For two days Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin canvassed Pittsburgh. Divided by heritage but united in mission, the Israeli woman and Palestinian man visited Carnegie Mellon University, the Center for Women and SouthSide Works Cinema. They met with students, professors, Jewish, Muslim and Christian women, moviegoers and representatives from the Jewish Women’s Foundation, J Street Pittsburgh, and JFilm.
Again and again, Damelin and Aramin told their stories — how each had lost a child in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how each had confronted their child’s killer and how each now longed for peace. Wherever they were, the Middle Easterners stirred listeners.
Damelin and Aramin are spokespersons for the Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF). The grassroots organization comprises bereaved Palestinians and Israelis and promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. More than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families belong to PCFF. The spokespeople maintain that the bond between members is borderless.
“When you lose a child you share the same trust,” said Damelin.
“There’s no difference,” echoed Aramin, just “joint pain.”
For two years, Damelin and Aramin have traveled together preaching reconciliation, with their message taking them around the world, including stops at London’s Central Mosque, the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., the Q Conference in Nashville, Tenn., and a TEDx Talk in Tel Aviv, along with an appearance on “BBC World News.” During that time, they have delivered nearly 200 presentations.
“We tell the same story,” said Aramin. “It’s our story.”
Last week’s local tour marked the pair’s first visit to Pittsburgh. Damelin was impressed with what she encountered.
“It was generous and kind the way we were received,” she said.
She also applauded local efforts to ensure peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, even as the peace talks themselves appear moribund.
“This community is amenable to working toward goals,” explained Damelin.
Highlighting their crowded itineraries was a trip to the Jewish Film Festival. There, Damelin and Aramin regionally premiered PCFF’s recent film “Two Sided Story,” which was released in 2012. The documentary asks viewers to “step inside the Israeli Palestinian narrative through the eyes of bereaved family members from both sides of the conflict.”
The film follows multiple PCFF participants as they struggle with acceptance. Over a series of four retreats, bereaved Israelis and Palestinians attempt to dialogue with one another. Various emotions arise, as the subjects on screen transition from apprehensiveness and fear to understanding and even friendship.
Following the screening, Damelin and Aramin agreed to answer questions from the audience. However, as the movie ended and theater relit, neither Damelin nor Aramin appeared.
After nearly 5 minutes of silence, the pair re-entered the theater.
In offering an explanation for the delay, Damelin humorously admitted, “This is what happens when you let Palestinians and Israelis loose at The Cheesecake Factory.”
For over an hour, both Damelin and Aramin articulated their hope for peace and reconciliation.
“We try to spread a very simple message. Beyond who is right or wrong, there’s a place. Meet me there,” said Aramin.
The pair discussed what Palestinians perceive to be Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the partition of the land to make two states, the actions of Israeli settlers, the Hamas ruling party in the Gaza Strip — which is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel and recently announced the formation of a unity pact with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party — and history, though what permeated from their remarks was a joint sense of humanity.
“Each person sees history through his own eyes. You see your own history through your own eyes,” said Damelin. “When you don’t know who’s on the other side, you lose their humanity.”
“We are more important than any land,” answered Aramin. “One state, two states, five states, otherwise we will share it as two graves.”
At the conclusion of the event, which was sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC), the presenters met rounds of applause.
Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm, remarked, “I was pleased that the conversation following the film was meaningful.”
“This is certainly in line with our mission,” stated Karen Hochberg, executive director of PAJC.
Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh, explained, “The PCFF is planting seeds for real and sustainable peace.”
(Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)