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Bereaved Israeli, Palestinian families talking — to each other

Approximately 13 years ago, I sat in a room in a house in Finchley, North London, on a winter Shabbat afternoon, with approximately 30 other people.
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March 18, 2015

Approximately 13 years ago, I sat in a room in a house in Finchley, North London, on a winter Shabbat afternoon, with approximately 30 other people. We had been invited to hear speakers from what was then a relatively unknown group called the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF). It was founded in Israel in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal, a bereaved father and an Orthodox Jew, who went to a Tel Aviv public library and combed the archives for the names of all families who had lost loved ones since 1948.  

Frankel invited an initial group of 350 families to form a peace organization. Forty-four families — Israeli and Palestinian — responded and came together to form PCFF, which now consists of 620 Israeli and Palestinian families bonded by bereavement. During Operation Protective Edge last summer, PCFF set up a dialogue tent outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and for 70 days circles of dialogue took place — between Israelis and Israelis, and between Israelis and Palestinians — under the banner, “It won’t stop until we talk.” Authors, journalists and Israelis from every walk of life  took their turn to speak and to debate, but most of all, to listen.

But on that afternoon in London, I didn’t know anything about the organization. I simply heard two people, an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, describe exactly what it was like to lose a child to the conflict. They told us how they each had been drawn into an organization founded on their shared experiences. Their voices were quiet and even, and the pain shone from their eyes. They explained how neither of them would have expected their lives to have taken this direction, and how they would never have anticipated working for peace together. But by doing so, they told us, they were expressing their wish that their children’s deaths would not prove to have been in vain.  

I have asked myself many times since that day why it is that after so long, my memory of it remains so vivid. Perhaps it is because it was the first time I had ever met anyone who had lost a child, under any circumstances. Perhaps it was that the telling of a story is one of the most fundamental human ways of addressing reality, however painful, and these were stories of great power.

But I think there was also an alchemy at work that held us silent. The medieval world was preoccupied with the idea that one substance could be transmuted into another if only the correct formula could be found, the correct set of procedures carried out. As we sat around the table and listened, we were drawn into just such an atmosphere of potential and possibility.

Because what we witnessed that cold English evening was the transmutation of hatred. Those testimonies, the dignity of the speakers, the profound sorrow so quietly enunciated taught us by example that even in the most extreme circumstances it is possible for the human spirit to take hold of the structures of rage and fear, break them apart, and reconstitute them as hope and peace.

Because it was Shabbat, we shared the seudah shelishit, the third meal. At the end of the meal, we said the blessings, using the traditional plaintive, haunting tune. I can’t remember who led, or even if it was me — but I do remember adding an extra blessing toward the end:

May the Merciful One establish peace between the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Isaac.

That blessing has remained part of my practice ever since.


Two PCFF speakers will appear at synagogues in Los Angeles on the following dates: IKAR, 11:30 a.m., March 28; Temple Aliyah (co-hosted by Shomrei Torah), 7:30 p.m., March 29; and Valley Beth Shalom (co-hosted by Adat Ari El and Stephen Wise), 7:30 p.m., March 30.

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