Williams College students relate their experience of a dialogue between an Israeli and Palestinian who both lost sisters to the ongoing conflict
On January 19, Students for Israeli Palestinian Dialogue at Williams College hosted an online conversation with two members of The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of families that have lost an immediate family member to the ongoing conflict. In the story below, two Williams students share their experiences of that conversation.
By Sydney Pope and Gaby Ivanova / Special to the BJV
In January, our club, Students for Israeli Palestinian Dialogue at Williams College, had the incredible honor of hearing the stories of Arab Aramin and Yigal Elhanan, both members of the Parents Circle - Families Forum. The organization is a joint Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding network of over 600 bereaved families and individuals from both sides of the conflict who have chosen reconciliation with the other side to pursue a just, sustainable peace. The Parents Circle spreads awareness and enables dialogue through the power of sharing and open communication.
Noticeable from the onset of the meeting was Arab and Yigal’s relationship and history together. They seemed not just colleagues but close friends, and when deciding who would start, Arab said to Yigal, “You first. You are the big brother.”
Yigal, 28, born in West Jerusalem, might have grown up in the same municipality as Arab, 27, from East Jerusalem, but he emphasized that their lives couldn’t have been more different. Yigal explained that until the age of five, “there was no reason for me as a Jew who grew up in Jerusalem to even think about Palestinians.” For him, they were “a people without an identity and history.” Two days before his fifth birthday, this narrative would change. His sister Smadar, 14, was walking from school with three other girls when three Palestinians from nearby houses and a refugee camp detonated a suicide bomb. Smadar was killed instantly from the shrapnel.
Yigal asked everyone in the meeting “to imagine as best as you can a body that was, all of a sudden, missing an essential organ or limb, something that you will always feel as absent that will never grow back.” His sister represented that unfillable void, and while he felt he had no direction, his parents opted to engage with the Parents Circle and similar grassroots organizations. Initially, Yigal couldn’t fathom what they were doing — sharing his family’s most intimate and personal experience with, as he put it, “no offense, but complete strangers.” Everyone smiled at that, but as leaders of the club, it resonated more deeply with us because we had felt anxious in the weeks leading up to the meeting for that exact reason – Arab and Yigal would be sharing the details of their most personal and painful loss with us and we were the strangers to their lived reality.
However, Yigal went on to share a story to which no one is a stranger, one in which an individual’s beliefs come under attack when confronted with a new perspective, resulting in a gradual but powerful transformation. In Yigal’s case, the catalyst was a statistic — a number. At 14, he began questioning what happened before his sister’s death, so he researched and discovered that between 1996 and 1999, 120 Palestinians and 100 Israelis lost their lives to the conflict. “That number shook me to my core,” he remembered, “because it meant that Smadar’s death was not as singular and unique and specific as I thought.” Two hundred twenty families, on both sides, were torn apart by similar trauma.
Led by his shock and deepened curiosity, he decided to join the larger family that both he and Arab Aramin belonged to – “the family of the bereaved.” Yigal spoke of this period as a process where, despite not knowing his aim, he was willing to listen to others and open his heart and mind. He took part in the youth activities at the summer camp that the Parents Circle holds every year for bereaved children, and eventually became a counselor. It was where Yigal met the “other side,” and learned their stories and about their loss. “Palestinians were no longer faceless,” he said. “They were no longer story-less.”
Though these experiences marked a pivotal turning point in Yigal’s life, he soon faced a dilemma when he turned eighteen — the age at which Israeli law mandates that citizens enlist in the Israel Defense Force. By that time, Yigal had formed his viewpoint about the injustices of what he had come to consider Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory; he also recognized that many of his peers did not possess information about what are, in his view, “segregative policies of urban planning, education, culture, language, and everything else.” Although he didn’t want to participate in that perceived injustice, he also realized that to change anything, he had to be part of Israeli society. “And unfortunately in Israel, society is...serving in the military,” he said. “It’s a stamp of citizenship. This is how you gain your voice to speak publicly against what you think is wrong because otherwise, what do you know?” He joined in the hopes that he could speak up and “look [his] peers….and friends in the eyes” as he explained both his view of the situation and the power of encountering the other side when working towards reconciliation. It came at a cost, however.
A close friend of his, a Palestinian member of the Parents Circle, said to him before he joined the military: “Yigal, once you’re going to put on the uniform, I will stop speaking to you until you take it off.” Those words offended him deeply at the moment, and he carried them closely throughout his service. At the end of one workday in the army, he got on a bus and made eye contact with a Palestinian boy. “He looked at me the only way he possibly can, under the current power imbalance between the Jordan River and the sea,” said Yigal. “He looked at me as his oppressor, as his occupier, as a soldier standing at the checkpoint who held his mother for a few hours, or a soldier who entered his house, or just as the representative of the administration that doesn’t fix his electricity.” Though a brief and innocuous encounter, it impelled him to leave the army and join several groups aligned with his anti-occupation, pro-justice groups beliefs. At around that time, he began speaking to different international communities “with [his] brother,” Arab.
At that point in the retelling of his story to us, Yigal motioned to Arab to continue where he left off. Arab took a few moments before saying, “My story started January 16th, 2007.” On that day, an Israeli soldier shot and killed his sister Abir, ten years old, in front of her school. “It was for no reason, or maybe the reason was she was Palestinian,” he began.
Arab’s Zoom camera wasn’t working, so we only heard his voice, which made his story sink in even more deeply. Despite the proximity and shared experiences between the two, Yigal had electricity, whereas Arab did not. Yet, the conditions did not in any way take away from the power of his message. He is the eldest of six children, three girls and three boys. Of his sister Abir, he said: “She was my second mother...she was telling me always how to act good with people, but unfortunately, my second mother — she’s not there anymore.”
Arab’s grief drove him toward revenge. He wanted to learn to use a gun in order to “kill all the Israelis” for what they had done, and he soon discovered his weapon of choice: the stones on the streets. He threw them at the checkpoints, not far from where he lives.
During that time, his father’s Israeli friends would come to his house to support the family. Like Yigal, he resisted these efforts from his parents, calling his father, in particular, a traitor. After confronting him one day about what he believed was the greatest betrayal of Abir and her memory, his father said: “You’re right. One Israeli soldier shot and killed your sister, but there were more than 100 Israeli people that [were] next to me in the hospital for three days...don’t let the hate and the revenge control your life...He was telling me all the time that I have to make peace with myself. Then, I can make peace with others.” This conversation with his father stuck with him for seven years as he grappled with thoughts of how to make peace with himself.
What ultimately stirred Arab to action was a visit to the Buchenwald death camp in Germany. He remembered: “I thought ‘I’m going to learn something good to know how to kill all the Israelis; but when I got there...after two seconds, I start[ed] to cry for the people who lost their lives for nothing...Two years ago, I wanted to kill all of them, and now I’m crying for them. What’s going on with me?’” He then remembered what his father had said all those years ago.
Many from the audience were curious how Palestinians and Israelis might change their ways of thinking and acting if they have not experienced such loss. Yigal took a deep breath as he thought about it, and said: “We lost our sisters. In order to join this struggle, this way of thinking – this is not what needs to happen to you. Every day, if you open your eyes...to see what is going on here, you will see enough reasons. Every day that goes by...the death of our sisters is something that we feel in our bodies. So does being humiliated by policemen if you’re a Palestinian child. So it is if you hear about a friend dying in the army as a soldier. These things are very, very close to us, for everybody, and once you know how to focus your gaze to those specific points, it’s very easy from there.”
In a follow-up question about what has helped them the most in releasing their anger and fear, Yigal explained that joining a struggle against injustice doesn’t guarantee that a person will ever make peace with those feelings. He, for one, has not released them. “I think anger is a positive emotion to lead to action,” he said. “And if that action is standing directly in resistance towards injustice, use that anger. Cherish it. Own it.”
Arab, on the other hand, said he started to lose his fear and anger towards Israelis as he was learning Hebrew. He wanted to talk to them and understand their lives better. In doing so, he realized that it wasn’t only the Palestinians who were losing loved ones; that they were united with Israelis in this sense of loss. Arab said he began to see “a human being like me” once he grew to know and accept Israelis’ stories, faces, and names. “My blood color and Yigal’s blood color — it’s the same color,” said Arab. “And my pain, and his pain — it’s the same pain. And my tears, and his tears — it’s just the same.”
The difficulty, Arab explained, is that there are two faces for every story, and each side genuinely believes they know one another when many only know their part of the story. He has since decided to choose the difficult path towards peace – to talk to people, hear them out, and try to see both sides to every story.
The final question was directed at what we can do as a club, advocates, or as individuals wanting to learn more. Arab’s response was a powerful close to the dialogue.
“If you’re going to support Israel or support Palestine, you’re not going to help us,” he said. “Please, support justice. For two nations. That’s the only way how you can help us, and I’m going to finish it with Martin Luther King, [who] said, ‘Tomorrow, we will not remember the words of our enemies but we will remember the silence of our friends.’ And I’m asking you guys, please don’t keep silent.”
After a year wrought with ongoing crises and conflict, what Arab and Yigal shared was a strong cause for hope. Their words carried a tangible power and a window into the potential of human connectedness, despite every existing force that could dismantle it.
Sydney Pope is a junior from New Mexico, majoring in Arabic Studies and Psychology. Gaby Ivanova is a sophomore from Bulgaria, majoring in History and Political Science. Students for Israeli Palestinian Dialogue started at Williams College in 2018 to create open dialogue, education, and compassion within the community about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It facilitates discussions by inviting speakers to campus, workshops, and training for students to engage thoughtfully and respectfully over this charged topic. Pictured above are Arab Aramin (left) and Yigal Elhanan.
Please visit The Arts Fuse for Roberta Silman's review of Colum McCann's award-winning novel Apeirogon, which retells the stories of the Aramin and Elhanan families. Roberta's review was republished in the March/April edition of the BJV.