugged.

Damelin urged Americans to avoid declaring themselves pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. "When you do that, you're creating another conflict in your own country," she said. In an interview, she said Americans should lobby their congressmen to promote reconciliation programs.

The talk at Beth Israel Deaconess was one of five Parents Circle events in Greater Boston last week. They were organized by Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin, Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill.

Ben-Chorin said he reached out to synagogues of all denominations about hosting events, but was unable to line up an Orthodox congregation. He said he would like to partner with Orthodox congregations in the future.

In addition to sneaking at two synagogues, the Parents Circle pair addressed professors and graduate students at UMassBoston studying dispute resolution. BenChorin said he selected Beth Israel Deaconess as a lecture site in the hope of reaching victims of trauma and violence beyond the Jewish community.

"If we want to be a light upon the nations, then we need to use our experiences to shed light on issues that have a broader concern to humanity," the rabbi said.

Audience members at Beth Israel included rabbis, members of the Workmen's Circle and social workers receiving professional credits.

"Sometimes I think I'm naive to think that people could change things with one-to-one relationships," said Jeanie Gruber, a Jewish woman from Brookline. "I was pleased to see that these people seemed very articulate and very grounded."

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