Israeli and Palestinian pair advocate fostering peace between neighbors

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Rami Elhanan, 72, and Bassam Aramin, 54, seem as different as two people can be. Elhanan is a graphic designer and a seventh-generation Israeli, while Aramin is Palestinian and was once a member of a revolutionary group. But both have one thing in common that has brought them together, and that is their experiences with loss.

(Courtesy)

While the murders of Elhanan’s 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, and Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, could have set the two men on a path of revenge, their shared grief led them on a different path: one of reconciliation. They work to foster goodwill among neighbors as part of the Parents’ Circle-Families Forum and Combatants for Peace.

The men recently spoke as part of a Zoom event sponsored by Beth Israel Congregation, where they shared their life stories, as well as answered questions from congregants and other guests about their cause. Moderated by David Madoff of the Center for Lifelong Learning Committee, it drew about 60 viewers.

“[Bassam] is the closest person to me on earth — closer than some of my own family,” said Elhanan, who calls Aramin his brother. “I respect him and look up to him.”

Elhanan served in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where he lost some of his best friends. Angry and embittered by his experience, he swore himself off from any political involvement in the future.

That all changed on Sept. 4, 1997. Elhanan’s youngest daughter, Smadar (named for a verse of the “Song of Solomon,” meaning “The Grape of the Vine”) was one of five people killed in a suicide bombing carried out by two Palestinians. She and her friends had gone to Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem to buy books on the first day of school.

Elhanan’s anger returned with his grief, but this time he was unsure of what to do about it.
“You have to make a decision: What are you going to do with this anger?” he asked during the event at Beth Israel. “Will killing anyone bring her back? Will causing pain to someone else ease your own? The other option is much more difficult: trying to understand what happened.”

Elhanan began to question his feelings towards the Palestinians when he attended a Palestinian bereavement service, where he was moved by their grief and the camaraderie they exhibited. They, too, had lost loved ones in the conflict.

“I was 47 years old,” related Elhanan. “It was the first time in my life I saw Palestinians not as enemies, not as terrorists, not as workers in the streets. But as human beings who carried the same burden I carried.”

‘To be against injustice’

Aramin, on the other hand, was involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict from a much younger age.

“According to the Israeli regime, you are a criminal by virtue of being Palestinian,” he said.

When he was 12, Aramin witnessed a soldier shooting a Palestinian boy at a demonstration. Angered and affected by what he had seen, he joined a small revolutionary group made up of other Palestinian teenagers.

At age 17, he was given a seven-year sentence for throwing discarded hand grenades he and his group had found in a cave at Israeli Jeeps.

While in prison, Aramin watched “Schindler’s List” and started learning about the Holocaust. Like many Palestinians at the time, he had believed that it was all a “big lie,” but the film moved him. He wanted to know more, and when he was released, he went on to study history and earn a master’s degree in Holocaust studies from the University of Bradford in England. During this time, he also married and had six children.

In 2005, Aramin founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former IDF soldiers and Palestinian fighters, which is where he and Elhanan first met. Two years later, his daughter Abir was shot by a member of the Israeli Border Police while standing outside of her school (she was born in 1997, the same year Smadar was killed). Instead of seeking revenge, Aramin turned to what he had learned.

The two found solidarity in each other and have worked together ever since.

Elhanan and Aramin stress that they are not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine but pro-peace, and encourage allies to show their support as well.

Elhanan stressed: “We demand for people to be against injustice.”

Speaking to attendees who most likely have had little experience with Palestinians, Aramin said: “I hope you can see me now.”

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