MILWAUKEE — Theirs was a message of peace, despite living with the most unspeakable pain – an ache brought on by violence.
They were unlikely visitors to Wisconsin, Bassam Aramin and Robi Damelin, grieving Palestinian and Israeli parents, respectively.
Damelin is an Israeli mother, her son David killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. Aramin is a Palestinian father, his daughter Abir killed in 2007 by Israeli border police. They came to Milwaukee to speak and answer questions at a University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee ballroom on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, representing the Parents Circle, a self-described grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis supporting peace, reconciliation and tolerance as an alternative to hatred and revenge.
The event, a pair of speeches and a Q&A, was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and several campus organizations, including Hillel Milwaukee, the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. The evening was part of the “Let’s Talk Israel” series, intended by the Federation’s Council and Israel Center to serve as a comprehensive yearlong project to increase opportunities for thoughtful and civil conversations about Israel.
For the visiting parents, who came to the United States to promote Steps4Peace.org and their message (Next stops: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then Tufts University in the Boston area), peace is to be achieved through mutual understanding. Their goal is our collective comprehension of one another as human beings.
Damelin visits Israeli classrooms as part of her work with the Parents Circle. She said she finds teenagers who have traveled overseas but have never actually talked with a Palestinian.
“This is probably one of the main causes of the conflict — that we don’t know each other,” she told a room of more than 100 people. “There is almost a total cutoff.”
Aramin said he spent seven years in Israeli jails, starting with when he raised a Palestinian flag, which he said was illegal at the time.
“It’s a long seven years. It’s very difficult to change your mind from violence to non-violence,” he said, but he added that it’s possible.
“There is a German ambassador in Tel Aviv and there is an Israeli ambassador in Germany. We can do it.”
Aramin, in fact, said he watched a movie about the Holocaust in jail and at first “enjoyed this movie as a kind of revenge.” But then he found himself crying.
“I wanted to learn more about this Holocaust, to see if it’s really true,” he said, and as he learned he realized that he, too, is a victim of the Holocaust.
Damelin feels the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is “a political conflict, not a religion one.”
“It’s occupation – economic, land – but absolutely not a religious conflict.”
Questions were passed up to the moderator, Assistant Director Douglas Savage, of the Institute of World Affairs at UWM, on note cards. He asked, “Would there be peace if the occupation were to end tomorrow?”
“There would be a ceasefire if the occupation were to end tomorrow,” said Damelin, adding that there would still need to be a reconciliation. “If the occupation doesn’t end eventually it will be the end of Israel. It’s just a matter of time.”
“You cannot occupy a country without it affecting your moral fiber,” she said, indicating that car accidents, abuse of alcohol and other issues among Israelis are all related to the stress of the occupation.
Aramin discussed the difficulties faced by Palestinians, saying they can wait hours at a checkpoint to get to work.
“We need to share this land as one state, two states, five states,” he said.
“I want to say something about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. What you are doing is importing our conflict into your country,” Damelin said. “Become part of the solution, not the problem.”
Students took the suggestion to heart. After the event, students lingered in the ballroom and made plans for a joint event between Students Supporting Israel at UWM and Students for Justice in Palestine.
“It got us talking,” said Nicole Gorelick, 20, a UWM junior and president of Students Supporting Israel at UWM; they discussed co-hosting a video about the conflict that shows both sides.
“It’s important to recognize that you can support Israel without always supporting what the government does,” she said.
Some Palestinians attended the event, including Ahmad Ewis, a 19-year-old UWM chemical engineering student and Sujoud Badwan, a 21-year-old nursing student at Cardinal Stritch University. She said it was good to “see how both sides can feel for each other.” Ewis agreed, saying he “could actually feel their chemistry.”
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About the “Bird of Peace”
“Taking Steps in the Path of Peace” is a project that encourages Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost loved ones in the conflict to bond together through embroidery work. It is a project of the Parents Circle, a self-described grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis supporting peace, reconciliation and tolerance as an alternative to hatred and revenge. The group is selling the “Bird of Peace,” sewn by Israeli and Palestinian women. The embroidery work and more information is available at Steps4Peace.org and TheParentsCircle.com.
About the visit
The UWM event was one in a series of meetings that the Jewish Community Relations Council arranged, including presentations to law students at Marquette University Law School, at Rufus King High School and at Congregation Sinai in Fox Point, plus a dialogue with religious and civic leaders. The visit was funded by an anonymous gift through the Jewish Community Foundation of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.