Palestine, Israel and the courage of dialogue
Host Nelufar Hedayat examines the power and limitations of dialogue with three people working to create justice and equality in Israel and Palestine. She speaks with rapper Tamer Nafar, a Palestinian who lives in Israel, about how he uses music to call attention to the lives of his fellow Palestinians in Israel. Then she speaks with Hussein Agha, an advisor to Palestinian leaders who has worked in peace negotiations, about the need to translate dialogue into action. Finally she talks to Robi Damelin, an Israeli activist who brings together Palestinians and Israelis through shared grief and empathy.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in this season, we have been focusing on polarization. In each episode, I explore a topic that’s dividing us. I talk to people with a range of perspectives on an issue, and I try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me.
Now, take a deep breath with me. We’re about to do an episode on one of, if not the, most polarized issues in the world today: Israelis and Palestinians.
NELUFAR: So let me be clear about what we’re trying to accomplish in this program. I’m not going to litigate the history of Israelis and Palestinians, or talk about how to solve the conflict. Both of these things are so important and should be discussed and worked through, just not here. The goal of this episode is to talk about how bloody hard all this is, even to talk about. It’s not just all the sensitivities that you need to bring to this discussion. It’s that the discussion we’re having today challenges one of the very core tenets of how to overcome polarization. That dialogue with the other side will lead to something positive — a world where everyone is treated as equals. It’s a sentiment recently expressed by the United States President Joe Biden.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF JOE BIDEN: I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy.
NELUFAR: The guests I have chosen from today each have a different perspective on dialogue. They by no means represent the entire range of opinions on this conflict. But each comes from a unique vantage point that I think is valuable. In other episodes, at least one interviewee challenges my perspective, but I can say all three of these have challenged the way I feel about the whole situation. They’ve enlightened, frustrated and downright perplexed me. But my guests and me, we all got through it. First, we’ll hear from a Palestinian rapper, who uses his music to try and influence minds and hearts.
MAN: I would call my songs the dialogue the best way to start a dialogue, what I decided to do I decided to use my microphone.
NELUFAR: Next, an adviser for the Palestinians on peace negotiations tells me how he wrestled with the limitations of diplomacy.
MAN WITH PALESTINIAN ACCENT: Agreements have to be built on hard realities, not on soft concepts like trust. I don’t trust any agreement that’s based on trust.
NELUFAR: And we’ll hear from an Israeli mother, who, against all odds, turned her family tragedy into an opportunity to open up dialogue.
WOMAN WITH SOUTH AFRICAN ACCENT: You know, it’s so easy to judge everybody and to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, but it’s so much better to really get the knowledge and to understand, with compassion, both sides.
NELUFAR: But first — so, we’ve been planning this episode for months. And then a few weeks ago before we were due to start recording…
[GUNFIRE AND SHOUTING]
NELUFAR: Barriers had been erected by the Damascus Gate, not far from the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque. The gate is a place where, during Ramadan, Palestinian Muslims tend to gather at sunset after they break the fast. The barriers were eventually removed, but there were other clashes already brewing.
NEWS CLIP WITH MALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: This flashpoint neighborhood of East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah is where regional escalation from Gaza to the West Bank is rooted.
NEWS CLIP WITH MALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: Police were in riot gear as they fired rubber bullets and stun grenades, while Palestinians hurled stones at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
NEWS CLIP WITH FEMALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: After the Ramadan fast ended each evening, protesters took to the streets in solidarity with Palestinian families who face evictions.
NELUFAR: This is the story of Israeli authorities and hard liners seeking to expel Palestinian residents from their homes to make room for Jewish settlers. In this context, the settlers are trying to seize property based on ancient deeds and modern Israeli regulations that tend to favor the claims of Israelis. In response to these actions, protests increased, tensions kept escalating and escalating.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF JEN PSAKI: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated concerns about the potential evictions of Palestinian families from their homes. And they agreed that the launching of rocket attacks and incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel is unacceptable and must be condemned.
NELUFAR: At this point in the making of our program, we didn’t know that it would escalate further, but it did.
NEWS CLIP WITH FEMALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: Israel launches a series of deadly retaliatory strikes on Gaza hours after rockets were fired from the Palestinian enclave.
NEWS CLIP WITH FEMALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: Thick clouds of black smoke filled the air in Gaza as an air strike brings a third high-rise building to the ground. Residents and businesses in the Al Sharq building had been warned to evacuate before…
NEWS CLIP WITH MALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: After more than 4,000 Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli cities, killing at least 13 Israelis and Israeli air strikes on Gaza in retaliation, killing more than 230, including at least 65 children. Tonight, a ceasefire.
NELUFAR: At the time of this recording, more than two weeks had passed since the ceasefire went into effect. The larger ramifications of the violence is an important discussion to walk through. But again, this is not what we’re looking to do in this show. We are viewing it through the lens of dialogue between two peoples. And it seemed like at this point, the two sides were as far apart as they’ve been in decades.
This was confirmed to me by my first guest, Palestinian hip-hop star and rapper, Tamer Nafar. Tamer lives in Israel. He’s an Israeli citizen, but he doesn’t call himself Israeli.
I’m a Palestinian…
NELUFAR: OK, now hold on. Hold on. Let’s talk about this. What I call you. And how I label you is a political statement, isn’t it?
TAMER: Of course.
NELUFAR: Tamer uses dialogue in a different way. He uses his music and videos to reach millions around the world. His words express what he feels is an oppressive rule by the Israeli government. For example, in his song, “If Only,” he rhymes about his struggle for equality, he raps lyrics which translate to, “Create the demon of passion in me, the demon of revolution. I will fight for both freedom and love. I’m not afraid.”
[SONG IN ARABIC]
TAMER: They are asking us to coexist when one side doesn’t even exist, you know, that I don’t exist in the anthem. You know, I don’t exist in the flag. I mean, imagine the London’s anthem is “this land is only for white people.” This is the anthem here. This land is only for the Jewish people. That’s what they sing every morning, so that the coexistence they are talking about is, “We exist and you don’t exist. But let’s meet once on Saturday when I want you to fix my car or clean my garden, or I’ll eat your authentic, amazing hummus.” And this is something we cannot accept.
NELUFAR: Tamer lives in Lyd, or Lod. Each side has its own name for the place. It’s a relatively under-resourced Israeli city about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. It’s filled with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Jewish Israelis, and really a whole range of mixed ethnicities. Tamer says his city also provides a stark example of how life can be different for Palestinians. It’s something he’s brought attention to in his music and his activism.
TAMER: Back in 2002, my neighborhood didn’t have electricity, for example, back then, and it was an unrecognized village. But I decided to use my microphone. What I did is, I did a song and I took a bus. I went to Tel Aviv and I just grabbed me around 20, 25, 30 famous Israeli artists. And it brought all the media to my city to show them how we don’t exist.
And I was like, guys, do you want to talk about coexistence? That means both of us need to exist. We don’t exist on the map of the municipality. We don’t exist when it comes to water, to electricity, and we pay the same taxes as you. I think that’s a great way to start a dialogue.
[“INNOCENT CRIMINALS” IN ARABIC]
This is land for Jews
And the Arabs don’t exist, where is peace?
And when there is no peace, a barrier is built to kill our dreams
We are discriminated against, but we will never run away,
But everyday we will expose the truth
Through the microphone…
NELUFAR: What we just heard was from the song “Innocent Criminals.” Part of the lyrics translate to “We are discriminated against, but we will never run away. / Every day we will expose the truth through the microphone.”
Tensions were extremely high in the city when we managed to connect with Tamer in May, about a week into the violence. Tamer was already on edge, having spoken to a bunch of Western media outlets. I wanted him to know I had no hidden agenda.
NELUFAR: Now I want to be fully transparent here. I want you to tell me what do you think that I should acknowledge in myself?
TAMER: I don’t know. Let’s just talk as people who just met. Let words guide us, whatever they guide us.
TAMER: We are just human beings now. That’s the main thing. Sometimes people don’t say anti-Semitic things or Islamophobic things, but the ears that hear things, they decide it’s Islamophobic. So we cannot also — let’s agree that we cannot control how people are going to hear it or liken promises to be honest and a human being that we are.
NELUFAR: Me too.
NELUFAR: If it seems like we’re spending a lot of time talking about language, that’s because language is at the center of all of this. As a rapper, Tamer knows that how we frame an issue — the lens in which both sides agree to look at something — matters. You need a solid foundation to move forward, or as Tamer put it, proper landing gear before taking off.
TAMER: It’s like giving someone wings and not teaching them how to land. That’s why it crashes the whole time.
NELUFAR: Tamer firmly rejects the idea that Israelis and Palestinians are equal players. When it comes to talking about the latest escalation, he bristles when the media labels it a war.
NEWS CLIP WITH FEMALE NEWS ANCHOR SPEAKING: But we begin first with the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence. As rocket attacks continue in that region and fears grow of an all-out war.
TAMER: They are trying very hard to make it symmetrical. It’s like, imagine that the world is coming to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement in the aspect of, it’s about how Black people and white people should live together. It would fail. But they came as the Black community is in danger and the Black community needs our help. So it’s Black Lives Matter and it’s focused and it’s diagnosed and it’s very specific and it’s very honest. And here people need to understand that you cannot put the victim with the same equation, with the one who’s victimizing him for years.
That will keep on falling and falling and falling and falling. It’s impossible to compare the oppressor with the oppressed. You cannot say now that the American police did this, but at the same time Black people did that. You cannot compare them together. It’s not like that Black people have their own police. If they have their own police, maybe you could have compared it. But you’re comparing a government with people. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, you cannot just compare them. It’s not — you know, the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, yeah, he wrote about it in his book when he said you can never compare the violence of the oppressed to the violence of the oppressor.
The violence of the oppressed is a more mental thing that you can never expect. It might just happen. I mean, if you look at South Africa and the apartheid, I’m sure some African, you know, attacked innocent people. Right? But it happened — it happens in a way that you cannot expect it. But the oppressor’s violence is so systematic and organized, and it has a head. So you can never compare people to a system. And this is something that I’ve noticed that it’s been changing for the last few years. Some of the people that I follow and that I admire, a lot of them are Jews as well, they are not finding it hard, or fear to talk about.
NELUFAR: We should note here that this way of framing the Palestinian and Israeli dynamic, as one between victims and oppressors, is true to how supporters of Palestinian rights see this conflict all over the world. Progressives, even supporters of Israel in the U.S. and Europe, increasingly view the conflict this way.
NEWS CLIP WITH FEMALE ANCHOR SPEAKING: Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch released a major report saying for the first time that Israel is committing crimes of apartheid and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories. The International Human Rights Group says Israeli authorities have dispossessed, confined and forcibly separated Palestinians.
NELUFAR: For supporters of Palestinian rights, the denial of Palestinian equality, of displacement, Israeli occupation and blockade are at the heart of it. But for most Israelis, the core issue is something else altogether. The real problem is Hamas, the Islamic group that’s been labeled a terror organization by the U.S. and Europe. They run Gaza and fired thousands of rockets at Israel in the latest round of fighting. Here’s Tom Aharon, a talk show host known as the Israeli John Oliver.
ARCHIVE AUDIO OF TOM AHARON: We do have to address the fact that Hamas targets civilians almost exclusively while the IDF makes an effort to avoid it. I do think that taking down civilian buildings is an extreme measure and should only be used as a last resort, which is pretty [EXPLETIVE BLEEPED] hard considering how deeply Hamas is rooted in everyday Palestinian lives in Gaza.
NELUFAR: I talked to Tamer Nafar for over an hour, and in the course of that discussion, we kept it real. I told him how some of his lyrics about hating Israel seem frightening. And he told me I was parroting talking points from Fox News. That low point in the conversation occurred when I pointed out that one rocket Hamas fired ended up killing two Palestinian citizens of Israel, a father and his daughter. It was an uncomfortable conversation, but we seem to get somewhere by the end of it.
TAMER: Can we agree on something?
NELUFAR: I wish.
TAMER: We are agreeing a lot more than we disagree. It’s a conversation, and in conversation, you’re going to say things that are going to piss me off. I’m going to say things that’s going to piss you off. I’m going to give you examples that makes you laugh. You’re going to make me laugh. It’s a conversation. So everything is OK. Part of a healthy and honest conversation.
NELUFAR: Yes, I think we can agree to that. Tamer Nafar, thank you so much for talking to me.
TAMER: Yeah, you good!
NELUFAR: While rapper Tamer Nafar has the pulse on what’s happening on the streets, our next guest, Hussein Agha, gave me a broader perspective on why dialogue has not achieved much in this crisis.
As you know, I mean, the number of meetings, seminars, conferences, summits that take place all over the world about all the issues, usually the talk is the right talk, but then people go back home and they forget about it. So the challenge is not in the dialogue, in the conversation. The challenge is how to turn that into something real.
NELUFAR: He should know. Agha has been steeped in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. He’s a veteran of negotiations, both under former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and current leader Mahmoud Abbas. He took part in the peace talks mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the Obama administration.
In speaking with Agha, I wanted to challenge myself to understand why dialogue hadn’t worked so far in securing peace, because throughout my career and in my life, it’s something I have believed to be true. If you’re trying to get over fighting with your sister, as I have many times, or settle a disagreement with friends and family, talking is the only way through it. Talking is the only thing that means both sides walk away feeling that they have lost a little. They’ve also gained something they couldn’t have gotten otherwise.
NELUFAR: I have spent my entire life believing that dialogue and and and talking to one another, understanding each other’s positions, is the way forward. Is this true, here, in this instance? Is dialogue, is talking about the conflict, the way to get through to the other side?
HUSSEIN: It is good to talk. I would never put the case against talking, against dialoguing, against engaging. But there’s a big, big gap to make it a reality.
NELUFAR: What lives in that gap?
HUSSEIN: What lives in the gap are the daily events of the death and destruction, are all the negative things you see, plus maybe a few positive things here and there. People are locked into comfort zones, and those comfort zone provides them with the security and the confidence of not moving away from it. And part of that comfort zone is the actual dialoguing, because they feel very often that, “Oh, we’re doing the right thing because we’re talking about the right thing in the right way and reaching the right conclusions that would be ethical and moral and just and fair and all that,” and they stop at that. So this is a fact of life. I mean, people don’t like uncertainty even without setting the best example that lofty promises, but that people don’t want to take these risks, people are, on the whole, risk-averse.
NELUFAR: I want to stay in this idea of the comfort zone. I want to understand, I’m always thinking about dialogue as a way of moving forward. But this conflict, the discussion, talking about the conflict, trying to find a way through, that’s not what the dialogue does. I mean, that’s alarming.
HUSSEIN: No, I disagree. I don’t think that the people involved in the dialogue, they approach it without thinking at the back of their head that they want to resolve it for them to be in the front of their heads.
NELUFAR: Shouldn’t that be at the front of their heads? I mean? You know?
HUSSEIN: Well, the front of their head is their daily life. And daily life lends itself to either lofty ideals or to big concepts. That life is you have to manage it.
NELUFAR: Why did you choose the path of dialogue and not of violence?
HUSSEIN: I did not. I was against it. I was against it. But then when the majority of the people in the leadership choose a dialogue, your choice is being irrelevant and putting yourself on the margin of things or joining in and seeing what you can achieve through the will and the ways of the majority of the people you are supposed to be fighting on behalf of.
And anyway, I realized as well that fighting is not always physical fighting, and that there is a time and place for all kinds of ways of fighting. There was a time and place for physical confrontation. There is a time and place for that kind of a cognitive confrontation. And then there is a time and place for dialogue. And after that, negotiations. And when you see people less fortunate than you, it’s your duty. It’s your utmost duty to extend your capabilities to help them.
NELUFAR: What are the three things that one needs in order to even start thinking about dialogue and success?
HUSSEIN: You need agreement on substance. You need the right political context. And you need to recognize the moment when all this becomes possible to make it into a reality. My last round of negotiations with the Israelis, I kept telling my friends, “Listen, this is what you are agreeing to now. If we wait another six months, it would not be acceptable anymore.” We have to grasp this moment, and I don’t think I was successful in sufficiently impressing on them the importance of that. And the moment passed, and despite the fact that people now, they can agree much more on the substance, but the context is wrong. Israelis move to the right. The Palestinians do — have no faith in either the leadership or in the possibility of reaching an agreement with the Israelis. So the context is wrong. So you’re left with nothing.
NELUFAR: We ended up hashing out some of the back and forth that’s happened over the decades in the checkered history of negotiations. Hussein then said something that threw me.
HUSSEIN: It is a deep, psychological, historical, religious, colonialist conflict that needs extra care and open-mindedness to be able to resolve that. So that’s why it’s difficult. It’s difficult. It’s difficult. It’s complex. It’s complex. I’m not surprised that there is no resolution. I mean, I’m not. I mean, I’m surprised by people who are surprised and say, “Oh, my God, what is this?” And every European Western politician who comes to power, he thinks that, “OK, so what’s the problem? I can solve it.”
NELUFAR: A lot of what you have said to me today that I’ve learned so much from seems to be down to this idea of, a, making peace and two, trust because you don’t make peace with your friend, you make peace with your enemy. And you cannot start to build the foundations of peace without trusting your enemy to do what you agree. So how do we start to build that trust? So much blood has been shed. How do we begin?
HUSSEIN: Nelufar. That’s a rubbish premise. Anybody who talks to you about trust is not serious. How can you trust your enemy? Any agreement that’s based on trust is very fragile because the trust is not there.
NELUFAR: OK, what about common ground? Can we at least find some common ground?
HUSSEIN: But that’s a different thing. Common ground is not the same as trust, but a lot of people talk like you, you know. “Oh, my God, we have to reestablish trust.” Has there ever been trust for it to be reestablished? How do you establish trust between the occupier and the occupied? How do you establish trust between somebody who’s been kicked out of his house and the person who kicked them out of his house? This is nonsense. This is not serious. Agreements have to be built on hard realities, not on soft concepts like trust. I don’t trust any agreement that’s based on trust. It has to be based on very ironclad conditions, not trust.
NELUFAR: OK, I’m not giving up. What if we just, what if we…
HUSSEIN: Never give up. Never. Fight till the end. In the end, you have to fight for what you believe in, whatever it is. Believe in it and fight it. Sorry —
NELUFAR: No —
HUSSEIN: No, that was a kind of a throwback to my youth.
NELUFAR: Please, I, I, continue. Continue.
HUSSEIN: Nelufar. Fight. Fight, though, don’t be scared of fighting. Fighting does not mean carrying Kalashnikov and killing people, but you have to fight, you have to keep at it. Don’t give up, don’t go for easy solutions. Don’t go for things that sound right. Just keep at it. You know, obstacles, not obstacles, bad people, mass murderers.
I mean, my God, the kind of people I dealt with over the decades I’ve been involved in, some of them, when I think about them, you know, I just like can’t believe I was in the same room talking with them. I mean, these people are people with not drops of blood on their hands but with systems of blood covering them all over. And but still, you know, you have to fight, you have to fight. There’s no choice. There’s no choice. You have to fight for your own humanity. And don’t forget, the ultimate prize is humanity. It’s not the small conflict itself. It’s not the small national groups. It’s humanity we’re fighting for.
NELUFAR: Hussein Agha, thank you so much for speaking to me.
HUSSEIN: Thank you.
NELUFAR: This brings us to our final guest, Robi Damelin. She’s an Israeli originally from South Africa, and her current title is spokesperson and director of international relations for a group called the Parents Circle Families Forum. It’s for those who’ve gone through the most traumatic experience imaginable: Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a child, and more specifically, a child lost to this conflict.
In 2002, Robi’s son, David, was a member of the peace movement, working to bring ordinary Palestinians and Israelis together, but then he was called up to serve in the Army Reserve. The 28-year-old was on guard duty at a checkpoint in the West Bank. Before dawn one March morning, a Palestinian sniper began opening fire.
[SOUND OF GUNFIRE]
David, along with six other Israeli soldiers and three civilians, were killed that day. Two years later, the sniper was caught, put on trial and eventually sentenced to life in prison. At the time, Robi, like David, had been working for equality.
When they caught the man who killed David, that was a very, very difficult time for me, because before that, you know, I could walk around the world and talk about peace and love. And I recognized the fact that Palestinian mothers shared the same things I did, and that the tears that fall in a grave are the same color. But there wasn’t a face of the person that killed David, and when I got the face, that’s when it became very difficult. All of this work is filled with stumbling blocks and tests to see if you mean what you say. And your passion for this war isn’t a genuine passion, or what is it.
NELUFAR: At the time, Robi, much like her son David, had been working for equality. Robi was faced with a dilemma that no mother, no human, no person, should ever have to face. I would certainly understand if she decided at this point to turn her back on her coexistence work, and resolve never to meet with another Palestinian again.
Instead, she doubled down on her activism and on her search for common ground. Robi has heard every single argument in the universe about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if there’s one thing she’s resolute about, it’s that applying labels doesn’t work.
ROBI: People tend to take sides. So they’re either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. And what happens out of that is they actually import our conflict into their country and create anger and hatred between Jews and Muslims. So actually, if you’re intending to take sides, we would prefer it if you leave us alone, which doesn’t mean that you must not be aware of what is happening here, and try to be part of the solution, but not part of the problem.
It’s an extraordinary thing. Even in London, I went to the House of Lords and they gave me a piece of paper with a line down the middle saying, for pro-Israeli lords and pro-Palestinian lords, with pictures just in case I couldn’t work it out. So that’s exactly what I say to them. Look, I don’t know what you think you’re doing. You’re pro-Israel and you’re pro-Palestine, isn’t that lovely? You feel very good about yourself, but you’re just importing our conflict into your country. So leave us alone. You can imagine how remarkably popular I was after that.
NELUFAR: Yes. I bet no more invitations were sent to you, Robi.
ROBI: You know, people need to think before they give opinions, and to be informed. Most people are very keen to give their opinions on things that they really can’t possibly know anything about. I’m learning for the past, since my son was killed, I understand much more about the rhetoric of peacemaking much more now. And I don’t talk in the same way to belittle people. I just understand that if you want to change, make change in people who want to see a transformation, you have to respect them. And you have to also just listen with empathy.
NELUFAR: Part of that understanding is taking the time to get a broader historical perspective. And in this case, it’s really hard. The history of this land is long. Just picking one day to talk about is divisive. But for the context of this discussion, it’s good to be reminded about 1948. This was the year Israel was formally recognized by most of the international community as an independent Jewish state. It was created after the horror of the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews died at the hands of Nazis. And part of the stated reason for its existence is to serve as a refuge for Jews all over the world.
Jewish Israelis benefit from full protective status, whether they live in Tel Aviv or in the middle of the West Bank. On the other hand, the same cannot be said for Palestinians. Palestinians in Israel have one set of rights. Palestinians in Jerusalem, another. Palestinians in the major populated centers of the West Bank live under military rule. And Palestinians in Gaza have been under a 14-year blockade, meaning that everything and anything that comes into the strip of land is restricted by the Israeli military — things like aid, cement and even water.
NELUFAR: Every time I tried to write questions about this, I was like, I want to ask about this, but hold on a minute. I have to go back 10 years. But wait a minute. I need to go back 15 years. But wait a minute. This happened 150 years ago. Hold on a second. I need to go back a thousand years. But to really understand this, I need to go back 3,000. It is impossible to know when to begin talking about this issue.
ROBI: But even if you do, it’s not going to serve any purpose. The only way that you can do this is by understanding how people see their history. We run a program, which is a parallel narrative program. I’ll tell you how it all started. In the Parents Circle, we are more than 600 families. And in the beginning, what we understood was that we had an innate sympathy for each other because we lost children and we shared the same pain. But that didn’t mean that we understood each other’s historical narrative or even the personal narrative. And so we decided that we needed to, in order to create trust — and by the way, I’m telling you about this because this is a program that can be adapted to many, many places all over the world. The world is so polarized now. In Sri Lanka and even in America, between the two very polarized groups there.
So what we did is we decided we would explore each other’s personal and historical narratives. And so the first thing that we did was we went to the Holocaust Museum. Now that’s not for a comparison of suffering. That’s because if you do not understand that part of the Jewish psyche and DNA of fear, you’ll never understand some of the behavior that happens here. And we were 140 of us, 70 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, all from the Parents Circle in the beginning.
The next day, we went to a village which existed before 1948, which now is in Israel, a Palestinian village, and two of the members of our group came from there. When we got there, there was almost nothing left of the whole village except the dome of a mosque, and one of the mothers started to cry and she said, “You see here, this is the well that I drew water out of as a child.”
And so you could have empathy for the fact that she’s walking around with a key around her neck to a door that’s never going to open. This is how you begin to understand how she sees her life and her history and how you can empathize with that. Then we talk to historians of Palestinian and Israeli, and each one will tell you the milestones of our history through their eyes. In 1948, which will be the creation of the state of Israel. But for the Palestinians, that’s the catastrophe when in many cases they were thrown out of their homes and some fled and some were thrown out. And that is a terrible time for the Palestinians.
Then we take 1967, the Six Day War. How did the Palestinians see the Israelis? Now, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to fall in love with each other by the end of that and that all of a sudden — no. But what it does mean is that I understand how you see your history, which is the beginning of some kind of bridge to understanding and empathy, because I’ve listened to what you have to say, and that is such an important element in all of the work that we do.
And when you make that emotional breakthrough, also by telling your personal story, even the hardest of hearts can not not be moved by that. And it’s very interesting — and for me, it’s such a privilege to be a part of the lives of so many people who have gone through transformation. I think that’s a huge gift that I’ve been given. And it’s a privilege to be in that kind of work, because you see somebody who was so filled with hatred and wanting to revenge, who suddenly realizes that there is no revenge for a lost child and that she wants to prevent other children from suffering this pain. It’s not rainbows and flowers and bad poetry. It’s really difficult because this is not an equal situation. There’s a situation of the occupier and the occupied, and the strongest side. But nevertheless, when this trust is built, it’s the most incredible thing to see.
You know that we are working right through this terrible situation that’s going on now in Gaza. And I can tell you that you have to look at everything through two, two prisms. Think about the woman that lives in Gaza, who has no shelter to run to and that she doesn’t know if she should stay in her house or if she — because if she stays in her house, she might get bombed. But if she runs away, she might be called a traitor. And here comes the Israeli mother. And I heard somebody on the radio. This is from 2014, which is very similar to what is happening now. They had 15 seconds to get to the shelter. And she said, “I’ve got three children and one is in a wheelchair. What shall I do?” You know, it’s so easy to judge everybody and to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, but it’s so much better to really get the knowledge and to understand, with compassion, both sides.
NELUFAR: Both sides. Recently that’s come to mean something dirty, like a cop-out of the difficulty of having to make a choice. At the time I spoke to Robi, all I could think about was how utterly straightforward and practical she was, but how that came from the pain of paying the ultimate price for this conflict. From loss, anguish and destruction she has created, amongst all this, a promise of community, healing and rebuilding. In the entire season so far, I have to say, Robi embodied more than any other, the need of building a bridge where others would rather tear it down. In one of the most polarizing places on this Earth, she’s working hard to put herself and everyone she knows in the shoes of the ones they call their enemy.
ROBI: I think I’m pragmatic. And what is very interesting is that most people think that I’m some kind of naive lady.
ROBI: They really don’t get it, because looking at Nelson Mandela, who for me was an amazingly pragmatic politician, which was unusual because people usually give you this aura, of a wonderful, wonderful man, which he was. But the pragmatist in him recognized that if he wanted to prevent a bloodbath, he would have to encompass the white population of South Africa and go through reconciliation and act it out himself. So, for me, that’s a leader.
I went to Robben Island to go to the jail that he was in. And I saw the cell that he lived in for 27, 28 years and thought to myself, “If this man could come out of jail and do the things that he did, then for me to make peace with the man who killed my son is, you know, just small fry.” And it’s interesting. You know, I get really dreadful feedback from many right-wing believers, but I don’t really care because I believe with all my heart that if we do not have a framework for a reconciliation process as an integral part of any future political peace agreement, all we will have is a ceasefire until the next time.
NELUFAR: My thanks goes to Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle Families Forum for that conversation.
NELUFAR: So I’m not going to lie. This was an extremely difficult episode of Course Correction to make. At the time of this recording, more than two weeks have passed since the 11 days of fighting that resulted in the reported deaths of 248 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. My three guests today each come from very different places, but there’s something that links them together. Each has tried to build a bridge, whether through music, diplomacy or shared grief. Our three guests today are engaged in the most difficult of conversations, and they do this every day.
Others have turned away, convinced there is no point in trying to communicate, but not these three. And their dialogue is not one based on any false equivalencies or any avoidance of injustice and pain. Rather, they face it head on. Their dialogue shows the greatest courage when it would be easy to just turn away. On the day after the ceasefire was announced, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews marched hand-in-hand through the streets of Tel Aviv, calling for equality and coexistence.
[CHANTS FROM THE PROTESTS]
NELUFAR: This march that happened in Israel is being repeated throughout the world. These marches are facing up not only to the reality of the injustices that need to be overcome, but also, to paraphrase Hussein Agha, the humanity that must be shared.
I knew that at the outset of this program we weren’t going to find any easy answers to this deeply divisive problem. Rather, it was more a journey just to figure out how to even ask the questions, having the humility to say, “I don’t know what’s gotten us so polarized, but I’m willing to listen and learn,” is something I think we can all stand to do more of.
That’s our show. This is the point where we usually ask for your feedback. But today I’m going to also ask for your restraint. We hope when you engage with us, that you’ll do it in a respectful way.
Let’s follow the lead of my guests and practice civility and understanding as you tweet with us @DohaDebates or with me, I’m at @Nelufar. Course Correction is hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy with producers Sarah Kendal, Zamone Perez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next and final episode of this season of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.