We wondered what to call this show, and how to signal straight away that this is not another version of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian story to which we've all become accustomed from the news. Neither is it a touchy-feely story of isolated good will. This story is fiercely human, admitting grief while also yielding to joy, and it is all the more hopeful for its origins in the hard ground of reality.
I first learned about Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad — and decided I must find a way to interview them — through a riveting documentary film, Encounter Point, in which they both appear. It focuses on the often-ignored human dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular on the work of the Parents Circle - Bereaved Families Forum, a gathering network of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the crisis between their peoples.
I finally sat down with them in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they were attending a conference on global models of "restorative justice." As fellow activists, these two are a striking pair. She is in her early 60s, beautiful and tough. He is in his early 30s, wry and slightly on guard. Together they have crisscrossed Israeli-Palestinian borders and several countries to tell what they have learned: that in relationships between nations as well as people, it is more important (and more exacting) to be honest than to be right; that work of reconciliation can and must begin in each life, and that the wounds we carry from conflict can become something other than a reason for retaliation and continued conflict. They can be turned into the most tenacious human bond and force, as Robi Damelin puts it, for stopping the killing.
We live in a time when cynicism about government abounds. Even democratic elections are too often tainted by faulty processes or yield results altogether antithetical to peace. Echoing many others, Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad say that peace initiatives in their land, such as the Oslo Process, have failed because they focused almost exclusively on government-to-government contacts. And in recent years, both Palestinian and Israeli governments have acted increasingly unilaterally, saying they have no legitimate, willing conversation partner on the other side.
But I leave this conversation feeling that I'd also unconsciously come to think about democracy from the top down. In contrast, Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad are part of a web of courageous human beings who are not simply advocating but living change from the ground up. This is democracy below the radar screen — Israelis and Palestinians who've suffered the worst of the conflict between their peoples and are taking matters into their own hands towards a different future. And they are surely onto something. In addition to their work in schools and media, the Parents Circle - Bereaved Families Forum set up a telephone line for Israelis and Palestinians to speak with someone on the other side, perhaps for the first time ever. Over a million calls have taken place.
Their strongest advice for the rest of us is captured in the program title to which we finally came: "No More Taking Sides." These two individuals, like their peoples, have identities rooted in larger human dramas and history that set them in ever-renewed cycles of opposition. And they say that even the best-intentioned Western advocacy — religious or secular, "pro-Palestinian" or "pro-Israeli" — all too often becomes another wedge for maintaining crisis. They implore us to look, instead, for ways to support reconciliation, to undergird projects that bring people together and that nurture a deep desire and longing for peace that abounds across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
The core approach of the encounters that have set Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad on a different path is also at the core of our conversations on Speaking of Faith week after week. We draw out real human stories and voices in order to humanize vast ideas and issues that can otherwise become hopelessly — and dangerously — abstracted. When applied to a situation like conflict in the Holy Land, this opens up not only a place of rare human connection but a whole new vista of history. I will never again be able to hear the well-worn words "Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and not imagine, behind the violent pictures and intractable politics, these two human beings embodying another reality.