JERUSALEM—Last Thursday evening, my family was invited to dinner at the home of Bassam Aramin, in Anata.
Anata is a twenty minute ride from Motza, twenty light years away from Jerusalem.
We ate a mountain of maqloube with almonds and yogurt. Bassam told us about his meeting with the actor Shlomo Wizcinski who is slated to play Bassam in a new play. And my wife gave his wife, Salwa, a gift: a silver pendant with the name of her daughter Abir, may she rest in peace, made by a Jerusalem silversmith.
We laughed. It was fun. It was emotional.
And then, on the television screen, we saw the images of the attack on the Jerusalem Merkaz Harav school.
And again a cold hand seizes your heart, and again the blood freezes in your veins, again that sword twists inside you, knowing again there will be no rest until that blood is avenged. On the side of the screen, a news ticker of stark updates from Gaza: eight dead in one hour.
And beside the television, Salwa is bitter with tears for the mothers of the dead.
It was hard. Truly hard.
"Alright," said Bassam when we parted. "At least we'll see each other in Warsaw on Sunday…"
The two of use were invited by Warsaw television and HBO for the premier of a new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families organization, Parents Circle-Families Forum. I was glad. I knew that together we would be able to pass on a message of hope to people who, for the most part, had not the faintest idea about the conflict. I knew that by virtue of our shared grief people would listen to us—and perhaps even talk about peace.
I was naïve. I completely forgot that the average Palestinian couldn't just get up one morning, like most free men, and travel to wherever he pleases. Despite a barrage of telephone calls, scores of angry emails, pleas and shouting, Bassam stayed at home without a visa.
And thus I find myself Monday evening at the Polish National Theater in Warsaw, alone, in front of a curious Polish audience, two ambassadors, Israeli and Palestinian, and an empty chair—Bassam's chair.
The film begins. Deathly silence. Heartbreaking stories of unbearable human anguish, without political demands, without attempts to quantify suffering. Stories of bereavement and futile attempts to give even a little meaning to the incredible, needless loss each family experienced. An unsure outreaching of a hand to the other side, a hug, reconciliation, and the shade of a smile, a bud of hope. Men and women, faces lined with suffering, in extreme close-up, telling and telling. A sigh can be heard from the audience in the dark hall, and perhaps tears falling—the atmosphere is heavy and onerous.
As the screening ends, the Israeli ambassador fidgets in his seat, his body language communicating impatience and blatant aggression. "Count to ten!" shouts an Israeli from the audience, but it's already too late.
He stands and takes the single microphone, and everyone, including the Palestinian ambassador, sits admonished like disobedient children, listening to the words of His Lordship. And he explains, his Honor, that he had had misgivings and hesitancies about appearing at the evening's event after what happened in Jerusalem on Thursday, but out of respect for the bereaved families he had decided to come. And he went on to say that Israel would be resolute in its fight against terror, without compromise. And that there is no comparing the pain of someone who was hurt by terror with that of someone who was hurt as a result of others acting in self-defense…that Israeli children don't go blow themselves up in the market in Gaza, and…
And then someone from the audience yells at him that Israel sends tanks and fighter planes to Gaza, that the Israeli occupation is also a form of terrorism. Immediately the same ugly argument restarts, with His Excellency affirming that everyone has a right to their opinion—meanwhile his press agent has no idea where to bury himself from embarrassment, in front of his astonished Polish hosts. We too, myself and my son, cast our eyes downwards in shame at this strange behavior, this bombastic performance of our representative in Warsaw.
That same morning, across from the remains of the Warsaw ghetto wall, I had asked myself how I, as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a human, could express my feelings about Bassam's loss. Then, I was not able to come to any conclusion. And now, in a split-second decision, I said to those assembled at the screening, "I—am Bassam Aramin! I represent here the missing character of this brave and noble combatant for peace."
I told them that the fact that Palestinians are missing from nearly every international forum that speaks about the conflict is a source of embarrassment. I said that this absent bereaved father, this ex-prisoner who chose the path of reconciliation and peace, is a powerful voice against the glaring injustice that continues to assert that there is no one to talk with, that there is nothing to talk about, and that we should give up talking.
At that point, the ambassador assembled his bodyguards and left in a suitably royal huff. The head Rabbi acknowledged that "there is no pain like your pain," and the panel nodded in agreement out of Polish politeness.
We went together to be photographed, and afterwards to drink and then to eat, and while present physically, my soul and in my heart were in Anata. I could not for an instant stop thinking about Bassam and Salwa Aramin. I though to myself that only Bassam, with his nobility and his endless smiles, could have made the ambassador embarrassed and lower his glare in shame; only he could have helped him understand that the attacks in Gaza preceded the ones in Jerusalem, that Sderot preceded Gaza, that the Occupation preceded Jenin, and ad infinitum—an endless cycle of senseless violence…
But Bassam was not there with me. I left Warsaw with a bowed head, wounded, shamed and hurting.
And that is all there is. It is up to us to move forward… or not.
* Rami Elhanan is the father of Smadar Elhanan, who was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in September, 1997. He lectures daily for the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families organization Parents Circle-Families Forum. This article, translated from Hebrew by Miriam Asnes, is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
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