In March, the World Mission Council coordinated a ‘Behind the Wall Study Tour to Israel and Palestine’. Led by the Very Rev Andrew McLellan with Maureen Jack, the tour offered opportunities for participants to meet Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, groups and individuals. The tour did not include visits to the holy sites but was designed to engage with grassroots projects and people, listening to their stories and seeking to understand the conflict. As part of their reflections on returning home some members of the group have written blog pieces that we will be sharing over the next few weeks.
During our tour we met many people who witnessed trauma and responded to it in a non-violent way. But the key moment. The epiphany, for me in was meeting two fathers who had both lost their daughters in the conflict, Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin. Their words still haunt me to this day. Their shared trauma has allowed them to let go of their past hatred and fears, and taken them to a new place of hope.
“My name is Rami Elhanan. Thirteen years ago, on the afternoon of Thursday the fourth of September 1997, I lost my daughter, my Smadar, in a suicide attack on Ben-Yehuda street in Jerusalem. A beautiful sweet joyous 14 year old girl. My Smadar was the granddaughter of the militant for peace, General (Ret.) Matti Peled, one of those who made the breakthrough to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. And she was murdered because we were not wise enough to preserve her safety in Matti’s way, the only correct and possible way – the way of peace and reconciliation.
I do not need a Remembrance Day in order to remember Smadari. I remember her all the time, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 60 seconds a minute. Without a pause, without a rest, for 13 long and accursed years now, and time does not heal the wound, and the unbearable lightness of continuing to exist remains a strange and unsolved riddle …”
“My name is Bassam Aramin. In prison, we were treated like heroes by other prisoners, but our jailers taught us how to continue hating and resisting. On 1st October 1987, all 120 of us – all teenage boys – were waiting to go into the dining room when the alarms suddenly went off. Over a hundred armed soldiers appeared and ordered us to strip naked. They beat us until we could hardly stand. I was held the longest and beaten the hardest. What struck me was that all the soldiers wore smiles on their face. They were beating us without hatred, because for them this was just a training exercise and they saw us as objects. As I was being beaten, I remembered a movie I’d seen the year before about the Holocaust. At the time I’d been happy that Hitler had killed six million Jews. I remember wishing that he’d killed them all, because then I would never have been sent to prison. But some minutes into the movie, I found myself crying, and feeling angry that the Jews were being herded into gas chambers without fighting back. If they knew they were going to die, why didn’t they scream out? I tried to hide my tears from the other prisoners: they wouldn’t have understood why I was crying about the pain of my oppressors. It was the first time I felt empathy. So now, walking between the soldiers who were beating me, I remembered the movie and I started screaming at them: ‘Murderers! Nazis! Oppressors!’ And as a consequence, I felt no pain. The incident with the soldiers made me realise that we had to preserve our humanity – our right to laugh and our right to cry – in order to save ourselves. I also slowly realised that the Israeli oppression was because of the Holocaust, and I decided to try and understand who the Jews were. This led to a conversation with a prison guard. The guards all thought of us as terrorists and we hated them, but this guard asked me, ‘how can someone quiet like you become a terrorist?’ I replied, ‘no, you’re the terrorist. I’m a freedom fighter’. He really believed that we, the Palestinians, were the settlers, not the Israelis. I said, ‘if you can convince me that we are the settlers, then I’ll declare this in front of all the prisoners.’”
While the British Consul has a strategic aim to work for a just peace in Palestine … what I found in the lives of Rami and Bassam was the singular universal. The one story that can change the world. To save a life is to save the universe. Two hands holding onto a piece of driftwood floating on an ocean. Two hands holding each other’s hands to survive.
When you enter certain worlds, they take hold of you. And some experiences exceed categories of comprehension. They exceed the human capacity to make sense of them. Words fall short. And this is my lasting impression of Israel and Palestine. I was in real danger of being overwhelmed by the flood of suffering I saw and being submerged by tears.
Drowning. I reached out for driftwood to save me. I am very aware that I have only kissed the sorrows of Israel and Palestine. And I wonder whether I can plant any seeds of hope. However, the metaphor of driftwood and the shared humanity of two grieving fathers resonates with me at a deep level.
Is this a spirituality, a theology that all can embrace?
At first, as I travelled behind the wall, I was looking for a key to unlock and break the cycle of violence which many people spoke of. I was also looking for a clever theological stance, but none was forthcoming. What I have discovered is a metaphor of hope, driftwood. What I discovered are the resonances I have with Rami and Bassar, two fathers connected by shared grief. Here is the drop in the ocean. Here is the driftwood that I am reaching out for.
No more was I trying to do the impossible of breaking the cycle of violence. Because, I know the memories linger too strong. But what I was discovering was embracing the cycle of suffering, silence and seeds of hope.
So on returning to Israel and Palestine I have discovered a driftwood secular spirituality that is not dependent on old stories, worn and dried out by deserts and decades of conflict … a new imaginary, a spirituality which everyone can hold onto, like holding onto a piece of driftwood on an ocean.
A spirituality of gifts and griefs, which embraces the full cycle of grief, silences and joys. The seeds of hope are where the traces of the sacred emerge amongst the sorrows, the tragedies and the traumas.
by Ian Stirling.