Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Hosts Dialogue on Reconciliation Between Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian Families

On Jan. 25, Georgetown hosted a dialogue between an Israeli mother and a Palestinian brother who both lost family members in the long-standing conflict and are working to build peace and reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian communities. 

The two speakers represented the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), an organization made up of 700 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. Since 1998, Israeli and Palestinian members have shared their stories side-by-side at events and educational programs in a joint effort to foster dialogue, empathy and reconciliation.

At the event, “Shared Grief, Shared Hope: Bereaved Israelis and Palestinians for Peace,” hosted by Georgetown’s Office of Mission & Ministry, the speakers discussed their losses, grief, path toward forgiveness and the current conflict with students, faculty, staff and religious leaders in Dahlgren Chapel, a sacred space on the university’s main campus.

“There are 700 other families like Robi’s and Mohamed’s that have been affected by the conflict, all of whom have lost a loved one to the conflict, and all of whom have chosen an incredible path of reconciliation rather than revenge. That is no small thing to say,” said Shiri Ourian, executive director of the American Friends of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, which works to humanize the conflict in the U.S.

Georgetown has had ties to the organization since its early years. In 2008, the university invited a delegation of members from the PCFF to meet with leaders from the university’s Conflict Resolution program and Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership in Washington, DC.

In his opening remarks, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia spoke about the importance of dialogue, even when it may seem difficult. 

“There is no more urgent time for us to recognize the inherent dignity, the shared humanity of each person, each Israeli and each Palestinian, each member of our community,” DeGioia said. “There is no more important moment for us to reaffirm a commitment to the common good — sustained by the possibilities that can only be realized when we work together,” he said.

An Israeli Mother’s Story

Speakers Robi Damelin, the Israeli spokesperson of the PCFF, and Mohamed Abu Jafar, a member of PCFF who co-leads their youth summer camp and is a quality manager at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, both lost family members the same year, in 2002. 

Damelin’s son was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper while guarding a checkpoint during his army reserve service. When the Israeli army told her about her son’s death, Damelin was surprised by her reaction.   

“One of the first things that I said is ‘You cannot kill anybody in the name of my child.’ I’ve no idea where that came from. But I knew that I was going to do something to prevent other mothers … from experiencing this pain.”

Damelin joined the PCFF and traveled around the world with Palestinian members advocating for peace. But one night, she was confronted with the hard reality of her message. Israeli soldiers told her they had identified the man who killed her son.

“You can talk about peace. You can talk about love. You can read bad poetry … but do you really mean it?” she said. “That was very hard. Because here was a face. Before there was no face. I could do all of this work, but I didn’t have any duty towards the person.”

Damelin ultimately decided to write to the parents of her son’s killer, telling them about the Parents Circle. And she learned more about the person “behind the gun,” his motives and background. Standing on the stage in Dahlgren, Damelin urged audience members not to take sides and to be “part of the solution, not the problem.”

Later, during an audience Q&A, Damelin answered a student’s question about the difficulty of fostering dialogue during this time.

“Everybody wants an overnight solution to everything. People in Israel and Palestine are grieving. People are dying every day. There’s so much anger and there’s so much fear. And there’s also humiliation. …” she said. “So there’s no instant solution. It’s going to take time. But it’s how people like us use that time.”

“One of the first things that I said is ‘You cannot kill anybody in the name of my child.’ I’ve no idea where that came from. But I knew that I was going to do something to prevent other mothers … from experiencing this pain.”

A Palestinian Brother’s Story

Mohamed Abu Jafar lost his brother when he was 14 years old in 2002. They had played on the same soccer team in their hometown of Jenin in the West Bank.

His brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. An Israeli tank circled his body and prevented 12 others from rescuing him, injuring them in the process. His brother was 16 years old.

In the years following, Jafar’s only interactions with Israelis was “through their tanks and through their military jeeps.”  

That changed one day when he came home and found Damelin, his fellow speaker, sitting in his living room as part of the Parents Circle. Jafar’s mother urged him to attend a Parents Circle event, which he begrudgingly did. While there, Jafar met a man who had served in the Israeli army the year his brother was killed.

“I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with the guy,” he said. He left the room. A facilitator urged him to stay, and as he learned more about the man, his mindset shifted. 

“This was the first time I saw a human being on the other side. This changed me a lot and this gave me hope.”

In the years since, Jafar has run a summer camp for Palestinian and Israeli teenagers through the Parents Circle, helping them discover the same breakthroughs he did. For Jafar, it can be painful and sometimes dangerous to share his story.

“This path that I’m walking on is the hardest one because every time I talk about my story, I am reopening my wounds,” he said during an audience Q&A. “If these kids can forget whatever they are living inside their communities and can do this together, I think we adults can. … 

“It needs courage and it needs hope,” he said of their work. “For me I take hope from you and from the kids.”

“It’s a crack in the wall. It’s small, yes, but it will make a difference.”

Mohamed Abu Jafar

A Musical Reflection and Candlelit End

Following the dialogue and an audience Q&A, the Georgetown chaplains of Muslim Life and Jewish Life both read from sacred texts from their tradition in a prayer for peace.

Audience members, who had received candles walking in, turned to light one another’s candles, a symbolic reminder of each life lost in the conflict.

Following the readings, Dr. Russell Weismann, Georgetown’s liturgical music director, sat in front of a baby grand piano and played the original musical score he composed, “I Believe in the Sun.”

The song ended with the lines, “I believe through any trial / there is always a way … May there someday be love / May there someday be peace.”

The audience members walked out of Dahlgren in silence into a foggy night, holding their candles.