Sharing Sorrow, Bringing Hope

Thousands of people had passed by before we managed to gather a minyan (quorum) of ten for the evening prayers. Very few were interested. Finally, we were able to recite our prayers; we reached the traditional conclusion of ‘may He who makes peace in heaven bring peace upon us [on earth]’ just as the somber event for which we had come from near and from far was about to begin.

Indeed the vast majority of people who attend the Joint Israeli Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv are not ‘religious.’ At least so it appears on the surface.

As it is every year, the event was emotional, powerful. One by one, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in this conflict rose to speak to the assembled audience. Voices cracked. Tears were near. They talked of the terrible day on which it happened. Of the wonderful friends and relatives who are gone. Of the gaping hole left in their lives, the pain.

They all also talked about transformation. Again and again, we heard how their personal suffering brought them to see that violence is not the way, that armed struggle will only bring us more of the same. We heard how they overcame victimhood and anger to take responsibility to ensure that no one else suffers as they had. We heard how they came to see human beings and not just a grey mass of the enemy on the other side.

When you mourn collectively with the other side you almost necessarily engage in soul searching, introspection. Not just why did they do this to us, but also why did we do this to them? Not just why are they so violent but also why are we so violent? You begin to see that if we want this to end, not only must they turn over a new leaf, but we also must turn over a new leaf.

“All of us, Israelis and Palestinians, are victims of the conflict, pain, and loss, but we are also its perpetrators,” said Israeli Arab oncology nurse and actress Samira Saraya, one of the two moderators of the event. “Therefore, it is in our power and it is our duty to bring it to its conclusion and provide hope and a future for ourselves and our children.”

Indeed, the overarching message of the evening was hope. We are not inevitably fated to continue killing each other. Together, we can do better; together we can lift ourselves out of this cycle of violence.  We Israelis, who fervently sing in our national anthem “our hope is not lost” can certainly appreciate the power of hope.

Jewish tradition has a word for what happened at the ceremony last week. It is called teshuva, usually translated as repentance, but actually meaning something much broader: turning towards a better path, re-orienting oneself towards a more positive way of living. While the overwhelming majority of attendees last week may not identify with the traditional religious connotations of the term, they practice it in their lives and gave public expression to that at the event.

There is much opposition to the Joint Israeli Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony. Approximately seventy demonstrators were on hand, wrapped in Israeli flags and shouting out insults and expletives. “Traitors – you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves” were some of the words that came my way.

Last year, Israel’s defense minister tried to deny the Palestinian participants permits to enter Israel of the event. He was quoted as saying that the ceremony is in “extremely bad taste” and is seen by most Israeli bereaved families as showing “contempt for the dignity of those who fell in Israel’s wars.” Thankfully he was overruled by the Supreme Court at the very last minute.

This year the scenario repeated itself. Our Prime Minister, who is also acting Defense Minister, again denied the Palestinians permits for the ceremony and again the Supreme Court intervened. “There is no place for a memorial ceremony likening the blood of our people and that of terrorists,” Netanyahu declared on Twitter. “That is why I refused to allow for the entry of the ceremony’s participants and I think the High Court should not have intervened in my decision.”

The opposition on the Palestinian side is no less fierce. “The Palestinians who are participating in this event are not representing the Palestinian people or cause. They are equating the oppressors with the oppressed. We, the victims, should not be present at any events that remember soldiers,” said Issa Amro, a prominent activist in the West Bank city of Hebron.

I can understand these voices. Their defensiveness and exclusivity reflect the traumatic experience of living under attack. Indeed they represent the mainstream way of thinking of them and us. We are good and they are bad. We are righteous and they are guilty. The forces of light against the forces of darkness. All the truth is with us.

But the reality is much more complex.  For example, the assumption that the vast majority of Palestinians killed in this conflict are terrorists is based on a reading that is both shallow and partisan in the extreme. When we look deeper and take into account the nature of the conflict, and when we note the very high number of Palestinian schoolchildren who have lost their lives, this narrative begins to unravel. Alongside the Palestinian terrorists, I see too many victims for me not to mourn.

Furthermore, the ceremony itself clearly and explicitly honors only Palestinian dead who were innocent victims of the conflict.  It is patently false to claim that the ceremony “likens the blood of our people and that of terrorists.” From beginning to end, it is one long protest against terrorism and all forms of violence.

Nothing in the ceremony – absolutely nothing – glorifies the manner in which anyone died, Palestinian or Israeli.  The evening is one of grief and sorrow, and human grief and sorrow are the same on both sides.

But the main justification for this breakthrough event lies in the focus on the creation of a better future. Its primary significance lies in the engendering of the mindset and the hope necessary to break the ongoing cycles of death and destruction. In too many cases, the perspectives of those who oppose the ceremony offer us no way forward. Too often they bring with them habits of belief that fuel continued violence. They convince us that there is nothing we can do to change the situation and that there is no hope for a better future. All we can do is what the dead already did – live out our lives as loyal patriots of our nation, stand fast, and resist the evil enemy until he is defeated.

I learned from my teachers that one of the foundations of religious life is teshuva – the willingness to look inside and examine oneself, the willingness to question oneself, to see a dead-end and to change course.  It’s hard on the individual level and even harder on the national level.

The nine thousand people that I had the honor of joining at the ceremony last week – including those who did not participate in our tiny prayer quorum – may be among the most truly religious people I know.

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