Grieving Israeli Mom to Palestinians: ‘Can We Talk?’

Robi Demelin

For someone who has spent the better part of a year traveling the world, telling her story - a captivating, deeply personal narrative about loss, grief and acceptance - Robi Damelin is downright bubbly.

"Oh, it's a different city every week. I can't remember where I've been anymore! But the inside of my passport is amazing," Damelin said, nibbling on a pastry at a café in the Castro the morning of July 23, a few hours before the U.S. premiere of "One Day After Peace" in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The documentary, which had already screened in Toronto, Tel Aviv and South Africa, shows the quick-witted, articulate 68-year-old Jewish grandmother on a mission to make sense of her younger son's senseless death. David Damelin was doing his reserve duty in the Israeli Forces when he was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. In the decade since, Robi Damelin has turned in a direction many bereaved relatives would not: toward dialogue, reconciliation and the possibility of peace.

"I believe in talking to everybody," Damelin said simply. "I believe that when people see each other face to face, see each other's humanity, that will be the end of conflict."

When the man who killed her son was captured and imprisoned, she wrote him a letter in the hopes of a conversation; he eventually replied, nastily, that he wanted nothing to do with her.

Searching for answers on how to find peace in her own heart, and how to keep "other families, Israeli and Palestinian, from losing their children," Damelin returned to her native South Africa for the first time since 1967. Her aim: to see how a country that once grappled with vicious internal conflict is beginning to heal old wounds.

The film follows her as she meets with leaders of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She hears from the mothers of 17-year-old boys killed by the South African police, and from members of the apartheid government who are spending the rest of their lives asking for forgiveness. She asks everyone she meets what "forgiveness" really means. And she begins to think about how the lessons of South Africa can be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While in San Francisco for about a week, in addition to attending film festival events and Rep. Jackie Speier's July 22 town hall meeting with the Jewish community, Damelin planned to meet with various groups to spread the word about one organization that aims to bring together grieving Israeli and Palestinian mothers to work for peace. The Parents Circle Families Forum is a 17-year-old network of about 600 families, roughly half Israeli and half Palestinian, who have all lost family members in the conflict. According to the PCFF website, most members agree that the solution to the conflict "must be based on free negotiations between the leadership of both sides to ensure basic human rights, the establishment of two states for two peoples, and the signing of a peace treaty." A concrete reconciliation plan is another objective.

Damelin has been involved with the group since her son's death, and most of her travels over the past year have been on the group's behalf. At lectures around the world, she and a Palestinian co-presenter share their personal stories. Depending on the area, Damelin said, the lectures can be the first time students have ever met a Palestinian or Jewish person face to face. The group reaches some 25,000 students each year.

"We're hoping to show that this isn't a black-and-white situation - that usually the ‘enemy' is someone who came from a very normative home like you and me," Damelin said. "People in the diaspora say, ‘Why do Palestinians teach their children to hate?' Well, if you grew up in a refugee camp you would hate, too."

At Speier's town hall meeting, Damelin was dismayed by some of the rhetoric she heard in the audience. "It was sad to see that people [in the Bay Area] are maybe even less willing to compromise [than in Israel]. But I think if you live in, say, Sonoma, you're not put to the test every day. Your children are not standing at checkpoints. Your children are not dying. I think it's a little easier not to compromise," she said.

In the film, Damelin goes to a Palestinian woman's house for a meeting of bereaved mothers, where a new Palestinian member is attending for the first time, wearing a necklace with a photo of her son. She appears hesitant to engage with Damelin at first, and several of the other Palestinian women discuss how their friends and neighbors were furious that they were going to join a group that included Jews. Damelin takes out a photo of David to show the new woman, then asks her about her son. By the end of a group outing together, the camera captures the two women hugging their goodbyes.

"These meetings, for me, are a small miracle," Damelin said. "It comes down to being human. Because I'll let you in on a secret: The pain of Israeli mothers and the pain of Palestinian mothers is the same."