Opening Hearts: A Message of Humanity

Updated: Apr 24

A conversation with Chani Smith and Ahlam Akram about the Fragile Path to Peace, Reconciliation and Forgiveness

The Parents Circle –Families Forum is composed of Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families who have joined together to spread a message of tolerance, dialogue and non-violence. This organisation is active in Israel and the Palestinian territories, promoting peace and reconciliation.

On the 5th March 2008, I interviewed two remarkable women, both living in London: Chani Smith, an Israeli, who is the Hon. Secretary of the Friends of the Bereaved Families Forum UK (FBFF), and Ahlam Akram, a Palestinian, who was their Co-Chair at the time of the interview. The FBFF supports the Parents Circle – Families Forum in their many projects, by raising funds for them and by increasing awareness here in Britain of the importance of working together for peace. They believe that the tragic loss of lives will come to an end only through both sides’ empathy and respect for each other’s pain and dignity. Their organisation is not political; they firmly believe in the human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis.

The main work of this grass-roots organisation is to ‘humanise’ the conflict, to help each side understand the pain of the other and promote peace and reconciliation. They believe that this is in the interest of both communities. Their committee consists of Palestinians and Jews, working together for a non-violent solution to the conflict .

Tell me about your work here in the UK.

Chani: One of the first things we did, when we established the Friends of the Bereaved Families Forum, was a concert, “Opening Hearts,” with Arab and Israeli musicians. Some of the concert was just classical music, but some of the music was deliberately chosen for its messages, for example “Shouts Across the Wall,” which was based on the separation caused in a village north of Israel, on the Syrian border, a village that was cut in half, and they were trying to communicate by shouting across the valley. Judith Stephenson read some Palestinian and Israeli poetry.

Ahlam: Nothing will deter us or stop us from carrying this message, no matter what.

A lot of my current work is about the place of forgiveness. What are your thoughts about forgiveness?

Ahlam: It’s about which spiritual level you can reach, to be able to let go, or forgive, to move on. You should forgive, you may not ever forget, but we need to move on for the benefit of humanity, and we cannot move on without forgiving. If you don’t, this is a very negative energy that is going to eat you from inside, it is going to blind your life in many ways, not only within yourself but with others and with your relations, and particularly if you have other family and so on. But that choice has to come from all sides to strengthen it, to enable the person to go beyond that.

Look, I would like to be idealistic and I would love to be in search for humanity, I would love to be, but I have to be realistic as well. The most important thing in my view in this moving on, forgiveness, call it whatever, is to identify with the humanity of another. And tell the truth about the past and present suffering of both sides. There are times when I want to lean more on Chani, and there are times when I reciprocate and let her lean on me, so we have to be each other’s mouthpiece sometimes, in bringing reason and wisdom. This is the level I want, I’ve reached this level personally, I’ve reached this level of openness and frankness with all the people I work with. If we are not brave enough and honest enough within ourselves to rely on one another, to carry my message, to carry our message, then we will always be stuck. It’s not enough to take our message of asking for peace to Chani’s people only, I take the same message to my people, perhaps in a different way, but it’s the same message, that I defend her rights and understand her historical suffering. You have to stand against the wind really in all directions and maintain a balance, and sometimes in the process you lose balance.

Chani: I want to really support everything that Ahlam says, because I think she says it very passionately and very honestly. Ahlam has stuck her neck out many, many times, particularly in her own community, and we have a lot of work to do in our own community to break down stereotypes and to also insist on this working together. My bottom line is peace will only come when we bring it together. Eventually it will have to come from everybody, both from the grassroots and the politicians. The politicians can’t do anything unless there are enough people at the grassroots working together and saying there is just no way we are going to stay on two sides of the fence with a fence between us.

Ahlam: There have been many times when I have felt that I am totally isolated, and no matter how much I want to move forward, you get thirsty for your roots. I went beyond my borders in every aspect. Not because I am clever, but because my circumstances and experience have been different and enabled me to mature and grow. My experience differs from those who are facing the occupation every day of their lives.

Ahlam, could you tell me something about yourself, and how you ended up working with the Families Forum?

Ahlam: I will tell you something. I have always wanted peace. I have worked with peace groups, and I thought I didn’t understand much and those others who have a better command of the language would be better than me to talk, but I supported peace. My transformation happened through two experiences. The first was when I visited the Peace Park in Hiroshima, and saw the statue of a woman carrying her son running, while both are in flames. At that sight, I stood there and wept for all women and made a promise to myself that I shall stand against war and suffering wherever it is in this world. The second was when I did a reading on behalf of Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan, an Israeli Professor who lost her 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. That convinced me 100% that this is the only language for peace – to reach hearts through those who have lost the most precious people in their lives.

So when the Intifada started, militarising the Intifada, it made me go beyond any sanity. I saw it as the worst message we can deliver to the Israeli people, as well as to the world, and I stood completely publicly against militarising the Intifada. I kept emphasising the right of Palestinians to resist, within the borders of the occupation, but preferably as a non-violent struggle. Because, you see, there is an occupation, and the worst thing is this occupation is occupying our souls as two people.

What do you mean by that?

Ahlam: I mean that it is occupying the souls of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinian people. It is killing what is left from our humanity. There is an element of fear within the Jewish psyche, after the Holocaust, which was absolutely a crime against humanity, it should never have been allowed and should never be repeated, and we should never keep silent about such things anywhere in the world. If I ever see anything like this, large or small, against a Jew, a Chinese person, an Indian, an African, we have got to open our hearts and see ourselves in them, we have to have this empathy and bring it back to us. And this is where I stood completely against militarising the Intifada. Unfortunately I was proven right. The damage it created was bigger. But on the other hand, now I rely on friends like Chani, like all the Jewish people I’m working with. Now is the time to also not keep silent about what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank. You see, if I challenged everybody as a woman on my own, it’s tough.

You know as Middle Eastern women how much we are marginalised. I opened my mouth, and I was on television stations twice, three times a day. Giving the same message in different ways, in different voices. So it’s not too much to come now and ask support from Jewish people whom I know, that we both need one another. And I know they stand by my rights. We have got to be honest, we have got to deliver a message of equality as human beings, no matter what. It pains me so much. A little girl this morning, in Al Khali, just born, was killed, for what? And I don’t want to equate between how many Israeli kids, how many Palestinian kids. The numbers speak for themselves. But as far as I’m concerned each and every one is sacred to me. It’s a precious life. It’s a future, it’s a future we are killing by our own hands. And this goes on whilst both our religions teach that if one soul is killed, it is as bad as if you are killing a whole people.

That’s a very powerful message. Ahlam, did you grow upin the Middle East?

Ahlam: Well I grew up to high school level in Nablus, in a middle-class family.

Christian, Muslim?

Ahlam: Muslim, Palestinian heritage. I am a fortunate person. I went for an education to Egypt. I left the West Bank at the age of 18 and ever since I have been going back as a visitor, but my whole family is still there. And they went through the process of occupation. I go twice or three times a year and I know exactly how it feels over there, what it means to be occupied.

What does it mean to be occupied?

Ahlam: It means that you have no control over anything in your life. No control over your water, no control over your electricity, no control about planning the future of your child. You bury your hopes because you know you cannot fulfil them. As a mother, you look at your child, and you want the best for him or her, but yet you do not dare to talk about these dreams and hopes because you are afraid it will not happen. Being occupied is beyond just the physical occupation. It is beyond the physical presence of the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints. Some of them are idiots who wouldn’t care if they humiliate me or not, if they humiliate my mother. But some, a few, are decent enough to recognise my humanity.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Ahlam: At the end of the day, as Avraham Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset once put it, “Do you think that Palestinian kids come to our restaurants and blow themselves up because they want to spoil our appetites? It is because we have humiliated their mothers at the checkpoints, we have destroyed their homes and we have left them without any hope.” I