A conversation between Robi Damelin and Mary Noble

In December 2007 a seminar took place about Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace, in Tel-Aviv, Israel. In the light of this seminar, Mary Noble and Brit Shneuer met with Robi Damelin. In March 2002 her son, David, was killed by a sniper while serving in the Israeli army. He was 28 years old. Robi now works for The Parents’ Circle, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families supporting reconciliation and peace. The meeting with Robi Damelin was a unique encounter with the courageous heart and mind of a mother who had lost her son and yet had transformed pain into love, anger into compassion and care, revenge into reconciliation and the endeavour for peace. After Mary had introduced Feminenza and the work on Forgiveness that had taken place during the Humanity and Gender conference in Nairobi and in Israel, Robi asked her the following question:

ROBI: What is your definition of forgiving? I know that’s the worst question to ask. What is forgiving for you? It is very important for me because lately it keeps coming up, people keep asking me this. And I keep asking them in return.

MARY: Forgiving is many things to me, it’s being able to move on, being able to let go, it’s being able to care more about the future of humanity than holding on to the past. There’s the issue of self forgiveness, there’s the issue of forgiving others. The more I’ve looked at it the more I realise that it’s not just one thing… you can’t just simplify it.

ROBI: It is also so different for each culture. I’m not asking this to be smart. I’m asking because I’m really interested, because it’s a very deep subject that people don’t normally think about and then they suddenly ask me in the lecture, “What is forgiving?” And I don’t actually really know myself. I only know the feeling. I came across a definition by a man called Smythe, and he said, “Forgiving doesn’t mean giving up your right to justice and it doesn’t mean it’s alright what the person did, or that you should forget.” Because many people think forgiving is also forgetting. So what, should I forget my child? It has been a long journey of investigating to see how honest I am about what I am saying. After they caught the sniper that killed David, I went to see a guy in Israel who is a lovely man, he is a professor at Ben Gurion University, and I told him that I wanted to go through the process of reconciliation with the family of the sniper, but that I felt I could not do it on my own. Many people think they can do it on their own, I thought that at first. Now I know even more clearly that you need a mediator for a process like this. We think because we are willing to go on this path, that the person who perpetrated the crime or whatever you want to call it, also wants to follow the same route. And that isn’t always the case, because it is very hard for them to face. I think I have come to one conclusion and that is this process was about giving up being a victim in the situation. When they caught the sniper, and of course you know I’m a brave lady, I said, “I want you to arrange for me to meet this sniper’s family.” And of course you can imagine the way they looked at me, as if I was completely out of my mind. And they probably were right in a way. When the army came to tell me that David was killed and I really don’t know where this came from, I said, “Do not kill anybody in the name of my child.” So obviously I wasn’t going to go on a path of revenge, but there is a hell of a big gap between revenge and…

MARY: Actively putting something else in its place.

ROBI: I can only tell you, I wrote this letter to the family. And after I wrote that letter, it was like an intense sense of relief, a feeling of letting go of being a victim. That is one of the things, and also it’s being with integrity.

BRIT: Robi, did you meet the family that you sent the letter to?

ROBI: Not yet. But the thing is, what was so enlightening about that visit that the two Palestinians from our group had to them, was that they told the story of who the sniper was. You see, when he was a very small child he had seen the Israeli army killing his uncle in front of him in a very, very violent way. And he lost two other uncles in the second intifada. So here he went on the path of revenge. And once you understand that then you understand what this whole cycle of violence is all about. I mean he didn’t kill David because he was David, he killed David because he was a symbol of an occupying army even if he was in the reserves, even if he was part of the peace movement, even if he was studying for his Masters. It doesn’t matter, that is what he saw in front of him. Because if he had met David, there is no way he could have done that. You know, it’s an interesting path, and I have become more aware of that by new members joining the Circle. I could work with a Palestinian for instance who started off by being unbelievably angry, and justifiably so. And talking about how the person was killed, describing the actual death, describing the blood and all the details of the violence. But not talking about the person who died. The Palestinians don’t have a way to vent their pain, or to tell their stories, so in the beginning when they first joined the group, this is the first opportunity that they really had to do so, because nobody wants to hear about it, also because culturally it is not acceptable to talk about these things. For me that was very different. After David was killed, the army came and sent a social worker, and asked if I wanted to see a psychologist, and a support group. So there were different options I could take up, that help was available to me, and I had an opportunity to tell my story; which is what happened in the truth and reconciliation commission and it gave me and other mothers the opportunity to move on. I noticed that Palestinian women, the mothers specifically, don’t talk about the child in the beginning. They talk about the way the bullet went in, and the blood… and how they died. You don’t hear about their longing for them, it’s just the anger that’s there. And then slowly, slowly, in the telling of the story, you get to know the other side of it, you start to get to know the person that died. And that is an essential part of doing this work.

The Parents Circle organises yearly approximately a thousand classroom dialogues. together meet young people in the classroom and tell their personal story and they also talk about the work that they are doing and bring some hope. For an Israeli kid of 17 it is probably the first time they have ever met a Palestinian in their lives. And I know that sounds insane, but that is what it is. They have never had an opportunity to hear the story of Riad Farh, who comes from a refugee camp, who lost his father. Suddenly there is a human being behind all those people, and they get very interested, even though they may have said when we came in, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab”. But they will go on listening, and then suddenly… they don’t become Martin Luther King, but they do express some desire to meet the other side. And that is the point. I also visited a Palestinian school for girls. They were all veiled, and one kid said to me when I came in, “Your son deserved to die.” The thing is that in the old days, I might have got up and walked out of the classroom, but I looked at her carefully and I realised that she came from a bereaved family. We had a long talk and I asked her how her mother felt, and how her aunt felt, and what it was like for her, and then I asked her what colour were their tears, and she suddenly got it. And she came to talk to me afterwards and she said she was sorry. These are small acts, but very, very important, because her class, for her peers to see something like that, it’s a transformation in a way. And that is the work that we are doing, we are creating a long-term framework for a reconciliation process. We have to remove the stigma, but much deeper than that we have to understand each other’s historical narratives. So it is not only your personal narrative. You see, if I sit here I tell you about my life okay? How I lost David, and I can’t describe… there’s nothing worse than that. But I also tell you that my great grandparents had to run away from Lithuania, because of the pogroms, and if I tell you about my grandmother’s family, who came from Germany and went to South Africa because they had to flee and you know, why did I ever come here? Well, if I tell you about Yaakov Guterman who is another member of our group, who is an Auschwitz survivor, came to Israel as a small child because he had no family, nowhere to go. He grew up in a kibbutz and he lost his son in 9/11, but works in the Parents Circle. Well, being a Palestinian, you might suddenly understand with empathy why the hell he came to Israel. From the Palestinian standpoint, if I took you to a Palestinian village that existed say before 1948 together with a Palestinian family from there, and you could recognize that there is nothing left of their heritage except an old well, and you’ve seen a Palestinian mother standing there and crying because she found the well and that is all that she found, then you can recognize the longing with empathy. And that doesn’t mean that we now all agree and everything is hunky-dory and we are going to blow up Tel Aviv University and make a Palestinian village. But if I understand that you understand my pain, if I understand that you recognise that, maybe there is a place for reparation, or restitution, I don’t know. But I know that that first step is a prerequisite for any form of reconciliation between us, the recognition of each other’s historical narrative. So we did just that with our group. We took 140 Palestinians and Israelis through their historical narratives. We went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, it was one of the first things that we did. You see, to take 70 Palestinians to a Holocaust Museum, don’t think this just happens, they are very nice, they’ll come to the Holocaust Museum, no! It is very painful for them because it is also having to admit something. It is not so easy, and we didn’t do it for a comparison of suffering. It is terribly important, because you cannot understand the Jews if you do not understand the Holocaust. And then it was the turn of the Israeli families to visit the place that had once been the Palestinian woman’s village, with only the well left, and it was their turn to weep with her.

At this part of the interview, Robi brought out some pictures from Reconciliation meetings between bereaved Israeli families and bereaved Palestinian families.

ROBI: this picture is of two women, you know we have a women’s group. I have to show you the calendar. We have a 2008 calendar, of Palestinian and Israeli ladies. This is Nazra, she lost two sons. She lost her father and her brother. Each one in the picture has lost someone. (Pointing at another photograph) She is nearly 80. She lost two sons, but she is the most extraordinary person.

BRIT: Where do they meet? Do they meet regularly?

ROBI: Yes, this is our women’s group.

MARY: That’s an amazing photograph!

ROBI: That’s the one I told you is from Nablus, Nazra, I love her. She can’t speak English or Hebrew, but I went on a bus with her and she sat next to me and she just took my hand, and she opened her bag, and she took out two pictures of her sons and she gave them to me. And since then we’ve been amazing friends, and she is part of this project I just told you about, the narrative. And we have a Druze member who also lost two sons, so I made them partners, and she went to his house and then she went to the grave and there is a picture of her, she knelt down to kiss the pictures of the Druze’s two sons who were killed. In many ways it is very difficult, because it’s the natural tendency of humans to take sides.

MARY: Exactly. But then there’s also the ability in every human to take a higher view.

ROBI: Of course there is. Look at Mandela. If you consider, you know for me, Mandela is probably the most inspiring person that I can think of.

MARY: We just did a seminar this weekend on forgiveness, and I showed the film of the autobiography of Mandela. It was amazing.

ROBI: You know, my uncle actually defended Mandela in the first treason trial.

MARY: Really! Wow!

ROBI: When I think about his pragmatic decision, that’s the point. It’s not only coming out, and being like.. rainbows and flowers and bad poetry, no. He came up with an idea that he understood pragmatically, that for the sake of his people, and for the sake of South Africa, for it to survive, they would have to go on a non-violent path. And that’s why I love him. Because coming out of this extraordinary experience of being in jail all those years, and having lived the life that he lived, to be able to look beyond that…

MARY: I read in the booklet that in the 27 years he was in prison, one of the things he did was to study the history of the Afrikaners so that he could understand…

ROBI: Well there you go!

MARY: You’ve paid the greatest price…

ROBI: One of the things that happened to me after David was killed… I just realised that I don’t have fear anymore. That is really what it is. You see I went to a psychologist. In the beginning I thought I could go on doing what I was doing. And then I started running away, like to India and all kinds of places, because I thought that I could run away from the pain. Unfortunately, you can’t. So then I came back to Israel and I thought okay, my business was running, I don’t know how… I’ll go to a psychologist. So I went to this psychologist, who was supposed to be a grand expert on bereavement. And I started talking to her and I suddenly realised that it is so boring. Because being there, what, I am going to talk about my childhood? That’s hardly helping me to cope with this pain. But unfortunately nobody can. So I came the second time, and she looked at me and she said look, you are probably the least neurotic woman that I’ve met. So what I would suggest is you want to do great things, because you are now free. So I was horrified. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. How can you tell me I’m free now? So I said, “What are you saying?” She said, “Don’t you get it, that now you no longer have fear, what else can happen to you?”

MARY: Robi, there was a story on your website about sharing blood, giving blood on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian. Was that one of the projects of the Parents’ Circle?

ROBI: it was a long time ago. The Palestinians went to an Israeli hospital and gave blood, it was just a symbolic mark, and the Israelis went to the Palestinian side to give blood. We created a telephone line between Palestinians and Israelis, and actually since October of 2002, more than a million people have spoken on that line. Don’t for one minute imagine that it’s ‘Hello darling and let’s make peace!” — it’s not. There are some very ghastly, angry things, but it’s a hell of a lot better than killing each other.

MARY: So they can literally phone that phone line and speak to an Israeli or a Palestinian?

ROBI: Yes. It’s been a bit defunct for the past year or so because we haven’t got the money to put into it, but we want to do a whole advertising campaign which means we can refurbish the telephone line. So I think we’ve done something very, very big here. We’re not a lot of people, we’re only 500 families, but we make a lot of noise.

MARY: You said that you were involved in this kind of work most of your life. Can I just ask you a few things about your life?

ROBI: My life actually sounds like… you know that soap opera, ‘The young and the brainless’? It’s something like that. Because nobody would actually believe it if I told them my life story. It’s too long and boring actually. I was born in South Africa, and I came here in 1967, to save Israel!

MARY: How old were you then?

ROBI: I don’t know, how old am I now? I’m 64 now, so how old was I then? About 23. And I came as a volunteer. And I ended up working in a chicken house, that was really noble, for saving Israel. Wild chickens. But now I have become very one-dimensional, it is quite boring to be around me too much, because I can only talk about this work and what I am doing. And what has happened is that a lot of my very good friends are no longer my very good friends, not that I don’t love them, but they have no idea what I’m doing, and they can’t relate to this. It is also telling people the truth. And that is why I suppose in many ways my friends now are either bereaved mothers, because it is okay and legitimate for us to get drunk, to laugh, to be human, and they will see if I come in, that I’ve had a bad night.

MARY: You don’t have to explain.

ROBI: Yes. It’s quite okay to do whatever the hell you want to do, without anybody saying ‘be strong’. I hate that. One day, if somebody ever says that to me, I don’t know, but it’s the most annoying thing in the world.

MARY: I read a lot about the truth and reconciliation commission and the whole concept of ubuntu.

ROBI: You saw ‘a long night’s journey into the day’? You need to see that. It is about the truth and reconciliation commission (in South Africa). Actually who I’d love to meet are the African mothers who were in the truth and reconciliation commission. Those are the ones I would love to meet. And maybe one day we could do a conference and bring together all these kinds of mothers.

MARY: Robi, if ever you do have that idea, do please stay in touch with us. We did a two day seminar in Nairobi last July about forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. We worked with refugees from Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo, because we have a lot of friends there and we met refugees who were students, and this whole issue obviously came up very strongly. So we just spent two days with them talking about these issues. It’s so incredibly moving, when at the end of a two-day seminar like that, a Rwandan student can stand up and say, “I do believe now that anybody can change. That it is possible to move on, that somethingdifferent is possible.” But all the stories you have told are the same, being able to bring people to that moment of realisation, it’s like breaking through a stop situation, they have thought for so long, there is nowhere else to go in their thinking about something and suddenly it’s like a door opens and they walk through that door, and a whole world opens up that they just didn’t realise was there. It’s such a moving thing.

ROBI: There is this rippling effect. When I gave Ali (A Palestinian member of the Parents Circle) the letter to take to the sniper they translated it obviously into Arabic. And he uses that for his work all over the West Bank.

MARY: Robi when you hear somebody saying to you, “If I forgive, doesn’t that mean I’m condoning the evil act that was done?” how would you respond to that?

ROBI: By giving that very pragmatic saying that ‘forgiving doesn’t mean giving up your right to justice.’ Forgiving is really making yourself free, freeing yourself from being the victim. I really, really believe that, it’s not just jargon. It really is a sense of freedom. But I haven’t yet gone through the complete process. And I’m not sure how honest I am yet. I know I was very honest in writing the letter and when Ali went again the second time to visit the family he tried to arrange for us all to meet. I said to him that they had to be sure that they wanted this. You can’t force people to do things. And that’s where it’s difficult for me, because that’s the patience. Okay, it’s not the same culture. I can allow them the time that they need, and maybe it will never happen by the way.

MARY: But even if it doesn’t happen you’ve been able to free something in yourself obviously.

ROBI: the letter freed me from the victimisation… About half a year ago I was sitting in the office at the American embassy, giving a lecture with somebody, I think it was with Aziz, and there was a Palestinian sitting there and he kept looking at me, and at the end I could see he wanted to say something. I said to him, “What?” So he came to me and he said, “Look I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I want to. The day before your son was killed I went through the roadblock, and this beautiful young Israeli soldier stopped me and he said, ‘I am really sorry I have to stop you, because it is my duty, it’s like paying income tax. But I will do it as fast as I can’. And he let me go. When I heard that he was killed I was so upset.” That’s actually in essence what we are talking about.

MARY: Robi thank you. Thank you very much.

ROBI: I’m glad that we met. Maybe we can do some stuff together. If you find a nice sugar daddy who wants to support our women’s group do let me know. OK?