Born in Amsterdam, I moved to Israel as a teenager. I studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and met an Israeli fellow student who later became my husband. I remember my student days as a hopeful time. My friends were mostly idealistic left-wing activists who agitated for peace. We volunteered for human-rights organizations that defended the rights of Palestinians; we protested the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza; and we joined the demonstrations of the Peace Now movement. We celebrated when Yitzhak Rabin, a Labor Party politician and a former general, won the 1992 election for prime minister on a platform that promised peace negotiations. A year later Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), reached a tentative agreement known as the Oslo Accords. That’s when my husband and I moved to the United States for graduate studies. We were sad to leave Israel at such a historic moment, but we looked forward to returning to a new, more peaceful Middle East after we graduated. This never happened. In 1995 Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist determined to prevent any compromises with Israel’s “enemies.” Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party became prime minister; the Islamic militant organization Hamas gained influence in the Palestinian territories; and the peace negotiations reached a stalemate.
My husband and I found jobs in the U.S. and established roots here, but we always dream that one day we will return to Israel. We go back every year to visit family and friends, but they tell us the situation is bleak. Without any solution in sight, Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews are increasingly unwilling to compromise. In the 2015 elections, Israelis voted into power one of the nation’s most right-wing governments in history. Ideals my friends and I used to denounce as dangerous fanaticism have become mainstream, and the peace I had hoped for is farther away than ever.
During my last visit “home,” I found two voices of hope: Bassam Aramin, a Muslim Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, a Jewish Israeli. The men first met in 2005 at a small gathering of former fighters — both Israeli and Palestinian — who wanted to form a partnership for peace. Even though Elhanan had fought in the Yom Kippur War as a young man and Aramin had spent seven years in prison for attacking Israeli troops as a teenager, they felt an affinity for each other and eventually became close friends. They share a commitment to nonviolence and are active members of Combatants for Peace, the organization that grew out of that unlikely meeting eleven years ago.
Elhanan was also a member of the Bereaved Families Forum, a peace organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members in the conflict. Elhanan’s involvement resulted from a personal tragedy in 1997, when his fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in a street mall in Jerusalem. In 2007, two years after meeting Elhanan, Aramin also experienced tragedy, when his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier after she had left school. Aramin then joined the Bereaved Families Forum as well.
Both of the organizations in which Aramin and Elhanan are active — the Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace — promote peace by exposing Palestinians and Israelis to each other’s narratives. This is crucial, they believe, because at the heart of this seemingly intractable conflict between two nations is an unwillingness to allow for the other’s narrative about the land they inhabit.
It can be said that the conflict started at the end of the nineteenth century, when secular European Jews came up with the idea of creating a homeland for Jews fleeing persecution. They chose the area now known as Israel and called their new political ideology Zionism, after the region’s biblical name: Zion. The local Arab population knew the land by a different name: Palestine.
After the British occupied the land in 1917, they encouraged Jewish immigration, a policy that brought about tension between Jews and Arabs. In November 1947 the United Nations voted to divide the land between Jews and Palestinians, and civil war broke out. Half a year later a coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — declared war on Israel. The fighting forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to abandon their homes and become refugees; the Israeli army later razed most of their villages. Palestinians refer to these events as Al Nakba, or “the Catastrophe.” Israelis refer to them as the War of Independence.
The plo was established in 1964 with the goal of taking back all Palestinian lands under Jewish control. In 1967 another war — the Six-Day War — broke out between Israel and its neighbors. Israel defeated the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Some Israelis saw this as an opportunity to expand their presence in the Holy Land and established Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, with the support of the Israeli government. Unlike the settlers, who are protected by the Israeli army, the local Palestinians have no citizenship rights.
In 2005 Israeli Prime Minister Arik Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle the Jewish settlements there, but life for Palestinians there did not improve: Israel controls Gaza’s borders and enforces strict travel restrictions. More recently, when the 2006 Palestinian elections brought Gaza under the control of Hamas — which is deemed a terrorist organization by the Israeli and U.S. governments — Israel imposed sanctions that plunged the population into extreme poverty.
Of course, this summary is a gross simplification. The narrative of the conflict can be told from many points of view: the narrative of Palestinians who remained in the Jewish-controlled territory and became citizens of the State of Israel; the narrative of Palestinians who live as refugees all over the world; the narrative of the Middle Eastern Jews who were expelled from their Arab homelands and arrived in Israel after 1948; the narrative of ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist Jews who believe it is sacrilegious for Jews to create their own state without divine intervention; the narrative of Muslim Palestinians who want to create an Islamic state; the narrative of secular Palestinians who want to create a modern Palestinian democracy; the narrative of those who believe it is possible to reach a peaceful solution by dividing the land; and the narrative of those who believe the conflict can never be resolved peacefully because the “enemy” will not compromise or honor any agreement. Ultimately, there may be as many narratives as there are people.
The underlying goal of Aramin’s and Elhanan’s work is to help Palestinians and Israelis realize that, even if their stories differ, a mutually acceptable compromise must be reached to end the violence.
Aramin has been awarded the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, and he and Elhanan together earned the Leibowitz Prize for Public Activism. They are featured in the 2012 documentary Within the Eye of the Storm. In September 2016 Elhanan became director of the Bereaved Families Forum.
I came to Elhanan and Aramin because I needed hope. I feel guilty for having chosen the security of the U.S. instead of standing by those in Israel who continue to promote peace against all odds. I love Israel and care about its future, but I am no longer optimistic. Aramin told me it’s easy to give up hope when a problem doesn’t affect you personally, and I agree. Living in comfort in Vermont, I don’t have the right to be discouraged about the prospect of peace in Israel and Palestine.
Elhanan was born in 1949 in Jerusalem. His father, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz, arrived in Israel as an eighteen-year-old orphan, having lost most of his family in the Holocaust. His Jewish mother was a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Elhanan is married to Nurit Peled, the daughter of the late Mati Peled, a prominent Israeli general and left-wing politician. I met Elhanan at a cafe in the Emek Refaim neighborhood in Jerusalem. The interview was conducted in Hebrew, which I’ve translated into English.
Hertog: How did you get involved with the Bereaved Families Forum?
Elhanan: Until I was forty-five, I lived in a bubble. When my daughter, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber, my bubble was blown up, and I was forced to take account of my life.
My friends can’t believe that I am the same person now. I used to be a cynic because of my trauma from the Yom Kippur War. I lost some of my best friends in that war, and I was lucky to survive. I came out with PTSD, nightmares, and an absolute cynicism about everything. The war was such a difficult experience that I built this wall to protect myself. I hid in my career as a graphic designer, and I refused to be identified politically or to allow myself to have hope.
Hertog: Because when you have hope, you can be disappointed?
Elhanan: That’s right.
Hertog: So what happened when Smadar was killed?
Elhanan: After her funeral I thought I could return to normal and keep my grief private, but I couldn’t. I was no longer the same person. My meeting with Yitzhak Frankenthal [founder of the Bereaved Families Forum] changed my life. The first time he approached me, just after Smadar’s death, I assumed he was a religious settler, because he looked the part with his knitted yarmulke [skullcap] and his beard. I got angry, because I thought he wanted to exploit my grief for his cause. But later he told me about his son, Arik, who had been kidnapped and killed by Hamas, and he invited me to join the Bereaved Families Forum. I was curious, so I went to a meeting. I realized I had completely misjudged Frankenthal.
I was in my forties then, and I am ashamed to admit that it was the first time I’d seen Palestinians as human beings who suffer like me, not as laborers or terrorists. Since then, I have been dedicated to spreading a message of peace. That meeting gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It has given some meaning to the awful, senseless murder of Smadar, too.
I don’t want to win or be right. I just tell my own story: My daughter was killed because of this situation. I want to prevent this from happening to others. How can we do that?
Hertog: So you were a member of the Bereaved Families Forum before you became involved with Combatants for Peace?
Elhanan: Yes, I have been a member of the forum for seventeen years. When Smadar was killed, my oldest son, Elik, was at the end of his military service. After leaving the army, he traveled in Asia, and when he came back, he joined the forum. In 2002 he signed the Combatants Letter [a public letter signed by Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories], and he joined The Courage to Refuse, an organization of Israeli soldiers who oppose the occupation. Then, in 2005, Elik and some other members of The Courage to Refuse initiated contact with some Palestinians who were members of Fatah [the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization]. The first meeting took place at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala [a town in the West Bank]. There were seven Israelis who had been in elite combat units and four Palestinians. That was the beginning of Combatants for Peace.
It’s amazing to see how our organization has grown. One of the most impressive accomplishments of Combatants for Peace is the yearly Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony. It started with two hundred people, and this year an event in Tel Aviv was attended by several thousand.
Hertog: Is Elik still involved?
Elhanan: Elik now lives in New York City. He completed his PhD and teaches Yiddish and Hebrew at the City College there. It was very difficult for him not to return to Israel — his heart is here — but there’s no work in academia. Though he stays in contact, he is less closely involved with Combatants for Peace.
My youngest son, Yigal, who is twenty-two, is very involved. Last month he went to Belgium to speak for the forum along with Bassam Aramin’s son Arab, who is also twenty-two.
Hertog: So your families are close?
Elhanan: Very close. We often visit each other. On January 16, 2007, ten years after Smadar’s death, we were told that Bassam’s daughter, Abir, had been shot by an Israeli soldier. My wife, Nurit Peled, and I immediately went to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, where Abir was hospitalized. We all sat for two days by her bed while she died. For me, it was as if I’d lost my daughter a second time. It was . . . this ultimate hopelessness and despair, and it made me angry. We stood outside the emergency room and wondered what to do next. And I remember Bassam said, “God is testing us.” I envied him that he could find solace in religion at a time like that. Bassam is a religious man, while I am not. As long as there are people like him, people who carry light in them, it’s not all dark and hopeless.
Hertog: Actually one of the reasons I came to you is because I’m looking for hope. Right now I feel despair about the future of Israel. Since you are continuing to dedicate yourself to peace despite your own tragedy, I thought maybe you could inspire me.
Elhanan: Nowadays everyone is hopeless. It’s fashionable to have no hope. People wave their despair as if it were some kind of flag. You can’t live like that, especially if, like me, you have already experienced the worst. You can’t just give up because the world is terrible. You have to find hope in small things.
The forum does hundreds of presentations in schools. If one child responds positively to our message, I consider it a miracle. According to Judaism, to prevent the spilling of one drop of blood counts the same as saving the whole world. This morning, for example, a student sent me an e-mail saying I had shown him light in the darkness. That was from a boy in a military-preparatory course. These kids are idealistic and committed, but they know nothing. They are the product of indoctrination by the Israeli educational system. You should have seen these students: the tension, the emotions, the anger. They have rarely interacted with Palestinians and have learned to see them all as terrorists and criminals. It’s a shock for them to consider a different narrative. Bassam, who was with me, succeeded in breaking down their defenses and showed them an image of a Palestinian who is not a victim or an enemy, but who also does not surrender his pride. After a meeting like that, those kids did not walk out the same as they came in. They will continue thinking, and they will talk at home about what they have heard. That’s the work we do. There are no shortcuts. We change the narrative, person by person.
One of the kids who was about to enlist in the army took me aside at the end of the workshop and asked if I thought he should become a conscientious objector.
If you give people respect, and you give them a reason to get up in the morning and a future for their children, then they won’t have the incentive to become suicide bombers.
Hertog: How did you respond?
Elhanan: I told him my own story: How I was a soldier during the Yom Kippur War, but when my son Yigal wanted to join a combat unit in the army — the way most ambitious Israeli teenagers do — I did not like it. We had a huge fight, because the social pressure to join a combat unit is enormous. Poor Yigal was torn. All the men in our family had been in combat units: his brothers, his grandfather, me. But I opposed it because I think that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] today sometimes behaves like a terrorist organization.
When I say this to kids, they are shocked because it is blasphemy to say that in Israel. They react with great anger, but I try to avoid getting into arguments. I just put my own wounds out in the open. I tell them: This is my story, and this is Bassam’s story, and you see us here together. What does this tell you about the possibilities? Let’s redefine everything: What is a Jew? What is a Zionist? What is an Israeli? What is a Palestinian? What is a human being? I want to shake up their assumptions, all those canonized values they have internalized: the nation, the flag, Zionism. I used to believe in all that myself. I went through the same educational system, the same brainwashing.
Hertog: Isn’t every educational system brainwashing to some degree?
Elhanan: Of course. Every society tries to mold the next generation according to its values and to prepare the youth to sacrifice themselves in war to protect those values. It is practiced on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. It’s done through demonization and dehumanization of the other. This process is so sophisticated that when you try to reach people with a different narrative, you encounter a wall. And this wall — the wall inside people’s minds — is much more difficult to break down than a wall made of concrete.
Hertog: Earlier, when you talked about despair, the thought crossed my mind that it’s not supposed to be easy to make peace.
Elhanan: It is indeed very difficult. I said it is fashionable to feel despair, but people truly are despairing. We have a right-wing government that is gathering unlimited power and creating fascist laws that never existed before in this country. So of course people feel despair. But for someone like me, who has already experienced the worst, what else is there but to be hopeful? Should we kill ourselves?
The e-mail I received from that boy this morning — you can’t imagine how happy it made me. And that happens two or three times a week. So, amid the despair, there is hope.
Hertog: Do you think Israelis weren’t ready for how difficult it would be to make peace?
Elhanan: Maybe we didn’t want to be ready. It’s not enough to throw the Palestinians a bone. Israelis will say, “But we’ve given the Palestinians so much. Why are they ungrateful?” Israelis still don’t understand the root of the conflict. Most are not ready to accept that there was a Nakba [the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948]. They don’t understand the Palestinians’ pain because they don’t want to know. And they don’t want to know because, if they did know, they would have to acknowledge their own responsibility and wouldn’t be able to continue acting as if nothing had happened.
Hertog: For the documentary Within the Eye of the Storm you agreed to meet with former Palestinian fighters of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, including Zakaria Zubeidi, whom the Israeli government accused of organizing suicide bombings. When the film was screened, how did Israeli audiences react?
Elhanan: It caused an uproar. But it was also a high point in my activism. I met with them because I needed to test myself, to align my actions with my words and see if I was being honest with myself.
A few years ago I did a presentation in Bethlehem. At the end a bearded Palestinian asked if he could shake my hand.
“Of course,” I said.
“If you knew who I am, you wouldn’t shake my hand,” he warned me.
I asked why, and he said his brother was a martyr, meaning he’d blown himself up in a suicide bombing. But this man wanted to shake my hand because he thought I was “courageous.”
I answered that if he agreed with my message of peace, then I would be happy to embrace him, because I am willing to embrace anyone who chooses a peaceful way forward.
The more I learn about terrorism, the more fluid the concept becomes. George Washington could be considered a terrorist. Nelson Mandela could be considered a terrorist. [Former Israeli prime minister] Menachem Begin could be considered a terrorist. We use the word terrorism to silence others.
After the documentary was broadcast on Israeli TV, I got responses along the whole spectrum. One man said he disagreed with everything I stand for, but he respected that I had the courage to meet with terrorists. Many others called me a traitor. Every time I appear on TV, I lose half my friends.
Hertog: If you want to persuade people, you can’t provoke them too much. At some point they will stop listening to you. How do you find the balance?
Elhanan: That is a question I deal with all the time. I walk a tightrope between staying faithful to my values and connecting with other people. In this regard I am very different from my wife. Nurit doesn’t care if people listen to her or not. She doesn’t compromise or avoid confrontation.
On the second day after Smadar’s death, we got a phone call from [Israeli prime minister] Bibi Netanyahu. He insisted on talking to Nurit. You need to understand that Nurit and Bibi were childhood friends. They went to school together. When she and I started dating, she introduced me to Bibi so he could judge whether I was good enough for her!
But when he called after Smadar’s death, Nurit told him it was his fault. She held him responsible for our daughter’s death. At that time he had been prime minister for only a year. The American media came to our house: CNN, CBS. They all wanted to report on the story, because of the way Nurit had accused Netanyahu.
Nurit is sharp as a knife, but she pays a heavy personal price for it. She’s despised in this country. To be so outspoken is difficult, especially in a society that sees itself as being in a constant state of war. Whoever strays from accepted opinion is seen as a traitor. And the more outspoken you are, the more hatred you attract.
I am different: I want people to listen to me. I want to convince them. So I’m always balancing what I want to say against what I need to say.
For example, in my presentations to these young men who are about to enter the army, I don’t say there is a direct line connecting every settler in the occupied territories and every act of terrorism, because my audience would stop listening. Instead I say, “You can be sure that there will be a connection between your behavior at the checkpoint and the next victim of violence.”
Hertog: What is the secret to not alienating listeners who disagree with you?
Elhanan: The secret is to avoid the dark maze of who did what to whom and who started what. Those arguments go on endlessly, and nobody can convince anyone, because each side can pick and choose its “facts.” We’re not in court. Our purpose is not to judge others. I can’t judge a terrorist with a knife in his hand. I don’t know what happened that caused this man to pick up a knife. I’m not a judge, just a witness.
And in my life there is light in the darkness because I know people like Bassam and all my other Palestinian friends who choose to walk with me on this road of peace. And every morning they make that decision again.
Hertog: So the secret is not to start by asserting that you are right?
Elhanan: Before anything else, look for what you have in common with the other person and what you can agree about. It’s a dialogue, not a war. I don’t want to win or be right. I just tell my own story: My daughter was killed because of this situation. I want to prevent this from happening to others. How can we do that?
Hertog: You are the son of a Holocaust survivor. Tell me how that has influenced you.
Elhanan: The Holocaust influenced me dramatically. It influences me underneath the skin. I used to be obsessed with the Holocaust.
My father’s family was taken to Auschwitz, like many Hungarian Jews. Most of his family did not survive. At the end of the war he was eighteen and completely alone. He came to Israel and fought in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He was severely injured during the battle for the Old City in Jerusalem. My mother was the nurse who took care of him. A couple from Jerusalem became his surrogate parents.
In my home we didn’t talk about the Holocaust. Nothing. I didn’t even know my father had survived a concentration camp. I grew up thinking the couple who’d made him a part of their family were my actual grandparents. Then one day I asked my father why he spoke Hungarian and Grandma and Grandpa didn’t. That was the first time he told me about the Holocaust and how his parents had been killed.
My father was a kind and warm person, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with Arabs. He was convinced they were out to hurt the Jews, just like the Nazis, and that Israel was the Jews’ only safe haven. He believed anything we did to the Palestinians was justified because of the Holocaust.
When Smadar was twelve, she did a family-tree project for school. She asked my father about his family, and that’s when he finally spoke at length about his sisters, his brothers, his parents, the concentration camp. Once he started talking, he didn’t stop. He took Smadar for a visit to his hometown in Hungary. She finally got him to open up about his trauma. And then, two years later, she was killed.
At the end of his life my father became involved with the Bereaved Families Forum. At one meeting an elderly Palestinian whose son had been tortured and died in an Israeli prison said he didn’t believe the Holocaust had actually happened. Everyone got angry at him, but the exchange made me realize: What do Palestinians know about the Holocaust? No more than Israelis know about the Nakba. So I said, “Let’s teach Palestinians about the Holocaust and Israeli Jews about the Nakba.” The Bereaved Families Forum began to take groups of Palestinians to visit Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, and when these Palestinians looked at the photos of the concentration camps, they started crying. My father was amazed that Palestinians could cry about the Holocaust. This completely changed his worldview.
Hertog: Your father’s initial conviction that the whole world was out to persecute the Jews is understandable in light of his experience. Isn’t it true that the Jewish people — and Israel as a nation — have been constantly persecuted?
Elhanan: Yes, but I don’t want to use my victimhood to victimize others. When my father was in Auschwitz seventy years ago, when my grandparents were taken to the gas chambers, the world stood by and did nothing. Today thousands of people in the occupied territories are being killed — the great majority of them innocent of any violence, and many of them children — and again the world is doing nothing. That’s a crime. When you stand and watch while a crime is being committed, you are an accomplice. And I say this as a Jew, with the greatest respect for my religion and history. I never deny my Jewish identity. I love my Jewish roots. But to oppress 4 million people of another nation and deny them equal rights — that is not a Jewish thing to do. And being against it is not anti-Semitism. You can’t fix one injustice with another injustice.
Hertog: There are sometimes situations when you must fight for your existence, no?
Elhanan: Not only are there sometimes situations; it’s a part of life.
Hertog: So how does one know when to fight and when to make peace?
Elhanan: When my father arrived here in 1946, he came with a naive — and incorrect — assumption that he had arrived in “a land without a people for a people without a land,” as the saying goes. I can accept that, back then, he was fighting for his existence, and that it was a just war. But since then, the wars we fight have become less and less about maintaining our existence and more and more about political strategy. In the last thirty years we have not been fighting for our survival. We are fighting kids who are throwing stones. Even when we fight terrorists from Gaza, it’s an unequal situation: they attack us with improvised missiles, and we go after them with three heavily armed divisions.
Hertog: But do you understand why so many Israelis still have this deep fear?
Elhanan: I think we are born with this fear. We carry three thousand years of victimhood on our backs. But Israelis are using their fear as an excuse, and the politicians use people’s fears to further their own agendas. The people want to live well and eat and drink and have fun, and they don’t want to worry about what’s on the other side of the wall. They don’t want to know that our soldiers are humiliating Palestinians every day at the military checkpoints they must cross to get where they are going.
Hertog: I once talked to a right-wing settler who claimed that the pro-peace position is disrespectful of Palestinians because it assumes the Palestinians are willing to compromise. He argued that if he had been born a Palestinian, he would not give up until he had expelled every single Jew.
Elhanan: What kind of logic is that? In 1956 [Israeli military leader] Moshe Dayan gave a famous speech in which he claimed that, because we had taken the Palestinians’ land, we could not expect them to be willing to make peace. He said that if we let go of the sword for one moment, they will take revenge. That’s the mentality. Israelis act as if they were holding a tiger by the tail.
Hertog: And you say there is no tiger?
Elhanan: I say that we are a nuclear power, one of the strongest armies in the world, and we fight kids on the street. If you give people respect, and you give them a reason to get up in the morning and a future for their children, then they won’t have the incentive to become suicide bombers.
Hertog: But Palestinian anger is real. What if it can’t be undone?
Elhanan: You don’t resolve anger by creating more anger. There is no future in holding the tiger by the tail. It’ll just grow and grow, and in the end you won’t have the strength to keep holding on. We have to change the narrative. We have to rethink what we are willing to kill and die for.
Hertog: It doesn’t seem likely that the narrative will change. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are becoming increasingly radicalized.
Elhanan: There are two possibilities: One, people open their eyes and realize we have to change. (This is the less likely possibility right now.) Or, two, we end up with an all-out war that results in oceans of blood and won’t lead to a resolution, because we won’t be able to push the Palestinians into the desert, and they won’t be able to throw us into the sea. The war will just go on and on.
In the long run I fear for the existence of Israel. So many young, educated Israelis go abroad and don’t come back. Almost everyone has family members who live in other countries. And the ones who are leaving are the intellectuals and the artists and the scientists — people we need to ensure the survival of a democratic society. The ones left behind are the ultra-Orthodox and the less educated. Sometimes I see it as a coming apocalypse. It’s terrifying. But I don’t want to succumb to doomsday thinking. I want to believe that once people see that the price of war is greater than the price of peace, there will be a shift in attitude. You can’t live forever by the sword.
Hertog: Though it has often been tried in history.
Elhanan: That’s true. But it’s also true that historically all conflicts end. One year, two years, twenty years — in Ireland it took them eight hundred years to make peace. At some point we will have peace here as well.
Hertog: What do you envision as a political solution?
Elhanan: Somehow we have to share this land, either as two states or one state where everyone is equal — or in any other way that works. I don’t idolize nationalist ideals about statehood. A state is not holy; it’s just a tool to organize society. For me a state is like a co-op board, which has the sole function of making sure that we can live together in peace and equality. Its role is to collect taxes, maintain the roads, provide electricity, and make sure neighbors treat each other right. All I want is that in this place, where 12 million people live — Arabs, Ashkenazi Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Russian Jews and non-Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins — there will be equal rights and mutual respect for each other’s cultures and religions. We must make room for everyone.
Bassam Aramin was born in 1968 in the village of Sair, near Hebron. As a teenager he joined Fatah (the main branch of the PLO), and at the age of seventeen he was arrested for participating in an attack on Israeli soldiers patrolling his village. He spent seven years in an Israeli prison, where he learned to speak Hebrew. When Aramin was released, at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, he decided to renounce violence. Aramin lives with his wife, Salwa, and their children in the Palestinian village of Anata, just north of Jerusalem.
I talked to Aramin at the Palestinian headquarters of the Bereaved Families Forum in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in the West Bank. Aramin lives only seven miles north of Beit Jala, but the journey takes him at least an hour and a half, because he must pass through multiple checkpoints used by the Israeli army to keep unauthorized Palestinians from entering Jewish settlements.
For me the drive from Jerusalem to Beit Jala took just fifteen minutes, but even that short trip was tense. In recent weeks a number of Israeli cars traveling in the West Bank had been attacked by Palestinian gunmen, and I knew Israelis are not allowed to enter areas governed by the Palestinian Authority.
I needn’t have worried. The Israeli soldier at the checkpoint outside Jerusalem waved me through, probably assuming I was on my way to a nearby settlement. Another vehicle had been stopped, however, and the Palestinian family in it had been ordered to unload the contents of their car, including the spare tire. The father, mother, and children watched impassively as a soldier scanned the vehicle with an explosives detector.
I parked at the Everest Hotel, near the tall concrete wall that separates Beit Jala from the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, and Aramin drove me to the office of the Bereaved Families Forum. Though it was just a short distance down the road, he took a long detour through side alleys to avoid another checkpoint.
Aramin thoughtfully answered all my questions in English, his third language. After almost three hours he apologized and said that he had to end the interview: we had talked through the Muslim call to prayer, and he needed to pray before going to meet Elhanan for a workshop with Israeli teenagers.
Hertog: Tell me about Combatants for Peace.
Aramin: It started on the Israeli side as The Courage to Refuse, an organization of Israeli soldiers who refused to be part of the occupation army. They got a lot of media attention. As a Palestinian I was excited to learn about these Israelis who took such a moral stance, and I wanted to meet them and learn why they refused to serve. In 2002 they published a letter denouncing the occupation, signed by hundreds of Israeli soldiers. Three years later a friend of mine invited me to a meeting with seven Israeli soldiers from The Courage to Refuse. I went with that friend and two others, one of whom had spent fourteen years in Israeli jails; the other, ten years. We met the Israeli soldiers at the exact same place where you and I met this morning: the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala.
You can imagine the mood of that first meeting. We hated them. We had to shake hands and smile and pretend to be polite, but we thought they might be from the Israeli secret service and try to trick us into saying something wrong so they could arrest us.
At the same time, I could see the fear in their eyes. They had all served as officers in the Israeli army in Beit Jala, and for the first time they were back without their M16s, their jeeps, and their tanks. And they had come to meet Palestinians who were supposed to be “former terrorists.”
That first meeting lasted about three hours. I told a lot of lies, because I didn’t trust them, but it was amazing just to talk. They spoke about how they’d occupied us and harassed us — they admitted it!
They were real soldiers. I wasn’t much of a fighter. I had been arrested because I was part of a group of kids who’d thrown stones. My friends had also thrown two hand grenades at an Israeli patrol, but because they didn’t know how to use the grenades, nobody had been killed or injured. I felt I wasn’t at the same level as these Israelis. To impress them, I boasted that I had shot soldiers and that I had thrown the hand grenades at the Israeli patrol.
Hertog: If you didn’t trust the Israelis, what made you decide to meet with them?
Aramin: I already had one child at that time, and I was thinking of his future. I had decided that I needed to take responsibility, not just fight Israelis. And the Israelis needed to take part in ending the occupation. For them it was security; for me it was my life. We both wanted to find a solution.
Palestinians need Israelis, so they can learn to understand us and explain our point of view to others in their society.
I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear. It’s part of their consciousness. When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background. If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.
Hertog: How did Combatants for Peace come into being from that meeting?
Aramin: At the end of the meeting someone suggested that we meet again. I asked why, because I had assumed it was supposed to be just once. And one of the Israelis suggested that we could work together against the occupation. When he actually called it an “occupation,” I thought, Wow. And I agreed to meet again.
In the period before our second meeting, we looked up all the information we could find about these Israelis, so we knew they were for real. Meanwhile they looked up what we had done. And when we met again after two weeks, we talked at a more personal level and discovered we actually had a lot in common.
Hertog: And Rami’s son Elik was one of the Israelis in that first meeting?
Aramin: Yes, Elik was there. Rami joined us at the third meeting, I think. Right from the start he and I were friends. He is very warm, very human. After a few weeks Rami and his wife invited my wife and me to their home, and then we invited them to ours. We became close. I sometimes have to remind myself that we are still supposed to be “enemies.” When the media asks if we are friends, I always say, “We try to remain partners for peace and not friends.”
I also say that if there were no Rami Elhanan on the Israeli side, you wouldn’t find a Bassam Aramin on the Palestinian side. When he speaks his truth, it sounds familiar, because it is my truth, too. We each knew the other existed, even before we met, because we had been looking for each other.
In 2007, when I lost my daughter, Rami and I truly became family. I had always wanted to ask Rami about Smadar, but I’d held back because I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. After I lost Abir, though, I finally understood what he felt. I discovered that the pain never goes away. You never forget. When Abir died, that’s when we became brothers.
Hertog: When Abir was killed, did you feel any impulse to seek revenge?
Aramin: No, not at all — not because I don’t have that impulse, but because I understood that there is no revenge. A few hours after Abir died, I held a press conference. (I was well-known as a cofounder of Combatants for Peace.) I said we have to double our efforts for peace, because I have five other kids who deserve to live, and because my Israeli friends have kids who deserve to live.
Hertog: Has your work gotten more difficult lately, with the reelection of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and this new wave of violence?
Aramin: Of course. Israel has stopped giving out entry permits to most Palestinians, so our lectures at Israeli schools have been put on hold. [The day of the interview, the army eased travel restrictions, and activities could resume. — Ed.] But the most painful is how this situation affects people’s thinking. It becomes much more difficult to prove to people that peace is still possible. It is easy to talk about peace in a peaceful situation, but when you talk about peace while people are being killed, they think you’re crazy. I’m not telling others they have no right to use violence or armed struggle. They have the right. My point is that it doesn’t work in the end.
Hertog: Some say talking doesn’t change anything, and action is needed.
Aramin: Our attempts to change the narrative are action. It’s important to show that peace is possible, even in a time of violence. Just to maintain a narrative of reconciliation makes a difference. Even if we can’t change the situation now, we must not stay silent. We must continue to create a culture of peace to keep alive hope for the future.
Hertog: How do other Palestinians respond to your work?
Aramin: People tell me it’s a waste of time and get angry with me. But it’s hard for them to argue with someone like me: I am from here. I have paid the price. I spent seven years in an Israeli prison as a teenager. I lost my daughter. So I have the right to talk.
Some say, “Tell me, Father of Peace, what have you achieved? Nothing has happened!” I understand their criticism. I was once there, too. I was just as angry as they are. I live under the same difficult conditions they do. They respect me because I don’t speak only for myself. I represent other Palestinians. When I changed my ways, it was not for myself but for my people.
Hertog: On the Israeli side, those who denounce the occupation and support Palestinian rights are labeled traitors. On the Palestinian side, any collaboration with Israelis is denounced as “normalization,” acceptance of the status quo. How does this affect your work?
Aramin: Because I have spent time in prison and lost family, it’s difficult for someone to claim that I am promoting normalization. Many Palestinians consider any contact with Israelis an acceptance of the occupation, but in the Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace we are fighting together — Palestinians and Israelis — against the occupation.
Hertog: I assume that, within Combatants for Peace and within the Bereaved Families Forum, there is disagreement among members. How do you deal with that?
Aramin: Absolutely there is disagreement. But if you want to work together as partners, you must trust each other. This was the difficult part: How could I trust them? They are my occupiers.
We have to constantly earn each other’s trust through our actions. Of course, it’s even better if we can become friends, but that’s not necessarily our goal. I have become friends with individual Israelis — we are like family. But at another level I know we are in conflict, and we don’t want to be enemies.
Hertog: So you don’t have to be friends to cooperate?
Aramin: No. But as a result of cooperating we can become friends. To have a partnership for peace, you don’t need to love each other, but you need to trust each other.
Hertog: Can you start working together without agreeing, or are there basic principles you need to agree upon?
Aramin: At Combatants for Peace we do have conditions for members. To join you have to be committed to nonviolence, and if you are an Israeli, you cannot serve as a soldier in the occupied territories. You can serve in the army to protect your borders, but you don’t have the right to occupy me while you ask me to be nonviolent.
Hertog: Even when Israelis and Palestinians agree in principle about peace, I’m sure you disagree when you start looking at details. How do you deal with that?
Aramin: To be on the safe side, we don’t talk about the details of a solution. I know what people’s opinions are and what kind of concessions they are willing to make, and I might disagree, but I don’t argue with them. I accept that others have their opinions, as long as we are partners in peace. Our goal is to end the occupation. We don’t argue about the details. We’re not politicians.
Hertog: But in the end you need to decide on the details.
Aramin: Not us. That’s not our responsibility. I didn’t create this problem, and I cannot solve it. Our role at the Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace is to offer an alternative narrative and to prove that it’s possible to work together and agree. We want to deal with the things that unite us as human beings, not the arguments that divide us. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other.” That is exactly our problem.
Hertog: Have you ever imagined what it would be like to have been born a Jewish Israeli?
Aramin: It’s difficult to be a Jew, especially an Israeli Jew. It is said that they are the victims of history. I always knew this, but I had never really felt it. And then, when I studied for my master’s in peace studies at the University of Bradford, I met with Holocaust survivors, and I finally understood.
Rami’s father was a Holocaust survivor, and after I reached this understanding, I called Rami’s father up to tell him that I thanked God that he had survived and that I understood his pain. I understood why it sometimes took people thirty or forty years to start talking about their experience. Maybe they thought others wouldn’t believe them. I visited the death camp at Buchenwald, and afterward I convinced Rami to come with me to Dachau.
Israelis talk about the Holocaust all the time. Oh, my God, it is everywhere! It’s part of the education. But I’ve realized that, even if the Holocaust is used as propaganda to teach hatred or fear, the fear is real, and we need to teach the Palestinian people about the Israelis’ trauma. When I talk to Israeli soldiers about why they behave aggressively in the territories, I hear them use the slogan “Never again!” [in reference to the Holocaust].
I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear. It’s part of their consciousness. When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background. If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.
Hertog: And you did not understand this at first?
Aramin: Not at all. When we threw a stone, they would show up with a hundred soldiers, and we would say, “Wow, they are cowards. They react like this because a kid threw one stone.” Now I understand that it’s not cowardice but this deep fear.
One thing I learned from the Holocaust is that even those Nazi officers were human beings. In the morning they’d wake up, play with their kids, kiss their wives. Near the Buchenwald concentration camp there was a petting zoo for the officers’ children, while just a short distance away they were running a murder factory. How could they do that? It’s because they saw their victims as things. They didn’t see them as human beings. When you deny others’ humanity, you lose your own humanity. But you can get it back.
A few weeks ago Israeli general Amiram Levin got a lot of publicity because he spoke up in support of Breaking the Silence [an organization that encourages Israeli soldiers and veterans to talk about their experiences serving in the occupied territories]. I’d first met this man when I was in jail in 1987. He had beaten me with his own hands. He was not yet a general at that time. And now he speaks against abuse by the Israeli army. You see, people can change. Look at Yitzhak Rabin: He was a killer. He gave the order to break the bones of Palestinians. But then he became a peacemaker. I consider him a Combatant for Peace, because he changed his mind.
When you put a normal human being in an abnormal situation, you can expect cruel behavior. Anyone is capable of it.
Hertog: Have you felt capable of such behavior?
Aramin: Yes. In a minute one can become a killer. It happens when you can’t control yourself, or when you think you’re acting in self-defense. It doesn’t mean we are crazy. We are human beings.
Over time enemies come to resemble each other, because we imitate each other. When I think you hate me, I want to pay you back in the same way.
Hertog: Rami says that the victimhood mentality is an obstacle to peace.
Aramin: I think the main obstacle to peace is blaming others and being unwilling to take responsibility. The Israelis need to take responsibility, but we Palestinians need to as well. When I see an eleven-year-old kid with a knife, I understand the kid’s anger. Sometimes, when I watch the news, I feel that anger, too. I blame the occupation for the despair of my people, but I would also blame myself as a father if my child took up a knife. What those kids are doing is what they think is a freedom struggle. It’s a crime to let them do this — a Palestinian crime. We have to educate our kids, tell them to finish school, finish university, and then they can decide if they want to be a fighter or not.
I don’t want these kids to become victims, like I did when I was thirteen years old. Nobody explained it to me. I didn’t know anything. Now I fight the occupation in a more effective way. I won’t ever again be a victim and resort to violence.
Hertog: Do you remember how you felt as a teenager?
Aramin: I remember how, back then, nobody could convince me not to throw stones. I didn’t care if the soldiers shot me or killed me. At that age you don’t think you will ever die. It’s not by chance that they use teenagers in the army: they are reckless.
Hertog: How about your own kids?
Aramin: It’s very difficult. They have grown up with Israeli friends who visit our house, but there’s a big difference between visits with our Israeli friends and my children’s encounters with the Israeli army: the tear gas, the arrests, the humiliations. A few weeks ago I had a talk with my son, who is thirteen now. He said that all the kids were throwing stones at the Israeli troops and asked why couldn’t he join them. I said it’s not his job to fight the army, and he got angry and said I was siding with the Israelis. I said that I want him to live and to get an education. I told him we need Palestinian doctors and engineers.
“If I finish my education and become a doctor,” my son asked, “how are we going to defeat them?” He was thinking in terms of war: in terms of victory and defeat instead of compromise.
In the end I managed to convince him to help build a better society. But then he asked how he should control his anger. That is the biggest challenge, I told him, but I trust that he can do it, because I trust him as a person. If you throw a stone, I said, it will give you a good feeling for a moment, but it won’t change anything. And I have this fear, as your father, that you will die for throwing a stone. I asked him: “Are you willing to risk your life and your future for a stone?” I have used the same arguments with all my kids.
It’s hard to control our anger when we see injustice. At the army checkpoints the soldiers sometimes let people through without any trouble, but other times they stop people for no reason, just to humiliate them, out of boredom. I’m willing to make a one-hour detour so I don’t have to go through a checkpoint, because I want to avoid getting angry. Sometimes, to keep your peace of mind, you have to take precautions.
Hertog: What did your parents say to you when you were a teenager?
Aramin: I remember my father crying when he came to visit me in jail. I asked why he was crying; he should have been proud of me, I said, because I was the only person from our family to be in an Israeli jail. I’d sacrificed myself for Palestinian freedom.
He said: “You kill me! You are causing me so much pain!” I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. Hadn’t I always been a good son? He answered yes, but since I was a baby, I’d made him and my mother worry. When I was a year old, I fell ill with polio. Every day my parents would take me to a doctor for leg massages, therapy. We lived far from the village and didn’t have a car, only a donkey. After I recovered, my parents thought their troubles were finally over, and I would finish my education and marry. But then I got arrested and put in jail. My mother would walk fifteen or twenty kilometers just to see me for twenty minutes. I couldn’t understand why she made such an effort. But when I had my first child, I understood.
Almost every day, I tell my kids: “When you feel you want to fight, please think of the pain I will feel if something happens to you.”
My older son used to respond, “But we are not girls; we are men. We must fight!” Eventually he discovered that one can also gain respect by using reason.
Hertog: And now you educate children in Palestinian schools not to use violence?
Aramin: We teach Palestinian children, but not in schools. We can’t give presentations in schools, because it can be viewed as normalization. I hope this will change under the new minister of education, Sabri Saidam, who was once a peace activist.
Hertog: Can you imagine the peer pressure Israeli boys feel to fight and be a hero?
Aramin: It’s the same pressure Palestinian boys experience, but in a different society. The Israeli boys, in addition to that pressure, are raised to believe they must protect their country; that they are threatened; that Israel is one small nation surrounded by hostile Arab states. They also carry all the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In their last year of high school, before they join the army, many of them go on a trip to Auschwitz.
You know, when I visited Buchenwald, I got very angry. Generally I am calm, but I started judging the Germans around me, thinking they were monsters. If it had this effect on me, a Palestinian, imagine the effect a visit to a concentration camp must have on young Israelis. They come back from these trips and enlist in the army, and they channel all that anger into their service. These kids need to make life-or-death decisions at the checkpoints, but in the back of their minds is always the Holocaust. And it’s not just the kids. Many Israelis have this sense that if they are not strong enough, they will end up back in Auschwitz.
I understand that. If I were an Israeli, I, too, would want to be in an elite military unit. It’s almost unthinkable for Israelis to refuse to serve in the army. They take kids for just two or three years, but that is enough to stamp them with this particular narrative. And then it comes back to haunt Israeli society. I’m thinking of the Israeli soldier who broke down while testifying to a Knesset [parliament] committee about the war in Gaza last month. He said he had killed forty Palestinians. He had blood on his hands. He couldn’t sleep. He wet his bed at night. The people he’d killed came to visit him in dreams to ask why he’d killed them. “How could you make me do this?” he asked the politicians. It was painful to watch his testimony. Violence hurts not only the victims but also the perpetrators.
Hertog: It must be difficult, too, for you to listen to someone testify about having killed Palestinians.
Aramin: Yes, and there are hundreds like him. Someone called me about three months ago — an Israeli from Jerusalem — to say that his conscience had been troubling him since 1988. He’d been a commander and had shot and killed a thirteen-year-old kid in the Qalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah [in the West Bank]. He said he couldn’t live with that, and he wanted me to help him find the kid’s family and ask forgiveness.
He could have pushed the memory from his conscience. What led him to approach me? He had the courage to admit his guilt. I felt the pain of this man. I felt his nobility.
In the end we are all human beings: both victims and perpetrators.
Hertog: What if he had been the soldier who shot your daughter Abir?
Aramin: I consider him also a victim. I met him in court in Jerusalem. [Aramin sued the Israeli army for causing his daughter’s death. The court determined that the soldier had disregarded regulations, but it declined to punish him. — Ed.] I told that soldier I needed him to know that he was not a hero or a warrior. He’d killed an innocent ten-year-old child, not an enemy or a terrorist. But I don’t believe in revenge, because I want to protect my heart from this anger. And I want to protect my other children. At any time in his life, I said, when he feels ready to admit he committed a crime, I will forgive him — not for him, but for myself.
This man and I were in the process of trying to meet outside of court, but then his lawyer said it was a bad idea, because it would be seen as an admission of guilt on his part. I understand the difficulties that he faces. The state has closed his file. How can he now stand up and say that he did it? But maybe one day he will have the courage to admit that he killed her.
Hertog: How did you continue to believe in peace after losing Abir?
Aramin: To release yourself from the victimhood mentality, to liberate yourself from occupation, is a process. But once you do, you discover your own humanity. Then you recognize the humanity of others, and you start to see even killers as human beings.
Hertog: Outsiders sometimes find it hard to understand why this conflict is so difficult to resolve. What do you tell them?
Aramin: For people outside it’s easy to abandon hope. But they don’t have the right to give up. We are here. We must find some kind of compromise. It’s easy to refuse to compromise when you live in Chicago or London. Our message is always: Don’t be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Be pro-peace. Be pro-humanity. But, at the same time, don’t stay silent when crimes and injustices are committed.
Hertog: What if society doesn’t change, and there is no hope for peace? What if the situation just continues the way it is?
Aramin: This is in no way a possibility. It is a kind of industry, the victim mentality. I understand that people want to take revenge. But when you take revenge, be prepared for the cycle to continue.
Do not give up hope. Despite the Holocaust there is now a German ambassador in Israel, and an Israeli ambassador in Berlin. Fortunately the Palestinians didn’t kill 6 million Israelis, and the Israelis didn’t kill 6 million Palestinians. There is hope that we can reconcile, too.