Saturday, April 26, 2008

A big THANK YOU to Cullen Larson, and Catholic Relief Services, for the presentation I witnessed yesterday, for making it possible. Special thanks to Cathy Crosby, head of Pax Christi Atlanta, for all her service. And to all who attended, asked questions, made or brought goodies to eat and
drink. What a day, filled with possibility!

The "he" being Rami Elhanan, the Israeli-Zionist half of a unlikely duo discussing peace in an unexpected place:
a Roman Catholic Church(specifically, at St. Jude the Apostle's events hall known as The Stapleton Center). Elhanan, a 58-year-old graphics designer, began by talking about his father, a Holocaust survivor he called "a graduate of Auschwitz". Both grandparents were killed there.
He spoke of Yom Kippur, the time when tradition calls for Jews to ask God for forgiveness. Elhanan recalled the October 7th offensive, some 34 years tanks became just three, and he became a bitter, though still very young man. He married, had four children.
Just a few days before Yom Kippur, on September 4th, 1997, Elhanan's 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, (the name comes from the Bible's "Song of Solomon", it means "Blossom of the Grapevine" )was walking with several other children to get new books for the school year. Two suicide bombers-- members of Hamas-- ran to the children, blowing themelves up, and killing several children. For a few moments, Elhanan spoke of the agony of not knowing where his daughter was, if she'd been a victim of the latest attack. He discovered she'd been killed, and "saw what I will never forget. That picture will be in my head, forever."
He explained he knew then he had only two choices:
One was to stay angry. Easy to do, as he was furious, ready to kill. The other would require him to stop being angry, to see that more killing would not solve anything. He was not yet ready for that option. When a friend came during the traditional Jewish seven days and seven nights of grief known as Shiva, and suggested to Elhanan he embrace peace, Elhanan was deeply offended. "How dare this man come into my house, after my daughter was murdered, and speak of peace?"
Several weeks later, and Elhanan admits he's not sure why he agreed--perhaps out of curiousity-- he accompianed his peace-loving friend to meet members of a group called The Parents Circle--Families Forum.
"I met people I would never have expected to meet. People who'd lost family members, people active in the Zionist community; I met Yakov Gutterman, the famed Holocaust survivor who lost his son in the first Lebanon war, and later protested the war in Lebanon.I saw and met Palestinian families. Actual human beings, not just workers in the street, or statistics."
He discovered "The power of pain is very powerful, it is like nuclear power. It can be used for darkness, or for good.Violence is not our destiny...Our pain is exactly the same pain. If we who paid the ultimate price, can talk, and do this, surely we can end this."
The Reconciliation offered is one, I think, of coming to terms with, and being in a place of peace even while in the midst of unimaginable loss.
Next to speak was Mazen Faraj, the other half of this odd couple, a Palestinian-Muslim man who grew up with several brothers and sisters in a refugee camp near Bethelem City. Palestinians were allowed no land, no homes. For twelve years, he lived in tents. Later, the U.N. provided small rooms (no matter how large the family, brothers, sisters, parents ware forced to share one or two small rooms). He was angry, and longed to fight against this occupation. In 2002, his 62-year-old father was murdered by Israeli soldiers as he returned from shopping at market, headed home to his children. It was so painful to hear how his entire family was denied even going to see his father's body until the next day. This charismatic young man spoke of his beloved father:
"I saw my father's body, not his father was my father and my mother to me; I lost her when I was six months old. He was my whole family, to me...I wanted to create something new, for him...More violence will never bring my father back...We must have peace, justice. We must end the occupation....The Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, we have to support one another."
Of course, there were plenty of questions from us, the audience. At least two people were very agitated, and somewhat agitating. One was a military fellow who obviously disagreed with "leftist" policies, and he walked out, shortly after the discussion began.The other was a young Jewish man, an American who'd just returned from a trip to Jerusalem, and who repeatedly referred to anyone other than Israelis as "terrorists", until Rami Elhanan reminded him that we cannot keep referring to each other in this way. In referencing suicide bombers-- Hamas-- the people who took his own daughter, Elhanan spoke with a tenderness, a kindness, "Someone who has something to live for, will not commit suicide." And when asked about forgiveness, he added, "I am afraid it's not about forgiveness; the killing of innocents is never forgivable. What you can do is try to find a way out of this violence. It is not forgiveness, it is reconciliation. I call him brother." he said, gesturing, to Mazen Faraj, and cupping his hand.
Elhanan told us that the group to which they belong, The Parents' Circle/Families Forum was chastised by reporters in the media when they gave blood (Palestinians offered blood for banking for injured Jews, and Jews offered blood for banking for needy Palestinians), "But we say
'It is easier to give our blood to others, than to spill it'. "
The group has sponsored many successful projects:
"Hello Peace", which enables, through a simple, 4-digit number, Palestinians and Israelis to speak to one another about their concerns. Many young people are using this as a way of connecting, of making their world a smaller, safer, saner place. Both gentleman go into high-schools in Israel and Palestine and speak to students, who are always grateful, and thank the men for coming. Often, it is the only time they have encountered someone of a different background in a neutral or inclusive setting. They also host Summer Camps, where bereaved families' children play together, talk, and listen to each other, learn one anothers' histories.
"We build a bridge for future generations", offered Mazen Faraj. He added that he is thinking of his younger child, a twenty-month-old daughter. He said three of his brothers, and his wife, and many friends, support his efforts for peace.
In the midst of all this talk of peace, one woman who was in attendance at the event, mentioned she had a friend who'd recently moved to the U.S. from Israel. "Why didn't your friend come?" asked Elhanan.
The woman seemed reluctant to answer, but finally spat out what sentiments her friend held. "I explained to him that there were two speakers. One Israeli, the other Palestinian. He text-messaged me and it read: My wife says one bullet; I say, two." As her words rang through the air, there was a collective gasp of fear, of despair among us. She punctuated this by telling us what her friend told her, after she called him, imploring him to at least come and listen: "The only good Arab, is a dead Arab." Mazen Faraj looked down, closed his eyes for a brief moment, and I saw Rami Elhanan reach for his dear brother's hand. "This is what we are up against. This does not surprise me." he said simply. He went on to tell the woman, "Your friend came here[to the United States]. It is very easy to come here, and let others pay the price. You tell him I said that."
A gentleman in the audience spoke up, saying how brave both men were, doing this.Coming here, going to churches, synagogues, and mosques and high-schools and universities, to show us what can be done to further peace. "Now it is up to you.", said Elhanan. Both men said they expected us to tell of what we'd just heard.
So I am doing that. The link for more information on the group they have joined, together, as brothers, is:

I'll leave you with the first words Elhanan spoke, as he introduced himself:"I am an Israeli, a Jew, a Zionist. But most of all, first of all, I am a human being."
More information on this appearance can be found by going to:


Ellen (an Arab in a past life...) said...

A very vivid account; reading it made me feel like I was there. Though it's sad to think of what both of them have gone through, it's great that they've bonded--and made a movie about it. Mashallah, there is hope!

Lisa Allender said...

Hi Ellen--THANK YOU for the word-up!Hey--your website is coool! I'm adding you to my list of Bloggers/Poets/writers, okay?

Selma said...

I almost think that peace could be possible after reading this. To deal with their pain with such grace and to not let it consume them makes those people inspirational. Now I feel quite emotional - and hopeful.

Lisa Allender said...

I believe anything is possible with BELIEF, with FAITH--faith in ourselves, in something greater than us. Our religious/spiritual traditions may differ, but we all are connected, and it is the search for common ground which will help bond us, just as their unspeakable losses were fertile common ground for these two men, and others, to unite.