Peacework: to love a stranger

If we, who have paid the highest price can talk to each other, then everyone should be able to
Aesha Aqtam Piera Edelman
18 October 2010

"My mother continues to cry for my brother, as do all mothers. Arab or Jewish, Palestinian or Israeli, armed or unarmed". Aesha Aqtam.

"While I sit here mourning my husband, there is a woman on the other side who is mourning her husband. Where's the sense in that? In war, both sides lose, nothing is achieved". Piera Edelman.

As members of the Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF) we recently attended an interfaith peacebuilding consultation (IFOR) in Cyprus where we talked about our personal stories of bereavement and our search for peace.

Aesha: I am from Nablus in Palestine. I was 18 and my brother and best friend, Mahmoud, was 17 when, on August 27th, 1989, he was walking to our uncle's house. Several youths near him started throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, who retaliated with shooting. A bullet hit Mahmoud in his heart and exited through his back. The doctors said it was a miracle he was still alive, but that his heart could stop beating any minute. My father never told this to any of us. 10 years later, Mahmoud got married. 5 weeks after the wedding, while playing basketball, he felt unwell. A few minutes later, he suffered heart failure and died. The date – August 27th, 1999. He was 27 years old.

His death was the most difficult experience I've had and the pain is still there. After several years, I heard about the PCFF and had no wish to meet the enemy, but as time went by, I was curious how bereaved Palestinian families could meet bereaved Israeli families. I decided to give it a chance. It took me some time to understand the Forum's way of viewing the conflict, yet I realized it's the only way to deal with my personal pain. Today I'm an active member and the Palestinian founder of the women's group.

We are against killing and violence, which can never bring peace and tolerance. We believe in man and humanity. Together we fight for peace and reconciliation because we know the high price we paid and continue to pay in war and conflict. We and the Israeli people have to find a solution that promotes life, not death. This is what I teach my six children, whom I worry about due to the curfews and difficult conditions in which we live and travel.

My mother continues to cry for my brothers, as do all mothers. Arab or Jewish, Palestinian or Israeli, armed or unarmed, everyone has family whom they hold as dear as life itself.

Piera: I am from Galilee, Israel. I emigrated from South Africa to Israel in 1979. I had been married for six months and was pregnant when my husband, Hovav Menahem Landau, was killed in the battle of Sultan Yakoub in the Lebanon War, on June 10th, 1982. His funeral was on my 21st birthday. During the week of mourning, I said to someone: "While I sit here mourning my husband, who was killed by a soldier from the other side, there is a woman on the other side who is mourning her husband who was killed by Hovav. Where's the sense in that? In war, both sides lose, nothing is achieved".

Our son Menahem (meaning "a comforter") was born six months later and I remarried when he was almost two. Two years later, the impact of Hovav's death started sinking in and I learnt that faith in God couldn't be a substitute for basic human pain. Therapy helped me work through the pain and regain my footing. During those years, I had two more sons.

As time passed and I learned more about the conflict, I had a growing need to meet Palestinian people directly and learn about their lives and their suffering. Four years ago, I joined the PCFF, identifying wholeheartedly with the message of dialogue, reconciliation and non-violent protest, as well as the right of Palestinians to a State.

Both sides of the conflict must understand that when they vilify and demonize the other side and ignore their legitimate needs, they are thereby giving the other side permission to do the same to them. We must rise above the habit of mutual blaming and start listening, maturely, to each other's needs.

What was unique to the audience we met in Cyprus was that many of the women came from countries that suffer their own conflicts, and they responded to our stories by sharing their own. A young woman from Kashmir described the very difficult conditions in which they live, with curfews and dangerous unrest that leads to killing in the streets. We felt such a strong sense of identification, solidarity and equality in the room, many of us sharing the same experiences and feelings. The group was moved by our genuine concern for each other. It was refreshing for them to see a Palestinian and an Israeli sitting together, explaining the conflict as it is and acknowledging each other's pain, in contrast to the scenes of hatred seen on television.

Aesha: I felt that these women, who were strangers two days earlier, became my sisters-in-suffering. It made me feel validated.

Piera: At the consultation, it was awe-inspiring to witness the women's ability to constantly switch between connecting to each other's pain and suffering, on the one hand, and yet rising above that experience, and aspiring to work towards a better reality for all, on the other.

But in a way, this ability shouldn't have come as such a surprise to us, because we encounter this time and time again when we share our stories and our views. At our women's meetings, we witness a beautiful process of building trust, through the acknowledgement of each other's pain and a sincere wish to make a better world for our children.

One of the ways we work towards making this wish a reality, and where the men of the PCFF are also very involved, is through the lectures we give to high-school children, on dialogue and peace. When we give our talk in Israel, it is usually the first time that the youngsters in the audience have met a Palestinian person and heard an honest and accurate account of the Palestinian side's difficulties (for which Palestinians often hold Israel solely responsible). This creates discomfort in some and a certain antagonism in others, since their side is being held responsible for "bad deeds" which they feel are justifiable and are done "because the other side is at fault". We both emphasize that both sides are at fault and no side operates in a vacuum, clear of all blame. During the talk this message gets across clearly and it changes their attitude from one of defensiveness to one of openness to Palestinian suffering.

Aesha: The local and visiting youths ask me questions about the necessity for roadblocks to combat infiltration of terrorists; why the Palestinians' vote for Hamas; what they are supposed to do when they become soldiers at a checkpoint and are confronted with Palestinians who could potentially cause harm to Israelis. I tell them that roadblocks aren't the true solution to terrorism. They create more despair which creates more hatred and anger. Only meaningful dialogue can change the situation. I explain that those who voted for Hamas in Gaza, did so in the hope that it would improve their daily lives, and not because of the Hamas's attitude towards Israel. And I tell them that when they meet a Palestinian at the checkpoint, they must do their job and check his papers, but they must remember that he is a human being too, who wants to be treated with respect".

Piera: I am asked how, as a religious Jew, who looks like a settler with her modest attire and her hat or headscarf, I feel about the idea of Greater Israel and how I reconcile my PCFF membership with my religious beliefs; whether I ever go into Palestinian territory for PCFF meetings; and personal questions about faith and bereavement. I say that Judaism emphasises love of one's neighbour, including love of the stranger, far more than love and possession of the land. My membership in the PCFF is a natural extension of this belief. I don't go far into Palestinian territory, as my family worries that I could be hurt due to my resemblance to settlers, who are the enemy. About faith and bereavement, I have learned that belief in God needn't paralyse human pain and sadness".

We are often asked how our relatives and friends react to our membership in the PCFF.

Aesha: I am asked if Palestinian members are in danger from their neighbours, due to their affiliation with Israelis and I explain that our neighbours trust us and know our reputation as faithful Palestinians, so there's no danger. And that when we hold lectures in our villages about non-violent protest, many people see the wisdom in it.

Piera: I'm careful about whom I tell! I've started telling religious relatives and friends, many of whom are rather right-wing. Some are quite shocked, some are more open.

We're asked if we view peace as a real possibility? Can viable peace be created when there is such a strong feeling of hatred, futility and hopelessness?

Aesha: We needn't wait for the governments to make peace. If the man on the street begins with reconciliation and dialogue, then peace is possible.

Piera: Peace will be possible when mature people on both sides listen to each other's needs and wants, and aim for a creative win-win situation.

From the questions and discussion at our talks in Israel, we know that we create optimism and hope that peace is possible. People identify with the importance of our message of reconciliation and encourage us to continue on this path. For, as we always say in our lectures, if we – who paid the highest price – can talk to each other, then everyone should be able to.













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