Robi Damelin has her ancestry buried in the pastoral landscapes of Germany and Lithuania, though she never knew Europe, having been brought up in South Africa. Today, she is a global citizen not hedged by boundaries, for hers is a peripatetic dove’s life, travelling the world with a message. As an active member of the [...]


We need empathy for reconciliation

Robi Damelin, one of the speakers at today’s Neelan Tiruchelvam lecture, talks to Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Robi Damelin has her ancestry buried in the pastoral landscapes of Germany and Lithuania, though she never knew Europe, having been brought up in South Africa. Today, she is a global citizen not hedged by boundaries, for hers is a peripatetic dove’s life, travelling the world with a message.

Robi Damelin: Journeying for peace. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

As an active member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), Robi, an Israeli, with her good friend Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, has one potent magic word in the core of their message- reconciliation- the only solution to war. “Without reconciliation, there would just be a cycle of ceasefires.”

You cannot think of anyone better to deliver the 20th annual Neelan Tiruchelvam lecture this evening at the BMICH than this pair- in honour of the statesman, legislator and, above all, peacemaker par excellence- snatched mercilessly in the midst of life.

It was after the killing, in war, of David her youngest, that Robi took up the mantle of honorary Mother to many- to compensate for that one death. Her deep amber eyes look into you, and you are puzzled, because she doesn’t have the world-weariness of the chronically bereft. Instead you see serene peace and wisdom. How she discovered this inner sanctum, is the story of forgiveness.

David was Robi’s second son. The children were brought up in a liberal household, seeing as their mother was anti-apartheid from her toddlerhood. David was the most sensitive of kids. Robi remembers that his love for the French horn was troubling for the neighbours- so they would throw stones at the windows when David was at practice.

“So he would sit inside a cupboard, with a towel around him, and play the French horn there so he won’t trouble them.” Robi’s lower lip trembles and we arrive at a silence.

David’s death by a Palestinian sniper was devastating because he, gentle and sensitive, had left for the field out of concern for his students, to whom he was teaching philosophy. He was about to leave for Oxford for his doctorate.

Following his death, Robi was persuaded by a friend to be part of a weekend with families of others bereft, where she rather warily headed- for wasn’t she about to rub the wounds? But there, to her surprise, she discovered the deep solace of meeting those who shared her sorrow. It was the first lesson that all mothers who lose their children are the same.

Palestinians and Israelis, together they would voice their pain. She would become part of the Parents Circle- Families Forum- made up of Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members to the conflict. This was the beginning of Robi’s odyssey- the journey that would take her to speak out in the House of Lords, at the US Congress, at the Lincoln Centre and London’s Albert Hall.

But the real test- that of granting forgiveness- came when Robi was told her son’s killer had been found. She had explicitly said after his death that no one was to be killed in the name of David, but she could not arrive at an amnesty in her heart.

It was while in South Africa shooting a film called One Day Off to Peace that Robi met a woman whose daughter had been killed by a black African military wing, and who had freely forgiven the perpetrators.

Robi met her to pose what was to her the ultimate searching question- What does forgiving mean?

“It is giving up your just right for revenge” was the answer, but even more revealing was the words of the forgiven- the terrorist leader who killed the girl- “by her forgiving, she has released me from the prison of my inhumanity.”

This revealed to her a whole human condition- that the killers are “just as much the victims of the war as are the killed.”

These last, are the words of Bassam Aramin, who we are unable to meet due to a  sudden illness.

The Palestinian counterpart of Robi, Bassam, though younger, had the more colourful life. “He was born in a cave and was one of 15 children,” says Robi as she evokes a man who was a deep anti-Semitist as a boy.

Imprisoned at 17, Bassam was sure he would enjoy a film shown to inmates on the Holocaust- where the bad Jews would get their comeuppance from Hitler. But in the middle of the film he found himself weeping at the inhuman horrors, and was a changed man.

He was later to become part of the Parents Circle-Families Forum because his 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed by an Israeli soldier.

For both Robi and Bassam forgiving was the key. “By forgiving we gave up being victims- and when you give up being a victim you are free,” says Robi.

It is their continued mission to spread reconciliation, and one of the basic methods is to make opposing peoples get to know each other.

It is not hatred that flickers at the heart of conflict- but fear- fear of the unknown. When considering that very few Palestinian children have met an Israeli (and vice versa) the mutual antipathy looks inevitable.

The more they are thrown together, the better. One of the key projects Robi is involved in is the ‘parallel narratives’ programme.

“When you see how people view their own history, you can begin to have empathy even if you don’t agree with them.”

The year 1948 is the birth of Israel, but for the Palestinians it was a year of trauma, when most of them had to flee from their childhood homes and ancestral land.

If a Palestinian could see the Holocaust museum in all the colours of horror an Israeli sees it through, and if an Israeli could view a former Palestinian village, now part of Israel, in the same light, a lot would have been achieved, says Robi.

A later project by Robi, Bassam and the PCFF was the jam session, where women from across borders pooled their culinary finesse to produce a beautiful book of recipes of delicious preserves and pickles – “or friendship, jams and remembrance”.

It is this kind of cross border amity that offers hope for the  saga of the Gaza Strip.

About the  lecture
The 20th Neelan Tiruchelvam lecture, “It won’t stop until we talk” by Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin will be today, Sunday, July 28, at 6 p.m. at the BMICH. The event is open to all.

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