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.
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 have endless stories. But I realise the value of working together because I know there are Jewish people, particularly in the British community, who believe exactly the same. Enough is enough and we have to move on. Personally, political borders don’t mean anything anymore. But it’s up to the people over there to choose what they want. Yes, I want a separation, I want two states, but whether it could materialise now or not is another question. For myself, I will keep saying, to Jewish people and others everywhere, for God’s sake help us to materialise it.
As you are describing what it means to be occupied, I know also from doing a lot of work with women around the world, I could absolutely see the parallel, women in some cultures and societies, or just because of their circumstance feel trapped in the same way in their home.
Ahlam: Palestinian women are occupied on many levels. They are occupied by a combination of culture and religion, each feeds on the other, and add to that the other occupation – so their life goes in this continuous way.
Do you think that women have a particular role to play in this?
How would you describe that?
Ahlam: Look, I don’t think Palestinian women over there are capable of being objective because you are driven by circumstances. So yes women are ”lulling” when they lose a son, but that does not mean it is a sign of happiness or that they are encouraging such an act. The loneliness the woman goes through after that, and the emptiness of losing a son, does not differ between a Palestinian or a Jewish or an American or any woman in the world. Let’s emphasise that. So they are not really capable of being objective in looking at this, because the reality of continuous suffering is still there. Some, who are the few fortunate ones who managed to get an education, who managed to break the barriers, to study abroad – these are the ones who are at least leading the women’s movement towards reconciliation, peace, whatever will help to bring an end to this conflict, this occupation. But I believe that it is our responsibility more than anybody else’s, we who are the diasporas now in the world. You have an African woman in America, Arab and Jewish women here in the UK, we are the ones who need to define and evaluate what is more important: our identity, or our common humanity.
We are the fortunate ones because at the end of the day we go back to secure homes, our kids are safe. So our voices for peace should be louder. That is why we carry more of the responsibility. And considering that the Jewish people carry their suffering and experience of what it means to go through this, I would expect them to be the first ones to stand up and say, enough is enough. I mean, Israel exists whether I like it or not, whether I make peace with Israel or not, it exists.
Whether I love it or not, it doesn’t matter. But I want a bit of normality for my people, to enable them to think rationally like other human beings. Normal, to think of the weather, rather than to be thinking of what will happen next. Will my son or daughter return safely from school or will they be killed, perhaps by a stray bullet from a frightened young Israeli soldier who now will also be suffering for the rest of his life?
I stand against any form of fundamentalism. At the moment I am writing about women, women, women. But I work on many various things. I’ve written about fundamentalism on both sides. I’ve written about Hamas. I gave them hell. Because I do not accept any form of fundamentalism, whether it is coming from an idiot Muslim, or coming from an idiot settler. I don’t think God differentiated between any of us when we were born, we all have limbs, and arms, and heads.
So, what do you think that women can bring to this process of building peace? What would you say to those Palestinian women, you say it is very hard for them to be objective because they are in that situation day to day, but what message are you trying to bring to those women?
Ahlam: We have to go beyond our roots. If we want to protect the future for our loved ones, if we want to protect what is left from our humanity, our belongings, our children, our everything, then we have to be wise. We need to understand it is a new world and we have to go beyond our suffering, to recognise the other, and accept his/her right to life just as we want ours. We need to go beyond our culture and stop glorifying any kind of killing. Stop glorifying things which we know pain us. And I appeal to the Jewish women as well. Stop thinking that by sending your son to serve, you are protecting Israel. You are not protecting Israel. On the contrary, you are fastening the degradation, the moral degradation of your people, who were once known for their humanism.
Chani: I want to come in here. Because I would say that I agree with maybe 98% of what Ahlam is saying. I actually go along with it. Except that I think that the situation is very, very complex, and I think that the context is getting lost. I don’t want to simplify the context, but I want to give a few conflicting things just to show the complexity. So we have the extremists on both sides.
And I start with the Israeli side because I think we have to deal with the evil in our midst first. And I do think that there is an element of greed in Israeli society that hides itself sometimes under the skin of security and in that name takes more and more land from the Palestinians, and enjoys the benefits of that and I think it is a real evil and it’s an evil that must be stood against.
On the other hand, we get extremists on the Palestinian side. When I read the Hamas charter, I am very, very scared. I am very scared when I read that somebody says I want to kill all the Jews, find them behind every stone that they are hiding behind, and I know that my really good Palestinian friends stand against Hamas. Ahlam has written against it. Heba, my Palestinian friend says don’t even pay attention to them because we don’t want to put light on something so bad. But I am saying this also exists. And on the one hand Israel is superior militarily to the Palestinians, there’s no question, but on the other hand it is a small country surrounded by 200 million Arab people who on the whole, the vast majority doesn’t want to see us there.
So when you say, “By sending your child to serve in the army you are not protecting Israel,” it is a very complex thing to say. Because yes, if you are supporting the occupation, you are not protecting Israel because it is really destroying us from the inside. I am concerned about the fact that it destroys us as Israelis, but I’m actually very concerned that it is destroying the Palestinian people. I care, I have got friends, Palestinian friends. I feel that we have a responsibility to the Palestinian people. I really feel responsible for what we are doing to our cousins. In Israel we always talk about the Arabs as ourcousins. There is a sense of shared humanity. So it is a terrible thing.
However, Israel is also, at the same time as oppressing and killing and threatening other people, it is also being threatened. So it is a very, very difficult thing to know when you are protecting, and when are you stopping protecting and starting to oppress. And I don’t want to lose that nuance. So what is happening in Gaza is terrible, and I think what Israel is doing is making it worse. But there is also a provocation of 4000 bombs that have been falling on Sderot for the last few years. You can’t just say, “But look at the numbers, look how much suffering there is.” Of course I am not justifying it. Not only do I not justify it, I also think it is a very bad move. That is why I was saying the situation is complex. I really think that the military is not the solution. It is not solving anything and it is making it much, much worse. And it is causing untold suffering on both sides.
And I think that “Opening Hearts” is a very good image. Some of us were sharing stories and when I heard the story of Heba, my Palestinian Lebanese friend, of her family becoming refugees when the state of Israel was created, how it led to the complete fragmentation of her whole family spread all over the world, never feeling anywhere being at home, I could really relate to that. It moved me. I sat for days after that story and it really related to my own family story of dispossession, of exile, of humiliation. I think that when we recognise how similar the suffering is, and don’t put the lid on that suffering, something important happens, although it can actually be very difficult to share.
I think the Parents Circle – Families Forum are very brave in sharing their stories with one another. I am actually feeling on the edge of tears at the moment, because I am thinking again about Heba and her story, and what Ahlam’s family is going through at the moment in the West Bank. And it is terrible, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
I want to ask you, do you find that the men that you work with have particular challenges, because they are men, do you see the masculine gender has any particular issues; for example, is it that their identity or their honour or their role as the head of the family makes it harder for them to go this route of reconciliation and peace building?
Chani: Yes, I do think that women have something, I think women connect more with one another, it’s easier for women…
Ahlam: I think it’s more difficult. In the last six or seven months I turned my energy because I got so exhausted and drained from the conflict itself, and I started looking at the roots behind everything, I started digging into religion. And when I look at women’s rights in religion, I find that this is a very big obstacle to moving on, so this is where I find women’s challenges are much harder.
Because they are not empowered to make decisions?
Ahlam: Not only this. We women are strong from within, but how do you translate this strength into action? How could you control your husband’s ego, tell him that he is wrong, and so on? How could you bring humanity back? I remember I met a diplomat at a dinner, and I was talking about the fair distribution of wealth in the sense of creating jobs and I was blaming the Gulf as to why don’t they do something about absorbing unemployed people, to create more justice and so on. That was after the first Gulf war. And the diplomat answered, “How many men have you heard about who have committed suicide after losing their wealth? Of course, many. How many men have you heard of committing suicide after losing their sons? None.” You see it doesn’t mean that he is less emotional than a woman, but his way of thinking about tragedy is different, while the woman, it’s from within… I think as a woman you have this bond, this umbilical chord. You cut it, but it’s never really cut.
And that is why a woman is more capable of making peace, if she is given the right circumstances, if you empower women by giving them the sense of protection, and this is where Palestinian women are really struggling on all fronts. Look at the percentage of educated women. I met so many women back in the West Bank and I talked to them and they know what I’m doing, and they respect it, and they say, “We hope.” They want their message to reach the Israeli public, that they are willing to forget, forgive, move on.
But back to the question, the new era has to concentrate on empowering women. When it comes to hurting my child I have no ego, I don’t give a damn about my dignity. When it comes to protecting my son, or my daughter, I don’t care, I will swallow my pride. But a man, he doesn’t. It may be the way we are created. We need to change the balance, we need women in places of power and decision making.
Do you find there are increasingly men though, who are willing to listen to what women have to say, or do you feel that it is still quite a closed door?
Ahlam: A few. I write articles in Arab papers. And I get all kinds of comments, something like a range of 60 comments within six hours. Some women even tell me, “You should have been buried live!” But there are a few men who are commending the topics that I am trying to open, the way I am advocating women’s rights and human rights for all. There are a few – those who are clever enough to realise the importance of women. Again we should not deny that out of love a man is willing, you have to remould them. You have to remould the society. You have to startagain from the family, empower women, within her family, to be listened to.
What have been some of your greatest moments? We have talked about some of the difficulties and challenges. But what about times when you really felt something had happened, and something is working here, something has made a difference, in your work together?
Chani: Actually, I was thinking as I was listening to Ahlam, we do have a different perspective, particularly about the past. We have a very very strong unshakable commitment, joint commitment for a similar future. But whenever I hear Ahlam, or any of my Arab friends, I’m always slightly uncomfortable, and this is both the lowest and the highest moment for me. I would say that that slight discomfort is for me the important issue. Because the situation is very complex, and we must hold on to that complexity and face it. But it is the fact that we are facing it together, and I have to say that each time, even the times when we feel in some kind of a little conflict about our actions, I feel even stronger in my human bond, my personal bond, because I know we are suffering together. And for me I think it’s about the ability to share this difficult situation with people who are on the other side, but not to be on the other side, but to be together on the same side.
Maybe it is a strange answer to your question, because it is not a high moment of “everything is okay,” it’s a high moment of “everything is terrible but we are together, and we continue to be together.” This is not going to slow us down or stop us from continuing to spread this message that on the other side there are people who are suffering, and we have to take responsibility for our part in their suffering, and our part in our own suffering and we are doing it on both sides at the same time.
So I think for me this is the most important thing, and the growing friendship. When I first met Ahlam, it was “the Palestinian, with the Arab accent,” with a family who may have connections to something that may have threatened my own identity. But I am sure it was even more so for Ahlam with what I represent as an Israeli. And yet, this is the reality, and we are not retreating to the comfort of our own side, and our own self-justification, and projecting the evil, because the evil belongs exclusively on the other side and we are okay, but actually we are not okay. We are doing things which are wrong, and the fact that we can say it, and not disappear, and the fact that I can say we are doing things wrong, it doesn’t mean we should disappear.
What have you learned from Ahlam?
Chani: What have I learned from Ahlam? It is really the humanity. It’s not so much learning on an intellectual level, it is kind of taking in, Ahlam now lives inside me, she is part of me now. Heba is a part of me now. They are part of me. I carry her and her well-being and the well-being of her family inside myself.
And that makes you a bigger person in a way, I’m talking about greatness of soul.
Chani: It makes it easier to bear the pain of the situation when there is hope. Maybe a better answer to your question is that what I have learned more than anything, is that there is hope. Because if we can work together, and it is not just from Ahlam, it is also from our contact with people like Robi and Ali who have suffered directly, and are holding onto hope, I think if you can hold on to hope you’re not depressed. I have a lot of Israeli friends, they are all very left-wing, and very against the occupation, but they are all in despair and they are paralysed. And they can’t do anything. And I say to them you know, I am not desperate, I am not in despair, I am very worried, but I have hope, because I work together with my colleagues.
Ahlam: The most important issue, that we need to emphasise to both peoples, is that we have to silence the devil in our own hearts, that says, “I’m the only one. I have exclusive rights to the land and to God.” I am not the only one, I believe that God created the land for all His people, and the other person is not less or more than me as a human being. But again, I want that other person to say exactly the same, and treat me with the respect I deserve as a human being.
And if they don’t? Are you still able to hold on to that?
Ahlam: If they don’t, there are times, moments of despair, there are moments when I feel rotten, particularly in my community, when I feel that I am isolated by both. There have been times when I had to give a talk to Jewish communities and I was honest and a lot of people didn’t like my honesty. But yet I had to say the facts. As it is. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want peace, or I don’t believe in peace. We have to keep the dialogue going. Talk. Get to one another. And then I go to my community and I feel I am all alone. Those moments, believe me, are really awful, when you are stuck at the bottom level of feeling lost and empty.
What brings you back from that place?
Ahlam: What brings me back? In those moments, I face the challenge, get re-energised, and say, “No-one is going to change my mind about this path to peace!” and I go on. I feel responsible, I am a privileged person, and so I should carry on because there are those who have not been as lucky as I am. And I know that without the strength of Chani and the others, and all of these people around me here, with their strengths standing by, I would not be able to restore my faith.
So it is a battle. I cannot deny there are times when it is a continuous battle within myself, within my soul. There are moments when I say “My God!” But if I have any hope, the hope is, I don’t care for political borders, humanity for me is on top of everything. The hope is for these two peoples to live together in dignity and respect. So, it’s about silencing the devil in our hearts, that says I have exclusivity to the truth. And to question, what is truth? What is reality? And willingly accept the fact that I cannot turn the clock back, because I do not want another person to go through the same suffering, and willingly move on.
Chani, is there anything else you would like to say about reconciliation and forgiveness?
Chani: Yes. Ali was asked about forgiveness, in a talk that he gave in Wimbledon last year, when he and Robi were here, and he said, “Forgiveness is the highest level of the process we are in. I’m not ready to forgive, but what we can do now is reconcile. Let’s actually face the truth together, accept the truth, contain the pain, and maybe at some point, that road which begins with honesty and reconciliation might bring peace and when there is peace, we may have forgiveness. But first it is reconciliation, then peace, then forgiveness.” And I know that a lot of Holocaust victims say the same. We can’t forget and we can’t forgive. But we can find a way to reconcile with Germans. We can, for the sake of the future, find a way to move together forward. Because it is so painful.
You see, I met my husband in Germany, in a Jewish Christian bible seminar which was set up to bring reconciliation between Jews and Germans, it was under ”Inter-Faith,” but it was really Jews and Germans. Again, another difficult area. It may be the next generation who will be able to do things that the generation which has been traumatised is finding difficult. One had to recognise the deep scars. You know, when a Palestinian says, “I don’t want to set my foot in Tel Aviv, because I will see an Israeli soldier in every young man,” I understand where he is coming from. I just hope that we can find some way of helping the Palestinians have their freedom, help them have their own country, their equality, dignity, all those things we talk about. And maybe if we do our share in bringing a better future to the Palestinians, maybe in two or three generations their trauma can begin to heal. We must do it for the sake of the future.
For more information about the work of the FBFF, you can visit their website, www.FamiliesForum.co.uk