Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad
No More Taking Sides
Ali Abu Awwad is a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank. He is a spokesman and project manager for the Parents Circle - Families Forum.
Robi Damelin Damelin is an Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv. She speaks with community groups about her experiences as part of the Parents Circle - Families Forum.
November 29, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The friendship between Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad is the kind of Israeli-Palestinian story that always becomes invisible when new episodes of violence erupt. But they embody the human capacity to transmute despair into hope. Robi’s beloved son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Ali’s beloved brother Yusef was killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. These terrible losses led them to each other, and to a universe of others on both sides of that border. It’s a network called the Parents Circle — Bereaved Families Forum. This citizen-led movement breaks the narrative of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
MS. ROBI DAMELIN: If I can give any clarity about what we’re doing and why we do that, the personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side. We keep talking to groups who have dialogue.
MR. ALI ABU AWWAD: I start discovering many things. I start discovering the fear of the other side. And the life doesn’t became better, but it became possible.
MS. TIPPETT: Your life?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, from APM, American Public Media.
I first learned about Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad through a great documentary film, called Encounter Point. And I met them in a hotel room in 2006 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They were there together attending a conference on global models of restorative justice. As friends and fellow activists, these two made a striking pair. Robi Damelin in her 60s, beautiful and tough; Ali Abu Awwad in his 30s, wry and slightly on guard.
MS. TIPPETT: I thought I might speak with you individually just for a minute and just hear a little bit of your stories, I thought I might start with you, Robi, and then …
MS. DAMELIN: Why don’t you start with Ali?
MS. TIPPETT: Should I start with Ali? OK.
MS. DAMELIN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. You know, so I’ve read your — I’ve read a little bit about your history and it seems to me that your family’s story is a story of many Palestinians that your family was forced off the land in 1948 that many of them were in refugee camps in Jordan, um, and you came back to a home saturated with politics, is that fair?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah
MS. TIPPETT: Was really striking just to read that you, as a child, you know, watched your mother be arrested many times. I just — I don’t know what effect that has on a child, and then you participated in the first intifada and were arrested, twice, I mean, um, how much time did you actually spend in prison?
MR. AWWAD: Um, I spent four years in the prison. The first time was in 1990; I spent three month, so I read a lot about the conflict, about Fatah, about the ideology of Fatah.
MS. TIPPETT: Was your mother involved in Fatah?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah, she was one of the leaders, underground more than on the political level. We used to go to Amman with her; she used to carry a message from the people to the leaders in Amman, and many places.
MS. TIPPETT: In Jordan?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah, and she used to swallow the paper with plastic, the message, to cross the bridge. And I used to help her by preparing this. I was very afraid on the bridge with her, you know, with my sister, because we are young. And so I start being involved with this feeling that I’m doing something, and I wanted her to see me as a person who is involved and wanted her to be proud of me.
MS. TIPPETT: Somewhere in all of this your brother, Yusef, died, right? When did that happen and how?
MR. AWWAD: It happened in the early beginning of the second intifada. One day, I was crossing from my town to a village next to us, and an Israeli settler was crossing next to me because they used to drive in the middle of West Bank, you know. And he was shooting the people through the window of his car. He shoot somebody and he killed him, and he shoot me hardly in my knee. And then, you know, without any reason, even if I didn’t want to be involved, as long as you are living there, you cannot be far from the situation. Anyway, they send us to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the Palestinian authority, because the condition of medical cases in Palestine is very bad.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. AWWAD: And this is the last time that I saw my brother. I still remember that I had been in the ambulance going to the airport, and he was crying there because he wanted to come with me, but my mother told him no, she wanted to be with me. And I left there. And after being a month, I got a phone call that Yusef, my older brother, he was 31 years old, has been stopped by an Israeli soldier in the entry of our village, and he shoot him in his head and he killed him.
You know, for me, Yusef was a friend, was a father. He was a mother when my mother used to be in the prison. He was everything for me. And he used to take care especially about me, and he used to be worried about me, because I was a very troublemaker in many cases and, um, even using his identity when I have been in Jericho. Sometimes I used to drive with his license and the police stop me and give me, you know, punishment, so I used to …
MS. TIPPETT: So he got that.
MR. AWWAD: Yeah, to cost him punishment without being his fault. All of this — all of this relation we used to — in the holiday of our school we used to go to work together and we are young and, you know, we have been throwing stone together. We have been in danger together. We used to cook together. We used to clean our clothes. We — it’s a very special life with Yusef. So at that moment, Yusef, for me, was another life, and I lost that.
MS. TIPPETT: So, it’s very hard for me to imagine that — everything that your family had gone through and that you’d been through that you weren’t quite hardened in a way, when you heard about something like the Bereaved Families — that they called the Bereaved Parents?
MS. DAMELIN: Parents Circle — Families Forum.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Parents Circle — Families Forum. That — what was it in that that could cut through all of this and, um, and so that you would engage again.
MR. AWWAD: Well, after losing somebody — and especially for me losing Yusef — how many Israelis shall I kill to feel better? And if I kill somebody, what does it mean? Leading my people to freedom? Returning back Yusef? Costing somebody the same pain that I got is making my pain more easy? And am I allowed to kill somebody at all, even without being bereaved? I’m not allowed to kill somebody. I couldn’t accept this price. Somehow, I couldn’t accept it.
I lost Yusef, but I didn’t lose my mind. And I don’t know — I just decided to close myself in and without even being in contact with any political level or so. And seeing Yusef’s kids — he has a son and a daughter — I thought that maybe I will make their life more better if I can protect them, if I can even protect myself for them. So I start living not just to myself as before, I start living for them.
MS. TIPPETT: It was about a year after Yusef was killed that Ali Abu Awwad and his family received a visit from an Israeli, Yitzhak Frankenthal, the founder of the Parents Circle — Bereaved Families Forum. He was accompanied by a few other Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones.
MR. AWWAD: When I heard about the Bereaved Families — Israeli Bereaved Families, when that religious guy, Yitzhak Frankenthal, which his son has been kidnapped and killed, and when I heard that they want to come to us and to talk to us, I surprised. I shocked, you know. How come somebody who lost somebody in the conflict will be able to sit with their enemy? Also my mother and my brother, we want to know what is it. We invite them. They came to our home and it was the first time that I saw an Israeli crying. I used to see soldiers. I used to see settlers. I used to have this very bad relation by treating me in a very bad behavior, but I never saw the tears of the other side, I never saw the pain of the other side. I saw Roni Hirshenson, who lost two sons, one of them by suicide bomber.
MS. TIPPETT: Was this one of the Israelis who came to your home?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah. And they are the strong side. I mean, why they care? I mean, they could stay home and don’t care because they have their army, their government, their economy, everything. So why? And they start telling that if we can use this pain in a human way together, maybe we can protect the other people and maybe we can lead our both nation through nonviolent. And I realize that by joining the forum, the pain does not disappear.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s quite a striking idea, using the pain in that way.
MR. AWWAD: Yeah. I don’t want just to deal with my pain. I also want to use it because this is the soul of nonviolent. By using the pain, through controlling the reaction of your feeling against your enemy, analyzing this feeling through your mind and getting it out in a very human way because, first of all, we are human and I don’t want to be used. I mean, the suffer of my people is more holy than to be used from anybody, and especially from my enemy.
So if I’m reacting by violent, I’m giving the occupation the excuse and the reason to make the wall more high and to put more checkpoint and to be right by killing us. So I decide, and my mother and my family, everybody, to be involved and to join the Parents Circle. And today I feel that I start discovering many things. I start discovering the fear of the other side. I start realizing why we don’t want to recognize each other, because we are afraid, because we cannot deal with daily suffer, because the Jewish cannot deal with the history of the Holocaust and so on, so because the Palestinian cannot deal with the daily occupation life. And the life doesn’t became better, but it became possible.
MS. TIPPETT: Your life?
MR. AWWAD: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. I’m in conversation with Ali Abu Awwad, who is Palestinian, together with a South African-born Israeli woman, Robi Damelin. Together, they are part of an Israeli-Palestinian movement of human relationship and educational and media initiatives. It’s called the Parents Circle — Bereaved Families Forum. Robi Damelin’s son, David, was killed by a young Palestinian sniper. David was part of the Israeli peace movement, but he died during his compulsory military reserve service in the occupied territories.
MS. TIPPETT: So Robi, it was your son, David, died in this same crisis, conflict. Tell me about him.
MS. DAMELIN: You know, I was thinking and I was listening to Ali and every time I listen to him I discover more, and I learn more and more about Yusef, as the time goes by, because in the retelling of a violent death, there’s another stage which starts when you start not to talk about how the person died, the violence of that, but you start to talk about who they were. And the interesting thing about David was that I really never, how can I put this? I wasn’t involved so much with the physical way of how he died. I didn’t want to go, like other parents, to the place where he died to hear the details. I couldn’t — I didn’t want to see him, you know. I wanted to remember who he was.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. DAMELIN: And I remembered silly things like, you know, he used to play the French horn and he used to practice in the cupboard, because he could get the best tone out of his French horn, and he used to sit there like for six hours in his underpants, because it was very hot in Israel, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. DAMELIN: And I remember the days of the student uprising at the Tel Aviv University — I don’t know, I’m terrible at dates. Not long before he was killed, there was an uprising of the students about the student fare, you know, how much money — fees, how much they had to pay, and he was very much a leader. So those are the wonderful things about this child who was this very beautiful man. He was 6 feet 2 and very good-looking. But he also was very good-looking from inside. You know, I mean, don’t think that — he wasn’t a saint. You know, he liked to drink and have fun and do all the things, thank goodness, you know, so he was a very well-rounded person. But he was teaching philosophy to kids who were potential social leaders.
I’m so happy, you know, in many ways, like, I always say that you bring up a child, you know, with your own values and you teach them things about music and art and literature. And then they teach you. I recognized right from the beginning that the sniper didn’t kill David, because he was David. I mean there was no way, if he’d known him, that he could have done such a thing. And I recognized that he killed him because he was symbolic of an occupying army.
I had a PR office and I worked with all the good things in life, you know, like champagne, food, books. And I also did a lot of work with coexistence projects. That wasn’t something new for me. This I’d done all my life, since a little girl in South Africa. But the priority level is very different after you lose a child. You know, some parents just choose to die with their children. It’s almost a conscious decision to remain alive and to have a passion with what I wanted to do and the peace child that I was working had some meaning for me. And then the same man that came to talk to Ali came to my house and spoke to me about the Parents Circle. And I wasn’t sure, because I had a feeling after David was killed that I wouldn’t mix with other bereaved parents. That didn’t seem to me to be who I was, you know. So after Yitzhak came to see me, he said, “Why don’t you come” …
MS. TIPPETT: This is Yitzhak Frankenthal, mm-hmm.
MS. DAMELIN: Yitzhak Frankenthal, the founder. He said, “Why don’t you come to a seminar?” And it was actually rather soon after David — this was in October and David was killed in March, and I said OK. And it was very, very fragile. You know, I went to the seminar and I sat there and I found it extraordinary. And I looked into the eyes of the Palestinian mothers and I really recognized that we had the same pain.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. DAMELIN: And just one Thursday night I came home from the office and I said to myself, “That’s it. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know, somebody will look after me, I’ll be able to, you know, survive financially, and I’m going to do the things that I think are important.” And then I started to work with the Parents Circle and I discovered that, in a way, that’s what made me get up in the morning, because I thought that I could do something that would prevent other families from experiencing this pain, both Israeli and Palestinian. And that through the framework of the Parents Circle, I could probably be more effective than in any other. The way that we can talk to each other almost immediately could take years in other dialogue groups. It’s the shared pain that allows you to open to another place completely. And, um, so I started to work in schools.
We do a lot of lectures in schools, to 17-year-olds, both on the Palestinian and Israeli side. And we go in, a Palestinian and Israeli together, and actually, for me, that’s a legacy with David because education was his home. And sometimes I sit in a classroom and I feel him sort of around me, you know, laughing, because I was such a dreadful student and was so wild and naughty. But that’s my way in a way of commemorating who he was. I understood right away that the biggest problem that we have as two nations is that we don’t know each other. All we know is the stigma created by the media …
MS. TIPPETT: And it could be a symbol.
MS. DAMELIN: … you know, and that’s really the basis of all the work that we are doing, is to take away this whole stigma, to take away the demonization, which is fed eagerly by all the media around us who feed off extremes. You know, it’s much more sexy to have an extremist screaming at the top of a mountain about a greater Israel or to have the mother of a suicide bomber saying she’s proud to have given her child.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. DAMELIN: But I can tell you that all of these mothers who’ve lost children — I don’t care what they say to the media, I know what happens to them at night when they go to bed. We all share the same pain.
If I can give any kind of clarity about what we’re doing and why we do that, the personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side. We keep talking to groups who have dialogue, you know. Not the dialogue of hummus and hugging. I’m not talking about that because that happens all over and that never works because it’s not truthful and you never know who I am.
So the fact that I can tell you my personal narrative and that Ali can tell you his personal narrative will open up a new vista of history for you because you’ll understand why Ali’s family are living where they live, where they came from, and the pain that the family have experienced and the pain of the Palestinians — and through that, instead of reading a history book, you’ll understand the pain of the Palestinians.
And if I tell you about Yaacov Guterman in our group, an Israeli who is a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz who came to Israel with no family at all as a small child, having lost everybody, and finding a new life in the kibbutz in Israel and marrying and having a son who was killed, and still being able to join our group and be part of this search for reconciliation and to stop the violence, stop the killing.
MS. TIPPETT: Witnessing the friendship between Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad was one of the high points of all my years of interviewing. We filmed the entire conversation — so you can experience it too. Watch this video at onbeing.org. There you can also find ways to listen again and subscribe to our podcast, which also includes the full unedited audio of this and every program, every week.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today revisiting my 2006 conversation with Ali Abu Awwad of the West Bank and Robi Damelin of Israel. Her son, David, died at the hands of a Palestinian sniper; his brother, Yusef, was shot by an Israeli soldier. Together, they’re part of the Parents Circle —Bereaved Families Forum, this is a grassroots movement of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict between their two peoples.
MS. TIPPETT: They say that formal peace initiatives in their land, like the Oslo Peace Process, have failed because they’ve focused almost exclusively on government-to-government contacts. They’re also wary of ways in which well-intentioned outside groups have taken sides or focused, for example, on campaigns like a boycott of the Caterpillar corporation, whose bulldozers are used by the Israeli Army. Robi Damelin has been involved in a critical dialogue with churches on this issue. And they both speak and teach in Israeli and Palestinian schools and in international forums.
I wonder when I, not only when I hear your stories, but when I see how much you travel, you are out there presenting all over the place, at the same time, in this period in which you have been involved in this work, there seem to be setbacks all the time, I wonder about the resources you bring inwardly to this life you lead now and this work you do. And do your religious traditions have a place in that, or have you — do you have new ideas as you are leading kind of new lives, about how those traditions what they’re really about?
MS. DAMELIN: I grew up — religion has never really played a part in my life. I think a lot of what happened in South Africa for me is the great inspiration of the work that I do. And reading…
MS. TIPPETT: I was looking at morally and spiritually as well.
MS. DAMELIN: Right. Because, you see, I think that what happened in South Africa was a miracle. Regardless of whether today it’s 100 percent rosy, it certainly isn’t, but when you think about the alternative and having grown up and having been in the anti-apartheid world of South Africa, I mean, I never would have believed that blacks and whites would sit together in the same room and look for a way.
The actual miracle that there was not total bloodbath in South Africa, I feel — this inspires me daily. You know, I’m very inspired by what Gandhi did. My family has very sort of weird connections with Gandhi. I had a cousin who walked with Gandhi from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg in the very early days, and I have — my uncle defended Mandela in the first treason trial. You know, I’m very inspired by that, by the deeds of people, not by books that tell me of the past, because it’s never been part of who I am.
MS. TIPPETT: But now that you live in Israel and as you move through the world as it is now, I mean, you are Jewish. And do you have any kind of new sense of what that means, also spiritually, morally?
MS. DAMELIN: I don’t know. You know, the Jews were supposed to be a light unto nations. Well, that light isn’t shining very brightly where I come from. I feel very much that the Jews have to have a home. I think that my identity with the Jews is the understanding that there has to be a home. My identity is understanding that the world will never actually accept a million Russian Jewish people who want to flee their country, or Ethiopians, or the French, for that matter, who are also leaving.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There’s no place else for them to go.
MS. DAMELIN: There’s no place else. You know, I wish it could have been Uganda, maybe, for all the point of view that, you know, there may not have been this terrible religious struggle. Because, for me, what I’ve seen in the name of religion is not what I understand religion is. You know, it’s so interesting because there was the big argument in the Presbyterian church about the divestment. We were at a lecture and this man said to me, “You Israelis — not you, of course” — which is — really, I liked that at lot. Said, “You Israelis think you’re so superior.”
So I said to him: “You know, I really don’t think that’s only an Israeli problem I think that’s a Western problem. We tend not to understand each other’s culture.” And so the church decided that they will take a billion dollars from Caterpillar and this will be their way of pushing the peace process forward. So I said at many platforms at the First Presbyterian Church, both in Chicago and in New York, with great respect, I thought the message of the church was love.
If you want to take a billion dollars away from Caterpillar, I’m all for it. But then put it into projects of reconciliation, you know, because, you see, what you’re doing is you’re taking that money away from Caterpillar and you’re making a big noise about it so you will unite the right and the left in Israel and they’ll call you anti-Semitic. Is that what you want? That’s the question of understanding a culture. That’s not South Africa.
MS. TIPPETT: And supporting work of reconciliation would mean the involvement of people on both sides of the work.
MS. DAMELIN: Exactly. We keep saying, “Stop taking sides. Please do not be pro-Israel, please do not be pro-Palestine. Look for a solution,” because if you’re pro one of us, you’re not helping. And neither of us is going to disappear in a puff of smoke. So what is the point? If you’re pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, you feel very good about yourself, but you’re not really helping.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re not even helping the side you’re for.
MS. DAMELIN: Exactly.
MR. AWWAD: You know, when you talk about religion, religion should be the most good thing. It’s the law for the people to live, like democracy. Look at the people. How do they use the democracy? Democracy is a very good thing in — somehow. But when …
MS. TIPPETT: In theory.
MR. AWWAD: Yeah. But they are using democracy to reach very bad things, you know, and to lead a war sometimes by using democracy. I have this example every day, not just what’s happened in Gaza, even before, even the daily life of myself. Sometimes I’ve been stopped at the checkpoint for three or four hours, and I’m asking myself, “How can I hold in that?” But there is something pushing you after you know the other side. You don’t have to love the Israelis to make peace with them. I mean, you don’t have to forgive, because when you put this condition, you close yourself even from the small things, which could lead you by those small things to reach the big things. And I think when we share each other pain — there is two way, you know, to deal with the pain. Even to throw it to the other side by joining the violent, or to give it to the other side. We are giving of our part in our pain, and asking from them justice. I mean, it’s not — if you want to be right, it’s very easy. I’m right. I live under occupation, I have the right to react back and I have the right to join the revolution, and so on so.
But to be honest, it’s very difficult. Nobody want to be honest. Everybody want to be right, and this is the problem. Being honest, it means not to give up. Being honest, it means to being a human. And if you consider yourself as a judge, you have to be honest. And if you consider yourself as a democratic country, you have to be honest. And if you consider yourself as a human, you don’t have just to feel sorry about that, but to understand what the other need to live as a human and to give them those needed by understanding their pain and by representative your pain as a human to allow them to understand you.
I didn’t became Israeli; Robi will not become Palestinian, you know. Both of us are proud with our identity. But if my identity — I will use it in a bad way, I will give up my humanity. I mean, I want to keep everything by keeping this behavior of being a human, and I don’t want to lose everything by losing my humanity and using my anger in a violent way.
I don’t want to damage my case. I’m always telling that. As a Palestinian, we have the most just case, but sometimes we are a very bad lawyer in a very non-just court, with a non-just judge, and I cannot kill the judge to have justice. I cannot arrest the judge to have justice. But I can show the judge that what are you doing to me is damaging you before damaging me. You know, somebody said that if you want to broke your enemy, make him your friend. My aim is not to broke. My aim to have a friend, and this is the different.
MS. TIPPETT: Ali Abu Awwad is Palestinian. I’m speaking with him together with Robi Damelin, an Israeli. I discovered the two of them as compelling characters in a documentary film called Encounter Point. In this scene in the film, Robi Damelin is writing a letter to the mother of the young sniper who killed her son David.
MS. DAMELIN: “This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin and I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do. Should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and to try to find a way for closure and reconciliation? This is not easy for anyone, and I am just an ordinary person and not a saint. I do not know what your reaction will be. It is a risk for me. But I believe that you will understand as it comes from the most honest part of me.”
MS. TIPPETT: You’re meeting with so many different groups around the country. You’ve talked about meetings you’ve had in England, you’re here at a conference on restorative justice. I saw that you’d been part of something called September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows …
MS. DAMELIN: It’s Peaceful Tomorrows.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. DAMELIN: It’s families who lost …
MS. TIPPETT: And there were people there from all over the world, from Afghanistan, from Sudan, Northern Ireland …
MS. DAMELIN: I was there; Ali wasn’t there.
MS. TIPPETT: You were there, yes. Also you screened the film Encounter Point.
MS. DAMELIN: It’s been in East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, Jenin, Gaza.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. And one of those screenings was the day that the hostilities broke out with Lebanon.
MS. DAMELIN: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder about those kinds of gatherings and what happens or what’s happened in some of those that has made an impression on you?
MS. DAMELIN: You mean screenings of Encounter Point?
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Or just these encounters you have with different people all over the world.
MS. DAMELIN: You know, it’s interesting. Yesterday at the seminar this woman came to talk to me. It’s really quite funny because people now know us and we don’t know who they are. You know, I mean, you’ve …
MS. TIPPETT: They’ve seen the film.
MS. DAMELIN: … all been in my kitchen and in my house, and, you know, seen me drinking whisky, but I’ve stopped smoking.
MS. TIPPETT: Have you?
MS. DAMELIN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Well …
MR. AWWAD: She’s a big traitor.
MS. DAMELIN: OK. Actually when I gave up smoking I said that at an Encounter Point showing at — and because now, you know, after the film …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a big part of the film.
MS. DAMELIN: … very — yes.
MR. AWWAD: She left me alone.
MS. TIPPETT: She leaves you alone.
MS. DAMELIN: They all stood up and clapped like in Alcoholics Anonymous. I really …
MS. TIPPETT: Though there is that …
MS. DAMELIN: It was hilariously funny.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a great moment of the film where you both discuss how peace would break out immediately if each side had to go to the other side to get their cigarettes.
MR. AWWAD: We’ll not have peace because she gave up smoking. I told you, she’s a traitor, you know.
MS. DAMELIN: Anyway, this lady said that she has a friend, a Jewish friend who is quite orthodox, has a lot of family who are settlers in the West Bank and has not really understood the Palestinian cause up to now. And on the day — he’s working with a Palestinian man in his office, you know, and they’d been quite friendly but never actually spoken politics in any way. They all avoided, you know, that’s the way of avoiding conflict, I suppose. After he’d seen Encounter Point and after this terrible incident in Gaza …
MS. TIPPETT: Recently.
MS. DAMELIN: … he came to the Palestinian in the office and said to him, “Look, you know, I’m really sorry that that happened.” So, you see, for me that’s very inspirational. Because if you can break through some kind of stuck, you know, attitude and if this man found it within himself to be able to say “sorry,” this is — if you ask me about religion, there’s something about “sorry” which, for me, is very religious if you mean it. Because I’ve actually recognized the power of apologies, and that’s what happened in South Africa. And on the first screening in Jerusalem, in West Jerusalem at the Cinematheque in the Jerusalem Film Festival, it was exactly the day that the Lebanese — oh, I don’t know — tournament, I call it actually, because, you know, people back you. Either you’re pro-green Lebanese or you’re pro-blue Israel, and depending on how many people die, you’ll be pro that side for the day and you’ll feel very good about yourself and there’ll just be more broken hearts and no winners. I wrote an article about that, which appeared in Haaretz in English, and I’ve got nearly a hundred emails from Lebanon of people who’d read it, because I told you the message works.
In any event, at the screening, it was a very difficult screening for me personally because here we are sitting in this lovely theater, and people are dying in the north and sitting in shelters, and in Lebanon. And I stood up and I said, “Look, you know, this has been a wonderful film and I’m very glad that you came and that you’re all clapping, but think about what’s happening outside of this theater.” And we were about 60 members from the Parents Circle who came, Palestinian and Israeli, and all of us stood up in the audience and I said: “You have to take this message and work with it. We’re not here to entertain you. It’s to just get you to try and understand that you actually can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how small.” Do you know, a woman came to me yesterday in the seminar and she said, “I’m a student and I really want to do something, but I’ll have to travel overseas.” So I said, “Why? You live here in …” Where are we?
MS. TIPPETT: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
MS. DAMELIN: “Milwaukee. There are enormous problems with crime; there are enormous racial problems here. This is the most wonderful place for you to begin a journey of making a difference in your own community and in yourself, because you can’t go out and start changing things if you’re not willing. Does it have to be in a pink room that you can experience making a difference?” And I’m really glad that I said that. It wasn’t to be clever. Because she suddenly looked — there were three black women standing next to her — at them, and they looked at each other and they said, “Let’s meet.” And, you know, it’s really strange but it’s not that we’re two evangelistical people rushing around the world, trying to change, you know, like make people belong to a religion.
But I think that what we really want to do is to make people understand that they have the potential to change things within themselves, and they don’t have to be politicians to be able to do that. That’s the whole message of what we are doing. And, actually, really, all the work that we’re doing should be done on the ground in Israel-Palestine. But we also recognize that the fate of Israel and Palestine is connected with what happens in America, and your fate is very much connected with how we settle out our problems in the Middle East.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, absolutely. I was going to ask you how you measure success, and I think you just answered that question also. I mean, Ali, when you think about important encounters, some of these places you’ve been in around the world, what’s been most memorable and important?
MR. AWWAD: First of all, I feel that putting the people on my chair through this film. We just want the people to understand what’s going on there and what they can do. So this film is the most important thing. It’s not pro any side. It’s showing just the reality on the ground. And through many things, I could see the change, especially when we have been there, talking after the screening, after showing the film. This film has touched the people, you know?
MS. DAMELIN: Everybody, both — after every screening, the Israelis go to talk to Ali …
MR. AWWAD: Yeah.
MS. DAMELIN: … and the Palestinians come to talk to me.
MS. TIPPETT: Really. Really.
MR. AWWAD: Yeah, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder how — what about the screenings in — you said you’d done it in Jenin and …
MR. AWWAD: Yeah.
MS. DAMELIN: It has the same effect everywhere, even though we didn’t believe it would, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Really.
MR. AWWAD: The people are thirsty there for peace, believe me. You know, I’m living in a area, every day I have settlers crossing the road. I don’t remember that in my village, 14,000 people, somebody has killed a settler. We have 150,000 soldiers. Not all of them is killing the Palestinian. The majority of both side want peace, but the problem is the price. The politician are not ready to pay the price for peace. When you see the people are getting more involved through this film in the situation, you feel this encouragement that people care. They care. And they see that it’s a real movement. It’s not just having hugs, as Robi says.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s coming up from beneath, rather than from above.
MR. AWWAD: Exactly. With the people, even with extremes, you know, argue with people. Sometimes religious Jewish telling me that in Islam, there is no peace. In Qur’an, you should fight the Jewish and to kill them. This is the end. You know, somebody said to me that in Britain, in London.
MS. TIPPETT: Really.
MR. AWWAD: Yeah. I told him — well, I think he’s not a good person to talk about Islam, first of all. But I told him: “You know what, if our destiny to have war, it doesn’t mean this is our day. Let us have peace now, and if it is our destiny to kill each other, nobody can stop it, but today we can stop it.” So this is the problem that you decide for tomorrow, between you and yourself. Don’t decide for tomorrow by using God, by using the religion.
MS. TIPPETT: I have to say that what being with the two of you reminds me of — and it seems pertinent because we’ve spoken about South Africa and because you’re from South Africa, Robi — that I did a program with two South Africans, Charles Villa-Vicencio who was director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who was on the Commission, a white man and a black woman. What was so striking to me, as much as everything they had to say, was the delight they took in each other and that they both said to me that when they grew up, you know, Pumla said she would never have imagined that she would have a white person as a friend or want a white person as a friend. And it was that friendship between them and that kind of delight and great surprise at being at this point in life and having this …
MS. DAMELIN: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: … and I feel that with the two of you also, and I saw it in the film as well.
MS. DAMELIN: It’s because we can laugh together. You see …
MS. TIPPETT: You can laugh together. Well, it’s — yes …
MS. DAMELIN: And we do.
MR. AWWAD: No, but I don’t love her anymore. She don’t want to marry me and she give up smoking and, you know, she’s doing that …
MS. TIPPETT: But you know — but the other thing that’s different with you — and this is serious — is, you know, when you talked about David and you talked about Yusef, it’s also like they’re part of this friendship and …
MS. DAMELIN: They are.
MR. AWWAD: They are.
MS. TIPPETT: …I think the two of you must — you feel like you know that loved one of the other, I can see that, and there must be a grief that you have also that you can’t — that you didn’t know them in life.
MR. AWWAD: I will tell you one thing — this is the first time I’m telling that. When I went with Robi to the place that David had been teaching in the yearly date that he get killed, we went to meet the student there. When I get to the library that David was preparing for the student, a good library, and I saw Robi start crying there, I don’t know, it’s strange, that feeling that I got at that moment. I have that feeling that David is telling me, “Take care of my mother.” This is the first time I’m telling that. I never told Robi that. And I think Yusef was so happy that Robi was taking care of me and I really don’t feel this identity when I feel about David, when I feel about Yusef. I don’t feel that. They just put us — by passing away, they put us in this deeply feeling with our humanity. And if people appreciate and if politicians appreciate the life as they appreciate the death, peace will be possible.
MS. TIPPETT: Ali Abu Awwad lives in Beit Umar, in the West Bank. Robi Damelin lives in Tel Aviv. In recent years, Ali has reached out to Palestinian militants and become a voice for Palestinian nonviolent resistance. And the young man who killed Robi’s son did finally write a defiant public response to the letter she sent his family. Her letter back to him includes this line: “If both extremes fear my actions then maybe, just maybe,
I am doing something right.” She’s recently completed a new documentary film about this odyssey.
To listen to this show again, and to watch my unedited conversation with Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, go to onbeing.org.
And my recent interview with vulnerability expert Brené Brown generated a strong response from all kinds of listeners. We’d like to take that further. And so we’re scheduling a Google hangout with Brené Brown. Check in at onbeing.org in coming days for more information. Better yet, get an update automatically when you subscribe to our email newsletter, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter. We’ll share dates and times in all those places and much more as always. The show is @beingtweets. I’m @KristaTippett.
On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell. Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, in honor of Hanukkah, we remember the life and teachings of the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was a 20th-century mystic, a religious prophet, a social activist.