My Dear Noam. For seven long years we do not meet and the letters to you
Rami Elhanan - "Replacing Pain with Hope"
My name is Rami Elhanan. I am 57 years old, a graphic designer, and a 7th generation Jerusalemite. I am a Jew, I am an Israeli, and before everything else, I am a human being.
My personal story begins and also ends on one particular day of the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement):
On Yom Kippur 33 years ago, in October 1973, I was a young reserve soldier finding myself all of a sudden in the midst of a terrible war. We set out in a company with 11 tanks and ended with only 3 tanks. There, in the Sinai sands, I lost some of my very best friends.
I came out of this war a beaten and battered young man – an angry and embittered, cynical and furious young man. I was determined to cut myself off from any sort of involvement – political, social, or anything else. I was released from the army and built a life for myself: studies, family, career.
Twenty three years ago, on the eve of Yom Kippur of 1983, a sweet new baby girl was born in Hadassah Hospital, in Jerusalem. We named her Smadar. (It’s from the Bible, from the Song of Solomon, meaning “The Grape of the Vine”) She was a very vivid, smiling, happy, full of life and active young girl who joined our calm, happy family, and so we lived complacently, my wife Nurit, my three sons and this princess, in a bubble that we built around ourselves.
Until about 9 years ago, when, on September 4th 1997, this bubble of ours was smashed into shard pieces.
On the first day of the school year, a few days before Yom Kippur, Smadar and her friends went to Ben Yehuda St. in Jerusalem to buy books for the new school year. There, they met their death, killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who murdered 5 people that day, among them three little girls aged 14.
It was a Thursday at three in the afternoon, and the beginning of a long, cold and dark night.
At first, deep in your heart of hearts, you hope that the terrible finger won’t point at you this time. You find yourself running crazily through the streets, going from one police station to the next, one hospital to the next, until eventually, much later in that long accursed night, you find yourself in the morgue and that terrible finger is pointing right between your eyes and you see a sight that you will never, ever, be able to blot out.
And on Sunday, the funeral was held in Kibbutz Nachshon, on the green hill on the way to Jerusalem. Smadari was buried next to her late grandfather General (ret.) Prof. and MK (ret.) Matti Peled, the Peace Fighter. The fact that the enemies of peace murdered his granddaughter drew huge attention in Israel and abroad. And as it was at his funeral, so it was at hers, the mourners represented all the nuances that make up the wonderful mosaic of this unbelievable country – Jews and Arabs, left and right wingers, religious and secular people, from the representatives of the settlers in the Occupied Territories to the personal representatives of chairman Yasser Arafat.
After the funeral we returned to the empty house that slowly filled with people. For the next seven days we were wrapped in the consoling embrace of thousands of people who filled the narrow street, day in day out, night after night, until the end of the Shiva (the traditional seven days mourning period).
On the eighth day suddenly everyone disappeared and we remained alone. Now you must marshal your strength, get up, face yourself in the mirror and decide: What’s next? Where do you go from here? Where do you direct this new and terrible pain, this unknown and intolerable ache? What do you do with the rest of your life when suddenly you have become a completely different person, and all of your previous priorities have dissipated in an instance and it’s as though they never existed? And really there are only two options to choose from, only one of two paths to take: the first is the obvious one, the automatic, and the immediate one. When someone murders your 14 year old little daughter, the one and only thing you have in your head is unlimited anger and an urge for revenge that is stronger than death. This is a natural feeling, it’s only human. Most people feel that way, it’s understandable, it’s clear and predictable. However, we are human beings and not animals. We have a head on our shoulders and inside that head we have a brain and when the first madness of anger passes, you begin to ask yourself penetrating questions: if I kill someone in revenge, will that bring my baby back to me? And if I cause someone pain, will that ease my own pain? And the answer is a clear and absolute: “No”. Then, during a long and slow, difficult and painful process you gradually reach the other path, and you try to understand: what occurred here? What can drive someone to such anger and despair as to be willing to blow himself up together with little girls? And most important: what can you, personally, do to prevent this intolerable suffering from others…
Yes, it is indeed not easy and indeed not simple and it took almost a year. In the beginning I thought to myself that I could behave as though nothing had happened, that I could return to work and put up a front and lead a normal life. But I was no longer the same person, and under the surface a change had started in me so deep, I was unconscious of it.
And then, one day I met a big, impressive man with a crocheted skullcap on his head. (You know how we immediately stigmatize people, put them into drawers and catalogue stereotypes, so I immediately thought to myself that this man, with the skullcap, is a terrible fascist and eats Arabs for breakfast). The man’s name was Yitzchak Frankenthal. He told me about his son Arik, kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994 and that he has established this organization of people who lost children in the conflict but nevertheless want Peace… I then remembered that this man was one of the thousands who had come to my home during the Shiva and I was really cross with him. I asked: How could you?! How dare you enter the home of people who have just lost a child and talk to them about Peace? He was not offended and with great calm and patience, invited me to attend one of the meetings of this group of crazy people to see for myself. I agreed, both because I did not want to insult the man and partly because I was a bit curious…
I stood aloof when they arrived. I was detached, completely cut off and cynical and reluctant, as usual. People began to descend from the buses and for me, a deeply rooted Israeli, these people were living legends: I used to read about them in the newspapers, I used to look up to them and I never ever dreamt that one day I will be one of them. I remember seeing Yaakov Guterman from Kibbutz HaOgen. He is a holocaust survivor who lost his son, Raz, in the 1st Lebanon War and was one of the first of bereaved parents who dared to demonstrate against this war. I also remember seeing Roni Hirshenson, a close friend, wonderful person and a determined peace seeker. He lost both his sons, Amir and Elad, to this cursed conflict, and yet remained a wonderful person and determined peace warrior…
And then I saw an amazing spectacle! Something that was completely new to me. I saw Arabs getting off the buses, bereaved Palestinian families: men, women and children, coming towards me, greeting me for peace, hugging me and crying with me… And I distinctly remember, a respectable elderly woman dressed in black from tip to toe and on her breast a locket with a picture of a kid, about six years old…
I am not religious – quite the opposite – and so I am at a loss to explain the change I underwent at that moment. But one thing became as clear to me as the sun in the noon sky: from that day on – 8 years ago – I got a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Since that day, I have dedicated my life to one thing only: to go from ear to ear and from person to person and to shout in a loud voice, to all who are prepared to listen, and also to those whose ears are blocked: This is not our destiny! It is not a decree of fate that cannot be changed!!! Nowhere is it written that we must continue dying and sacrificing our children forever and ever in this difficult horrible holy land. We can –and once and for all must – stop this crazy vicious circle of violence, murder and retaliation, revenge and punishment. This never-ending cycle, that has no purpose.
With no winners and only losers.
This is the message that, together, my Palestinian brother here beside me, we are putting across. (With this one of a kind rare cooperation we are brothers in pain. And you will not find many examples in history where bereaved people, from both sides of the cancerous bloody conflict, reaching out their hands to one another). And we, the bereaved families, together from the depth of our mutual pain, are saying to you today: Our blood is the same red color, our suffering is identical, and all of us have the exact same bitter tears. So, if we, who have paid the highest price possible, can carry on a dialog, then everyone can!
And that, if you like, is the entire rationale in a capsule. Our strength derives from the intolerable pain and this intolerable pain has the power of nuclear energy. This power can be directed to good usage or bad. It can cause destruction and ruin which will produce more pain in this vicious cycle, but the opposite is also a possibility! This energy can be used to produce new hope! It is possible, and necessary, to use this bereavement to try and prevent further bereavement.
Today, high walls of fear and hatred separate the two nations. We, in our activities in the forum of bereaved families, with the little remainder of our meager strength are trying to break down this wall, to open and widen cracks in it until it falls.
So, how does one produce hope out of bereavement and loss? There is lots to be done and we are attempting to do as much as possible, for instance: In August 2000 during the Camp David peace talks we demonstrated in Rabin square in Tel Aviv to support the peace talks. Concurrently our Palestinian brothers did the same in Palestine Square in Gaza and we visited each other back and forth. Three months later there were already 300 dead and we returned to the square and set up 300 image targets – to illustrate the meaning of this number – 300 dead! No one joined this second demonstration and we all felt that we were again in mourning.
Another year passed, and in October 2001, the number of victims grew to one thousand two hundred, 1200! We sent a delegation of bereaved fathers and mothers, Palestinians and Israelis, to the USA. In front of the UN building in New York, we placed one thousand two hundred coffins wrapped in Israeli and Palestinian flags, again to illustrate to the public the full significance of this terrible number – 1200!! (Today, sadly, there are already over five thousand dead from both nations. Many amongst the dead were completely innocent, many were children… and the numbers still grow – every day!).
Two years ago, after one of the worst days, which was especially bloody, we decided to use an unusual tactic to touch the hearts of peoples. We invited our brothers and sisters, members of Palestinian Bereaved Families, to Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) in Jerusalem to donate blood for Israeli victims. We, on the other hand, slipped across the enemy lines and reached the hospital in Ramallah where we donated blood for Palestinian victims. On the same evening, whilst in the studio of the Israeli television, an interviewer asked, in a voice both wondrous and shocked: How could you donate blood to the enemy?! We answered that it is far less painful to donate blood to the needy than to spill it unnecessarily as though it was water…
During the past two years we have initiated and executed an especially outstanding communication project: you dial *4643 and reach an answering service. If you are Palestinian you can speak with an Israeli. If you are Israeli you can speak to a Palestinian. Since launching the project there have been over half a million conversations between Jews and Arabs! This means that Jews and Arabs have spoken to one another for over a million minutes!!! Imagine what could have happened if the leaders of these two crazy nations would speak to one another, even for one minute, on any subject under the sun…
However, in my opinion the highlight of our activities and the most significant for me are the lectures given in the schools; last year, over one thousand lectures were held in Israeli and Palestinian schools! Only we, for instance, can enter an Israeli classroom of 30–40 pupils aged 17–18 and tell them that next year, when they will be soldiers, there will be a direct connection between their behavior at the checkpoints and the victims of the next terrorist attack. This of course raises a heated and bitter argument, but it is a vital argument, required and necessary. For my part, if I succeed in influencing even only one kid, I have saved one drop of blood! And that’s a great deal! It is a miracle!!!
In this manner, we begin to breach the wall of hatred and cruelty. In this manner, we bring the message of peace and reconciliation and the necessity for dialog to thousands of pupils. We attempt to shatter the terrible myth that there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about and therefore we must not surrender anything just continue fighting for ever, until the end of time…
But since so many rivers of blood have flown, one thing is now clear to everyone: the Palestinians will not be able to topple the Israeli nuclear power, and will not succeed in throwing all the Jews into the sea, and the Israelis will not succeed in suppressing the Palestinian desire for freedom and will not be able to banish millions of Palestinians to the desert. It has been decreed that we must all live here together on this coveted land, and the sooner we understand that in this war there are only losers, the better it will be for all of us.
I wish to end on a personal note, with a request and a thank you: I am the son of a holocaust survivor. My father is an Auschwitz survivor. Sixty years ago when my grandparents were sent to the crematoriums in Europe, the free and civilized world stood aloof and did not lift a finger to save them. Today, too, sixty years later while these two mad nations are mercilessly butchering one another, the world again looks the other way and does nothing to put a stop to the killing and this is a shame! And this is a crime!!! All I have left is to beseech you not to behave that way. Do not stand aloof. Be involved and concerned because we are talking about your future and ours. Not everyone must think the same. It is possible and necessary to argue, but to turn your backs on reality, to stick your heads in the sand and to live in a bubble is wrong, because you know: bubbles tend burst, sometimes right in your face.
And I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for listening. For me that is the most important thing of all. To have the ability to listen and the ability to speak with each other. We must be prepared to listen to ‘the other’. Because if we will not know how to listen to the other’s story we won’t be able to understand the source of his pain and we should not expect the other to understand our own pain. Here is where it begins and here it will end.