A man and a woman sit next to each other, looking solemn
Robi Damelin and Mazen Faraj of Parents Circle-Families Forum speak in San Francisco (Photo/Dan Pine)

In S.F., grieving Israeli and Palestinian parents share tales of loss

Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Mazen Faraj were all smiles as they greeted their San Francisco audience. But the smiles faded as they told their personal stories of loss, heartbreak and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Both are representatives of Parents Circle-Families Forum, a nonprofit based in Tel Aviv and the West Bank. It’s made up of 600 bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the conflict.

Damelin’s son died at the hands of a Palestinian sniper in 2002 while serving in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces. Faraj’s father died the same year, shot by an Israeli soldier.

Both chose to work through their grief, not by thirsting for revenge but by working for peace and dialogue between the two peoples. That led them to Parents Circle, and they’ve been making appearances around the world ever since.

The pair spoke Nov. 8 at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation as part of a Bay Area swing sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and its Invest in Peace program.

“The only thing we can do is touch your feelings, touch your heart,” said Faraj, who lives in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem.

He grew up being taught all Palestinian suffering stemmed from the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” as the Arab world calls the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. As a teen, he participated in the 1987 intifada and spent time in Israeli jails. In 2002, he and his family got the word his father had been killed by an Israeli soldier.

“Nothing was normal for me anymore from that time until now,” he said.

A friend persuaded him to attend a meeting of a family bereavement group that was made up jointly of Israelis and Palestinians. At first he didn’t wish to “speak with my enemies,” but in time he realized he had been living with a “mentality of victimhood. It doesn’t mean I forgive or forget what happened in my life, but to start a new journey to reconcile with my history. A journey of listening.”

Damelin, meanwhile, grew up fighting apartheid in her native South Africa. She moved to Israel in 1987, married and had two sons. One day she received a call from her son, David, who was manning a checkpoint during reserve duty. “We’re sitting ducks here,” he told her. The next day he was killed.

Like Faraj, Damelin began attending Parents Circle meetings, where she got to hear from Palestinian mothers who had also lost sons. “I realized,” she said, “we shared the same pain.”

Both Damelin and Faraj conceded that Parents Circle has not turned its Israeli and Palestinian members into best friends, but they hope their example of finding common ground will move the needle on the moribund peace process.

“There is too much fear-mongering,” Damelin said, “a total cut-off between Israelis and Palestinians. There has to be a framework for a reconciliation process. Otherwise it’s just a ceasefire until the next time.”

Faraj said many of his Palestinian friends, family and neighbors don’t agree with his involvement with Parents Circle. “It’s not easy to live under occupation and suddenly believe in peace,” he said. “You have to give [people] tools to practice peace. I have to be ready to answer questions from my kids, so they will grow up without hatred.”

Because the Trump administration recently blocked funding for foreign aid programs that cross the so-called Green Line into Palestinian territories, federal support for Parents Circle is about to drop precipitously. Both speakers made an appeal for financial support.

During the Q&A session, Damelin was asked whether she supports BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. She said no. “I don’t want to bring Israel to its knees,” she added. “I want to bring Israel to its senses.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.