Meet the champions of nuance and empathy we need
By Nicholas Kristof
My columns from Israel and the West Bank over the past few weeks have been depressing, reflecting my fear that we’re on a bloody, downward spiral that will make everything worse. So let me share what I saw as an ember of hope.
I didn’t expect to find such a thing. On this trip, I met with civil society organizations that have toiled for years to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, but frankly, I was skeptical of their efforts.
Some good that did, I was thinking. All those feel-good programs, often U.S.-funded, to build bridges — and today we’re engulfed in war.
But let me tell you about an Israeli woman I met, Meytal Ofer: A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with her in Tel Aviv — 10 years to the month after two terrorists from Hamas murdered her father with 41 blows of an ax.
“How could they do that?” she wondered aloud to me. “You need so much hate in your heart to do that.”
Ofer pondered where that venom came from. In the aftermath of the murder, she wondered about demolishing the killers’ houses, as sometimes happens in Israeli-occupied territories. She concluded that would not help.
“It would just grow the cycle of revenge,” she said. After her father’s murder, she joined Parents Circle — Families Forum, a joint Israeli and Palestinian nonprofit made up of people who have lost loved ones to the conflict. They hold dialogues, bonding in grief with those on the other side of the chasm, and give talks together aiming to end the escalating bloodshed.
I expressed my skepticism: Is this actually accomplishing anything?
“I think there is no other choice,” she said.
“This is my home. I don’t want to give up my home,” she added. “I don’t want to go, and Palestinians will not go anywhere, either.”
So she persists. “We have to do something,” she said. “You cannot stop violence with violence. We tried it for 100 years, and it’s not working.”
Hearing from bereaved Israelis and Palestinians together is “mind-blowing” for children, she said, because many of them have never thought much about losses outside their own group. One indication that these talks are effective: The far-right government this year banned Parents Circle from public schools.
Bassam Aramin is sometimes the Palestinian speaker in these Parents Circle appearances. Imprisoned by Israel as a 17-year-old for belonging to a then-banned Palestinian organization and possessing a weapon, he spent seven years behind bars. Then, in 2007, his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed outside her school by an Israeli soldier firing a rubber bullet.
Instead of turning to bombs, Aramin turned to reconciliation. He studied the Holocaust in a master’s program, learned excellent Hebrew and tried to see the humanity in Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoints.
A process of mutual dehumanization has led each side, he said, to regard the other as morally inferior. He noted that Israelis often suggest that the problem is that Palestinians don’t love their children and are ready to sacrifice them for the struggle, while Palestinians traffic in a similar stereotype about Israelis.
“We don’t see each other as human beings,” he said, and he told me of the Palestinian mother of a teenage boy killed by Israeli soldiers who reluctantly came to a Parents Circle meeting, still fuming at Jews.
“She believed that they were animals,” he recounted, quoting her as saying, “They don’t have hearts like us; they hate their kids because they send them to the army.” But she met an Israeli mom who told of losing her child to a Palestinian, and soon they were both sobbing and embracing.
Aramin is outraged at what he sees as Israel’s quotidian mistreatment of West Bank Palestinians, including women, at checkpoints, but he sees the humanity in the soldiers there.
“They look like killing machines, but they’re scared of us,” he said. Aramin added that the day before I spoke to him, he and his wife had driven to visit their children, taking a mountain road to bypass delays and humiliation at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. But he said they were stopped by four Israeli soldiers who angrily told them to return and threatened to seize their car. Aramin said he spoke calmly in Hebrew, recognizing the soldiers’ fear, and they soon got to talking. In the end, the soldiers still turned them back but apologized for doing so.
I noted to Aramin that these organizations promoting mutual understanding mostly date from the Oslo peace process, when two states were expected to emerge side by side. Now that process is in hibernation, if not dead. It’s nice that Parents Circle holds camps for Israeli and Palestinian children to get to know one another, but how is that saving lives on either side of the Gaza border?
The arc of history is long, he replied. Germany once tried to wipe out Jews and now exchanges ambassadors with Israel. Someday, Israel and Palestine will coexist as states, he said, and the question is simply how many corpses will pile up before that happens.
“We must share this land as one state or two states or five states,” he said. “Otherwise, we will share this same piece of land as the graveyards of our kids.”
I’m not sure that these efforts at understanding will get anywhere, and the Hamas attacks and Gaza war have added to the fear and trauma. Even Yuval Rahamim, an Israeli director of Parents Circle, acknowledges that the group is swimming against the tide.
“When I interview new employees, I ask them, ‘Are you ready to be frustrated every day?’” he said. “Because we don’t see success. But things will eventually change. Because there is no other option.”
After talking to Rahamim, Ofer, Aramin and others, I’m grateful to them for providing moral leadership that so many presidents and prime ministers have not. I don’t know if they can actually succeed in blazing a path to peace, but we need such champions of nuance and empathy if we are to have any hope of moving forward.
As we Americans increasingly find ourselves caught in toxic or bigoted battles on our own turf, echoing those in the Middle East, we should learn not from the arsonists but from these firefighters who demonstrate the human capacity for conciliation, healing and progress.