Our Visit to Israel and Palestine
In April Pat Magee and I (Jo Berry) went to Israel and Palestine for a 8 days speaking tour.
It was a huge success with a mixture of talks and workshops, visiting projects and many meetings. We spoke to some groups which were just Israeli, some just Palestinian and some with participants from both communities. We also spoke to a leading newspaper and a internet media and we were told that, ‘I’m pretty confident we've reached tens of thousands Israelis, possibly hundreds of thousands with your thought provoking and inspiring story.’
The first talk was with Combatants for Peace in Beit Jala in Palestine. The Everest hotel is one which is supportive to the aims of dialogue and was the perfect place for us to speak. The participants ranged from young people new to the group to older ones who had founded it. We had a translator and had 2 hours plus time for informal conversation. We learnt about the many challenges the group face every day, even the two groups meeting in the same place brings problems. The hardest challenge is of being non violent when violence is used against them.
As a member of Combatants for Peace, a bi-national movement of Israelis and Palestinians who believe in non-violent resistance to the occupation, meeting Jo and Pat was inspiring and valuable. Having heard over the past few years so many stories of similar Israeli/Palestinian "conversions", I think that I may have been slightly wary of the cliches to which such stories tend to be reduced, especially when the speakers have given the talk so often. What particularly impressed me, then, was that there were no cliches, that they both put forth profound and complex views, all clearly well thought-out and deeply thought-provoking, and at no point did one get the sense that one was hearing a well-rehearsed performance, but rather an ongoing and evolving dynamic in which nothing is simple. It was especially valuable, as someone immersed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to have the opportunity to look at ourselves from the outside, which affords important perspective - and also a modicum of hope.
The next day we went to Tel Aviv and spent the day with Parents Circle, all there had lost a loved one and it was an emotional intense talk. Some of the participants shared their personal stories and lack of justice and how they did receive so much solace and inspiration from working with the community from which the person who killed their loved one came from. Robi Damelin spoke that the man who killed her son is in jail but that gives her no comfort or closure at all. She has written to him and has even empathized with his experience. Robi has yet to have a personal dialogue with him but is on her journey with her wish for dialogue and she inspires many with her ability to see the humanity of the ‘other’.
Thank-you so much, Jo and Pat, for the opportunity for us to hear your words, your experiences, your feelings and your optimism for the future. You have no idea how rare it is for us here in Israel to sit before people such as yourselves and to hear the story, the evolution of your project, the goals and the vision and not find yourself in the heat of a volatile political argument with no side really hearing the other! Your story, along with the way you present it and offer it to us for reaction and identification, is a rare gem in the jungle of violence, animosity and "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth". By coming all this way to share your experiences, along with the deep-seated emotions that they evoke, you have performed a most noble act of true humanistic education, a voice of hope, reconciliation and of peace.
Our next day was with Palestinians who showed us different projects and we spent time at Ibraham's Tent at Al Aubaydiah in Palestine speaking to the teachers and community leaders, learning about their challenges and successes. Each child has lost a parent and we were entertained by amazing dancing and singing from the children.The day ended with a meeting with Israeli combatants for peace who shared their stories of how they are being creative to address the challenges without using violence.
The next evening we visited Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam community and met Palestinians and Israelis living together. We spoke to the inspiring Sulha Peace project. In the workshop everyone had a chance in small groups to speak of times when they have hurt people. I will never forget the Palestinian sharing a experience of going through a checkpoint with his 7 year old son and the events which unfolded. It is these everyday stories for them which touched me so greatly.. The meeting strengthened the participants desire to work non-violently for a better future.
There are lessons in Pat and Jo's story in which we all found resonance. The evening with them was precious, profound.
The authenticity in the style of both Jo and Pat, their quiet humility combined with the clarity of their narrative, all join to make their presentation as moving and meaningful as it is. We are looking forward to our next encounter with them, and we will gladly reach out to other Palestinian and Israeli audiences on behalf of Jo and Pat.
The next day we spoke at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, The Minerva Center for Human Rights, to students who were going to go ot Belfast in the Summer. We spoke of the work in reconciliation happening in Northern Ireland and there were some very interesting questions relating to politicians moving from being activists to peace makers.
In the evening we met 8 Israeli young peace activists from OneVoice who said for now they weren’t meeting their Palestinian counterparts because of the dangers of ‘normalistion’. This was a new concept to us and meant that if Palestinians and Israelis were meeting and having dialogue then it was a way of saying that the situation with the imbalance of power was ok and becoming ‘normal’. Not all think this but we did find it in some groups. The group was small and intimate and gave us to time to go deeply into our process and hear their stories of being in the army, then changing and becoming involved with OneVoice. Afterwards we went to a bar in a busy market part of Jerusalem and gave a public talk in a bar. The bar was a very unusual environment as it was open from the road and packed with young Israelis. At first we thought the environment was more suited to drinking and talking and that we wouldn’t be able to talk but instead the listening was tangible and the questions deep and profound. Afterwards we spent a couple of hours talking to different people and hearing their responses.
The next day we went to Haifa and first spoke to another small group of OneVoice activists who were very interested in learning from our experience. Then we moved to the University to speak to students studying peace studies but open to all students. .We had some students leave the room with a lot of noise and that was the first time it happened. One of the questions was asking how on earth we could empathise with the Palestinians.
We ended up taking a taxi back to Jerusalem via Tel Aviv and picked up Bassam Aramin, from Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle-Family Forum, who sat in the back with me. The journey was long due to traffic and I had a gem of an opportunity to be with my friend and in my mind the most inspiring man of peace that I know. He shared how he was speaking with Israeli soldiers who were about to start their service, sharing his story of his daughter being killed by a soldier and how he works with Combatants for peace and Parents Circle. He also shared how he explained to others the narrative of the Jews and how it was wrong to compare the Palestinian experience with the experience of the Holocaust as the level of suffering and horror for the Jews was so much greater. He exudes empathy and compassion and has so much humanity.
Then we spoke at Kids4peace which builds bridges between Palestinian & Israeli youth and their families, across the greater Jerusalem area. It was a mixed group with children there as well Very profound and moving experience. The kids asked incredible direct and powerful questions such as How can we forgive the violence done to us in Gaza when we have no justice. The Palestinian families had to leave first because again the problems of check points and some Israelis young people had to travel far and they too had a checkpoint. The commitment of these young people was extraordinary and very moving.
I can’t thank you enough for what the both of you give.It is beyond words. I know you work hard at thinking of the right words to say at the right occasion. And each time you find different words, different emotions to convey. But in addition to that level of sharing, there is also the non verbal.
What Ibrahim, hassan’s father shared. He just wanted to watch the both of you sitting there.That was enough for him to take in. he just couldn’t soak up enough the image of both of you sitting next to each other. That was totally sufficient for him. He filled up just trying to absorb the image that his eyes were sending to his brain. That two enemies were sitting together. that is what he wanted to say and share.
But then when he saw his son Hassan, raise his hand twice, and share his incredibly profound questions and thinking on identity , he decided to take the back seat ( so humbly and appropriately) to allow his son to take the floor with his words. I find it fascinating that father and son were present in the room, so taken by your power. The model that you offer. The father internalized your sharing in images on the nonverbal channel. His son found his need to ask questions verbally to understand and articulate. And we are all left with so much to think about.
We spent the next day in Ramallah with the Palestinian youth worker from One Voice. He showed us around the area, stopping at important landmarks as well as refugee camps and settler villages. We spoke to Palestinians who came from all over and also got to hear their stories. It impacted on us that for some of the Palestinians who had come from Jenin and Hebron and had difficulties arriving in time because of the time it takes to cross a checkpoint. Some of them were also worried about the time they had to leave so they could get back in time to cross the check point again. We heard so many stories of them seeing loved ones being killed in front of them and the depth of trauma in the room was tangible. And yet they were all so committed to non violence.
I have come back so grateful and touched by the experience. There are so many amazing people on both sides working together to make a difference, bringing hope into a challenging place, giving us examples how non violence can be developed and be creative.
We could have filled the 8 days many times over and am still getting emails from people who heard us speak. It was a massive success and you can gather from the feedback we did make a positive impact.
There was also a journey within a journey as Pat and I have never spent so much time together without others around. We had to rely on each other for support an also navigating our way through check points, finding the right bus, dealing with getting lost on the last day and nearly missing our plane. We not only survived every challenge but we also deepened our trust in each other and had more understanding of our process through having our journey reflected back from the Israelis and Palestinians.
At times I thought how can our story and work make a difference here but time after time I heard that because we come from a different conflict our story can connect them to their story, to their humanity and give them hope. We did share of the process we had been through and the difficulties we have had. We spoke about the legacy of violence which made a big impression on the young Palestinians. Many times we were asked to give solution to their problems and each time we said we did not have solutions; we had come to share and to learn. I was told after such a question that of we had tried to give a solution we would have been attacked by all. I suspect that people often visit with their own solutions whist the truth is that the answers come from within the communities. Yet the international community can do much to put pressure on the Israeli Government and to show support for those working from both communities non violently.
I would love to visit again, building on our work there and learning from our experience. Next time I would not arrange so many talks as it did stretch us too much, yet I regret nothing as each day was a privilege and I am still so full of our time there. I have spoken since then about 10 times and each time I have shared stories from our time there.