January 16, 2019

Episode 90 – In the Name of My Son

Photo by Dan Peretz.

Nothing in Robi Damelin’s life could have prepared her for that day. Not growing up in South Africa under Apartheid. Not her immigration to Israel in 1967. Nor any other character forging event throughout her life. A mother is not meant to bear the death of her own child. But what is meant to be, is not always what ends up happening. Robi’s son David was shot by a Palestinian sniper in March of 2002. But from the endless grief and sorrow, Robi chose to re-emerge with a new purpose in life.

Counting from 1860, 23,645 Israelis have lost their lives in wars or terror attacks. Every year, on the national memorial day, around 1.5 millions Israelis – almost 19% of Israel’s population – visit the cemeteries to remember their lost loved ones. But recently, on the national memorial day, there’s another event that catches public attention – the alternative memorial ceremony, conducted by the Parents Circle Families Forum, in which both Israeli families who lost their loved ones to war or terror attacks, and Palestinian families who lost their loved ones in war – unite in their grief.

The controversy in Israeli society around these ceremonies, and around the Forum’s agenda in general – is vigorous. Nevertheless, the organization, that has more than 600 families as members, both Israeli and Palestinian, continues its struggle to end the violence. Robi Damelin is the Forum’s spokesman, and she’s here today to talk about her personal story, about her son David, and about the Parents Circle Families Forum, which became her life’s purpose.

Official website of The Israel-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace Circle

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Parents Circle members united by universal love and pain

Robi Damelin didn’t know what to do when her 28-year-old son David was killed by Palestinian sniper fire in 2002 while serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ reserves.

“My whole life changed, [as did] my sense of priorities,” Damelin told a group at IKAR during Shabbat morning services on March 28. “Things so wonderful for me became irrelevant, and I started to search for something to do to prevent other families from experiencing this pain — and this is the ultimate pain.”

Seated next to her was someone who knows that same pain. Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, had a 10-year-old daughter, Abir, who was killed by an Israeli soldier’s rubber bullet in 2007.

The pair were in Los Angeles late last month as representatives of the 600-member Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), a bridge-building organization of Israelis and Palestinians whose immediate family members have died as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Members regularly appear at synagogues, mosques, churches and elsewhere to discuss their work.

Damelin and Aramin appeared locally at IKAR, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino with a message of empathy, reconciliation and forgiveness.

“I am not a Palestinian, I am not a Muslim, I am not an Arab. I am a human being,” Aramin said during the March 29 appearance at Temple Aliyah. “It is very easy to lose your humanity because you don’t want to see the other as a human being.”

Damelin and Bassam Aramin at Temple Aliyah, one of three local appearances.

The Parents Circle was founded in 1995 by an Orthodox man, Yitzhak Frankenthal, and several bereaved Israeli families. It held its first meeting in 1998 with a group of Palestinian families from Gaza, although, currently, members are not allowed to visit Gaza, Damelin said. 

“We can’t go to Gaza. I wish we could — the first Palestinians who joined the Parents Circle came from Gaza,” she explained. 

Still, in 2000, the organization expanded to include Palestinian families from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Damelin, who came to Israel in 1967 from South Africa, said part of the group’s goal is to ensure that the conflict does not create more parents who are eligible to become members of the organization. 

Aramin, for his part, struggled in his life even before the death of his daughter. He said Israelis arrested him at the age of 17, when he was planning an attack on Israeli troops, and that he was tortured in prison. 

“It’s very difficult to keep your humanity and act as a human being [in prison],” he said. But, according to an online biography, he met an Israeli guard in prison and developed a relationship with him, proving dialogue was possible. 

At the March 30 meeting at VBS, Aramin said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the past, specifically the Holocaust, isn’t helpful in reaching a peace agreement. 

“Netanyahu must mention five times a day the Holocaust,” he said.

Mireille Wolf, a self-described “hidden child” during the Holocaust who sat in the audience at Temple Aliyah, took issue with some of the remarks and said so during the Q-and-A portion. She said the speakers were placing too much blame for the conflict on the Israeli side and not focusing enough on incitement in Palestinian culture. 

“Reconciliation sounds very nice, but when you are reconciling, there are two sides, and one must take responsibility,” she said in an interview. “There will never be peace as long as there is institutionalized hatred in the schools, in the newspaper, by the Palestinian leaders.” 

Damelin argued for inclusion of perceived radicals, such as Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, in conversations about peace. 

“You cannot exclude people from the conversation,” Damelin said. “If you exclude the settlers, they will become more radical. They have to be part of the conversation.”

She acknowledged that dialogue is not always easy: “One of the worst parts is that people don’t want to listen.”

Damelin’s advice to the crowd at VBS was not to take strong pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian stances in response to the conflict. Instead, she suggested, people in the Diaspora should be “pro-solution” if they want to be helpful. Otherwise, they are “importing our conflict into your country.” The audience applauded. 

Each speaker spoke for approximately 15 minutes, then participated in a Q-and-A with the audience. 

IKAR congregant Eliana Kaya, a Woodland Hills resident, attended all three events. She told the Journal during an interview at Aliyah that she has been aware of the organization’s efforts for the past 15 years and is supportive of it. 

“I think it’s powerful work,” she said. “It’s spiritual work.”

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of VBS moderated the evening at the Encino synagogue, and Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple, one of the event sponsors, offered a few words connecting Passover and the message of the speakers. The Reform rabbi said holding onto one kind of narrative is enslaving and that it is important to open ears and hearts to new ones. 

“That’s the beginning of going from slavery to liberation,” he said.