Families speak up

by Robi Damelin
TEL AVIV - The Parents Circle - Families Forum, consisting of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, is a non-profit organization supporting reconciliation and tolerance in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. The organisation acts as a people-to-people advocacy group, with family members sharing painful narratives that greatly impact those exposed to their message of hope. There is an implicit trust present in the work as each group member has lost an immediate family member in the conflict and has therefore paid the highest price for what they are saying and for the work they are doing. In many cases, Palestinian members have spent years in jail for their political beliefs, giving a greater dimension to their loyalty to the cause, and establishing a standing in their community.

The Parents Circle is geared towards creating a framework for a reconciliation process when peace agreements are signed - feeling strongly that this is the only way to create peace and not simply a cease-fire.

The main thrust of the work is to foster understanding of both the Israeli and the Palestinian narrative, believing it is impossible to have empathy for a future partner when one does not understand the culture or personal story of the 'other'. To this end, the Parents Circle spends many hours in classroom dialogues. In 2006 more than 1,000 of these meetings were held with 16 and 17 year old Israeli and Palestinian students.

In addition to classroom activities, art is used as a vehicle of communication. In 2006, 135 top Israeli and Palestinian artists created the "Offering Reconciliation Exhibit", a travelling gallery of ceramic bowls illustrating messages of reconciliation and peace. The exhibition, having opened in Tel-Aviv, is now travelling throughout the US, including: Massachusetts, the World Bank in Washington DC, and most recently, the United Nations in New York City. In November, the ceramic works will be auctioned at SOFA (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art Expositions) in Chicago, with the funds going towards education projects. Members of the Parents Circle have accompanied the tour and are using each stop as an opportunity to give lectures and run educational programmes.

Tracing histories

"Knowing is the Beginning" is the name of a very special project created by the Forum. It is a way for group members to understand the historical family tree and the personal narrative of the 'other'. It started with 140 Israeli and Palestinian members visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem - a first - as never before had such a large group of Palestinians and Israelis visited together. The visit was not intended to compare suffering, but for the Palestinian members to understand what makes the Jewish narrative so painful. Likewise, a group also visited a Palestinian village, now near Bet Shemesh in Israel, which existed before 1948. Two Palestinian members, whose families hailed from this village, were deeply moved when revisiting and finding nothing but an old well. This project will continue until the end of the 2007, with each side getting to know the other in the most intimate of ways.

Another fascinating journey in this project happened recently. Boaz, an Israeli member, traced his family history to the city of Hevron. During a group visit there, Boaz discovered that his grandfather, a doctor during the riots of 1929, was saved by a Palestinian family, and that he in turn, tended to the Palestinian wounded. The group then visited the home of Ossama, a Palestinian member who had lost family members when a kibbutz - of which Boaz's mother was a founding member - was attacked. These incredible stories go to illustrate just how intertwined our lives are and how we must understand each other with empathy even if we do not agree.

In addition to the projects already mentioned, the Parents Circle also runs: "Kol Hashalom", a bilingual program produced and broadcast for the "All for Peace" radio station; a summer camp for children of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families; and the "Hello Shalom - Hello Salaam" chat line, where Israelis and Palestinians can talk to one another on a toll-free line. Since October of 2002, more than a million calls have been made. All of this work will surely go a long way for preparing both sides for a long-term reconciliation framework.


* Robi Damelin is a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, www.theparentscircle.org. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.org Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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