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Bereavement unites Palestinian and Israeli parents

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel –As a result of a chance encounter at Lod airport at the beginning of the year I met Robi Damelin, spokesperson for the Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum, the group uniting Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families in an effort to attain peace, reconciliation and tolerance.

Robi was struggling with a huge poster advertising an exhibition of cartoons about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to be held in London the following week. We helped her with her package, and as we were also on our way to London she invited us to attend the opening of the exhibition. 

Robi is obviously a woman of character. Born in South Africa, where she was involved in the struggle against apartheid, she immigrated to Israel as a young woman. After her son was killed by a sniper while in the IDF reserves she resolved not to let his death serve as a lever for stirring up calls for revenge, and was instrumental in bringing together bereaved families from both sides. In the course of her campaign to spread the message of conciliation she has traveled all over the world, speaking in synagogues, schools and even mosques, receiving a warm welcome wherever she goes.

The exhibition, which was curated by leading Israeli cartoonist, Michel Kishka, was hosted by St. Martin in the Fields church. The cartoons, most of them sharply critical of the impasse in the Middle East and the toll it has taken on human life, came from all over the world, though they all refrained from simply blaming one side or the other.

The Bereaved Families Forum, www.theparentscircle.org, which now numbers some 500 families, engages in educational activities to promote dialogue and understanding between the two communities through outreach to high schools on both sides, bi-national youth leaders’ seminars, an internet reconciliation programme and workshops and a phone line through which individuals can pick up the phone and talk to someone on ‘the other side.’ Since 2002 it has facilitated over one million phone calls between Palestinians and Israelis.

In addition, a group of Israeli and Palestinian bereaved women was established in 2006. It meets several times a year, bringing into the Forum many new female members who feel more at ease with ‘women only’ activities. The women cook and travel together, hold empowerment workshops and visit one another’s homes 

About one hundred and fifty people attended the opening of the exhibition, which was sponsored by the UK Friends of the Forum, World Vision and Christian Aid and has been displayed in New York, Spain, Italy and Israel, amongst others. Moving speeches were made by Robi and her Palestinian counterpart, Seham Abu Awad, as well as addresses by the vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields and a rabbi. The vicar read out a message of support from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the rabbi passed on the good wishes of the Chief Rabbi.

My favourite cartoon was one by South African cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro. It showed terrorists wearing face-masks and keffiyas, Israeli soldiers in tanks and soldiers from India and Pakistan beneath missiles all stopping whatever militant or military action they were engaged in to focus on a TV set and raise their arms as they all stood side by side shouting ‘Gooooal!’

The throng at the opening night inspected the cartoons, smiled at some and shook their heads at others. Everyone there was united in regretting the terrible waste of human life and resources that the conflict has produced. A calendar containing a selection of the cartoons as well as other literature went on sale and business was brisk, but the tragic bottom line is that the organization’s membership is still growing.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

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